Friday, March 25, 2016

Velký pátek

Velký pátek is "Good Friday".  It is the Friday before Easter and is a day of fasting for Roman Catholics and it commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

The Czech parliament has now made Velký pátek the newest public holiday.  It does seem like an odd choice for a public holiday in one of the most atheistic countries in the world.

It used to be a national holiday in Czechoslovakia but it was abolished by the communists in 1951.

Since there's no chance of the days falling on a weekend, Good Friday and Easter Monday guarantees a four day weekend each year.   It's already a public holiday in neighbouring Austria, Germany, and Slovakia.

On Saturday we loose an hour due to the time change but somehow it doesn't seem as bad since we now have a four-day weekend.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Sokol is a Czech sports community that was founded in Prague in 1862.  Sokol is the Czech word for "falcon".  The Sokol movement is based on the principle of a "strong mind in a sound body".  Not only physical education, but moral training was also provided.  The courses were originally opened to men and later were opened to women as well.  Sokol is kind of a version of scouting.

Sokol Brno I
The Sokol movement became popular and spread to Poland, Slovenia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Belarus, Croatia and the Russian Empire.  In 1865 Czechoslovak-Americans started the American Sokol Organisation in St. Louis, Missouri.

Sokol was banned during WWI as being seen as fostering nationalism.  It was banned again prior to WWII when the Nazis occupied Czech lands.  The communists banned them again after 1948.  Sokol was revived again in 1990.  Today more than 190,000 people actively participate.

In Brno they offer floor hockey, rock climbing, fencing, table tennis, athletics, volleyball and gymnastics.  Every year Brno hosts an international Grand Prix competition.  Here's a video about Brno's Sokol out on YouTube.
©Brno Sokol I

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Republic of Belarus

I've done a lot of travelling since I moved to Euroland back in 2009.  There's only one country in Europe that I haven't been to yet and that's Belarus.  Mainly due to visa requirements that make it a pain in the arse to go.  However in September I will go to Minsk and complete my 50 European countries.  So here's a bit about Беларусь.

The Republic of Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe.  Of course, it sees itself as Central Europe which I guess there's an argument for, if you consider Europe running from Iceland all the way to the eastern bit of Russia.  I say that it's in Eastern Europe and borders Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.  It is a bit smaller than Kansas.  The population is almost 10 million people.  Minsk is the capital and its largest city.

The area was first settled in the 3rd century and Slavs took control around the 5th century.  It was once part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth.  The territory was eventually taken by the Russian Empire.  It declared independence after WWI and joined the Soviet Union as the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.

After 70 years of communism the country declared independence in August 1991.  It is a presidential republic in name but most consider it to be the last dictatorship in Europe.  The president, Alexander Lukashenko, has ruled since 1994 and there is not much in the way of political opposition or freedom of speech.  The country is Russia's staunchest ally and is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union.

Belarusian is the official first language but only about 12% speak it.  Mostly in the countryside.  In 1995, Russian became the second official language is is used by 72%.  Russian is favoured by the government and is used by the media.

There is no official religion but about 42% are Orthodox.  There is a small Catholic minority of about 9% mostly in the western part of the country.

Current 1,000 note will be replaced
The Rouble is the official currency.  Only bank notes are used as there are no coins due to hyperinflation. In July 2016 a new Belarusian Rouble will be released in to circulation that will reduce everything by 1,000.  For example, if something costs 20,500 Roubles today, in July it will cost 2,5.  Coins will introduced for the first time.  This should make things more interesting when I visit in September.

Most foreigners require a visa in order to visit Belarus.  The application process can be complicated and is one of the reasons that so few people visit.  As an American, a single-entry tourist visa used to cost $120.  Recently the government lowered the price so it should cost $65 now.  Next up is to apply for my tourist visa at the embassy in either Prague, Vienna or Bratislava.  I'm looking at the one in Bratislava because it's the closest and I'm there for work at least once a month.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Good Interior Ministry Story

A few weeks ago I had to go to the Interior Ministry to apply for a new ID card since I have a new address.  Everything went fine and I actually managed to do everything in Czech.

Today I had an appointment to go pick up my card.  I was given my new card but noticed that the card had the incorrect address printed on it.  It was neither my old address or the new address.  I explained to the clerk that it wasn't correct and of course she didn't believe me.  She looked at her computer screen and said it was correct.  Again, I said that it wasn't my address.  She pulled out my paperwork and saw that I was correct; they printed the wrong address.  She asked me to wait out in the hallway while she spoke to her colleague.

About five minutes later, the original clerk from a few weeks ago came out and apologised to me.  I'm not sure what was a bigger shock, the fact that she apologised or that all of a sudden she could speak English.

Mistakes do happen and this really wasn't that big of a deal.  Yet she continued to apologise over and over.  She explained that they would correct the mistake and that I would not have to pay for the additional replacement card.  The drawback was that I would need to redo my biometrics and pick up the new card in a couple of weeks.

She then escorted me to the front of the line so that I would not have to queue up for the biometrics.  Wow!!  The Interior Ministry spoke English, was nice and polite, and apologised that a mistake was made.  Wow!!

It was a great but now I'm scared that Hell has frozen over and that I will see pigs fly.  A mate suggested that I should have quickly bought some some lottery tickets before my luck ran out.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Switched to a Mac

Well, I did it.  I've made the switch to a Mac.  My Acer laptop is seven years old and was starting to run on its last leg.

I decided on the MacBook Air due to its light weight and long lasting battery.  Plus it is easy to sync up with my iPhone and iPad.

Of course there are the normal Windows to Mac growing pains to deal with.  There is no Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V to copy and paste anymore.  Now there is Cmd+C and Cmd+V.  Not a big problem but there is over 20 years of muscle memory to deal with but this comes quickly.

Learning to deal with the trackpad is taking a bit of getting used to but I think my biggest challenge is how to deal without a right click button.

The biggest challenge though has been the keyboard.  My old computer had a dual American English/Czech keyboard.  I used the English keyboard and would toggle over to Czech when I needed to type out any Czech accented letters.  My Mac only has a Czech keyboard.  This goes beyond just QWERTZ.  All of the numbers require the shift key and all of the punctuation characters are in a different place.
I know that I could remap the keyboard to American English but then I'm sure I would just find it even more confusing even though I type by touch.

Update:  I'm loving my Mac!  My big challenge was getting used to the Mac while still using a Windows laptop at work all day.  Fortunately it was time for a new work computer and I had a choice of a new Lenovo or a Mac Air.  I opted for a Mac.  Who would have ever thought that IBM would use Macs?  Now I'm such a Mac guy with one at work and one at home.

Update:  It didn't take long for me to fully adapt to my Czech keyboard.  What's funny is now I find it difficult to use an American keyboard.  

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Vienna Museum of Military History

The last time we went to Vienna right before Christmas we said that the next time we would visit the Military History Museum.  So we went on Friday and to meet up with Katka and Steve to see their new baby.

While we were there, there was a Go Modeling exhibition going on by the International Plastic Modellers Society Austria.  This annual event shows off true scale models of historic military vehicles, aircraft and ships.

The museum is quite interesting and done well.  It was established in 1869 during the Austro-Hungarian Empire and shows the history of Austrian military affairs.  There are eight main exhibition halls showing various weapons, uniforms, flags, paintings, medals, photographs, documents and models.  

Hall I - From the Thirty Years' War to Prince Eugene (16th century - 1700)
Hall II - Spanish War of Succession and Maria Theresa Hall (1701 - 1789)
Hall III - Hall of Revolutions (1789 - 1848)
Hall IV - Field Marshal Radetzky and his era (1848 - 1866)
Hall V - Franz Joseph Hall and Sarajevo (1867 - 1914)

Hall V has a separate bay dedicated to the Assassination at Sarajevo which lit the fuse for WWI.  They even have the car on display in which the Archduke and his wife were murdered in on d28 June 1914.

Hall VI - World War I and the end of the Habsburg Monarchy (1914 - 1918)
Hall VII - Republic and Dictatorship (1918 - 1955)
Hall VIII - Austria as a naval power

The train from Brno to Vienna is only 1,5 hours.  Austria is right next door to Czechland.

Though I'm still not sure why CNN confuses Austria and Australia.

There are no kangaroos in Austria.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Malbork Castle, Poland

Malbork is a small town in northern Poland with around 39,000 residents.  It is about a 25-minute train ride from Gdańsk.

The town was founded in the 13th century by the Knights of the Teutonic Order.  The city's claim to fame is the castle which was the order's headquarters.

The castle was completed in 1406 and was the largest brick castle in the world.  The Teutonic Knights were a German Roman Catholic religious order of crusaders and they named the castle Marienburg, (Mary's Castle).

The castle was heavily damaged during the war and reconstruction began in 1962.  Further restoration should complete soon.

In 1997, the castle became a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Malbork Castle is still the largest brick building in Europe.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Gdynia, Poland

Gdynia isn't far from Gdańsk.  It is home to over 248,000 as is the 12th biggest city in Poland.  Along with Sopot it makes up a tri-city area of over a million people.  It was a small fishing village for hundreds of years until it became a seaside resort and eventually became a city in 1926.

Today the port is stopover for luxury cruise ships and hosts the Gdynia Film Festival, the country's main film festival.  In 2013 it was ranked as the best city in the country to live.

The Displaced Gdynian monument was unveiled in 2014.  It commemorates the 120,000 - 170,000 people who were deported following the Nazi invasion in 1939.

Antoni Abraham was an activist who fought for Pomerania to be included in the Polish state that came out of WWI.

Abraham's House is one of the oldest cottages in Gdynia.  It was his home until he died in 1923.  As a museum it only takes about 10 minutes to see everything.

Dar Pomorza is a three-masted ship built in 1909 and was used as a training ship before WWI.  Today it is a museum ship.

Błyskawica (Lightning) was a launched in 1936 and at the time was the fastest destroyer in the world.  Part of the Polish Navy, it was under the command of the British Royal Navy and saw action in the Mediterranean, Normandy and as an Atlantic convoy escort.  Today it is the oldest preserved destroyer in the world.

The Joseph Conrad monument was unveiled in 1976.  It donors Poland's most famous sea-faring author.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


After WWI, the Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk) was a semi-autonomous city-state under the protection of the League of Nations.

Poland was allowed to keep a small garrison on the peninsula at Westerplatte.

There were 180 men stationed here and, in case of war, they were supposed to hold out for up to 12 hours until the Polish Army could send relief.

On 1 September 1939, the battleship Schleswig-Holstein, which was on a courtesy visit to Danzig, opened fire on the Polish garrison at 4:48 AM.  This is considered the beginning of WWII.

Westerplatte was hit with naval and field artillery plus Luftwaffe bombing raids.  The 180 Polish soldiers repelled multiple attacks by 570 German soldiers for a week.

Due to a lack of ammunition and supplies, the Polish commanding officer surrendered on 7 September.  They put up one heck of a fight holding back the German attack.

The monument to the Defenders of the Coast was unveiled in 1966

The barracks and guardhouses are still here, plus a small graveyard.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Gdańsk Friday's Flashbacks

I used to work for T.G.I. Friday's many, many years ago.  The first time I was ever in Poland was back in 1998 when they sent me over for a month to open a new restaurant in Gdańsk.  I remember being so excited as this was my first international opening.  It was a lot of hard work with 12 - 16 hour days, six days a week.  But it was so much fun.  
Setting up the bar

This is how openings worked backed then.  A 14-person team was sent over to set a new site.  Usually we walked in to a construction zone and did PUNCH - physically unbelievable number of cleaning hours.

Gdańsk bar training in 1998
Gdańsk Friday's in 1998
We had to scrub everything from top to bottom, figure out where everything would go, receive all of the deliveries and set things up.  By all deliveries I mean everything...plates, glasses, silverware, tables, chairs, kitchen equipment, plus all of the food and liquor.

Then there was normally over a week of training all of the staff, followed by almost a week of mock service where the new staff got to practice.  There would then be a grand opening and we would stay for another week or two in order to make sure that things all ran smoothly.

Scandic Hotel in 2016

The Gdańsk store was part of a Holiday Inn hotel.  Or it was supposed to be.  When we left they were still building the hotel.  I wanted to stop by a visit the restaurant but unfortunately it closed in 2008.  And that Holiday Inn is now a Scandic Hotel.
The bar today

Here's the kicker...we're staying at the Scandic this trip.  What used to be the main dining room is now where the hotel serves breakfast each morning.

Bar trainees on opening night - 1998

I'm having all of the flashbacks each morning over breakfast.  I was sent over as the bar trainer and now the bar in the lobby looks quite different.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Gdańsk, Poland

Gdańsk is in northern Poland, on the Baltic coast, and it is the country's principal seaport.  With more than 460,000 people it is the 6th-largest largest city but with around 1.4 million people in the metro area it is the 4th-largest metropolitan area in the country.

It dates back to 997 AD and gained city rights in 1263.  In 1997 it celebrated its 1,000 birthday!  Gdańsk was an important seaport and shipbuilding down in the late Middle Ages.  It was a member of the Hanseatic League in the 14th and 15th centuries.  After WWI it became the Free City of Danzig.

A couple of major events began here.  This is where Germany first invaded Poland at the Battle of Westerplatte, just outside of the city, which began WW2.

Solidarity, the first independent trade union, was born at the Lenin Shipyards and played a significant role in opening up the iron curtain.

St. Catherine's Church is the city's oldest church.  From 1545 to 1945 it was a Protestant church and then it became a Catholic church.  It is home to the worlds first pulsar clock.

The Old Arsenal was built between 1602 - 1605.  Today it belongs the the Gdańsk Academy of Fine Arts.

Construction on the historic Main Town Hall began in 1346 and was it was completed in the 15th century.  Today it houses the city History Museum.

The Golden Gate was built in 1612 - 1614 and was part of the old city fortifications.  Destroyed during the war, it was rebuilt in 1957 and restored in the 1990s.

The Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as St. Mary's Church, was built during the 15th century.  It is the largest brick church in the world and there is room for 25,000 people.

Neptune's Fountain is one of the city's major landmarks.  It was completed in 1633.

Żuraw on the river Motława is the largest port crane of medieval Europe.

This WW2 monument is to the defenders of Polish sites in Gdaňsk.

This monument at the main train station is to the Jewish children who were sent to Britain in 1939 without their parents in order to escape Nazi persecution.

The SS Sołdek was the first ship built in Poland after the war.  It is part of the National Maritime Museum.

At the former Lenin Shipyard is the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers which commemorates the victims of the December 1970 strikes.

This is also home to the European Solidarity Centre that opened in 2014.  The museum and library is very well done.