Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Animal Sounds

Animals do not sound the same in different languages.  Every language has its own way of describing the sounds that different animals make.  For example, in English, dogs go "woof" (or "bow wow").  In Czech they go "haf haf".  English speaking cats go "meow" while Czech cats go "mňau".

Here are few more examples of English vs. Czech.

Chicks - "cheep cheep" vs. "píp píp"
Cows - "moo" vs. "bú"
Donkeys - "hee haw" vs. "iá iá"
Ducks - "quack quack" vs. "káč káč"
Frogs - "ribbit" vs. "kvák kvák"
Geese - "honk" vs. "ga ga"
Mice - "squeak" vs. "kvik"
Pigs - "oink oink" vs. "chroch chroch"
Roosters - "cock-a-doodle-doo" vs. "kykyryký"

It's funny to me that Czech frogs sound like English ducks but whatever.  For some good fun, get an international group of friends together, have a few drinks and then challenge each other to make animal sounds.  It will be a laugh riot.   

Sunday, January 25, 2015

St. Agnes of Bohemia

Saint Agnes of Bohemia was a medieval Bohemian princess who gave up her social position in order to become a nun.

She was born in 1211 to King Ottokar I of Bohemia which made her a direct descendant of both Saint Ludmila and Saint Wenceslaus.  She was also first cousin of Saint ElisabethIt seems like a lot of saints for one family.

For political reasons, an arranged marriage was set up for her.  Since she wanted to devote her life to God she wrote to Pope Gregory IX for help and she was allowed to become a nun.  As a nun she personally cooked for and took care of lepers.  She lived out her life caring for others until she died in 1282. 

In 1989, almost 700 years after she died, Pope John Paul II canonized her as a Catholic saint.

St. Agnes was shown on the Czech 50 Kč banknote.  However, the banknote was replaced by the 50 Kč coin in 2011.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Stans

Central Asia stretches from the Caspian Sea to China and from Russia to Afghanistan.  This area has been a crossroads for many, mostly nomadic, civilizations.  It is most noted for the Silk Route which connected the Middle East with Europe, India and China.

It is also home of "the Stans".  -Stan means "land of".  When most people speak of the Stans, they refer to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  All five countries are former Soviet republics that gained independence when the USSR broke up.  Sometimes people try to include Afghanistan and Pakistan in the club but they are South Asian countries; not Central Asian.

Kazakhstan is the world's largest landlocked country.  It was the last Soviet republic to declare independence.  Kazakhstan is home to 17 million people (not including the fictional character Borat).  A little over 70% of the population is Muslim.  The country is rich in fossil fuel reserves, uranium, copper, and zinc.

Kyrgyzstan is home to 5.7 million people and 75% are Muslim.  It is a poor, mountainous country that relies mostly on agriculture.  Until a few years ago, it was the only country in the world to host both American and Russian military bases at the same time. 

Tajikistan is the smallest of the stans but is home to 8 million people.  Over 90% are Muslim.  It was the poorest Soviet republic and today it is the poorest country in Central Asia.  Over 1 million Tajiks work abroad, 90% in Russia, and send money back home.  This makes up almost half of the country's GDP.

Turkmenistan is mostly desert.  It has a population of 5.2 million people of which 89% are Muslim.  Turkmenistan is sitting on the world's 4th largest natural gas reserves.  It isn't exactly an open society.  It is considered to be one of the 10 most censored countries in the world and its freedom of the press ranks just above North Korea and Eritrea.

Uzbekistan has 30 million people and roughly 88% are Muslim.  Nearly half of the entire population of Central Asia lives in Uzbekistan.  There is lots of history here as it is home to many cities that were main stops on the Silk Road.  Even though about 10% of the labor force works abroad, mainly in Russia and Kazakhstan, the country is considered one of the world's fastest growing economies.

Aside from Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek, the most commonly spoken language is Russian.  It is a co-official language in a few of the countries.

During communism, atheism was encouraged.  Since independence there has been a huge increase in the practice of Islam.  Several countries are working to balance secular societies with an increase of religion while preventing radical Islam from taking root. 

Visiting the Stans isn't exactly easy because all of them, except for Kyrgyzstan, require most people to obtain tourist visas.  Some are expensive, some are less so, but they all require a hell of a lot of paperwork.  For Americans, a Kazakh or Uzbek visa costs $160.  A Tajik visa is only $25 but you need an invitation letter before you can even apply.  The only way to get a tourist visa for Turkmenistan is to purchase an entire tour in advance.  Again, for the most part, Kyrgyzstan doesn't even require a visa so it's the easiest of the Stans to visit.

However, Kazakhstan is currently running a one-year test until 15 July 2015.  During this pilot program, citizens of the United States, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, Japan, and the UAE are allowed to visit without a visa for up to 15 days.

I've been wanting to visit Uzbekistan since I was a teenager.  Ever since I read a magazine article about the Soviet Union and it talked about how the capital city Tashkent was home to camels and pineapples.  However, thanks to "no visas required", my first trip to the Stans will be to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan this June. 

Update: Here's a video I found out on YouTube about how powerful the Stans are.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Leopold Dvořák is one of the best known Czech composers.  He was born in Bohemia in 1841, when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and died in 1904.

Dvořák's musical gifts were apparent at an early age.  He was known for incorporating Czech folk music from Bohemia and Moravia in 19th century classical music.  He was the first Czech composer to achieve worldwide attention.  In 1892 he served as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York before returning to Bohemia in 1895.  

Dvořák wrote 10 operas, 9 symphonies and numerous pieces of chamber music.  His best known opera is probably Rusalka.  However, my favorite piece is his Slavonic Dance #2.  Here's a clip I found on YouTube of it performed by London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Karel Čapek

Karel Čapek was born in Czechoslovakia in 1890.  He was a well known journalist, playwright, essayist, publisher and art critic.

Čapek was very vocal against the Nazis and of Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland.

In 1938, the Gestapo named him Czechoslovakia's Public Enemy #2.  Yet he never fled the country.  A few months later he died of double pneumonia.

Although he wrote in many different genres, both fiction and non-fiction, today he is best known for science fiction.  His biggest international success was Rossum's Universal Robots.  Thanks to this play he gave the world the word "robot".  Who would have thought that "robot" was a Czech word?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Eurasian Economic Union

The Eurasian Economic Union is an economic union between Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.  The EEU; not to be confused with the EU, became effective on 1 January 2015.  Kyrgyzstan officially joins in May 2015. 

In 1994, the Kazakh President made a speech in Moscow suggesting the creation of a regional trading block.  This is basically the Eurasian version of the European Union, just with fewer countries and consumers.  The EEU provides a single market of 176 million people.

Russian President Vladimir Putin would like it expanded to all of the post-Soviet republics, except for the Baltics.  Some people think that this is Putin's way of recreating the Soviet Empire.  However, a country can't be a member of both the EU and the EEU.  The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are all EU members so they won't join the EEU.

Moldova,  Georgia, and Ukraine were all offered EEU membership but all three countries have signed association agreements with the EU instead.  The EU vs. EEU debate is what helped bring down Viktor Yanukovych's government in Ukraine and led to the current problems in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

It appears that the only real future candidate who may join will be Tajikistan but who knows when that would happen.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

European Economic Area

Not every country in Europe is a member of the European Union.  However, just because a country isn't a member of the EU doesn't mean that it is off on its own.  There's also the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Area (EEA).

The European Free Trade Association is made up of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland.  For one reason or another these four countries do not want to be a member of the EU.  Remember, any new country that joins the EU must eventually adopt the Euro as its official currency. 

The European Economic Area brings the EU countries and the EFTA countries together so that they participate in a single market.  The EEA allows for the EFTA countries to remain independent of the EU but still reap most of the benefits.  So even though Norway isn't an EU member, Norwegian citizens can work anywhere in the EU, just like EU citizens can. 

The EEA countries adopt a majority of EU legislation except for laws on agriculture, fisheries, taxation, common foreign or security policy. 

While Switzerland is a member of the EFTA, it is not part of the EEA.  Although Switzerland has signed a number of bilateral agreements, including a free trade agreement with the EU.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk

Czechs feel the same way about Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk as Americans do about George Washington.  He was the founding father and first president of Czechoslovakia.

He was born in in 1850, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Specifically in Hodonín, Moravia to a Czech mother and a Slovak father.  He went to grammar school in Brno and went on to earn his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna.

Masaryk wanted to reform the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a democratic federal state but eventually favored establishing an independent country for Czechs and Slovaks.

During World War I, he went into exile where he gave lectures and lobbied for an independent state.  He organized Czechoslovak Legions in Russia which fought for the Allies.

Masaryk statue in Praha
He obtained support from President Woodrow Wilson and when the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell in 1918, the Allied Powers recognized Masaryk as the head of the Provisional Czechoslovak government.  He was then elected as the first president of an independent Czechoslovakia.  He was reelected three times.  He resigned in 1935 due to old age and poor health and he passed away on 14 September 1937.

Masaryk University
Under his leadership Czechoslovakia was not only a functioning democracy but it was one of the world's 10 most industrialized states.

To this day, Masaryk is regarded as a symbol of democracy.  Almost every Czech town has either a Masaryk street or Masaryk Square dedicated to him.  Brno is home to Masaryk University, which is the second largest university in Czechland, and the country's best oncology centre.

He is on the 5000 Kč banknote.  I've never even seen a 5000 Kč banknote before.

Here's a short video I found out on YouTube.