Friday, April 30, 2021

Jsme fér

Jsme fér (We are fair) is a coalition of non-profit organisations that started in 2017 and campaigns for same-sex marriage here in Czechland.  It is made up of Amnesty International Czech Republic, Logos Czech Republic, Mezipatra, PROUD, Prague Pride, and Queer Geography.

The Equal Marriage Bill was introduced to the Parliament in November 2018 but it has continued to stall for years.  As of yesterday it was finally put to a vote that begins the legislative process.  This is great news but I doubt anything will happen before the next parliamentary elections in October 2021.

Czechland was the first post-Iron Curtain country to provide any sort of legislative protection for gays when it allowed for registered partnerships back in 2006.  While this was an important step it is not the same thing as marriage.  There are more than 100 legal differences that exist between marriage and registered partnerships.

The promising thing is that support for equal marriage has increased dramatically over the years with currently about 67% of the country in favour of it.

Personally I think it would be great for Czechland to become the first post-Communist country to have equal marriage.  Once behind the Iron Curtain, the nation can be the first to break from the "Rainbow Curtain" and join the 16 other European countries that have equal marriage.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

English Language Seminar

I'm not quite sure how I got talked in to this but somehow I agreed to co-present a webinar for Masaryk University.  There was some talk about doing this after the IT Nightmares presentation back in 2019 but then Covid hit last year so it never happened.  The university reached out to IBM and I agreed to present.

One of my Dutch colleagues presented with me to about 10 undergraduate and graduate students today.  The topic was on the use of English in social, educational and business situations.  We tried to keep it as interactive as possible and shared a few anecdotes to make it seem less like a boring university lecture.

It seemed to go fine.  Well, at least I hope it went fine.  I'm curious to see the results of the student evaluations.

Monday, April 26, 2021

My First Money Order

My energy provider is Bohemia Energy.  I switched to them about three plus years ago and they've been fine.  Every three months they send me a bill notification to my mobile.

Apparently I overpaid and I received a rebate.  Czech Post delivered a money order to me for 351 Kč ($16).  The money order is only valid until 18.5.  

Many people use the Czech post office for financial services to the money order wasn't that weird to me. 

I don't understand why Bohemia Energy just didn't give me a credit on my next bill.  That would have been more convenient for me.  Or if they wanted to pay me back the money then they could have asked for my banking details so that they could have transferred the 351 Kč to me.  Instead, they paid the post office to deliver me a money order which gives me a limited period of time to collect.  I don't know what would happen if I didn't cash it in time.  Does the money go back to Bohemia Energy?  Or does Česká Pošta keep the money?  

Update:  It took me a few minutes to figure out where in the post office to cash it.  Once I found the correct window I had my money in about five minutes.

This was my first Czech money order.  It's incredible to me that after almost 12 years here in Czechland I'm still having new experiences.  

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

ECHR Ruling on Mandatory Childhood Vaccinations

In Czechland, there are obligatory vaccinations for nine diseases - whooping cough, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis B, haemophilus influenzae type b (Hip), measles, mumps, and rubella.  This is laid down in Act no. 258/2000 Coll., on Public Health Protection.  Those that don't comply with the vaccine schedule may be fined up to 10.000 Kč ($464).  

No one here can be forcibly vaccinated against their will.  But there are other implications.  Children under five years of age can not attend public kindergarten (preschool) if they have not been fully vaccinated.  A kindergarten that admits an unvaccinated child can be fined up to 500.000 Kč ($23,200).  

From age five, unvaccinated children can attend kindergarten because this preschool year is part of the country's compulsory education.  While unvaccinated children can attend school they are not allowed to take part in school trips, camps, etc.  If an unvaccinated child participates in a school trip or camp then the organiser can be fined up to 30.000 Kč ($1,392).   

Vaccines are free as they are covered by the state.

The European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France, is connected with the Council of Europe with 47 member countries.  The court rules on complaints filed against member counties with regards to their obligations under the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights.  

A couple of weeks ago the European Court of Human Rights ruled on the case of Vavřička and Others v. the Czech Republic.  The primary case was a Czech who refused to have his son and daughter vaccinated against polio, hepatitis B, and tetanus.  The father was fined.  Then there were four other cases where children were not allowed to enter kindergarten because they were not vaccinated.  All of these cases were submitted before the pandemic so this has nothing to do with Covid-19.    

The court ruled 16-1 that the Czech Republic is within its rights to require compulsory vaccination of preschool children and that it did not violate and human rights rules.  The judgement is final and can not be appealed.  This is the first time that the court has ever ruled on this issue.

Here's a 15-minute video I found out on YouTube that talks about the court and what it does.

©European Court of Human Rights

Other countries have vaccinate rules as well.  Italy saw a surge of measles cases so in 2019 a law was passed that without proof of vaccination children up to the age of six are excluded from preschool and kindergarten.  Parents who send their unvaccinated children to school can be fined up to €500 ($593).

Germany passed a law in 2020 that requires parents to vaccinate their children against the measles.  Parents can be fined up to €2500 ($2,970) for failing to comply.  

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Foreign Languages

I wrote before that English is the most common spoken language across the EU.  That's even after Brexit with the UK no longer being part of the EU.  About 44% of people in the EU can speak English.  Roughly 36% can speak German, 29% speak French, 18% speak Italian and 17% speak Spanish.  When the UK was in the EU, 13% of EU citizens were native English speakers but now only 1% of the EU are native English speakers.  Clearly English is still the dominant foreign language across the EU.

In Slovakia, Czech is the most spoken second language followed by English and German.  While here in Czechland, the most spoken second language is English, followed by Slovak and then German.  

Back in the days of communism Russian was the mandatory second language taught behind the Iron Curtain.  Except for Romania where French was more popular because (a) both are Romance languages and (b) Romania always tried to show how independent it was from the Soviet Union.  But after things opened up English became the foreign language to learn.

In Czechland, around 40% of job offers require both Czech and a foreign language.  More than half of these require English followed by German, French, Italian, and Dutch.  

From an economics perspective more people here need to be able to speak a foreign language.  Czechia is a small export-driven country and let's face it, with only 10,5 million people, most people aren't trying to learn Czech.  Which means that Czechs need to speak the language of whom they're selling to.  While German is popular I'm surprised that overall more people don't speak it here.  Especially given since almost half of the country borders a German-speaking country - Germany and Austria.  Plus, Germany is the country's main trade partner. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

New Brown Bins

Recycling is a bigger deal here than in the USA.  At least compared to California and Georgia.  When I moved here I had to learn to separate waste.  Every couple of blocks you'll find coloured bins to sort paper, plastics, glass, etc.

The blue bin is for paper so paper wrappers, packaging, newspapers, magazines, cardboard boxes, books, and office documents.  Receipts do not go in the blue bin.  You can't put anything in the blue bin that is wet, waxed, or greasy which means no pizza boxes.

The green bin is for coloured glass.  White bins are for clear glass.  Ceramics, porcelain and china can not be put in the glass bins.  

The yellow bin is for plastics.  In Brno, the yellow bins are also for the cartons used for milk and juice.  I recently found out that toothpaste tubes can't be placed in the yellow bin because the tubes are often lined with aluminium and contain leftover toothpaste.    

This week Brno put out 1000 (240 litre / 63.5 gallon) brown bins and 35 large (15.000 litre / 3,963 gallon) containers.  The brown bins are for bio waste so people can dispose of fruit and vegetable peels, tea bags, and coffee waste.  I read that eggshells and nutshells should not be put in the brown bins which seems counterintuitive to me.  Also, in Germany eggshells do go in the bio waste containers.

Czechland recycles 33,3% of its municipal waste which is short of the EU average of 47,7%.  Each of the countries surrounding Czechia recycles more.  Germany recycles 66,7%, followed by Austria at 58,2%, Slovakia at 38,5% and Poland at 34,1%.

When I grew up in California each house had small blue bins to collect recycling and we put these out on the sidewalk for the trash men to collect.  One bin was for newspaper.  Another was for plastic.  According to my mom, the newspaper bin was also for glass too but I don't remember that.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Prague Visit 2021

Prague is easily one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  I do like visiting but after a few days I'm always glad to come to Brno.  While Prague is beautiful there are always way too many tourists making it crowded.  There are times when I'm in Prague that I forget that I'm still in Czechland because I don't hear a lot of Czech.  Plenty of German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, French, or Korean.  In 2018 the city had close to something like 8 million tourists.  Not so right now.

It was weird being in Prague this weekend because the city seemed so empty.  There were a couple of times that I passed some families out with their guidebooks looking while viewing some of the usual highlights but when I got close enough I was surpassed to hear them actually speaking Czech.  I suppose that one benefit of the lockdowns is that Czechs are able to explore the capital without all of the foreign tourists.  

I've never seen the Old Town Square so empty before.  I would never have imagined seeing the Charles Bridge without any people.

There are usually hundreds of people standing in front of the astronomical clock at the top of every hour but there was no one at 9 am on Sunday.  

Prague now has a new monument at the square near the astronomical clock, across from the Jan Hus memorial.  Well more like a new, replacement monument.

I've always referred to Marian columns as "plague columns" because I thought that they were usually a memorial to the end of the plague.  But it turns out that some were also built for other reasons.

The original column was built in 1650 to commemorate the Battle of Prague in 1648 and the end of the Thirty Years' War.  After Rome, Munich, and Vienna, it was the fourth oldest Marian Column in Europe. The Hapsburg Monarchy wanted to reestablish control of its territory so after the war Marian columns were errected across its lands.

On 3 November 1918, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was about to break up and Czechoslovakia becoming an independent country, the the column in Prague was torn down.  It was apparently torn down because some people viewed it as a symbol of both the monarchy and Catholicism.  

In 1990 the Marian Column Restoration Society was formed with the goal of replacing the monument but they faced decades of challenges.  Some people wanted the the statue back for historical reasons and viewed it as an import work of art.  On the other side, some people said that it marked the start of the occupation by the Hapsburgs and the reintroduction of Catholicism of Bohemia so it was opposed by both Atheists and the Protestant Church.

The replica and its installation was paid completely by private donations.  The city didn't contribute any funds. 

Last month the Million Moments for Democracy group sprayed 25.000 white crosses on the cobblestone square to mark the anniversary of the country's first Covid-19 death, to commemorate the more than 24.800 people who have died, and to highlight the government's missteps in handling the epidemic.  The crosses were originally only supposed to be there for a day but the city agreed to let them remain until they were washed away by the rain.

People have been chalking names and dates of deaths next to the crosses to commemorate lost loved ones.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

My Exams

I finally took my exams today after they'd been cancelled twice due to Covid-19.  I've gotta' say that I'm not feeling great about it.  So here's how things went.

The exams were given by ÚJOP UK which is the Institute of Language and Vocational Training of Charles University.  I got there a bit early and waited for them to call my name.  I had to show my passport, my negative Covid test and they took my temperature.

I was in a group of seven people.  There was me (American), two Russian girls, a Romanian woman, a Ukrainian guy, an Arab guy, and a chap who I think may have been either Serbian or Bosian.  We all went upstairs and one by one we had to show our passports and permanent residency ID to the Czech Police who marked our names off of a list.  After I the police check, I had to take two steps and show my passport to a girl who marked my name off of another list.  I was given a red wrist band and a piece of paper with bar code stickers.  I then went to the testing room.

In the room I sat at the assigned desk.  Pencils and erasers were provided.  We were allowed to have a bottle of water and that was it.  We had to remove our watches and definitely no mobile phones.  Before we began the exams, a police officer came in check our passports.  Then the test administrator checked our bar codes.  The first test given was the Czech Citizenship test.  The exam was 30 questions in 30 minutes.  I know that I aced it.  I finished the exam in about 10 minutes.  Definitely a good start.  

There was one room where we were allowed to go to in between exams.  No one was allowed to leave the building.  Smokers were not allowed to go outside for a cigarette.  After a short break it was then time to take the B1 language test.

First up was the reading comprehension test which lasted 50 minutes.  This didn't go so well.  Or at least I don't think that I did very well.  After the exam we had a short break in the one room we could go relax in and then it was back to the room for the next test.

A police office came in and checked our passports.  The administrator then checked our bar codes.  Next up was the listening comprehension test.  We had to listen to recordings and then answer questions for 30 minutes.  It sucked!  This part of the exam really did not go well.     

Then a short break followed by another passport check and another bar code check.  Next was the written exam which lasted for an hour.  I think that I did ok on this part but we'll see.

After this we were released and could leave the building.  I had 90 minutes before I had to be back for the speaking test.  I went back to my hotel for a break.  I was feeling thoroughly defeated.  I'd waited for a year to take this exam and I had bombed it.  I went back for the speaking test which was the final section.  I was paired with the Romanian woman.  We had entered the testing room and had our IDs checked again. The speaking test lasted for about 15 minutes.  Each of us had to introduce ourselves and give a bit of background information.  I was given the choice of taking about either shopping or employment.  I chose shopping and they showed me a photograph and I had to talk about it.

Then we were given the topic to plan a trip so we had to do a role play.  After 15 minutes we were told that the test is over.  We can check our results online in 30 days.  I know that I bombed the reading and listening parts of the test.  The speaking could have gone better but we'll see.  I have friends who have passed this test and everyone has told me that they were sure they had failed but ended up passing in the end.  I hope that this is the case but I'm pretty sure that I failed it.  Now all I can do is wait a month for the results and let's see when I will be able to schedule a do-over.  At least I got a trip to Prague out of this.

Update: Exam results.

Update:  I received my certificate for passing the citizenship test.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Off to a Good Start

Tomorrow I take the Czech citizenship and B1 language exams.  Finally!  Fingers crossed that all goes well.  I'm not worried at all about the citizenship test.  The language exam however is another story.  

I'm still amazed, and pleasantly surprised, that the exam wasn't cancelled a third time given that the current state of emergency, including the curfew and the ban on movement between districts doesn't expire until Sunday night.  

On Thursday morning I had my first PCR test and received an e-mail later that afternoon that I'm negative.  This was my first COVID-19 test and I did it at a private laboratory.  I'm sure that I could have gotten a free antigen test but the PCR test was more convenient.  I paid 1750 Kč ($84) for the test.  I need to show the test results on Saturday morning in order to take my exams.

My train to Prague was uneventful.  Well, except for the length of the trip.  On 6 April, work began on the rail lines at Česká Třebová which adds 30 minutes to all trains between the two largest Czech cities.  For the next two years the 2,5 hour fast train between Brno and Prague now takes three hours.  We need some of those high-speed trains like they have in Taiwan.  At least I was comfortable.  My Student Agency RegioJet wasn't overly packed.  I had a business class cabin all to myself.

I found a great deal on for a hotel that is close to where I'll take my exam.  A room at the Mosaic House Design Hotel, in Prague 2, for two nights was only €80.  Wow!  

Due to the current restrictions I had to provide them with an official confirmation about my exams in order to make a reservation as hotels are only open for business travel.  Tourists aren't allowed to rent rooms.

When I checked in today they told me that they upgraded me to a room with a terrace.  What a nice surprise because I have a view of the castle and the TV tower.  There was also a welcome bottle of Prosecco on ice waiting for me.  

I think I've got a new favourite hotel in Prague.  It's basically across the street from U Fleků.  This is my first time in Prague since Pride 2019.  So far the trip is off to a good start.  If only I wasn't here for exams.  Hopefully they will go well.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Fingers Crossed

My exams are coming up so "fingers crossed" that I pass.  In English, you put the middle finger across the index finger to "hope for the best", "wish luck" or to just show support.  You usually do it with both hands but one hand will work too.

Of course, when you only use one hand then it could be that you are telling a lie.  But let's focus on wishing luck.

In Czechland and Slovakia you don't cross your fingers.  Držet palce is the equivalent of "fingers crossed" but here it means "to hold your thumbs."  

Držím palce - I'm holding my thumbs

Budu ti držet palce - I will hold my thumbs for you

When I send an SMS (text message) I still have to use the "fingers crossed" emoji because there isn't a "holding thumbs" version.

German speakers also hold their thumbs.  You'll hear drücken die Daumen in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

In Sweden it's hålla tummarna, in Poland it's trzymając kciuki and there are thumb holding equivalents in Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Russia.  Even the Afrikaans speakers in South Africa "hold thumbs tightly" with duim vashou

It doesn't matter to me if it's "fingers crossed" or "held thumbs".  At this point I'll take all of the luck that I can get. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Language Difficulty

I'm headed to Prague on Friday to take my Czech citizenship test and my B1 language test.  I'm not worried at all about the citizenship test but I'm nervous about the language test.  Fingers crossed that it all goes well.

A common question I get is "how hard is it to learn Czech"?  The short answer is that it's hella' hard!  There are lots of reasons why Czech can be difficult to learn.  Some people take pride that "Czech is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn".  While there are times that it feels that way, there are way more difficult languages to learn.

The Defense Language Institute (DLI), in California, is the language school where the U.S., trains all of its military linguists.  Students study a foreign language full time, for seven hours a day, five days a week, with 3-4 hours of homework every day.  Completion of a basic course is basically more or less the equivalent of the CEFR B1 level.

The length of the course depends on the difficulty of the language.  All languages are rated from 1 to 4 with category 4 languages being the most difficult to learn for a native English speaker.

Category I languages have 26 weeks of instruction.  This includes French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Category II languages take 34 weeks.  This includes German, Romanian, and Indonesian.

Category III languages take 48 weeks.  All of the Slavic languages are 3's.  So Czech, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Serbian/Croatian.  Plus Farsi, Hebrew, Hungarian, Greek, Albanian, Hindi, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Urdu, Uzbek and Vietnamese.

Category IV languages take 64 weeks to complete the basic course.  This includes Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Pashto.

I grew up during the Cold War and when I was in the military they still taught people how to speak German, Czech, and Polish.  These languages aren't even taught there anymore.  

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the language school for the U.S. Department of State where American diplomats get their language training.  FSI courses have 25 hours of class each week with 3-4 hours of homework every day.  FSI has five difficulty categories.

Category I languages last 23-24 weeks which equates to 575-600 hours of training.  Category I languages are the Romance and Germanic languages, except for German.  So Afrikans, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish.

The only category II language is German.  The course lasts for 30 weeks which is 750 hours of study.

Category III languages last for 36 weeks (900 hours) and include Indonesian, Malaysian, and Swahili.

Category IV languages take 44 weeks to complete which is 1100 hours of training.  This is pretty much the same as the DLI Category III languages.  All of the Slavic languages - Czech, Slovak, Polish, Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Ukrainian.  The Baltic languages Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian.  Plus Albanian, Armenian, Azeri, Burmese, Farsi, Finnish, Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Hindi, Khmer, Lao, Pasto, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese, Xhosa, and Zulu.   

Category V languages take 88 weeks to complete.  A whopping 2200 hours.  These are Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

To me it's interesting how both DLI and FSI sometimes have different opinions as to a language's difficulty.  DLI had German, Romanian, and Indonesian as equally difficult while FSI says Romanian is easier than German but German is easier than Indonesian.  Or how DLI has Pashto at the same difficulty level as Arabic or Chinese but FSI has Pashto at the same level as Czech.

Here's the FSI language difficulty map for Europe.

So how hard is Czech?  Pretty dang difficult!  Especially for a native-English speaker.  Though not the most difficult language out there.  In the end however it really doesn't matter.  As long as I pass my exam.

Update: I found some graduation numbers for DLI.
  • Czech was taught from 1971-2002 and again in 2017.  The top year was 1985.  In total 3.420 people graduated from the Czech programme.  
  • Slovak was taught from 1984-1986, 1991-1993, and in 1995.  Only 144 people completed Slovak.
  • German was taught from 1965-2018 and 1986 was the top year.  German had 13.699 graduates.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Easter 2021

Due to Covid-19 this is the second Easter in a row that hasn't happened.  Technically, shops should not even be selling Easter decorations because they don't fall under the exempt, necessary products that stores should be selling now.  Although I have seen a few decorations for sale here and there.  But definitely no Easter markets this year.

At Náměstí svobody the giant Easter egg was back but that's it.  It was made by Croatian artists and donated to Brno in 2018 and has been on display ever since.

Boží hod velikonoční is Easter Sunday.  Lamb is the traditional food served at Easter.  However, in the past, most Czechs and Slovaks couldn't afford lamb.  

So instead the tradition became to enjoy beránek which is a lamb-shaped cake.  Beránek is basically a pound cake and it is usually covered with powdered (icing) sugar or sometimes with chocolate icing.

I'm pretty sure that the lamb cake is popular throughout most of Central Europe.