Saturday, January 31, 2009

Czech Fashion Report: Tall Black Boots

This pretty lady bought her
very cool hat in Uzbekistan
to go with her black boots

All over Prague this winter, women are wearing boots! Tall black boots predominate but a few other boot colors get in there.

Ivory boots in Old Town Prague

I was telling one of my Czech girlfriends that "European women really live up to their stereotype as chic, sophisticated dressers."

A lovely Czech lady
at Novy Smichov Mall

She asked "exactly how do the ladies live up to that stereotype?"

"Why, all of these ladies in their black boots. It looks urban and hip and feminine!"

She laughed. "Actually," she said, "we just spend a lot of time outside and the boots keep us warm."
Olga from Ukraine says,
"Here you can wear whatever you want."

I asked a new Ukranian friend if this was the reason for the knee high boots and she nodded yes adding "I love Prague because you can dress to be comfortable. Here you can wear whatever you want."

Yet a third European woman shared her pride unprompted at finding a pair with an elevated sole so that her feet never actually have to touch the cold pavement.

Shopping at Swarovski
in Old Town, Prague

Another stereotype bites the dust. It still looks nice though. And since we recently had an unusually harsh cold spell in Prague, I can see their wisdom and not just their fashion.

Friday, January 30, 2009

You Could Feel Something Like This Coming

Today the Governor of my former state of Illinois was thrown out of office without a single legislator rising to defend him. Having spent four days in Springfield, Illinois in October seeing the Lincoln sites that inspire so many Americans (including our new President), I could feel that the situation back then wasn't sustainable. He didn't have a friend left before the news came out about the Senate seat he felt was "golden."

Click on the title to read my post from back then. If you're interested in reading about the Lincoln sites that inspired Obama, please click on the Lincoln label.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Three Hours in Berlin

No, I did not tell them it should read "Welcome TO Berlin."

The Brandenburg Gate
In the strange logic peculiar to governments, several of my TEFL classmates and I needed to go to the Czech Embassy in Berlin to do paperwork to allow us to stay exactly where we are in the Czech Republic.

"Don't get into any trouble," our guide said,
"since your passports are all back at the Embassy.

It seems odd to ask thousands of foreigners such as my classmates and myself to help warm the planet by requiring a drive out-of-country four hours each way all in the name of filling out three forms. But I, for one, am willing to put up with quirky governmental requirements if it allows me to work in the Czech Republic, plus go on a delightful trip to Berlin with my compadres.

Actually, being in Berlin was a bit sobering. We had three hours of "liberty" while our paperwork was processed. The Czech Embassy is in old East Berlin. We set out on foot to see the sights from there.

In three hours, we saw three commemorations of shameful acts of the German government. If someone comes to my country's capital and has three hours there, please dear God, I pray that it will always be inspirational.

First, we saw the Brandenburg Gate. That's the inspirational part of what we saw. If it looks familiar, it's because it's probably one of the most recognizable symbols of Europe. President Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton have all spoken at this site. Reagan's words were probably the most powerful:
"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
We walked over to the Tiergarden and realized where we were standing was exactly where the wall had been. It was so obviously insane that this large united city was divided there for decades. I found it unfathomable. Yet when the wall was up, I found the idea of it ever coming down unimaginable.
We noticed a giant new memorial and wandered over. None of us knew anything about it so we started to explore. It's called The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It went up in 2005. We learned later that there was a museum underground to explain it. We missed the museum because we came from the Brandenburg Gate (like I assume the majority of tourists would) and the entrance was in the opposite corner.
I couldn't imagine a more solemn theme but the design of the memorial at first brought out the playfulness in everyone. I know that's not the reaction the architect was seeking - but all of those blocks of stone cried out for tag or hide-and-seek.
The stones get larger and larger
as you enter, eventually engulfing you.
But as we spent time among the stones, the feeling of being buried underground, beneath layers and layers of ash was overwhelming and oppressive. The memorial made it's point.

It's not everyday you see the word homosexual
in a street sign.

We assumed this was
pointing to a memorial for

The Murdered Homosexuals of Europe.

I felt my usefulness
since none of these young people
would have known what the giant banners
with the word "Stasi" all over them
referred to: The German Secret Police!
It was a museum in the actual headquarters
of the Stasi describing how the
East German Government
continually spied on it's own citizens.

Before coming to the Czech Republic,
I did not realize it wasn't just the Soviets
who invaded during the Prague Spring.
It was all of Czecho's neighbors, like the GDR, too.

Trying to escape meant death.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Dear President Obama, Please Come to the Czech Republic

Dear President Obama,

One reason everyone is excited about your presidency is our sense that you respect dialogue. There is a large issue dividing America and the Czech Republic. It is the proposed anti-missile radar base. To date, no one from their government and no one from our government has given Czech citizens a sense that their views have been heard and considered. The situation is crying out for dialogue.

Opinion polls show that 70% (yes, that number is seven-zero!) of Czech people are against the radar base that America has proposed building on their land. On the 19th anniversary of their Velvet Revolution (November 17, 2008), thousands and thousands of Czechs did what people do in democracies when they want to make sure they've been heard - they demonstrated against this proposal. There were plenty of speeches and denunciations of American policy.

I don't know the answer to whether or not the radar base is needed. What I know is this: Czech people resent the way no one has satisfied them with answers. Czech politicians tell their citizens, "we must do our part to be part of a unified defense." People regard that answer as superficial and not enough.

If you decide to not build the base, come here and get the credit for that. If you decide the base is needed, please come here and explain to the Czech people why it's important for BOTH of our countries that it be built.

Czech democracy and self-defense are new. Given what they've been through in the last 100 years, it's not surprising that average people would want nothing to do with anything military-related. So come sell them!

When Secretary Rice was here, did she talk to anyone outside officialdom? I don't believe so. Your eloquence on this topic would be appreciated and listened to with respect. It's my belief the Czechs deserve no less.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Celebrating My New President

The President of the United States of America and the First Lady

I tried not to say to random people on the tram yesterday "I have a new President!" but it was hard. I felt lonely for my own kind yesterday. I needed to be around Americans. Usually every inauguration day I watch the entire coverage from beginning to end because I love politics and history.

My classes went until 6 p.m. which is exactly when President Obama was taking the oath of office. It about killed me to be on the streets going home and not parked in front of a TV when that was taking place. I went to an Obama Inauguration Party at Jama, an expat bar off of Wenceslas Square, but truly I got there so late I kind of missed the speech and main celebration.

Expats present told me the largest cheer came when the helicopter lifted off the White House Grounds with our outgoing president. It was fun to meet Americans who had come into Prague for the party, and American veterans (thanks for your service!), and Czechs who wanted to share the celebration.

Later I drank a $7 beer at the Hotel Imperial bar so I could watch the inauguration on CNN for awhile without interruption.

About 20% of the Europeans yesterday understood just how very much we believe. One student said, "This is a very important day for America, the whole world even." It made me cry. The other 80% of Europeans, especially Czechs, are deeply, deeply skeptical about any politician. "Well at least he won't be worse." No, you don't understand. This guy is better than that.

If I have a wish for you, my dear Czech friends, it is that someday you get a politician that brings out the best in you, who honors the best of your country, and that makes you so damn proud to be Czech. I wish for you the pride, depth of belief, and lack of cynicism that I feel right now.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

It's David Cerny Appreciation Week

It's David Cerny Appreciation Week here at the Empty Nest Expat Blog. David Cerny is a delightfully provocative artist native to the Czech Republic. He has just spent the last week amusing or embarrassing the entire Czech nation (according to one's view) with his sculpture celebrating the Czech Presidency of the European Union. First, some background on his past politically artistic acts.

According to Radio Praha:
Prague's Kinsky Square was for many decades called The Square of Soviet Tank Crews. It was because a huge Soviet tank, a memorial to the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, used to stand there on a 5-metre pedestal, its barrel menacingly pointing at a tram stop. Until one morning, in the spring of 1991, locals woke up and could not believe their eyes. The tank had turned pink overnight.

The Radio Station described that David Cerny, was only 23 when he covered the green tank in pink paint making it look rather like piece of candy. But his act was seen by many as an outrage against the Soviet liberators of Prague.

More than a symbol of the liberation of Prague by the Red Army in May 1945, for many Czechs the tank became a reminder of the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

"Having to pass this symbol of the Russian dictatorship which was here since I was born, I did not take the tank as a symbol of freedom - the end of the Second World War."

Of course, the Czechoslovak Army would have no such nonsense as a pink tank, so three days later soldiers arrived with buckets of paint and gave the tank a new green coat. Ten days after that a group of parliament deputies repainted it pink again in support of David Cerny's act."

I often pass the pink tank spot from the tram and, of course, enjoy it's symbolism. The authorities hauled away the original pink tank to be politically correct but a new one has replaced it.

He also decorated a Soviet-era TV Tower with little black babies that climb up the tower.

And then, of course, there is perhaps his most famous work after the pink tank. His pissing sculpture which shows two men pissing on a map of the Czech Republic. Now anyone who could create that is surely not a man who takes himself or his country too seriously. Lighten up, he seems to be saying.

'Entropa' created by artist David Cerny

This week, the sculpture that the Czech nation had commissioned him to do celebrating the Czech presidency of the EU was to be unveiled. Cerny and a couple friends put the whole scupture together themselves even though they presented a document listing 27 fictitious artists from all the member nations as participants. What fun they must have had dreaming this up!

I officially declare it David Cerny Appreciation Week at Empty Nest Expat Blog because I have had so much fun with my English Language students discussing news articles about this sculpture. Cerny said it was created to see if "Europe could laugh at itself." I loved asking my classes if Czech people should be proud their famous humor was on display. What do you think, gentle blog readers? Or should Czechs be embarrassed a few countries aren't displaying any humor in return about their own depiction?

Radio Netherlands Worldwide explains:

The map of France is emblazoned with the word greve, which is French for strike. Sweden is represented as a piece of flatpack furniture, Britain does not appear at all and Bulgaria is the floor of a toilet [actually, it's the floor of a Turkish toilet which consists of two shoe marks and a hole in the ground. One of my students felt that was a comment on whether Bulgaria really fit in with the rest of 'civilized Europe' since they haven't yet availed themselves of Western plumbing]. Romania is a Dracula theme park and Poland, one of the most conservative countries in the EU, has priests waving a rainbow flag, a symbol used by gay and lesbian activists. Denmark has been made entirely from Legos and the Netherlands is represented as a sea with minarets rising from the waves.

Cerny explains his depiction of the Czech Republic:

"Let the head of state have his say! A constant stream of brilliant Václav Klaus quotes. Words of wisdom that deserve to be etched in stone. The President’s sublime, pertinent comments about the whole world, and especially the EU, whizzing across a three-line alphanumeric LED display. He is OUR president, we elected him, so let’s show him off to the world with joy in our hearts. He’s not just a skier, he’s a great guy!"

Thank you David Cerny for accomplishing exactly what you set out to do. Europe is laughing. Maybe it's howling too, but for the most part, it's laughing.

Friday, January 16, 2009

"I Served the King of England"

This month I've been reading book after book in English written by Czechs. Among the pile of titles a friend lent me was a book called "I Served the King of England" by Bohumil Hrabal. I'd never heard of the author and the book looked like a light read.

Don't you love that feeling when you're in the midst of discovering a new artist, author, or visual show that is totally fantastic and you can't get enough of it? That's how this author was for me as I read this book. The details of ordinary life! The storytelling! The romantic nature of his mind! The entire story is utterly and completely charming.

Milan Kundera is the author probably best known outside of the Czech Republic. A Czech friend told me today that Hrabal is probably best known inside the country. And because so much of what he's written has been made into a movie, even the Czech non-readers know Hrabel's stuff through films. Bohumil Hrabal is considered a Czech national treasure.

I have to read everything he's written now and see all the movies. He deserves to be discovered and read more outside the Czech Republic. I loved this book called "I Served the King of England."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Beautiful Slavic Faces

I had read so much about the beauty of the buildings in Prague, I was unprepared for and delighted by the beauty of the faces. It was hard to notice mere buildings with so many beautiful women around. People look different here. Slav faces have really strong jawlines and broad cheekbones.

In talking to other expatriates, I realize that everyone goes through the same shock at how pretty the women are when you first get here. Then you get used to it. Finally, you take it for granted.

I asked my friends, and even people on the street, if I could show their pictures so that you could get a feel for Slavic faces. I asked one guy if I could take his picture but his reaction was so grouchy I didn't ask any others. So here are some ladies.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Bipolar Society

Last month I happened to be having dinner with a Czech politico who's political abilities were as apparent as Arnold Schwarzenegger's ability to do a bicep curl. "How come you're not serving in elected office?" I asked.

"This is a bipolar society right now. I have perfectly capable friends who have run for office and lost. It's better to be in an appointed position until the country sorts out which direction it's taking."

I was fascinated by this observation and have since seen he's right. This is an exciting time politically in the Czech Republic because the country is assuming presidency of the European Union for the next six months. The presidency rotates among member nations.

Czechs are proud to be only the second post-totalitarian country to have this honor. I see pride among people as they imagine how their politicians should solve EU problems (the Russian gas crisis, the European position on Isreal and Gaza) while their country is in charge. It makes me wonder if more stuff will get done because every country faces an arbitrary six-month deadline with which to make it's mark.

Yet the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, is the one who creates either enthusiastic yeas or equally enthusiastic denunciations of embaressment among Czechs.

I've heard people appreciate him for saying what he believes regardless of result. One friend mentioned how much he appreciated how hard-working Vaclav Klaus was. "Vaclav Havel just let all the prisoners go when communism was over. Some of those people were real criminals, not just political prisoners. Vaclav Klaus reads every single file to see if the person locked up is a political prisoner who deserves a pardon and release or a real criminal. That's hard-working."

Yet other Czechs are deeply embarrassed that Vaclav Klaus wouldn't show up for a artistic performance celebrating the Czech takeover of the European Union, that he considers global warming a fraud, that he makes such a point of letting everyone know he thinks he's the smartest guy in the room. According to the New York Times, even communist secret agents were struck by Klaus's arrogance when they infiltrated his classes:

“His behavior and attitudes reveal that he feels like a rejected genius,” the agent noted in his report, which has since been made public. “He shows that whoever does not agree with his views is stupid and incompetent.”

It will be interesting to watch how these six months unfold for the Czechs. It's a wonderful feeling to be detached from their politics and not have strong feelings. As an American, I'm just getting used to the idea that I can relax a bit about my own country's politics. Someone I approve of is in charge. That is such a great feeling.

Link to the title to read the entire New York Times article about President Klaus.

Monday, January 12, 2009

An Example of Why People go Nuts Over Prague

Recently, our church organist, Walter, invited several of us to hear him solo at a Christmas concert. He was singing several Russian selections, including four songs by Rachmaninoff. He was performing with a group called the Prague/Frankfurt Chamber Orchestra (I hope I have that right) which included musicians and choir members from both cities. The group was performing in a spectacular church in Vinohrady. Vinohrady is a very cool residential neighborhood which my friends often compare to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. I was particularly taken with the muralist who has done several gorgeous murals in churches around Prague. My pictures just don't do justice to how captivating they are.

The musicians were all professional level yet I think they all have day jobs. The entire wonderful evening in an intimate setting with live singers and live music cost a mere $7.50 to attend. That's less than a movie ticket! And nights like this happen all over Prague all the time.

I frequently meet expats who have moved here specifically for the music. "High culture" music is everywhere in Prague and delightfully affordable. A terrific seat to the opera costs $20 in Prague.

I could have looked at this painting all night.

The conductor and my friend Walter, who soloed.
Walter gave his Rachmaninoff "strange Russian soul"
even though he's actually Dutch.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

There really is "milk and honey"

There really is a drink of milk and honey.
You're looking at it.
It tasted as fantastic as it looks.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

My First Week of Teaching English

I have just completed my first week of teaching English and it's been really fun. My class load is twenty hours a week, which is just right for me. It makes me full-time in my company. Usually teachers teach between 23-30 hours, but since I'm new to lesson planning, I would like to stay at this level for awhile until I speed up. In our TEFL course, we averaged about six hours of planning for every hour taught. Obviously, that's not sustainable in the real world!

My friends who have visited Prague or the Czech Republic during communism or shortly afterwards always use the word 'bleak' to describe the place. The beauty of arriving here twenty years after the end of totalitarianism is there have been twenty intervening years for the place to be fixed up. I must say, my classes are in beautiful, stunning locations.

One class is in an ancient building with castle type doors overlooking formal gardens. Several others are in a brand new corporate headquarters with wonderful light. Yet another is in the Czech Republic's tallest building on the highest floors.

Everyone is nice. They are surprised when I display any knowledge of Czech culture (like knowing who Svejk or Smetana are). The beauty is, with such a homogeneous culture, that everyone sitting around the table knows the name of their classic book character or who their classic composer is. Not everyone around an American business table would have the same cultural knowledge and background.

A couple of my students need to talk and be understood by native speakers in Britain or America but most need to speak to other people in countries like Spain or India who are speaking English as a second language. The first time I confronted this, I was so stunned and impressed that one of my students needed to speak English as a second language (her first language being Czech) to someone else in another country who was speaking it as a second language (their first language being Finnish) that I couldn't help but admire the level of commitment it would take to not only know the second language but the linguistic quirks of the other first language spoken (an example is Czechs always forget to use definite and indefinite articles in English because they don't have them in their language).

I told that to other teachers and both said, "oh no, it's much harder for someone speaking English as a second language to talk to a native speaker than to someone else speaking English as a second language. When they both have it as a second language, they use ESL English in conversation which is slower and less complex than a native speaker's language." Still, when you see people 40-60 years old valiantly working on their 15th year of learning English, often learned in bits and pieces along the way, you can't help but be impressed by their commitment. They are lucky that their companies are paying for them to learn English (it is the official language of all sorts of companies) but that also makes it harder to learn because they can't completely leave work behind in the classroom and relax. They are liable to be pulled out or called away in the middle of a lesson.

I'm really excited to learn from my students all about their culture and their interests. Czechs are the most well-travelled people I have ever met. One student told me that their parents constantly goad them to travel because the parents couldn't do so under communism. I routinely meet people who have been to exotic places like Cuba, Nepal, Tibet, Bolivia (pretty darn far away for a Czech!), and even the Kamchatka Penninsula (you mean, that's a place you're actually allowed to go visit??? I thought it was a Russian military zone!).

Their version of Mexico (an inexpensive place to visit for a week of sun) is Egypt. Visiting Egypt for a week of sun sounds incredibly exotic to me. Going there would be a major undertaking for an American leaving from America but apparently there are all sorts of cheap and routine flights from Prague. It's all in where you're starting out from.

One downside when beginning teaching is directions are often incomplete. The first thing I did was assign all of my students homework creating a written description of how to get to their office because anyone substituting for me is not going to go through what I did trying to find these places! This week has also been freezing cold so I'm running around Prague in heels, lost, with frozen fingertips and a runny nose while carrying a laptop. Next week calls for some adjustment!

I will also forever be nicer to foreign people because of my experience here. I will pop into an office asking for directions and the lady or man there will sit me down while they print me out a map of exactly where I'm going. Day after day, ordinary Czechs show me lovely kindnesses without a second thought. Czechs make this experience fun.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Have Some Mucha with Your Mocha

One of the can't miss places to see in Prague is the Mucha Museum. My friend Sher and I recently spent a Saturday morning exploring the beautiful, wistful art of Czech patriot Alphonse Mucha.

The museum showcased many of his art posters produced in Paris for various products such as champagne. Many of the posters are not for a commercial product but represent concepts like the four seasons, parts of day, or arts.

Mucha's posters for Sara Bernhardt created such a sensation when they hit the streets of Paris she signed him to do the posters all of her future plays. We know her name to this day because of her business saavy in immortalizing herself.

Besides the gorgeous art, the museum visit was uplifting because of Alphonse Mucha's character and attitude. I made a note of one thing he said because I loved how he viewed his individual impact as a person:

"I was looking round for a means to spread light that would reach even into the remotest corners. I did not have to look long. La Pater[a book]. Why not give it's words pictorial expression."

Alphonse Mucha did all of the bank notes, emblems, logos, seals and signs of the Czech First Republic. The Czech Republic has had a few iterations since then so all of those designs have been replaced. Along with that service to his nation, Mucha also painted the "Slav Epic," a giant tour-de-force artisitic representation of the history of the Slavic people. A weekend trip to see that in the country is on my must-do list.

Our entire visit took 1.5 hours. So when out for a coffee of hot chocolate in Prague this winter, have some Mucha with your mocha.
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