Sunday, December 27, 2009

Czech Wounds Still Open, Communists Face a Ban

There is a movement afoot, as documented in this New York Times article (click on my title to read it), to ban the Communist party in the Czech Republic. I'm surprised. It seems so undemocratic. And dangerous. Anytime something is banned it creates more curiosity for it.

It seems to me the healthiest thing for Czechs would be to see the people vote out the Communists out on their own merits. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the Czech Republic, the only country where communists were voted 'in' by the people? Wouldn't it be a much more powerful statement for them to be voted out?

Czech people, I would like to suggest you shouldn't be embarrassed that the Commies are still getting votes. We in America have our own embarrassments. For example, former Vice President Dick Cheney during his time in office, literally changed the nature of American democracy to a darker, less admirable, republic.

Today the former Vice President constantly criticizes how Barack Obama is running the country. It's important for Dick Cheney's ideas to be aired and for him and his supporters to see and feel how little they resonate with their fellow citizens. It's healthy for us to listen to him too and see if we agree. I don't agree.

If the Commies are still getting votes, maybe you haven't done a good enough job educating young people to their crimes. Or maybe the people voting for the Commies don't feel any connection with the offerings of everyone else. Or maybe you aren't showing the people who vote for them the opportunities brought about by other systems. Or maybe voting for the Commies isn't socially incorrect (like smoking in America).

I have to admit, if I met someone who voted for the Communists, my first thought would be this is someone who is "unwilling to compete...someone who believes in economic Santa Claus....someone who is willing to be enslaved merely for cheap bread." Wow, I guess i have an opinion on that. But that's what I mean: by voting for Communists, it would be like a mark of static mental poverty. Why not just deem it socially unacceptable?

Banning them seems like a lack of confidence in the ideas of the opposition. It's your challenge, Czech people. What can you offer that competes politically?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

American Mistletoe Growers are Leaving Money on the Table

Glorious Czech mistletoe
on display

One of the Czech Christmas traditions I fell in love with was the way Czechs hang their version of mistletoe. "What do you mean 'their version?'" you might ask. Well, the Czechs have very different mistletoe than Americans. I don't know how that's possible. A plant should be similar everywhere, right?

Mistletoe for sale
in the open air Christmas markets.

You can buy it in it's natural state
or flocked with silver or gold.

American mistletoe, which I have probably purchased once in my life, is, in a word, wimpy. It comes prepackaged in plastic and forms a forgetable round ball about the size of your fist. Most mistletoe is usually purchased for the giggles when it is strategically hung somewhere with young people such as a sorority. It is not a must-buy Christmas tradition for every household and business in the United States. Quick, American readers, tell me exactly where you saw mistletoe for sale in your community. I bet you didn't run across it without asking for it. In the Czech Republic, it's sold everywhere and it's displayed everywhere.

Mistletoe is purchased by all ages.

So I have an idea for American mistletoe growers. You are welcome to take it. I have no intention of using it. I do not aspire to be the American mistletoe maven. All I ask is, if you decide to implement this idea, do something nice for Czech people like start a scholarship fund for Czech students to come to America and study. Heck, maybe this isn't even an idea for Americans, but for Czech businesspeople looking to export.

Fresh mistletoe waiting to be cut
on the roof of a Christmas market booth.

Someone needs to sell this kind of mistletoe in America. I saw it displayed all over Prague in homes and businesses alike, usually hung on the wall with a big fat red ribbon. It was so beautiful. And I could tell, that for Czechs, there was an emotional response and a tradition far beyond mere giggles. This represents beauty, home, tradition. I often saw it displayed in places where Americans would display a traditional wreath. How much money could be made if mistletoe growers captures just 20% of the wreath space in America and supplanted it with mistletoe? Wreaths are nice. Yawn. But I bet America would respond to someone shaking it up a little.

I'm here to serve. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Inside Milos Forman's Connecticut Home

Milos Foreman

Milos Forman has been "at the top of the heap" in not one, but two, countries. One loss for American society is that with the end of Communism, great talents like Forman no longer "need" to come to America because they're unappreciated by governments at home. As I said, our loss.

The very first Czech movie I saw was "The Fireman's Ball." It's a hoot. Foreman made the movie in 1967 using real fireman. Legend has it, he and a bunch of colleagues were in a small town and went to a volunteer fire department's dance as a diversion. It was such a disaster, Foreman and his friends couldn't stop talking about it afterwards and decided to make it into a movie.

I've always meant to rewatch his American film "Amadeus" now that I've seen the Estates Theatre in Prague, the filming location. "Amadeus" was the movie that first gave Americans some hint of Prague's charms. Although, is the city portrayed as Prague in the movie or Vienna? I can't remember. I just remember thinking, wherever that is, I want to go there. Click on my title to read about Milos Foreman's success in America.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Prague, One Pint at a Time

One of the easiest things to do in the Czech Republic is become a beer snob. It even happened to me - somebody who previously had a beer every couple of years. The New York Times' Evan Rail celebrates the variety of craft beer available throughout Prague in this article readable by clicking on my title. My only question for Evan is shouldn't it read "Prague, one half-liter at a time?"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Disarming the Velvet Revolution

Text ColorVaclav Havel
waves to the crowd in November 1989

CNN has put together a whole group of videos commemorating an "Autumn of Change" when the Berlin Wall fell. I was particularly drawn to this story of the choices individuals were forced into at the time of the Czech Velvet Revolution.

CNN producer Tommy Etzler describes what it was like serving in the Czech military twenty years ago. He describes his own instantaneous organizing within the military in such a matter-of-fact way, I just want to pause a moment to honor real and true bravery. Click on my title to read his story and view the videos of "Autumn of Change."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Czechs Velvet Revolution Paved by Plastic People

The Plastic People of the Universe

Today the New York Times celebrates the rock band that started events in motion that would eventually result in the Velvet Revolution. Busy creating a second culture, because the first culture of communism was so oppressive and official, rockers chose to meet out in the country, sing in English, and get their groove on. Communism would have none of it. Click on my title to read more history created by the rock 'n roll generation in Czechoslovakia.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Real Reason Vaclav Klaus is so popular with the Czechs

Regular readers of my blog know how I have frequently savored tidbits of Czech skepticism so at odds with American pie-in-the-sky optimism.

Maybe this skepticism is the reason Vaclav Klaus is so popular with Czechs. He is skeptical of the EU and skeptical of global warming.

Ahhh, I get it now. Klaus and the Czech people have total mind meld! Skepticism is the default Czech emotion. A Czech listens to Klaus questioning the conventional wisdom on the issues of the day and completely identifies with his not giving in to political correctness.

Of course, there's probably a few Czechs skeptical of this post.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Free Beer and Chillin' with President Vaclav Klaus

One of the blogs I love to read is Czechmate Diary, by Tanja, a Czech immigrant to the United States. Tanja is in love with all things Czecho and is so proud to be Czech! Her wonderful subtitle to her blog is "Small Bohemian Steps to World Domination."

Someone in power must have recognized this because she was recently invited to a party in Washington D. C. to meet Czech President Vaclav Klaus. Tanja's enthusiasm on her blog for preparing for this party and getting to this party are a delight to read. Every woman will identify with her plaintive cry "what shall I wear???"

On her last post, she featured a link to her husband's take on the event. I enjoyed reading it so much I decided I had to link to here. Tanja's husband also got me to watch the nine minute interview Vaclav Klaus did with Glen Beck (sorry Mr. Beck can't pronounce 'Vaclav' properly, Mr. President) . It was the first interview I've seen in English with the Czech President. He made me think. And as a librarian, I couldn't help but agree with his contention that the marketplace of ideas needs all voices.

I'm also always struck by how good the President's English is each time I hear him (well actually, the only other time I've heard him was when he started the Prague Half Marathon race). The hardest thing for Czech learners of English is to understand native speakers using normal native speed when they talk. The President followed Glen Beck's English perfectly. Usually someone of his age in the Czech Republic has perfect Russian as a second language, not English. He has really invested the time in his English language. I want to give President Klaus his props for that.

Click on my title to read Tanja's husband's blog post about their visit to Washington D. C.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Remembering the Fall of the Berlin Wall

When the fall of the Berlin Wall happened, I remembered being 100% glued to my television set. I was 30 years old at the time. Old enough to have never known anything but the Berlin Wall dividing Eastern and Western Europe. It had become so institutionalized, so flat out hulking, ugly and immovable, it would never have occurred to me that it could go away. It just was. The Soviets were a great power like America and weren't going anywhere. That wall was there for good.

If you were to describe to kids today that people were so evil they would build a wall to keep their own people in (as opposed to keeping others out) and those people were comfortable enough with that they would shoot any of their own people who tried to get away, I think kids today could scarcely believe that such insanity could exist. Going to the site of the Berlin Wall, the insanity is obvious in two seconds, and yet it existed!

By 30, I had seen millions of Americans willing to pay acres and acres of tax dollars they had worked hard for to prevent a "domino effect" of further communist states without question because once a state had gone red, it had entered a static non-changeable state. It just seemed like things wouldn't and couldn't change.

But then it did. It did change. I don't want to say out of nowhere, because I'm sure to Central and Eastern Europeans and to the Russians it wasn't out of nowhere. But back home in the states, that's exactly how it seemed. The unthinkable was happening. Kudos to Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Mikhail Gorbachev for the vision and leadership to demand and facilitate change. Most kudos belong to the citizenry who had the intellectual honesty not to believe.

I appreciated that when the wall fell, President George H. W. Bush was graciously muted. He didn't feel the need to crow victory for capitalism or for America. The people's voices were the ones we heard. Pure unadulterated joy. On Christmas Day of 1989, I remember the chills I got when Leonard Bernstein led Berlin musicians in an "Ode to Freedom" when they played Beethoven's 9th symphony with the word 'freedom' sung in German at the strategic moments in the final movement.

The lesson I take away from the Berlin Wall is that anything is possible. Indefensible ideas fall. The most hopelessly sclerotic ideology gets abandoned cause it's just too exhausting to defend the indefensible. Communism couldn't escape the marketplace of ideas. There are a whole host of things happening today in the world that may solve themselves, because eventually, people just get tired of defending the indefensible.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Buying Retail in the Czech Republic

The Palladium Mall
at Christmas time
Inspired by artist David Hlynsky's photos of communist shop windows, I decided to share my consumer's view of Czech retail. One of my students told me in class that Czechs don't really have a retail tradition. All of the grocery stores in the Czech Republic, like Tesco, are owned by foreigners. We had been discussing the Palladium Mall in particular, a gleaming, relentlessly upscale shopping mall two blocks from my place that had opened up in the last two years.

My student said the mall concept is a foreign idea to Czechs. I thought to myself, "you aren't missing much. You've seen one mall (even one as shiny bright and pretty as this one) and you've seen them all." My reaction to shopping in any mall is one giant big yawn.

The Palladium mall
could really be anywhere
in the world,
couldn't it?

There was one Czech retailer that predated communism, a department store called Bila Labut (white swan) which was celebrating it's 70th anniversary. Bila Labut is only two blocks from the Palladium Mall at 23 Na Porici opposite the Legio Bank building . It hadn't yet responded to the salvo of sophistication sent off by the Palladium. It better hurry. When I went inside Bila Labut, I was rushed with long-forgotten memories of the downtown Younkers department store of my childhood, a retail store replaced forty years ago. This store is 'in transition'.

Bila Labut

Bila Labut shop windows
convey what I would call
'dated seediness'

A numbering order
that must be logical
to a different mind than mine

The view from the mezzanine

These merchandising adjacencies
were fascinating;
would you have put these
items together as likely
add-on sales to each other?
I need a pair of sunglasses
because the glare from my cuckoo clock
is too much!

Or maybe there's literary appreciation at work.
Display through alliteration:
tableclothes and tennis shoes!

Need to create an instant department?
Saran Wrap does the trick.

Here's a decorating idea
that hadn't yet occurred to me.
Put an umbrella at the base of my
Christmas tree.

To paraphrase Henry Ford:
You can have any color so long as it is
beige or pink.
My grandmother would have felt
very comfortable shopping here.

Which one of these furniture colors
would you like to have in your home?

If the furniture itself doesn't give you an
idea of the need for an update -
the style names themselves might.
This is the Thelma.
You can also select the Betty and the Linda.

Nothing wrong with the view
from the big factory windows
used in the store - it's beautiful!

The end of communism
was the greatest gift ever
to the Schindler Elevator Company-

imagine country after country
full of buildings
that hadn't updated their elevators
in forty years!

I was grateful that I would be
able to call for help.

I have new appreciation for that
law in America that requires elevators
to post the date of their last inspection.

I enjoy the language used in Czech retail. Businesses often put up signage that says: "our offer:" It has such a friendly sound to it. Then what follows is a list of what they are selling. The big car-oriented shopping centers that are starting to spring up don't say they're open 24 hours a day. Instead it almost sounds like one is at the casino. Those stores want you to know they are open "non-stop." The action never ends!
A wonderful movie captures Czech retail "in transition" from communism to capitalism. I thought I would hate the documentary because it involves a practical joke played against the Czech public. I hate practical jokes. In the end I loved the movie and want to recommend you see it. If you're in the States, you can rent "Czech Dream" through Netflix.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Carefree New Year's Eve

Welcome to World Blog Surf Day, a third carnival of shared expat experiences from around the world. When expat blog participants decided that our theme this time would be our favorite holiday or celebration traditions in our new culture, I had a seriously hard time deciding which traditions I wanted to share. Easter traditions in the Czech Republic are so foreign to American ways they will drop your mouth to the floor; Christmas is wonderfully the same and yet different than at home, but in the end, I chose New Year's Eve cause it felt like a coming out party for me as an empty nester.

Me, Naan, and Gulnara

For the first time in 20 years, I did not have the responsibility for anyone's safety on New Year's Eve other than my own. I could experience it with a light and carefree heart. If I wandered too close to fireworks, it wasn't my children's eyes, ears, and limbs at risk. If I saw people drinking too much alcohol, I didn't worry about who's eyes I was exposing to that. I was not responsible for the experience of others.

Our Czech Champagne
for the evening

was Bohemia Sect

My dear friends Gulnara and Nhan joined me at my place for the start of the evening. Gulnara, is originally from Russia and a fellow English teacher. Nhan, a mechanical engineer, is Vietnamese - American and hails from Orlando, Florida. Nhan's medical studies at Charles University had brought them to Prague and we have great fun together every time we got together.

Nhan and Gulnara
in Old Town

My Prague apartment is only 10 blocks from Old Town and about the same from Wenceslas Square. It was the perfect staging spot for a night of revelry. We headed first to Old Town Square which was packed with partygoers and music stages. Nice but too tame.

I had always heard that the fireworks on Wenceslas Square were awesome on New Year's Eve. We left Old Town Square and went over there. The energy and exuberance were fantastic. It was such a different setup than an American celebration, where "the authorities" would be in charge of the fireworks, the music, the entertainment, and the people's role would be to consume it. Here, "the people" set off the fireworks and made the fun. I was fascinated by it. You can just tell the product liability lawyers and lawsuit-happy folks have not yet arrived in the Czech Republic.

Amidst the most gloriously beautiful and expensively-located real estate, anyone who wanted to was setting off professional-quality, firework-show fireworks. Couldn't a spark land somewhere it shouldn't and start all the buildings on fire? Didn't anyone worry about harming everyone else standing around? They most assuredly did not.

It was so much fun, so loud, so exuberant, so absolutely fantastic I watched to see if Prague had made it in the worldwide coverage of great New Year's Parties around the globe. It must! Such was the shared joy of everyone there. One of the things I saw in Wenceslas Square there that night that I had never seen anywhere else, was young Asian men in the twenties, so happy and excited, they were literally skipping down the street arm in arm with each other.

With nary a product liability lawyer
in sight, a bunch of young people
joyfully light them up

Safety? We don't need no stinkin' safety.
This is w-a-y t-o-o much fun.

This will bring out the 12-year-old boy's
wonderment and joy in explosives in anyone.

(Except you, daughters #1 and #2 -
don't try this at home in America)

Wenceslas Square would often look like a
war zone as people scattered
to let the smoke clear

Sadaam sashays
down Wenceslas Square

Do the Czechs know
about Dr. Seuss's

Thing 1 and Thing 2?

Align CenterPartiers came from as far
away as the Ural Mountains

A couple of
wild and crazy guys
The end of a beautiful evening
with no worries about drunk drivers
on the way home

To enjoy another celebration in the Czech Republic, visit the next expat involved in World Blog Surf Day. Sher, the organizer of our blog carnival, describes her favorite new holiday at her blog Czech Off The Beaten Path. If you would like to see who else is involved in WBSD, and where they all hail from, here is the link list.

Let's fade out here with imagined Lionel Ritchie music....."Celebrate! Good Times, Come On!"

Around the World in 48 Parties

I have two friends in Prague who are my go-to geek girls cause they are always up on the latest gizmos, gadgets, and geekspeak. Sy, who stops and starts blogs in her sleep, and Sher, who's been blogging about dual nationality-married life in Prague for a couple years now, have been a real help to me as I blog.

Sy dreamed up the idea of World Blog Surf Day for expats to share their experiences around the world and discover each other's blogs. The idea was to pick a topic and everyone write on that topic all on the same day and link to each other. Sher has taken over organizing the last two World Blog Surf Day events and lo, and behold, this little 'ole carnival is starting to become an institution. She has it as tightly organized as Martha Stewart's silverware drawer and probably as well documented!

During the second World Blog Surf Day (all about food in one's adopted country) there were 33 bloggers. This time as we write about holidays and celebrations in our new land, she's signed up 48 bloggers around the globe. Here's the breakdown of countries represented:

Switzerland - 7 bloggers
UK, USA, and the Czech Republic - 5 bloggers each
Argentina - 4 bloggers
Canada and Turkey - 2 bloggers each
Indonesia, Bulgaria, China, Australia, Belgium all have one blogger
Plus there's one blogging network with eight bloggers from eight different countries

I'm serving as designated Twitter reporter for the event. I'll be reading each blog and tweeting about each one tomorrow under the Twitter name emptynestexpat. If you know someone who'd be interested in hearing about expat life around the globe or in a specific country, feel free to share this link list with them. Our giant wave of expat blogs is coming tomorrow - Cowabunga!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Havel Recalls Days of Revolution

The 20th anniversary of that bloodless regime change known as the Velvet Revolution occurs this year. Click on my blog post title for memories of some of the revolutionaries involved, including President Havel. This article made me realize what I don't know about the Velvet Revolution. Why did the Slovak people feel unaccommodated during this time? What happened then that fed into the Velvet Divorce between the Czechs and Slovaks later? Teach me, Central Europeans.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Welcome Wall Street Journal Readers

Welcome Wall Street Journal Readers! I was delighted to see my blog featured in "Blog Watch" by WSJ Online Editor James Willhite in the Wall Street Journal Technology Section yesterday. Thank you, James. I appreciate having the greatest business minds on the planet stop by and say hi!

For those of you who may have missed my mention, click on my title to go to the article. For those of you who want a bit more background on my adventure, here's an interview I did with Expat Blog Directory last fall here. For those of you who want to share my journey from here on out, welcome. The best part of blogging is the created community and friends I've made from undertaking this deeply fun endeavor.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Present at the Creation of a Nobel Peace Prize

"Wow." I totally understand Robert Gibbs initial reaction to the news that President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. I am proud of my President and pleased I may have been present at the creation of a Nobel Peace Prize when I went to hear him speak about the elimination of nuclear weapons at Prague Castle. Click on my title to read about the speech that day.

That's the hopeful part of my reaction to the news that my President won the award. The more skeptical part of me (yes, Czech people, you rub off on others!) says 1) this award is for 'not being George Bush', 2) this is a European attempt to influence American policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and 3) this is European desire to help with the President's legitimacy because they probably see American birthers and other wackos attacking him all the time (don't worry, we know they're nuts) and 4) the Nobel Committee could have done more for world peace by holding the award out like a carrot for eight years. But hey, it's not my award to give. And I"m damn proud of my President.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Sense of Community

In TEFL class one day we were discussing using obituaries as a way of sharing real texts with our students. My friends in class who weren't North American needed an explanation of what an obituary was. They must not have them in Europe for ordinary people.

"I wouldn't want my life written about in the paper," one my European friends declared. "What's the point of that? More privacy please! Besides, who cares if I die beyond my family?"

"Lots of people care," I replied. "you're part of a community. If your Dad's retired barber dies, you'd want to know. If your childhood teacher that educated 25 years of students in your town died, a lot of people in the community would want to know. People impact more than just their immediate families."

Unconvinced, my dear friends turned back to the assignment.

"See, Ian," I tsked-tsked to my Canadian flatmate, with all of the know-it-all certitude of someone who had spent two weeks in country. "This is why horrible things happen on the European continent. They don't have any sense of community."

"They don't have community?" he said with a incredulous grin. "They have universal health care."

Point taken.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dear President Obama, Don't Leave the Czech Politicans Out to Dry

Dear Mr. President,

It seems you have come to a decision about the Eastern European missile shield that will be greeted with relief and gratitude by the Czech population when it's announced Thursday. I haven't the expertise to know if it's the right decision. I just know Czech reaction to the issue.

I hope when this decision is announced, adequate cover is given to the Czech politicians who went to bat for America and said "yes, we will allow this missile shield to be built here."

These politicians agreed to help our government when it wasn't popular with their own people. How does America get cooperation the next time, if when we ask them to defend a locally-unpopular idea, we then change our minds and leave them out on the tree limb we've decided to saw off?

P.S. Have you taken a look at how Czech health care stats compare to America's? They are kicking our behinds! Fight harder for health care reform. We are counting on you.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Young People, Living and Loving, With Cancer

The big national debate in America is what kind of health care system should there be. Yesterday there was a wonderful radio interview on National Public Radio with two young people in their 20s who are living and loving with cancer. One young lady interviewed, named Iva Skoch, is a native of Prague. Her comparisons of the American and Czech health care systems are fascinating. Click here to hear the interview entitled "Young People, Living and Loving, With Cancer."

I've also included a link to Iva's recent article in Newsweek on "cancertainment."

Sunday, September 6, 2009

How Nuclear Weapons Can Save Your Life

Yes, I know. You suspect this blog post might be a cheap ploy to get more readership, if only from the weekend shift at the CIA. But actually, I'm sharing this article because I thought it was an interesting rebuttal to President Obama's speech in Prague. I went to hear it with 30,000 other people. He said that the world should work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. This writer thinks differently and makes his case well. When was the last time you read an upbeat article about nuclear weaponery anyway?

I haven't a strong opinion as the subject is outside my area of expertise. I'm just an interested observer with a desire to live out my days. What do you think gentle blog readers? Is President Obama's vision realistic? Or do you side with this writer? Click on my title to read the whole article from this week's Newsweek magazine.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Saturday Profile: With Sharp Satire, Enfant Terrible Challenges Czech Identity

David Cerny at the Franz Kafka Museum
with his two pissing men

Yea, I don't care what this guy at the National Gallery says in this article about David Cerny as an artist, David Cerny rocks. The mischievous side in Czechs is to be encouraged. David Cerny does and says out loud what Czechs could if they gave themselves permission.

What is even cooler, is that David Cerny with all of his finger-poking, is as connected to the Czech political establishment as any artist could be. The politicians appreciate him and are willing to defend him and fund him. Read the Saturday Profile in the New York Times to learn more about this incredibly fun artist.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Czech government denied my visa

This week I got the bad news that the Czech government denied my visa. I shouldn't have been surprised. They've denied the visas of my fellow Americans in my TEFL class, not once but twice. I was devastated. It's taken me several days to write about it without crying.

The Dream

I fell in love with the Czech Republic back in 1989 watching the Velvet Revolution on TV. Ever since then, I've wanted to experience this culture that seemed to have brought down communism nonviolently with raised BIC lighters in Wenceslas Square, not cold war spending (the Czechs actually credit the cold war spending -- not the BIC lighters, but that's another post).

The more I found out about Czech people, the more I wanted to know. I wanted to know about people who have so beautifully kept a highly human and highly cultured "second culture" alive when the official totalitarian culture was anything but human. What intriguing people. I vowed to live among them someday.

A newspaper man in Minnesota, suggested that Americans back then should help Eastern Europeans adjust to capitalism. I happily signed up for two pen pals, specifically requesting they be from the Czech Republic. We wrote long letters back and forth, way before the Internet, and I cheered them on as they started up small businesses in their respective communities. We wrote back and forth for years. Finally, the daughter of one of my pen pals came to live with my family for a summer and eventually settled in America.

I also met a lovely Czech couple in my hometown of Ames, Iowa from the Czech Republic. Kate Sladka was doing graduate studies in plant pathology and Josef Kedlecek, her husband, was putting her through school while working at a locally-beloved Ames restaurant (now that I've read Bohumil Hrabal's "I Served the King of England" I appreciate his job choice even more).

Kate grew up in this
beautiful apartment building
right off Old Town Square

Kate and I spent hours talking and she told me about all of the beautiful architecture where she lived in Prague in a very special part of town called Old Town. When I found my apartment in Prague, I was less than 10 blocks from her home! Now that I've gone and tried to find her and knock on her family door less than 100 feet from Old Town Square on Celetna, I realize how much her eyes must have ached for that mediaeval, Gothic, and art noveau architecture! I was stunned by the actual beauty of where her family lived. It was even more exquisite than I could ever have imagined. Her view was out of a fairy tale.

I was stunned to learn
that my friend Kate
had this incredible view of the back side
of the House of Tyn

I finally got here Kate!
Seventeen years after we talked.

The Reality

I finally figured out how I could come to the Czech Republic and experience it by reading Rolf Potts book "Vagabonding." His premise is that Americans vastly overestimate how hard it is to see the world and support themselves as they do it. I saw that, I too, could do this. All I needed to do was get a TEFL degree and begin teaching English. Teaching English is the easiest and fastest way to get into a country because there is so much need. Czechs working and moving up in multinational corporations need English because it's the international language of commerce.

So I choose a language school that promised: a guaranteed job after attending the TEFL course, full VISA support, health care, and free Czech lessons so that I could quickly integrate into the culture. Not a single word of it came true. I don't know why my school didn't follow the law. Maybe it's more profitable to have places opened up for the next TEFL class coming in, I don't know. I had relied on them to know the paperwork of their own country. I made an error in taking them at face value and trusting. Frankly, I'm proud to have "some trust in me" because you know how closed down people can get when they feel betrayed.

My fellow TEFLers and I loved Prague so much, that we were willing to give our school a second chance. "We applied for your visas incorrectly the first time, but this time will be different." It took me a month and a half to find work in America when I came back with only two days notice. I only looked for temporary work at a reduced pay level so that I would be fair to a potential American employer. After all, I was going to race back to the Czech Republic at the end of the summer!

I had invested over $5,000 to sell everything in America and move to the Czech Republic the first time. I happily shelled out the money for another Czech visa because this time it looked like my school had educated itself about how to follow the law and we would not be penalized for their past actions. Indeed, the administrators told us that many times. "Come back! You will not be denied."

My unfinished Czech Business:

I am completely and totally head over heels in love with the Czech Republic and it's culture. I feel like I was just starting to scratch the surface! I loved to share my excitement in my blog over each wonderful discovery. I only went out of town twice in six months because I wasn't focused on seeing all the tourist sites at first, I was focused on setting up my life. I intended to live there for years.

There are so many fabulous things in the Czech Republic I never got to see. I never saw the beautiful square of Telc, I never saw and experienced drinking spa water at Karlovy Vary, or the romance of Cesky Krumlov, I wanted to see Jan Kaplicky's stingray building in Cesky Budovice when it was finished, and modernist and cubist buildings in Brno. The Sumuva! Mushroom hunting! Czech skiing! I wanted to eat pickles in Znomo and marvel at the aqueducts and pretend I'm a partisan in the Znomo underground. What does Moravia look like anyway? I wanted to go to a Moravian wine festival and call up my friend Sher a little tipsy and tell her how much fun I'm having! Insert scream of dismay here! I wanted to see it all.

The people I care about there that I will miss. I dread having to explain to my pen pal in Western Bohemia that I traveled half way around the world to spend time in her country because of how she and others described it but hadn't yet come to her city to see her. I was waiting until I spoke Czech better so we could have real conversations face-to-face. I wanted to knock on her door and surprise her by greeting her in good Czech.

I did get to see my other pen pal in Plzen, (a future post), but since I visited her she has since become very sick, close to losing her life. I would love to go back and see her and cheer her on to a full health recovery. I never did find Kate Sladka despite knocking on her family door at 10 Celetna over and over again. I have no idea where she is.

What was so wrong with us being there?

I know governments have to look at things from a macro level, and one should never take things personally. It's not personal. That hurts too! The impersonality of it all. But how could excited and enthusiastic English teachers bring harm to the Czech Republic? Teaching English felt like our gift to the Czech people. We felt like we were doing out part to bring you into the global community as fast as possible after forty years of repression. We sure weren't doing it for the money. The work was damn meaningful to us.

I can't imagine Czech tourism advertising budgets are very big. At a time when tourism is down 20% (Prague Post, 6/3/2009) and Prague hotel room occupancy is down 8.5%, and now half of the hotels in Prague are expected to go bankrupt (Prague Post, 8/25/09) wouldn't the enthusiastic blogging of expats talking to the folks back home about how amazing the Czech Republic is be a welcome development to the Czech government? My friends would have resulted in seven week long room rentals at the small family hotel near my apartment over the course of 2009, but I know that expat bloggers are great for business beyond the immediate impact of their own families and friends.

I never heard of Cesky Krumlov from Czech Tourism advertising. I heard of Cesky Krumlov through an amazing English-language blog written by a Brit skilled in community development who constantly celebrates the specialness of that place. That one woman is probably responsible for more foreign visitors to Cesky Krumlov than Czechs know.

I don't know what my next move is. I'm honestly in mourning and it's going to take some time to deal with the disappointment. I would have loved to come back to Prague with the free ticket I have but the Czech consulate in Chicago could give me no solid advice. "It's all up to the foreign police, you may get in as a tourist, you may not. They might turn you back at the airport." Without solid guidance that my money in the Czech Republic wouldn't be wasted this time, I'm staying home. See, I can learn. Stay home. Sadly, there is no welcome mat out in the Czech Republic.

The beginning of this sorry saga:

What Just Hit Me?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why Can't Visa Departments Be More Like UPS?

I had a friend who was a real estate broker. He said that when people sell their home they enter a period of "temporary insanity." I totally understand what he means. People get stressed out because there's so much on the line and the turnaround times are usually tight.

I feel the same way applying for a visa. I'm really starting to get stressed out because I haven't heard a word about my Czech visa. My company promised me and others, "no problem! you will get your visa within sixty days from applying. Our owner has met personally with the foreign police and that will happen. You will not be denied." Those sixty days are up in five days on August 17th.

Three weeks from today I have no idea where I'll be living. Is it the Czech Republic? Or America? If it's the Czech Republic, I need adequate time to respect my employers and give two weeks notice. If it's the Czech Republic, I should have given notice on my apartment here in Madison already. If it's the Czech Republic, I have a free ticket non-refundable back to Prague at the end of the month, I do not want to miss that plane. The whole economics of going there is based on using that ticket provided by the Czech school I'd be working for. If it's the Czech Republic, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

Government should not make people feel powerless. Their job is to empower us. Yet, waiting for a visa is easily one of the most powerless feelings ever when dealing with a government. All I want to do is come to the Czech Republic and empower Czech citizens with English language skills so they are more globally competitive. I get the benefit of living my dream of enjoying the Czech people and their culture. It's not so outlandish a request. A win-win.

Wouldn't it be great if a visa department was more like UPS? These package delivery companies figured out long ago, that so much is stake in some people's package deliveries, that customers were going to be calling every four hours saying "where's my package now?"

How did those companies deal with that constant customer anxiety and need for communication as to the status of a "package?" They put in tracking software so a customer could punch in a tracking code and see where it was at any given time. Has my visa left Chicago? Where is it now? Has it moved from Bureaucrat A to Bureaucrat B's desk? When is it scheduled to be delivered back to Chicago so I can take days off to go to the Czech Consulate and get it? Give me some sense of control and power back over my own future! Where's my visa? Talk to me!

Here's more on this story:

What just hit me?

I'm a better American citizen for having gone through this

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Kari's Excellent Adventure

A vibrant young TEFL student has just arrived in Prague from the great state of Minnesota.

I had initially hoped to be there to greet her. I'll have to do the next best thing which is read her blog.

Kari is on day three of her Prague discovery. I've created a link to "Kari's Excellent Adventure" on my list of Czech expat blogs.

Kari, pictured here with her mom, is the daughter of my childhood friend and neighbor Julie Waters.

Update on 9/6/2009: Kari has graduated with her TEFL certificate from the Language House and is now off to mainland China to begin her teaching year. Because the Communist Chinese government censor Blogspot and Facebook from their citizens, Kari has had to restart her blog at an uncensored site. You can access it there. Here is the link to her first blog describing her Prague adventures.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Sizzling Critique of Czech Political Leadership

Will he or won't he?
Vaclav Klaus loves to 'keep them guessing'
when it comes to his endorsement
of the Lisbon Treaty.

Ouch! This New York Times article has nothing nice to say about Czech political leadership during the EU presidency. My own observation is that Czechs are used to being governed and not yet so used to governing themselves. It's their first generation of really running their own show. The people haven't quite discovered their power yet and the quality of politics in the C.R. reflect that. You can read the article by clicking on my title.
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