Sunday, May 26, 2013

FC Zbrojovka Brno

FC Zbrojovka Brno is a local professional football (soccer) club.  Locally, it is known as Flinta (the gun).

This year the club celebrates its 100th year.  In 1913, the club was founded as SK Židenice.

The team is mostly Czech, a couple of Slovaks and individual players from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Senegal and Guinea.  They finished the 2012-2013 season in 13th place in the Gambrinus league.

I still haven't made it to a European football match yet but it is on my list of things to do.  I guess I should see about going to a Zbrojovka match.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lion or Horse?

20 Kč Coin = $1
Sometimes I forget that I'm not in my own country.

Yesterday, I tried to settle some indecisiveness with a good old fashioned coin toss.  "Heads or Tails?"

All I got were some blank stares.

Oh yeah...there's no "heads or tails" in Czechland.

Here you have to play "lion or horse" with a 20 Kč coin.

Friday, May 24, 2013

An Extradition Case

The Accused
On the 23rd, it was all over the news here that the authorities were looking for an American in connection with a brutal crime.  The joke at work was that my team wanted to turn me in for the reward.

The horrible thing is that what happened was no joke.  Here's what happened.  A 20-year old chap name Kevin Dahlgren from Palo Alto, California, came to visit his aunt and uncle here in Brno three weeks ago.  Apparently the guy is crazy and on the 22nd he brutally killed his aunt, uncle and their 22 and 18-year old sons.  He tried to cover up the crime by setting a fire and when firefighters discovered the crime scene they notified the police.

Meanwhile, he traveled the 140 km (87 miles) to the Vienna Airport and caught an Austrian Airlines flight back to the USA.  The Czech authorities issued an international arrest warrant.  The pilots were alerted to the situation and upon landing at Washington Dulles Airport the plane was stormed by FBI agents who took Dahlgren in to custody.  By coincidence, one of my former employees was on the same flight.  He said that the FBI quickly had him under arrest.

Under the Czech-US extradition treaty, the Czechs have 60 days to file a formal extradition request.  Dahlgren can not be prosecuted in the USA for any crimes committed overseas so if he is not extradited then he would literally get away with murder.  If convicted in the Czech Republic then he would face life in prison.       

EDIT:  The Czech extradition request is 300 pages long.  I do want the USA to send this guy back to Brno to stand trial.  It is very interesting to see how this story is presented in the news.  Some of the press I've read clearly states that if he is extradited it would be a first.  Well yeah.  Not because the USA always rejects Czech extradition requests but because this is the first time a request has been made.  Dahlgren still maintains his innocence while being held in custody in Alexandria, Virginia.

EDIT:  On September 16, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that Dahlgren can be extradited to the Czech Republic to stand trial.  He will now get 30 days in order to appeal the ruling.  As I understand it, if upheld, the ruling allows the U.S. Department of State to extradite him.  However, it will be up to the State Dept., to decide if it will or won't send him back.

Update:  He was extradited and back in Brno on 31 August 2015. 

Update:  On 20 July 2016 he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Update:  In March 2017, the original ruling was upheld in court.

Update:  On 11 January 2018, Dahlgren killed himself in his jail cell using the bedsheets.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Asparagus Festival

On Sunday, Natalie, Krasimir and I headed off to the 19th annual Asparagus Festival in Ivančice.  The town, with around 9,500 residents is about 20 km (12.5 miles) southwest of Brno.

The festival actually started in Brno with a special steam train ride to Ivančice.  Many people were dressed up in 19th century costumes and we were were met at the station by live music.

The small town was packed with people there for the festival.

I love asparagus but who knew you could do so many things with it.  We had asparagus soup, asparagus quiche, asparagus sushi, asparagus tempura, asparagus salad, asparagus with fish, asparagus with beef, and on and on. 

Asparagus ice cream

It was all quite tasty.  However, I just couldn't get in to the asparagus ice cream.

After filling up on asparagus everything we went for a walk around the town.  We explored the local Jewish cemetery whose oldest tombstone dates back to 1552.  

Ivančice is worth another visit.  There is the Gothic parish Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and a museum for former resident, Art-Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha.

Monday, May 20, 2013

2013 Museum Night

Saturday night was Brno's 9th annual museum night.  Due to increasing costs, this is the first year that the festivities weren't free.

However, the organizers only charged 20 Kč ($1) at the first museum.  Then any of the remaining 15 venues were free.  What a great bargain!

This year, the Brno Philharmonic joined the program offering 15-minute guided tours of the Besední dům (Community Hall) with mini musical performances.  This was an awesome opportunity to go behind the scenes at one Europe's largest orchestras.

The Brno Philharmonic was formed in 1956.  Its home is the Besední dům which was the workplace of legendary Czech composer & conductor Leoš Janáček.

In 1918, the front balcony was used to inform the townspeople that the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia declared independence after almost 400 years of being ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Friday, May 17, 2013

My Parents Are Finally Coming!!

I've been living in Euroland for almost four years.  So it's about time that my parents have finally decided to come visit me.  Yeah!!  They've been to Canada and Mexico before but this will be their first visit this side of the pond.

They won't get here until September, 2014.  Yes, 2014.  But they are already hard at work planning.  Perhaps this really is where I get the whole project management gene from.

Anyway, they are coming for six weeks and are bringing my Aunt and Uncle.  Which is a good thing.  My Aunt and Uncle have at least been to Europe before so they can help show them the ropes.

Europe is a big place
The itinerary?  Well it depends on if they fly in to Prague or Vienna.  The plan will be to spend two weeks in Prague.  From there we will visit Karlovy Vary, Český Krumlov, Kutná Hora, Plzeň,  Konopiště and Dresden.

Then on to Brno for a couple of weeks.  Aside from all of the wine festivals, we will go see Olomouc, Mikulov, Telč, Kroměříž, Třebíč and Znojmo.  At some point I'll probably have to work a few days so they will be on their own to possibly go to Bratislava or Budapest.  I'll, for sure, take them to Vienna.  Possibly Salzburg too.

The last two weeks of their trip will be just the four of them.  They will probably head towards Munich or possibly Zürich before flying home.  There was talk at one time about possibly seeing Scotland or Ireland but I think that this idea is out now.

The official bag
In anticipation of their trip they have watched every possible Rick Steves video on YouTube.  Somehow they have the crazy idea that they will go for six weeks with just carry on suitcases.  They could at least bring a couple of suitcases of supplies for me but oh well.  They have already picked up their official Rick Steves bags.

For those of you not in the know, here's a 2005 video about Rick Steves.
©Rick Steves

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Manager Mini Golf

Around the corner from my flat is a tiny mini-golf course.  So the department managers decided on a little team building putt putt. 

It's not a fancy course or anything but not bad for only 40 Kč (~$2) per person for 18 holes. 

Some serious players
The best part was just getting out of the office to hang out for a bit.  We then followed up our "sporting" activity with dinner at Avia.

Is Vilém happy or upset?

I cracked up at this sign.  Basically that the fine for playing through a second round, without paying, is subject to a fine of 100 Czechoslovak Crowns.  I guess the sign has been around for a while.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Little Tünde Arrived

Home from the hospital
On the first day of my trip, after spending the night in the Baku Airport and finally making it to Tbilisi, I received a call from Claudia.  Little Tünde finally arrived.  It's about time.  Claudia and Norbert had been going through lots of false alarms.  After four days and 12 hours of labor she arrived on April 27th at 2:20 pm.

She was 2610 grams (5.75 lbs).  Tiny, but healthy.  And I think that mommy and daddy are doing well now too.  I can't wait to meet my new Euro-niece - Tünde Herta Heidelore Ilona Koß-Haklik.  And of course to hear all about Claudia and Norbert's adventure with the Czech maternity hospital.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Caucasus Trip Summary

Well my trip to the Caucasus is over and I'm back home in Brno.  It was quite the adventure and well worth all of the effort.  I visited three new countries and found interesting things in each.

In Georgia, I found the police stations to be quite interesting.  At first glance, they look like car dealerships or something.  A decade ago, Georgia was one of the most corrupt countries in the world.  The government fired around 16,000 police officers and went about putting in reforms.  Now being a police officer is a respected position and all of the police stations have glass exteriors to symbolize the new transparency. 

Filing the tank in Georgia
Every time I got in to a taxi in Yerevan or Tbilisi, I always noticed that the taxis' fuel gauges were running on empty.  Come to find out that 75% of the cars in Armenia actually run on natural gas.  It's a lot cheaper than gasoline. 
Armenian school bus

Of course it makes it harder to put your suitcase in the trunk with a big cylinder in the trunk.  In Armenia I saw school buses with the gas tanks on the roof.   Seems dangerous to me.

After two weeks, my Russian started getting somewhat better but at times I kept mixing Czech and Russian.  I got in a taxi in Yerevan and the driver said (in Russian) that "Oh!  You're Czechoslovak."  He didn't believe me that I was actually American.  He told me that when he was in the Soviet Army he was stationed at the military barracks in Brno and how he so loved Brno, Bratislava and the Tatras.  I then told him that I do live in Brno and he became excited.  "See, you're Czechoslovak".  I seem to meet all sorts of interesting people when I travel.    

I really enjoyed Armenia.  And not only because it was so much cheaper than the other two but because the people were lovely and there was so much to see.  My grandmother would have gotten the biggest kick out of me seeing a piece of Noah's Ark.

My run around with getting an Azeri visa reminded me that it's best to be patient and very flexible when you travel.  It's also good practice for when I eventually need visas for Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

In Baku
Azerbaijan was very interesting.  The people were great and Baku is shaping up to be an amazing city.  I really liked the mix of old and modern.  Plus you have to love mud volcanoes, petroglyphs, and a burning hill.  However, the uneasy feeling of always being on guard did make it a little harder to enjoy.

Naked in the tub
Overall it was a fabulous trip.  And thanks to two Czech public holidays it only cost me eight days of vacation.  I know that some of my friends will have a go at me for my hot tub story.  So here's the photo for proof. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Another Visa Approval

My long bus ride from Baku to Tbilisi was pretty uneventful.  It was definitely easier leaving Azerbaijan than it was trying to get in.

The most exciting moment came when I got a call on my mobile from the Czech Interior Ministry.  My visa application was approved.  Yeah!!  I was given an appointment time for next week to have my photograph and biometrics taken for my new Schengen ID card. 

My new visa will allow me to remain in Czech Republic for another two years.  However, in one year I will be eligible to apply for permanent residency which means I won't have to deal with two year extension requests anymore.  However, I will still have to first pass the prerequisite Czech language exam at the A2, or higher, level.

Now it's bed time.  I have to be up in a few hours to catch my flight back home.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

An Uneasy Feeling in Azerbaijan

May 9th is Victory Day in post-Soviet countries.  This honors the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany.  In Central European countries, like Czech Republic, the celebrations are on May 8th and the day celebrates the end of WWII in Europe.  Whereas in 'May 9th countries', there seems to be this belief that the Soviet Union alone won WWII.  As if the western allies played only a very small part in contributing to the war effort.  Don't even get me started with this one.

Tomorrow is Flower Day in Azerbaijan.  However, this year it also coincides with the 90th birthday celebration of Heydar Aliyev who is regarded as the Father of the Azeri Nation.  He died in 2003, which is also when his son Ilham Aliyev took over the presidency. 

The country appears to be run by this single family and there is a definite personality cult.  Everything here is named after him.  In Baku there is the Heydar Aliyev Airport, the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, the Heydar Aliyev Sports and Exhibition Complex as well as Heydar Aliyev Avenue.  There are streets named after him in almost every city in the country.  And his picture is everywhere.  I wonder if this is what it was like in Soviet times with pictures of Lenin all over the place.

The people here have all been very nice and friendly.  Every person that I've asked directions of has gone out of his or her way to help.  Everyone wants to know where I'm from and more importantly, why I'm there.  It's just that when they ask, they come in a little closer and speak a bit softer.  A bit odd.

Baku is riding a wave of oil money and they are spending it like crazy to create a remarkable city.  Everything is so clean.  The underground stations are absolutely spotless, without a trace of graffiti.  That's a huge plus.

The city seems very safe.  You can't go 20 meters (65 feet) without coming across police officers.  Or security guards or private security or soldiers.  I definitely get the uncomfortable feeling that big brother is watching here.

Czech friends have said that under communism it was sort of the same way.  You may have felt safer or more economically secure but the trade off was that you felt the watchful eye of the government and the secret police.  I've only had a brief taste of it and find it an uneasy feeling.  I don't know how my friends from former communist countries grew up with such systems.

Whilst the festivities begin tomorrow, I'll miss them as my time in the Caucasus comes to an end.  I have an early bus in the morning back to Tbilisi. Then a 4 am flight on Saturday back to Prague.

Yanar Daǧ, Azerbaijan

Yanar Daǧ is about 40 km (25 miles) from Gobustan.  Yanar Daǧ translates to "burning mountain" which is exactly what it is.

It is a natural gas fire which burns continuously on a hillside near Baku.  The steady flame is due to gas emissions arising from the subsurface.

The story goes that the flame was only noted when a shepherd accidentally lit it back in the 1950s. 

Atashgah Fire Temple

Azerbaijan is known as the "Land of Fire".  The Ateshgah is an old fire temple in Surakhani; about 30 km (~19 miles) from Baku

A Sanskrit Marker

Many believe that it was a Zoroastrian temple.  Zoroastrians were ancient Iranian fire worshipers.  However, it was actually a Hindu monastery.

The complex consists of a courtyard surrounded by cells for monks with a large alter in the middle.  It was originally built in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Once oil and gas plants were established, around 1883, the complex was abandoned.

In 1975 it became a museum.  One that is under renovation now.  In 1998 it was nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The jury is still out on this one.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Gobustan Mud Volcanos

There's more to Gobustan than just the petroglyphs.  Azerbaijan is also home to around half of the world's mud volcanoes. 

There are around 400 of them here.
The mud in the cauldrons is cold.  It is around 2 °C - 3 °C (3.6 °F - 5.4 °F).

Occasionally, they explode and shoot flames and mud in to the air.  In 2001, one shot flames 15 meters (49 feet) high and covered the surrounding area with tons of mud.

They are the craziest looking things.  It feels like you're on a foreign planet.

Plastic bags on your feet are the perfect defense against tracking mud in the car.