Monday, January 30, 2017

English Comes to Brno

When I first moved to Brno, going on 7,5 years ago, it wasn't easy to find an English speaker.  Going to a restaurant was an adventure.  Even if I asked a waiter or waitress (in Czech), if they spoke English (or German), I mostly received a grunt and the menu was tossed on the table.  What a difference a few years has made.  Now when I go out, and speak Czech, many of the waiters will want to respond back in English.  Of course, I just keep speaking Czech.  If I had to learn it then I'm going to use it.

But one place I never thought would lighten up was going to the city administrative offices.  Of the 29 Brno city districts, Brno-střed has the largest number of foreigners living there, around 6,000 people.  About 7% of the local population.  Well now the Brno-střed, Brno-centre, website has information online in both English and Russian.

Paperwork is now available in both English and Russian and at the main office there is an English-speaking clerk.  And starting next month, 150 office employees will get English lessons.

Wow!  How times have changed.  I wonder if other languages, like German or French, are next?  Or if other districts plan on doing this too?  

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Crime Falls Again

Here's another great reason to live in Czechland.  The crime rate has fallen for the third year in a row. In 2016, crime in Czechia fell 12%.

In 2016 there were 217,927 registered crimes.  Police solved 53,3% of them.    The most common crime was property crime which accounted for 118,000 total incidents.  But this number fell by more than 21,000.

As for violent crime, there were 136 murders.  For comparison, in 2016 there were 111 murders in Atlanta.  But this is comparing a country of 10,2 million people with a city of 5,4 million people.  I feel much safer over here.

Friday, January 20, 2017

18 Nominations for Sainthood

Czechs have nominated 18 people for sainthood.  This really seems quite a lot for one of the world's most atheist countries.

It's now up to Pope Francis to decide which candidates will be beatified and canonised.  Several of the nominations are martyrs and the process is less complicated because it's not necessary to prove miracles connected to a martyr.

The process of beatification can take decades, or longer.  To date only three Czechs have ever been canonised by the Roman Catholic Church.

Zdislava Berka, also known as Zdislava of Lemberk, from 1220 - 1252.  She was a pious noblewoman who founded a convent.  She was canonised in 1996.

Jan Sarkander, from 1576 - 1620, was a Polish Roman Catholic priest.  He was active in defending the faith during a period of anti-Christian conflict.  He was tortured for a month before he died.  He was canonised in 1995.

St. Agnes of Bohemia, from 1211 - 1282, was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1989 right before the Velvet Revolution.  St. Agnes was a princess who opted for a life of charity and established the only religious order from Bohemia.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

New 2017 Tax Allowances

Czech taxes change a bit in 2017.  Most of them don't really apply to me but here are the highlights.

The Czech minimum wage increases from 9.900 Kč ($452.60) to 11.000 Kč ($503) per month.  This 1.100 Kč increase is the biggest increase in Czech history.

For students and part-time jobs, the minimum hourly wage increases from 58,70 Kč ($2.68) to 66 Kč ($3.02).  As long as the work is completed in 300 hours and the salary doesn't go over 10.000 Kč then the employee is not required to fill out a tax declaration form.  The employee doesn't pay any social security or health insurance contributions.

As long as a kid qualifies as a dependent living with the taxpayer then the child tax credit increases.
For one child the allowance remains at 13.404 Kč per month.
For a second child the allowance increases from 15.804 Kč to 19.404 Kč.
For three or more children the allowance increases from 17.004 Kč to 24.204 Kc.

The Kindergarten tax allowance also increases to match the new minimum wage of 11.000 Kč.  One parent can deduct this with an attendance confirmation from the child's kindergarten.  Remember over here, Czech kindergarten is the equivalent of a U.S. pre-school.

The government has doubled the deduction limit for health insurance and pension contributions from the tax base.  The new limit is now 24.000 Kč.  For people who save 3.000 Kč per month then the state will provide a pension contribution up to 6.360 Kč.

Back under communism it was illegal to be unemployed.  Things are different now.  People who are unemployed and who are not officially registered at an agency, or for students over 26 years old, must pay 1.485 Kč ($68) per month for mandatory health insurance.

People who are recently unemployed may keep their jobseeker's allowance and work part-time so long as the monthly income doesn't exceed 5.500 Kč.

One thing that does impact me is that there will be a simplified two-page tax form.  People with more than one income will continue to submit the four-page form with attachments.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Northern Lights

The main reason for our trip to Tromsø was to see the Northern Lights.  Due to bad weather I didn't get to see them in Iceland back in 2013.  So on Saturday night we went on a seven hour tour.

The Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis, is a light phenomenon when electrically charged particles from the sun enter the earth's atmosphere.  The bright, colourful dancing lights can be seen above the magnetic poles in the both the northern and southern hemispheres.  In the southern hemisphere it is called Aurora Australis.

We were driven to Sommaroy, about an hour away from the city where there wasn't any light pollution.

The thing to remember about chasing the lights is that you can't control the weather.  Sometimes the lights are visible around midnight and sometimes there's nothing to see.

The guides built a fire at our site and we were given tea and mushroom soup.  Followed by Norwegian cake, reindeer treats, a local brown cheese and marshmallows.

Unfortunately the tour was pretty much a bust.  A few people got pictures with their cameras but you couldn't see the lights with your eyes.  To me, that just doesn't count so chasing the Northern Lights remains on my list of things to do here in Euroland.  For try #3 perhaps I'll try Finland.  If that doesn't pan out then maybe I should just try the Southern Lights.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Tromsø, Norway

Tromsø is the largest urban area in Northern Norway, about 350 km (217 miles) north of the Arctic Circle.

The city is named after Tromsøya which is the island that it sits.  It is home to 73,500 people which includes more than 85,000 students who attend the world's northernmost university.

The city was issued its city charter in 1794.  However, the Tromsø area has been inhabited since the end of the ice age.  Archaeologists has discovered artefacts estimated to be 9,000 to 10,000 years old.

Around 11 AM
From around 26 November to 15 January the sun remains below the horizon which means that durning the polar night there is only a few hours of, often, bluish light.  Basically the opposite of the midnight sun that runs from around 18 May to 26 July where there's no real darkness.

The Tromsø Cathedral was built in 1861 and is in the middle of the city.  The Lutheran cathedral is the country's only wooden cathedral.

The Polar Museum opened in 1978.  It sits in an 1837 wharf house and highlights the city's history of Arctic hunting and exploration.

The Tromsø Bridge opened in 1960.  At 1.036 metres (3,399 feet) in length it was the longest bridge in Northern Europe when it opened.

The Cathedral of our Lady is the Catholic cathedral.  The small wooden church sits about 150 people and was consecrated in 1861. It is the most northern Catholic cathedral in the world.

The Arctic Cathedral isn't really a cathedral.  It is a Luthern parish church that was built in 1965.

Skansen is the oldest house in Tromsø.  It began as a customs station in 1789.  It has also served as housing, schools, a retirement home and as a city museum.

Polaria opened in 1998 and it is the world's most northernly aquarium.  The show with the bearded seals is well worth seeing.

The Polstjerna was one of the country's most famous, and most successful seal hunting ships.  Between 1949 and 1981 it killed almost 100,000 seals.

The Perspective Museum is in a house dating back to 1831.  It houses a permanent photo exhibition and various temporary displays about the city.

The music pavilion was built in 1891.

The Monument to the victims of the Holocaust from Tromsø was unveiled in 1951.

The public library was completed in 2005.  It shares space with the city archives.

The Kulturhuset is the city's primary performing arts centre.  The main stage hosts the Tromsø International Film Festival.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Off to the Arctic Circle

I'm off to the Arctic Circle this weekend.  Specifically, I'm on the way to Tromsø, Norway.

The Arctic Circle is about 16,000 km (9,900 miles).  About 4% of the Earth's surface lies north of the Circle.  The Circle crosses Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Russia, Canada, and the USA.  Due to the severe cold, only around four million people live there.

The Arctic Circle isn't fixed.  The latitude depends on the axial tilt of the planet.  The Circle is drifting north about 15 metres (49 feet) per year.

At this time of year there will be very little daylight, maybe only five or six hours per day.  The reason for going this weekend is to try to see the Northern Lights.  Fingers crossed for good weather.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

First Bratislava Trip of 2017

An early morning train to Slovakia
Well, so far in 2017, I managed to stay home a full two weeks before needing to go to the Bratislava office.

Fortunately it was just a day trip.  A full day of meetings but at least it gave me the opportunity to have a short visit with my Slovak team.

The Bratislava Crew

On the flip side, my Czech team decided to have some fun while I was away.  Perhaps they were jealous that I was with the Slovak team or something but during the day they decided to decorate my desk with a snowman.  Cute, but I don't understand why they always want to mess with my desk.  So long as they clean it up before it melts.

Friday, January 6, 2017

IBM Extending Benefits

When it comes to being committed to diversity then there are few companies that can match IBM.  There's a long track record in the company of acceptance and inclusion.  IBM had an equal pay policy for men and women back in the 1930s.  There was an equal opportunity policy at IBM 11 years before the Civil Rights Act became law.  It was one of the first companies to include sexual orientation as part of the Equation Opportunity policy and IBM extended domestic partner benefits in the USA almost 20 years ago.  It makes me proud to be an IBMer.

Now IBM is one of the first companies in Czech Republic to recognise registered partnerships in the area of paid time off.  So for example, under Czech labour law, an employee is entitled to paid time off if a spouse's parent dies.  This sort of benefit doesn't exist for same-sex couples because Czechland doesn't have gay marriage.  So even though there is no gay marriage here, IBM will still provide this type of benefit to those employees who have a registered domestic partnership.  There's still more to do but I'm proud of the progress that is being made in Central Europe.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

New Public Transportation Fees

Currently the cost of a one-year public transportation pass in Brno is 4.750 Kč (~$215).  That's for unlimited use of the trams, busses, and trolley busses.  Plus with the annual pass, a person gets to ride with you for free on weekends and public holidays.

I think it's a great deal here.  By comparison, a similar pass in Stuttgart, Germany, costs around €70 ($82) per month.  In Dublin, the cost of an annual bus ticket is €1250 ($1,470), and that's just for the bus.  Including the trams will cost you more.  Brno is a bargain.  

This year the price of an annual Brno pass will drop to 3.325 Kč ($150).

In order to qualify for the reduced price you have to be a permanent resident in Brno, have paid the annual waste collection fee, and you must purchase it online.

You first have to register on the e-shop.  Pay the full price of 4.750 Kč.  You need to complete a request form for the Brno city office to verify that you are a permanent resident and that the waste collection fee has been paid.  Once verified, you will receive a refund of 1.425 Kč within 3 months.

The thing that I don't like is that you no longer receive a paper ticket.  The debit or credit card you used to purchase the pass becomes your ticket.  Fortunately, for those that don't want to use their bank card can buy an anonymous card available from the public transportation office.

My pass won't expire until September so I've got plenty of time to decide if I'll just use my card or one of the anonymous cards.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

2017 Public Holidays

2017 is going to be a great year for travelling because there are fewer working days this year.  In the USA, if a public holiday falls on a Saturday then you get Friday off.  If it falls on a Sunday then you get Monday off.  So it doesn't matter when the holiday falls you are guaranteed a day off.

Over here in Czechland, if a public holiday falls on a weekend then it doesn't matter.  You are already off so you lose an extra day off.

With the way the holidays fall this year, there are only 250 working days with six long weekends.  Yippee!!  Now to start combining public holidays with some vacation days to maximise time off.