Thursday, April 30, 2009

My Favorite Bits of Czech Skepticism

Having just had my relentless American optimism thrown down to the rocks below, my appreciation of Czech skepticism has never been higher. Here are a couple of my favorites:

"If you are an optimist, you don't have enough information."

"A pessimist is a realist with experience."

Everyone I talked to who has lived through totalitarian times is grateful for the wisdom that comes from the experience. As an American watching my own country's investment community back home and America's bailout response, this next one struck me as deeply true. One of my students said, "having lived through those times helps you recognize lies when you hear them. The kind of lies the state used to tell us are now being told to us by multinational companies."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What Just Hit Me?

My dream of living in the Czech Republic came true. It just didn't last.

As of Friday, I will no longer have legal status to remain in the Czech Republic. I must leave immediately or risk a large fine and a ban on being inside one of the fifteen Schengen countries for the next five years.

I have no idea why this happened. When I signed up to teach in the Czech Republic, one of the reasons I chose the school I did was because they advertised "full visa support" to everyone. Wonderful. Moving to a foreign country is overwhelming enough. Having a knowledgeable local handle all of the paperwork in a way that is in accordance with all laws gave the whole school a value-added appeal. I relied on that.

I arrived on November 6th. I took a TEFL course and was offered a contract in December. My school applied for my visa in Berlin at the Czech Embassy on January 21st, almost three months later.

Did that leave the government enough time to process the visa? I don't know what is enough time. Is there a visa department benchmark statistic somewhere that shows how one country gets it done in two months but another country takes longer and isn't getting it done fast enough? I have no idea what is a reasonable length of time and have no way to judge. Wait, yes I do. I have to leave the country so I guess it's not fast enough!

I started to get some inkling of how serious the situation was thanks to a fantastic article in the Prague Post. I have appreciated the journalists at the New York Times for years because of how they affect the life of my nation, but this woman and this paper published an article that directly affected my life! I can't thank them enough. Being a new expat, and having relied on my employers to secure my required paperwork, this article helped me understand the danger I was in of losing the life I had built here:

Since I have no idea if my visa will be approved or denied, I could leave the country and fly back to the States and find out as quickly as one day later (if that's when an approval comes through) that the job, friends, apartment, neighborhood, and church I had to give up was a big "oops, you can come back in now."

The government sent registered letters to the Americans in my TEFL class to come to immigration (what the Czechs call the foreign police). We each spent an entire day there. I kept thinking surely Czech taxpayers have something better to spend their money on then harassing Americans who are here to help Czech people improve their English so that Czech people can compete more effectively for multinational jobs? Yet this seems like some city-wide or country-wide initiative trying to make some sort of political point.

The day started out very scary. All of these men had muscles the size of a Zizkov bouncer and the jail cells were right behind the door. One of my fellow teachers, who regarded this as one big lark to tell the grandchildren about one day pointed out, "look there's an American in there already!" Thanks. Not helpful.

There wasn't enough staff to process us quickly. It took from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. to get out of there. The foreign police made us sign documents in Czech I didn't understand or we couldn't leave. I know my father was rolling over in his grave because he always said "read everything thoroughly before you sign it." Sorry Dad. I couldn't read it.

The foreign police told us we were lucky the deportation prison was full otherwise we would have to go straight to the prison. Given this was the Thursday before Obama's visit, if we had gone there, do you think the American Embassy could have spared a staff member to come get us? No.

Even with the prison remark (which I couldn't tell if it was a joke since this was translated secondhand), the men in this office treated us with professionalism and kindness. They were nice. This seemed such a poor use of their time and taxpayer's money! They gave us a one-month extension to our tourist visas which I thought was to give the government more time to finish the paperwork.

So one month later, there is still no visa. I must leave. I have done all of the wailing, raging, and asking for help a person can do.

I asked all of my expat friends if they could help. I have asked Czech friends for help. One of our teachers went to the American Embassy and asked for help (they said, "sorry, we can't help that these schools lure Americans here with false promises. There is no answer.")

But I'm not sure the blame is so clear-cut on my school. The minute the way they were doing things proved not to be effective, they changed their procedures. They loophole they were using to apply for our visas in Berlin is the same one used by the American government when they apply for visas for their employees at Radio Free Europe.

My school, which is a different one than the one mentioned in the article, is not making us whole but at least they are paying for the ticket home. I spent about $5000 to come here having rented my house, sold my car, and all of my possessions. They know we have a right to be angry and have said as much.

Czechs ask me, "couldn't you just stay here and work illegally?" I can't do that. If a person works illegally, they are not free. Lately, I've been reading about a Czech patriot named Michael Kocab. He said, "a nation that does not value it's freedom, does not value itself." Well, doesn't that also apply to us as individuals as well? I need freedom.

The hardest part was trying to say goodbye to my English students when it all came down to "there is no answer." I was devastated and they couldn't understand my too-fast, emotional English! But each and everyone of them taught me something and I will value the time I had with them for the rest of my life. I will value the time I had in this beautiful, amazing country for the rest of my life. I only wish the dream could have lasted.

I want to give the last word to the journalists and paper who helped me understand that this was a bigger story than just me and my little TEFL class. Here's their editorial about the situation, aptly titled "The Dream is Over."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Springtime Saturday Stroll Around the Summer Palace

If we keep walking past Letna Park we could enjoy the grounds of the Summer Palace. It would be the first time this season I have found it open. Would you like to join us for more beauty?

A beautiful little path leads up to
an homage in stone to Czech poet Julius Zeyer

I love Czech tile roofs
and these at Prague Castle
in particular

My friend Sher
is braving the pollen
to enjoy a beautiful spring day

The water sounds like bells
as it drops to the pool below

The Summer Palace

A small sampling of the carving detail

Czechs bring imagination
even to rain gutters

The formal gardens of the Summer Palace

There are over 40 trees of note throughout the garden.
This is my favorite.

This building is called Ball Game Hall.
I think of it as the powdered sugar building
for obvious reasons.

Two beautiful closeups
of the building detail

I never learned what this building was
it's patina was exquisite

Formal flower beds in front

Have you ever had someone else's aesthetics
in your head
and known how much
they would appreciate something?

My mother would completely fall in love
with the Czech Republic and it's beauty.

Here's an intriguing path.
Let's see where it leads us
and what it wants us to see.

A spectacular side view of St. Vitus Cathedral
and Prague Castle.

A close-up of the flying buttresses
of St. Vitus Cathedral

A Czech soldier protects the castle grounds

White pansies with a purple tint

A closeup of what I believe is wisteria


A Prague beauty and her date

Having never seen an orangerie before,
I asked Sher "when was the last time you saw one of these?"

"Last week, actually, in France."
We burst out laughing.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Springtime Saturday Stroll Around Letna Park

My friend Sher and I had lots of catching up to do! We took a long leisurely stroll around Letna Park, famous for it's beer gardens and view of the Vltava. Why don't you join us for awhile? It's lovely!

Everything was joyously, exuberantly in bloom

The start of our walk - this regal boulevard

All this pond needs is koi

The leaves on these tulips are stunning
with their variations

An apple tree awaits May 1st

Can't you just smell them?

A first fabulous view of the Vltava
with lilacs
Is this pretty enough for you?

Two of my favorite flowers:
pansies and tulips

The last of the forsythia

These beautiful blossoms
adorned entire trees.
I nicknamed them
peppermint popcorn.


The Charles Bridge and another
from Letna Park

Local landmarks:
the 1970s Hotel Intercontinental
The Church of the House of Tyn in Old Town Square
National Museum
Vysherad Cathedral

Are you feeling more peace?

The entire riverbank is a riot of lilacs

I hope this helps you
"slow down and smell the flowers."

What's At Stake: Fragile Prosperity

Marcus Mabry, a writer for the New York Times, who came to this area of the world 20 years ago as an exchange student, recently visited Budapest and was astonished at it's transformation. He put together an incredibly beautiful slide show of what's at stake and what has been accomplished since the end of communism. The slide show and article that accompany it are about Budapest, but the story could just as easily be about Prague. It's the same kind of magnificence. Click on my title to read the article and see the slide show.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Happy Blog Birthday to Me!

One year ago I started this blog to help me go through the emotional journey of graduating my youngest child from high school, downsizing and potentially selling my home, and moving across the world from the American Midwest to Prague, Czech Republic.

My home in America

One year ago, I was living a very American mom lifestyle in a 3 bedroom/3 bath suburban home with one child at university and another in her senior year at high school. I only went places by car. I didn't yet know how to blog. I didn't yet know how to Twitter. I didn't yet know how to couchsurf.

I was mowing the lawn once a week. I read somewhere that not having a lawn to mow anymore frees up 30 hours a year. Hallelujah! I still own the house and the magnificent blackberry tree that goes with it. Currently, I have it rented out to some terrific people.

At the beginning of my blogging journey, I was working on what to do with all of my "stuff." I don't think of myself as particularly attached to possessions but once a lifetime of them have built up, the task of thoughtfully going through each and every one and making a decision about what to do with each one is overwhelming.

Fortunately, I found this fantastic book that helped me go through the process in an incredibly empowering way. It's called "When Organizing Isn't Enough: Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life" by Julie Morgenstern. Wow, did that book help me. I didn't waste any years in procrastination before starting. All of those posts are under the label SHED. They used to be the most-read part of my blog.

My children have thrived on their own. Each of them are attending their university of choice and living their own dream. They're loving life and they haven't needed their mother stateside to do it.

Pinch me!

And where am I now? I'm living in Prague!!! In the six months since I moved here, I've found great students, great friends, a great neighborhood, a great flat, a great flatmate, and a great church community. I feel like I'm living my values 100%. Life is awesome!

My property maintenance consists of cleaning my apartment every other week when it's my turn. That takes about two hours max.

I no longer have to worry about oil changes, or tires, or brakes. That frees up even more time. Using public transportation has been a Godsend. In six months, I've lost twenty pounds because I'm walking to and from metro and tram stops rather than merely to the driveway. I have zero worries about traffic - imagine how stress-free that makes life.

Even the stress of having a rotten president has gone away! Hallelujah!

Over a year of blogging, I've written 226 posts. I've had 4,200 visitors and 10,000 page hits. My blog was chosen as Expat Blog of the Month (thank you Julian!) in December of 2008. Now that I'm actually living here in Prague my readership keeps growing about 5% a month. If this were a business that would be an outstanding rate of growth. But it's not, it's just for fun.

And fun it has been. Blogging has helped me focus, focus, focus on achieving my dream of moving to Prague to learn about this beautiful city and the wonderful people of the Czech Republic. Thank you for reading and being part of the conversation!
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