Sunday, July 25, 2021

Lavender Field in Starovičky

Yesterday, Claudia and I visited a lavender farm in Starovičky.  

Starovičky is a small village of about 900 people, about 35 km (22 miles) south of Brno.  It's near Hustopeče and only about 19 km (12 miles) from Břeclav.

The lavender farm started back in 2014 when over 40.000 bushes were planted.  The peak season is in June and July when you can come pick your own lavender and of course visit the gift shop for every conceivable lavender product you could think of.

From the parking lot is about a 1,2 km walk along a dirt path.  Along the way are fields of sunflowers and a view of the Pálava Hills.

The entrance fee to the farm is 60 Kč ($2.50) for adults.  They provide you with a basket and clippers.  Then you only pay for what you cut.  Many people were there just taking photos.

At the gift shop Claudia bought some lavender coffee and soap to take back home as gifts.  I wasn't a fan of the lavender wine but the lavender lemonade was pretty tasty.

It was a really nice day.  Now I want to go back and have a look at nearby Hustopeče.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Officially Passed!

I received my results a few weeks ago that I passed my B1 language exam.  Well, now I have officially passed because today I received my certificate.  I now have evidence that I passed the exam.  Hurá! 

It actually arrived, yesterday, on my birthday.  The best present ever!

Now I can start getting together all of the paperwork I need in order to apply for Czech citizenship.  I just need to make sure that I don't lose the certificate in the mean time.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

My 50th

Today is my birthday.  I can't believe that it's actually my 50th.  Claudia surprised me with a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, a Black Forest cherry cake, that her mom made for me.

I guess since I'm 50, that means I had every right to enjoy some cake for breakfast.

During the day I received some love from Natalie and the Wellington whānau, a chocolate fruit bouquet.

Later, Claudia and I went to dinner at one of my favourite pizza places in Brno.  We haven't been there in a few years but the food was as good as ever.

It's a good thing that I don't have cake, chocolate dipped fruit and pizza every day.  I need to get back on my diet but it was all so good.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Early Birthday Festivities

My birthday is on Wednesday but the celebrations have already begun.  Claudia came this weekend and is here for the week.  Yesterday we stopped by to visit Helena and Feró.  I was surprised with a home cooked birthday dinner.  It was lovely to see them both and dinner was delicious.

On the way home we stopped by Kraví hora, the park that is near my flat.  I haven't been able to travel much but at least we got to see Mars.

There's another display with Mars, Earth, and the moon.  I believe there will be another astronomical exhibition planned in August.

However, the best early birthday present is what Claudia brought me.  Nine jars of my favourite Spreewäldgurken pickles from Germany.  The word's best pickles.

It's not even my birthday yet but the warm up has been great.  Due to Covid restrictions, I'm not planning a party or anything but that's ok.  I'm looking forward to just going to dinner with Claudia and keeping things low key.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Collective Security Treaty Organization

The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is a collective defence organization amongst former Soviet republics following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  The CTSO was spawned from the Commonwealth of Independent States.  It's basically the new Warsaw Pact except made up of former Soviet republics.  The CSTO is Russia's largest military alliance.

Current members include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan.  Even though not a former Soviet republic, Serbia became an observer member in 2013.  

Former members include Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan.  

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

©Test Tube News

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Commonwealth of Independent States

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  It's not the successor to the Soviet Union but it kind of is even though it's not. 

Today the CIS consists of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.  In 2005, Turkmenistan became an observer member.  In 2008, Afghanistan and Mongolia became observer members.

Georgia withdrew its membership in 2008 following the five-day war when Russia invaded and took control of South Ossetia.

Ukraine withdrew in 2018 following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russian support of two separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine.

The three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, chose not to participate because they viewed their being in the Soviet Union was an illegal occupation.

Headquarters for the CIS are in Minsk, Belarus.

The goal of the CIS is to coordinate policies regarding its members' economies, foreign relations, defence, immigration policies, environmental protection, and law enforcement.

The CIS spawned three organisations.  

The Collective Security Treaty Organization is a military alliance.  Kind of like the new Warsaw Pact but made up of former Soviet republics.  

The Eurasian Economic Union is basically the Eurasian version of the EU but only consisting of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.

The Union State is the union of Belarus and Russia with the goal of common government, flag, currency, etc.

Following the breakup of the USSR, athletes competed at the 1992 Winter and Summer Olympics in team events as part of the CIS "Unified Team".  Athletes competed under the Olympic flag.  Since 1992, athletes no longer compete as a unified team and compete for their home countries. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Former Soviet Republics

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Soviet Union, was established in 1922 and lasted until its dissolution in 1991.  It was the world's largest country and it spanned eleven time zones from Europe to Asia.  It was a federal union, consisting of 15 republics, all ruled by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.  The capital was Moscow.

Everything started with the October Revolution in 1917 when the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government following the fall of the Russian Empire.  The Russian Soviet Republic became the world's first communist state.  Following a civil war, the Soviet Union eventually came in to being.  Its republics had previously belonged to the Russian Empire.  Prior to WWII, under Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and made them all new Soviet Republics.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union singled the end of the Cold War.  I grew up during the Cold War so it's incredible to think about how different the world looks.  

The Berlin Wall fell and East Germany became part of a unified Germany.  Czechoslovakia split in to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  Except for Russia, every member of the Warsaw Pact joined the EU and is now a member of NATO.  Even three former Soviet republics are even NATO members.  

In 1990, Lithuania was the first Soviet Republic to declare independence.  Kazakhstan was the last republic to leave in December 1991.  Many of the former Soviet republics joined new unions and alliances with Russia such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Community, the Eurasian Customs Union, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Union State.  Some, without Russia, joined GUAM and the Baltics joined the EU. 

Here's a bit about the former Soviet republics.

The Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, in the Caucasus, became independent in on 21 September 1991.  It was the second smallest republic and was home to about 3,3 million people.  Armenia was the world's first Christian state.  I always thought it was kind of ironic that religion was banned during Soviet times.  Following independence, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic declared independence on 30 August 1991.  It is the largest country in the Caucasus and is rich in oil and natural gas.  Since the fall of the USSR, Azerbaijan has been ruled by a single family.  It is still at odds with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.  

The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, with just over 10 million people, was the 5th largest republic.  Belarus declared independence on 10 December 1991.  President Lukashenko has ruled since 1994 and Belarus is considered the last dictatorship in Europe.    

The Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic declared independence on 20 August 1991.  It joined the EU and NATO in 2004 and in 2011 it replaced its currency with the Euro.  Today, Estonia is a parliamentary republic and it was the first country in the world to allow citizens to vote online.  When Estonia gained independence, citizenship was only granted to those who could prove family ties prior to 1940 when the Soviet Union annexed the country.  Russians who came to Estonia between 1941 - 1991 were allowed citizenship only if they could pass an Estonian language test.  About 25% of the population are ethnic Russians and Estonia does not permit dual citizenship.

The Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic declared independence on 9 April 1991.  Most of the 1990s was filled with civil unrest and economic hardship with the Rose Revolution in 2003.  Georgia has two breakaway republics - Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  

Georgia considers there regions to be under Russian military occupation.  The country is working hard to join NATO which makes Russia uneasy.  That's also one of the reasons that Russian troops are stationed in the breakaway republics.

The Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic became part of the USSR in 1936 and on 16 December 1991 it was the very last republic to leave the union.  Kazakhstan is huge, more than four times the size of Texas, and today it is the largest country in Central Asia and with 18 million people it is the world's 9th largest country.  During the  1950-60's, many Russians and people deported from other republics were sent to Kazakhstan to work he fields.  Today, ethnic Russians make up about a quarter of the population.

The Kyrghiz Soviet Socialist Republic became part of the USSR in 1936.  Kyrgyzstan became independent on 31 August 1991.  It is a poor country that is heavily dependent on agriculture and minerals extraction. Due to high unemployment Kyrgyzstan is a source of migrant labourers especially in Russia.

After WWI Latvia broke away from the Russian Empire but in 1940 it was forcibly incorporated into the USSR as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic.  Latvia gained independence on 4 May 1990.  It joined the EU and NATO in 2004 and the Eurozone in 2014.  Citizenship was granted only those who could prove Latvian citizenship prior to 1940.  About 13% of the population still doesn't have Latvian citizenship and the country doesn't allow dual citizenship.

Lithuania became an independent country in 1918, after WWI, when it broke away from the Russian Empire.  In 1940, it was annexed by the USSR and became the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic.  On 11 March 1990, Lithuania became the first of the 15 Soviet republics to declare independence. A full year before the Soviet Union actually broke up.  Lithuania joined the EU and NATO in 2004 and joined the Eurozone in 2015.  Like the other two Baltic countries it is also part of the Schengen area.  Also like Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania doesn't allow for dual citizenship.  

After WWI, Moldova was part of Romania.  In 1940, the area was annexed by the USSR and it became the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.  After WWII, the Soviets began migrating  Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians in to the area. 

In 1990, an independent Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic was declared.  This small area was afraid that Moldova would leave the USSR and try to become part of Romania

Moldova declared independence from the USSR on 27 August 1991.  Fighting broke out between Moldovan forces and separatists in March 1992.  Transnistria considers itself an independent country but only Russia recognises it.  The Russian 14th Army has 1200 troops in Transnistria that Moldova wants recalled.  As part of the ceasefire agreement that has been in place since July 1992 states that if Moldova tries to merge with Romania then Transnistria will be allowed to go its own way.     

Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe.  Many Moldovans have left the country as migrant workers.  Money from abroad accounts for almost 38% of the country's GDP.  In 2013, Moldova entered an agreement with the EU, placing it on a path to future membership.  This is not something that Russia is happy about.

The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was the largest of the 15 Soviet Republics.  It contained over half the entire USSR's population and dominated the country.  On 12 December 1991, it declared independence.

Russia, officially the Russian Federation, is the largest country in the world, stretching from Northern Europe to the Caucasus and from Eastern Europe to Asia.  It covers 1/8th of the world's inhabited land area. It spans nine time zones and it's larger than Pluto.

The Russian Federation is made up of 46 provinces, 22 republics, 9 territories, 4 autonomous district, 1 autonomous province and 3 federal cities.

Russia inherited the USSR's seat on the UN Security Council.  

Russia claims to have a right to intervene in former Soviet republics to protect all Russian speakers.  This was used to invade Georgia in 2008 in the five-day war in South Ossetia as wells as to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic became a republic in 1929.  Tajikistan declared independence on 9 September 1991.  Almost immediately a civil war broke out that lasted from 1992 to 1997. Tajikistan is the poorest of all the former Soviet republics.

Turkmenistan was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1881. In 1925, it became the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic.  Turkmenistan declared independence on 27 October 1991. Turkmenistan is home to the world's 4th largest reserves of natural gas.

It is a very closed off country.  A visa is required to visit and tourists are only allowed in as part of a group tour.

Over the centuries Ukraine has been ruled by Lithuania, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Russian Empire.  It was an independent country for a few years following WWI but then in 1922 it became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and a founding member of the USSR.

Under Stalin, Ukrainian nationalism was put down.  Forced collectivisation and unrealistic quotas for farmers caused Holodomor, The Great Famine, where millions of Ukrainians were starved to death.  Another 7-8 million more people died during WWII.

Ukraine declared independence on 24 August 1991.  In 1994, it became the first former Soviet republic to experience a peaceful transfer of power via the ballot box.

Ukraine is the second-largest county in Europe.  When the USSR broke up, Ukraine was a nuclear power.  In 1996, Ukraine surrendered all of its Soviet-era nuclear weapons to Russia.  This was under the condition that Ukrainian territory would be respected.  That hasn't worked out so well.

Ukraine wants to eventually join the EU and NATO.  Obviously this doesn't sit well with Russia.  In 2014, Russia illegally annexed Crimea.  Russia has also supported separatists in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine.  The Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic border Russia and both unilaterally declared independence on 7 April 2014.  Ukraine regards both as terrorist organisations.  After seven years of fighting the Ukrainian government has made progress but there are both separatist controlled areas with constant fighting.

Uzbekistan was conquered and incorporated in to the Russian Empire during the 19th century.  In 1924 it became the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.  Uzbekistan declared independence on 31 August 1991.

Uzbekistan is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world and it is the only country that borders all of the "Stans".

I've managed to visit 13 of the 15 former republics.  I had originally planned on visiting Turkmenistan this year but Covid put that on hold.  Here's a short video I found out on YouTube about the breakup of the USSR.


Monday, July 12, 2021

The Turkic Council

The Turkic Council is an organisation of independent Turkic countries whose aim is to promote cooperation among Turkic-speaking countries.  The council was founded in 2009 by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey.  The council's headquarters are in Istanbul.

In 2019, Uzbekistan joined the council.

In 2018, Hungary joined the council as an observer member.  Hungary isn't a Turkic nation so, to me, it seems real odd that Hungary is a part of the club.  Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán probably did it to taunt the EU.  I suppose Orbán needs additional allies and the Turkic countries aren't exactly known for being liberal democracies.  Besides, Orbán has a track record of going on about how Europe has a Christian history and he's not known as being exactly welcoming to Islam.  All of the other council member countries are more Muslim than not.

In 2021, Turkmenistan also joined as an observer member so now, except for Tajikistan, four of the five of the "Stans" are members of the council. 

Earlier this year, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan applied for observer status but no decision has been made public yet.

While not an official language, English is a working language of the council.

Here's a short video I found out on YouTube that talks about the council.

©Organization of Turkic States

Update:  In November 2021, the Turkic Council changed its name to the Organization of Turkic States.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Cheesecake and More

A friend had a cookout today and asked if I would bring real American cheesecake.  Well as "real" as possible given that the ingredients here in Euroland aren't exactly the same.  I originally thought that this would be a simple post about me making cheesecake but it's going to be way more complicated than just that so bare with me.

There are two types of cheesecake, the kind you bake and the no-bake kind.  I prefer the no-bake version.  The key ingredient to cheesecake, at least in the USA, is Philadelphia cream cheese.  Which of course you can't get over here in Czechland.  

What you can get is Philadelphia cream cheese spread.  First, the spread is not the same thing as regular cream cheese.  I do know people who make cheesecake with the spread but it doesn't taste the same.  A 125g (4.4oz) container here costs 43Kč ($2).  This would be kind of pricey to use for cheesecake plus it's not the right ingredient so it would not turn out right.

In Czechland most people use tvaroh which is kind of like American cottage cheese but drier and not as milky.  Tvaroh is used heavily for baking here.  One of my favourite dishes are plum or apricot dumplings with tvaroh.


The closest thing I've found to cream cheese is lučina.  Lučina entered the Czechoslovak market in 1981.  It's almost like cream cheese but a little drier and a bit tangier than traditional cream cheese    

I use lučina for all of my U.S. recipes that requires cream cheese.  Lučina comes in little 100g (3.5oz) blocks for 23Kč ($1.08).

In Germany, people use quark.  Quark always messes with people because there is no translation for it.  When you type the German word "quark" into Google Translate the English translation you get back is "quark".  Quark is kind of like cream cheese but not really.  It's a soft, fresh cheese that can be used for either cream cheese, ricotta, or even sour cream.

Side note...every child in the USA learns the nursery rhyme about Little miss Muffet.

Little miss Muffet, sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey

Along came a spider who sat down beside her

And frightened miss Muffet away

The kick is that kids in the USA don't know what curds and whey are.  When kids ask what are curds and whey we just say it is cottage cheese. back to the cheesecake.  The other key ingredient that doesn't exist over here are graham crackers.  A graham cracker is a sweet cracker made with graham flour that originated in the USA and dates back to the 1880s.  

Graham flour is just whole wheat flour that is ground more coarsely.  It has just slightly less protein than white wheat flour.  

Graham crackers are eaten as a snack.  They are often flavoured with honey or cinnamon but they are most famous for being one of the key ingredients to make s'mores.  No camping trip or bonfire is complete without s'mores.  You roast a marshmallow over an open fire.  You then put the marshmallow and a piece of Hershey's chocolate between two graham crackers and enjoy the ooey gooey treat.  The reason that it's called a s'more is because once you'e had one you always want some more.  

Graham crackers are one of the most popular pie crusts in the USA.  You can even buy pre-made graham cracker pie crusts that come in a disposable aluminium pie pan.

With no graham crackers over here, people use digestive biscuits.  Now comes the British English.  

What we call a 'cookie' in the USA is called a 'biscuit' in the UK.  Sušenka in Czech.  What the USA calls a 'biscuit' is almost a 'scone' in the UK.  No equivalent of either in Czechland. 

A digestive biscuit is a semi-sweet "cookie" that dates back to 1839 in Scotland.  The "digestive" part was that they acted like an antacid because they were first baked with sodium bicarbonate.  The digestive biscuit is one of the most popular biscuits in the UK.  I prefer the ones with chocolate on side.  They are perfect for dunking in to your tea.

In Euroland, people grind up digestive biscuits to use for pie crusts.

The first cheesecake I made for my friend's party was a chocolate peanut butter cheesecake.  I used a recipe that I found on YouTube.  Here's the video but to be fair I did make a couple of changes.

©El Mundo Eats

 I didn't use digestive biscuits for the crust.  I have a bag of graham cracker crumbs from a care package so I did make a proper graham cracker curst for the cheesecake.

When it came to making the chocolate layer, I didn't use regular cream.  Instead, I used pařížská which is chocolate cream.  

The regular cream, šlehačka, that I used in the peanut butter layer was 40% but the chocolate was only 27%.  This helped make it even more chocolatey tasting.

This thing took hours to make but it turned out really well.

I also made a smaller vanilla lemon cheesecake.  Whipped cream in a can here isn't the same as it is back in the USA.  In the USA it is sweet but not here.  Here it tastes more like air.  I took the šlehačka, whipped it up, added a little vanilla and put it in a bag and piped it on top of the cheesecake.

I also used one of the pre-made graham cracker pie crusts that I had from another care package.

Both of the cheesecakes were popular but the chocolate peanut butter one was the winner.