Friday, December 31, 2010

Top Five Posts for 2010

I was recently enjoying my friend Sher's blog where she chronicled her top five posts of the year.  It made me wonder what my top five posts for the year have been.  They aren't what I expected.  I thought my most visited post would be this one:

I Saw A Suicide Bombing in Istanbul Yesterday

but here they are in descending order of visits:

How the Czech Government Delighted Me as a Consumer
(about the Czech Republic's fabulous train service)

Futurista Builds Upon the Past
(about beautiful Czech design - the shop has since moved )

Starting My Third Year Without a Car
(this post is just a month old but wow, did it get traffic!)

The Legend of Starved Rock
(a last bit of Illinois tourism before I moved overseas)

Who Will be the Czech Jamie Oliver?
(my thoughts on Czech cuisine)

I have no idea why these posts resonated so if you have feedback for me on what were your favorite posts I would love to hear it!  May you have a wonderful and prosperous 2011!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Does the World Need the Opposite of a Nobel Peace Prize?

Do you remember when Ronald Reagan first declared the totalitarian Soviet Union an "evil empire?" Many citizens in the Soviet Union cite that moment as the one that caused them to really think about and question their own system.

"How could that be?" I wondered,  "Everyone could see it was evil, why couldn't the people who actually live there? Why would it take an American President to make them stop and question something that was so obviously not working for participants and outsiders alike?"

Reagan said:
...I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
President Bush tried to create the same effect of waking foreign citizens out of their denial by demanding Iran, Iraq, and North Korea end their "axis of evil."  Unfortunately, President Bush seemed to be in his own self-delusion regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq at the time so it didn't quite have the intended effect. And it also didn't accurately reflect those three nations diplomatic actions.  They weren't in a tri-part pact.

If people get delusional, it makes sense that countries and societies can get delusional too. They are just a giant collection of individual people.  Indeed, there are delightful books written about economic self-delusion such as Tulipmania:  The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused. Another well-known form of personal delusion is addiction as described in the fiction bestseller A Million Little Pieces.

What could some national delusions be?  How about:
Debt loads?
Ethnic cleansing (World War II Germany and the Balkans and Rwanda more recently)?
Environmental degradation?
Hatred? (Middle Eastern attitudes toward Jewish People and European attitudes toward Roma)?
Extreme Paranoia and Societal Militarization (North Korea)?
Extreme Paranoia and Thugocracy? (Iran)
Nationalization of Property? (Soviet Union)
Non-Acceptance of Election Results? (Ivory Coast)
Extraordinary Corruption? (Afghanistan)
Extraordinary Use of Resources (United Arab Emirates and the United States)
Censorship and Lack of Free Expression (China)

What if someone with more credibility and less baggage than President Bush, a disinterested organization with a track record of caring, credibility, and leadership toward uplifting humanity gave the national equivalent of a 12-step intervention to a nation?  A diplomatic call to "snap out of it!"

I propose that such a yearly intervention exist. Coming from the Nobel Committee, this yearly-awarded challenge could go to the country most needing a loving intervention and reminder that your fellow humans wish the best for you and think you can and should do better.

In order to let a nation know it needs to change, this intervention could be labeled not the Nobel Prize, but the Nobel Challenge. The Nobel Challenge would be the very classy national equivalent of friends and family sending an addict to rehab. Detox, please!

 Even if countries go behind "an iron curtain," if the citizens have known about the prize beforehand and find out that their country has won the award, it becomes a kind of shorthand meaning "look long and hard at the direction your nation is headed.  We, orignators of the award, "challenge" you because we think your nation is the one potentially endangering the peace of the world. It forces debate among citizens that can't be so easily dismissed and ignored.

The Nobel Challenge could be the sort of thing that seeps change into a country at the grassroots level.  How can any one story in the media reach the North Korean people and give them the message "the entire world thinks you need a change."  For all I know, the North Korean people know that better than we do.  But do all the people of Iran? What seeps into the minds of the oppressed at the grass roots level? One big call to action might not only bring people to discuss change, but be empowered to create change.

Here's another example from my own culture where a society fails to recognize its own delusion.  There were recently stories in the news that America and the United Arab Emirates consume electricity and water in huge quantities.  The United Arab Emirates used four times as much water as Europe and four times as much electricity as the United States. These stories may have been noted for about 24 hours when they came out but most citizens of those countries would just yawn in indifference.What if the world, in the form of the Nobel Committee, said through the Nobel Challenge, "your use of resources is unsustainable, please change, your behaviour could create potential conflicts." First, my country would have a hissy fit, then we would get down to business and exceed whatever benchmark was given for change. 

So how can humanity create change rather than yawning indifference to a long-term story? Think instead how the announcement of a Nobel Prize is treated.  The tradition is institutionalized so journalists are prepared for the announcement and make sure to cover it in a significant way.  It's a tradition that is highly anticipated around the world.  It has a track record that people can discuss and debate.  It has a meaning deeper than one particular year or person or organization. Instantly, when a Nobel Prize is announced, book clubs around the world read the works written by the author cited in the literature prize, for example, and think about the author's ideas and discuss what has been held up to the light by the prize.

Why even a totalitarian nation might have a hard time keeping that news from it's people no matter how hard it tried.  It would be the equivalent of when an addict is confronted by all their family and all of their coworkers and the ability to "excuse" is stripped away. I recognize that defiance (one of the central hallmarks of an addict), may be the outcome of a dictator being challenged in this way, but the world has to shut him down sometime.

 In George Orwell's "Animal Farm," it's when the pigs take the milk and apples from the other animals and the other animals notice and don't say anything that the abuse of power continues and increases. Orwell calls it the turning point of the story.  When Chamberlain appeased Hitler with Czechoslovakia, same thing.  Indeed, an  ignored Nobel Challenge to someone like Saddam for the way he treated his citizens might have given George Bush some legitimacy for later intervention (I can't believe I just said that, I didn't believe in that military intervention one whit).

As the history of the Nobel Challenge built up, it might begin to have a preemptive performance effect before it is even given.  Jack Welch, the CEO of GE chosen by Fortune Magazine as the "Manager of the Century", was famous for the performance he got out of his company (when he took over as CEO, revenues were $26.8 billion - when he left they were $130 billion). He had a rule that he would eliminate the bottom 10% of nonperforming staff every year.  Can you imagine how extremely motivating it must have been to people to not be in that bottom 10%?  Can you imagine how motivating it would be to not have your country ever receive a Nobel Challenge?  It sounds cruel, but actual conflicts are crueler.  Just read my previous blog post for a reminder.

All managers of any sort of human enterprise know that there is an entire emotional cycle to implementing change with all kinds of foot-dragging and noise by those who hate changing.  The Nobel Challenge could be helpful in prodding those who love the status quo because it's the "devil they know." The world may have to absorb change at an even faster pace in the future.

If our species doesn't find a way to challenge the ever-expanding global abuses of power in a cost-effective, non-military way, could it be the turning point in our story?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

WWII was worse for Central Europe than even our histories and memories tell us

Sometimes reading about the evil of the Holocaust it seems so over-the-top that it's all one can do to take in the enormity of all of the killing and dehumanizing that went on in the concentration camps.  Try to imagine this though, it's even worse than everyone thought.

Anne Applebaum, writing in the New York Review of Books, in an essay called "The Worst of the Madness" says that the camps may be the predominant preserved historical artifact of carnage. but much worse carnage occurred elsewhere, for example, in the killing fields of Central Europe. Those killings are less likely to be officially commemorated, remembered, or written about [probably because there is nothing to look at like photos or an actual camp].

Ms. Applebaum also argues that with two dictators, Hitler and Stalin, operating ruthlessly in the Central European theater, it accelerated and exacerbated the carnage of the other. The author argues that each side should expand their notion of guilt of what deaths they may have caused.

She says even the United States can't walk away from revising our notion of participation.  That we weren't involved in just a "Good War" as Americans like to think of it.  She suggests it was more morally ambiguous because Central Europe and the East were left to experience 45 years of totalitarianism.

I found that hard to take because I think Americans would have loved to liberate to the east of Pilsen, but deferred to the Soviets in thanks for their help.  It's true that we Americans would probably never imagine an entire region of the world getting walled off and it's inhabitants being treated like prisoners.  As an American of the next generation, reading about it all just increases my respect for all of those in Central Europe that coped, and perished, due to "The Worst of the Madness."

Thanks to David Brooks, opinion writer for the New York Times, for alerting me to this magazine essay.  He chose it as one of the best of 2010.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

St. Clement's Anglican English-Speaking Church Services will be broadcast globally this Christmas on BBC Radio 4

You've heard that Christmas carol about ''Good King Wenceslas,'' right?  Well who was he? The Czechs know but everyone else could probably use a little background.  My beloved church community in old town Prague has had the great honor to be selected by BBC Radio 4 to broadcast a program about the life and death of St Stephen and also of Wenceslas, tenth century Duke of Bohemia, who became known as St Vaclav, patron saint of the Czech Republic.

Would you like to hear it yourself on Sunday, December 26th?  It will be available online at 08.10 GMT (9.10 CET in the Czech Republic) and you can also listen to it anytime in the next seven days after that.

 I'm so proud to see my friend and pastor Ricky Yates be honored this way and so happy more people will discover this wonderful community of people who gather weekly from all over the world to worship in Prague.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Celebrating Those Who Celebrate the Best In Humanity

2010 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo (right)
 and his wife Liu Xia (left)

Last week about this time I was watching the live coverage of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.  Did you happen to catch it?  It was moving.  Apparently CNN International does a live interview with the recipient immediately after they receive their prize.  China did not allow this year's recipient, a Chinese citizen, to travel to Oslo to receive his prize (note to Communist Central Committees - anytime your decision puts you and Adolf Hitler in the same historical footnote, you might want to consider alternative viewpoints before making the final call).

CNN International was left to use their entire Nobel Peace Prize interview hour to discuss with various people what human rights are like in China.  If you were watching, like me, did you come to the same conclusion that all of us really know nothing of what is going on in China?

CNN International mentioned that the People's Republic employs 50,000 people just to keep the Internet censored at all times.  It made me think about how many goods I purchase from China (especially since every country's manufacturing seems to have been farmed out there) and how little these purchases reflect my values if they are being manufactured in a tolitarian state. The first step in addressing a problem is awareness.

It impressed me that despite all of its economic power, the majority of the world would not be bullied into ignoring the ceremony based on China's demands.  It impressed me that Norway is charged with administering the Nobel Peace Prize because Alfred Nobel admired that Norway had never declared war on another country (check out their wealth indicators - peace pays).  It impressed me that such a tiny, little country has found a way to capture the world's imagination, to get people like me to slow down for an afternoon, and to consider where we as a species are going.  Norway, there is nothing small about your ideas.

To honor the Norweigan people for their ability to be the thought leaders of the world on the subject of peace, I want to do my small part today and share something I never heard of or read until I moved to Europe.  It is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights created by the United Nations 61 years ago.

Get a cup of coffee, take a few moments, and ask yourself if your country measures up on every article.  Did you even know this Declaration existed? Did you even know that some of these items were your rights as a human being as decided by the peoples of the Earth? Were you surprised by any of the human rights declared?  I was surprised by Article 16, the whole section on marriage and family. 

How can we as individuals move our global leaders closer to honoring these rights rather than ignoring them? Do you feel your own country is delivering on these globally universal human rights?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Heda Kovaly, Czech Who Wrote of Totalitarianism, Is Dead at 91

People of a certain age in the Czech Republic have had the misfortune of experiencing the full blast of the worst of the 20th century.  The Czech Republic was occupied by the Nazis longer than any other country.  Quickly after the nightmare ended, years and years of gray totalitarianism started.

While I have not read this author, I can't help but read her obituary and be impressed by her dignity, her humanity, and her sheer ability to survive.  Here's what the New York Times reviewer had to say about her book looking back on the worst of totalitarianism in Central Europe:

“This is an extraordinary memoir, so heartbreaking that I have reread it for months, unable to rise to the business of ‘reviewing’ less a book than a life repeatedly outraged by the worst totalitarians in Europe. Yet it is written with so much quiet respect for the minutiae of justice and truth that one does not know where and how to specify Heda Kovaly’s splendidness as a human being.”

Take a moment to click on my title and read about the life of Heda Kovaly, author of ''Under a Cruel Star.''

Monday, December 6, 2010

Starting My Third Year Without a Car

It never occurred to me that I could live without a car until I decided to become an ''Empty Nest Expat.'' Such is the constant brainwashing of Americans that the American dream must include a car.  Had I known how fantastic it is to not own a vehicle, I wish I could have given it up much sooner.

I sold my beloved Saturn red coupe the month before I left to go overseas.  A Saturn was the perfect car for a woman to own because it was possible to buy the car without negotiation and to pay for three years of maintenance up front. Saturn's innovation was pricing the product visiably so buyers didn't feel that it was a contest with the car salesman to see who could 'best' the other in deciding on a price.

As a Saturn car owner, all I had to do was drive the car into the dealership every 3,000 miles to get the oil changed.  My favorable opinion must not have been universally held because the Saturn brand went bankrupt a year after I sold my car. Even loving the car as I had, I didn't appreciate how much nicer life is without one.

Moving to Prague, I was able to enjoy a very simple, cost-effective transportation system at the low cost price of $22 a month.  This enabled me to have a wonderful quality of life because I could easily go home for lunch from most places in the city and I didn't have to devote any of my time to gassing up, car washes, or getting my vehicle maintained. I also didn't have to devote my time to being stuck in traffic because public transportation always had a dedicated lane, metro tube, or tram track.  Better yet, I no longer needed to earn the money necessary to own a car.  This opened up more free time.

I have lived in two subsequent cities since then: Madison, Wisconsin in the United States and Istanbul, Turkey.  In both places, public transportation works just fine and a car is superfluous.  I never want to go back to spending money on something I don't actually value!

When I get in a car now as a passenger (a very rare occurrence) I'm always struck by the stress that the driver is experiencing.  I am thrilled to give up that need for control and have the freedom and lack of stress created by leaving the driving to others.

I would never have learned this without moving to another culture because my own consumer culture constantly reinforces that I should own a car.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Not All Who Travel Must Leave Their Armchair

There are times in one's life when there is no possibility of travel.  When illness threatens, for example, or there are numerous small children to raise, or when the budget just doesn't allow for it. But there are still ways to allow the imagination to take off and see far-off lands and consider peoples and places that are new to us.

Recently, I discovered a blog that encourages precisely that sort of thing.  The Global Reading Challenge encourages people to select a book from each continent of our globe and read it.  This is exactly the sort of deep dive into each other's point-of-view that isn't happening enough in the Internet age of reading chunks of information.

As an American, I would often hear a recitation of American authors from my European friends that they enjoyed.  I have to admit, when an Italian teenager on the subway bumped into me and I was expecting something rude to come out of his mouth, he instead responded to my American accent and described all of his favorite outdoor American writers from Jack London to Jon Krakauer.  His favorite American writing? I was curious to hear what it would be.  ''The American constitution - where it says you have the right to pursue happiness. Beautiful!'' he said.

How could I not feel that this young man understood my culture after he shared what he had read about it? It would be impossible! The Global Reading Challenge has easy, medium, and advanced levels of challenge.  Wouldn't this be a fun challenge to do with a teenager in your family if you are a parent or grandparent? Has your book club challenged itself to read around the world? Click on my title to access the blog and reader reviews of suggested titles.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pray that the Road is Long

Recently a friend shared a poem with me that she said reminded her of me.

I had never heard of this poem, but upon reading it, I enjoyed the compliment.  It is a wonderful poem that I now share with you.  Do you have an ''Ithaca?''

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.
Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.

It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Celebrating My 50th Follower!

Yea! I just had a new follower join my blog and excitedly clicked on her profile to see who she was. Please join me in welcoming Clare Wilson, a researcher who is doing a research project on expatriate spouses.  Not being married, I can't help her.  But I bet there are some expatriate spouses out there who can.  Will you take a minute to see if you are a perfect candidate for her research?  Thanks so much! Click on my title to see her blog. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

I Saw a Suicide Bombing in Istanbul Yesterday

Police work quickly to clear Taksim Square

Yesterday, I witnessed a bombing in Taksim Square in Istanbul.   I was seated on the third floor terrace of Simit Saray restaurant, enjoying traditional Turkish tea and simit with a friend, when a very loud boom and explosion silenced everyone in the usually bustling Taksim Square. We were about 100 meters from where the bomb went off.

The fiery explosion was about the size of a airport shuttle bus. It occurred right in front of where the Istanbul police park their dolmuşes (transport buses) to get out and assemble for duty along Istiklal Avenue.  There was a small car parked there and several police dolmuşes.  The bomb blast seemed aimed at the car.  When the explosion happened, it didn't appear as if anyone in the car reacted.  Maybe they were stunned or hurt.  There was a few short bursts of gunfire, maybe 10 shots.  I could not tell which police officer was shooting or at whom.  I merely heard the gunfire. It wasn't very much.

My friend and I crouched down but we felt relatively safe behind our balcony wall. We could see the situation unfold. "I don't think it's an Al Queda bombing," he said.  "Al Queda usually doesn't attack the police. If it were them, there could be a second bomb.  Al Queda usually bombs in twos. It could possibly be the PKK (Kurdish separatists) or a leftist group." Hearing him analyze potential bad guys, for some reason, made me feel safer. My Turkish friend had already lived through an Al Queda bombing in 2003 that claimed the lives of three of his colleagues.

The mother in me ached for those police officers as I watched them respond. I had nothing but friendly feelings toward these fine young men who graciously protect the many colorful protest marches that parade down Istiklal Avenue every Sunday.

All of my female friends with sons in the military flashed through my mind.  I remember feeling gratitude that my friends who had sons in service were not hearing the voices of the police officers react.  It could haunt them.

The police had a completely undefined, chaotic situation.  You could hear the terror they felt in their voices as the tried to clear the Square as quickly as possible. Taksim Square is an incredibly insecure area with streets jutting into it from several directions and a huge open plaza where another bomb could potentially have been planted. Taxis continued to barrel into the Square and the Police seemed to bang on their cars in a "haven't you heard?" sort of way.

Some people helpfully ran away, while others poked along in ways that seemed completely unconscious of what just happened. People seemed oblivious of the policeman's responsibility to get each one of  them the heck away from danger. Not only did the officers have to worry about another explosion potentially taking place, you could hear in their directives to people what I thought was anguish and anger over their fallen comrades. I could feel their vulnerability and their humanity.  Thank you, Istanbul police officers, for suffering on our behalf. You were heroic.

I counted four wounded: 1) a businessman in a suit with a red tie who had been propped up against a light post, unable to put weight on his legs.  He was later lifted and carried over to a bus kiosk. 2) A police officer with an injured left hand who kept working to clear the Square  3)one person laying down who looked seriously hurt and another one(?) whom I couldn't see.  I could only see his police officer comrade race on his behalf to the ambulance seeking immediate help for him.

 I did not know it was a suicide bomber until I read the news reports.  I didn't see any dead body laying around, but this bomber presumably was on the far side of the car from where I was seated.  I was surprised to read so many people were injured and I speculated when I read the numbers that there may have been police officers who had been between the dolmuşes where I wouldn't have been able to see them.  I have no idea how the higher civilian count happened.  I didn't see that many people injured.

In case there was a second bomb, we decided to exit Simit Saray and go down Istiklal Street to a safer place. The staff lifted up the metal roll-down door so we could leave.  Istiklal Street had been cleared of people for approximately 400 meters back.  We ran as quickly as possible to get behind police lines.

We stopped to have tea and listen to news reports at a restaurant off of Istiklal and then decided to go to the Kurdish restaurant of my friend's friend. "What could be safer than a Kurdish restaurant?", we joked.  I couldn't help admiring Turkish people's lack of hate toward their Kurdish neighbors both when I was up on the balcony and when we went to the restaurant.  Turks and Kurds live side by side in Turkey, the Kurds have a terrorist group aimed specifically at creating terror in Turkish people, and yet the Turkish people don't hate them. I admire that.

"I don't feel terror," I said to my friend. He said, "neither did I the day the first incident happened.  It's the next day when you start thinking about it that the terror starts.  The feeling lasts about a month." The other bombing my friend had lived through was much worse than this one and he had been directly involved in helping get people to safety. 

No group has claimed responsibility yet for this decidedly pathetic act. There was no logic to it and it didn't seem destined to have any lasting impact.  And for what purpose? None, that I could see. Indeed, if anything, this attack made the Turkish people "look good" because their hearts are large enough not to hate.  Whomever the perpetrators are can only look less admirable as people in comparison.

When I came back through Taksim later that night to go home, it was if nothing had happened.  People got off and on the funicular and climbed up the Metro steps into the Square.  Life moved on.  Thank you, God, for letting mine move on. Don't think I don't appreciate it.

Click on my title to read the New York Times account of the bombing and here to see CNN International amateur video of the event. The viewpoint in the video is the opposite side of the square from where I was sitting.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Name It. Change It: Sexism and Equality Don't Mix

This summer, I was without internet access so I got out of the blogging habit.  I'll eventually get around to sharing my adventures since coming back to Europe but for now, bear with me as I get all of my thoughts out about current events.

Frequently, on an expat blog like mine, the expat writing describes and explains the locals to the audience back home.  Today I want to do the opposite.  Czech Ladies, this post is especially for you.  I want to explain American thinking to you because our cultural gap is GIGANTIC on what I'm about to describe.  You can chose to tell me later that we Americans have it all wrong in the comments section.  

Back home in America, there's a hotly contested midterm election.  My friends back in the States are suffering through an average eight robo-calls a day (automatically-dialed, tape-recorded phone messages that tend to arrive during dinner time), 30-50 political ads on TV every day  (each one describing the other guy as a loser and the candidate in the commercial as a saint), and more election anger, zaniness, over-the-top media hyperbole than you would expect any democracy to be able to survive (the jury is still out on ours - we'll see).
 Into this crazy, over-the-top American election cycle (with more secret money than ever - almost $4 billion), a new advocacy organization started to try and hold media types accountable for how they choose to talk about female candidates. The name of the group is called "Name It. Change It."  Here's how they describe their mission:
Widespread sexism in the media is one of the top problems facing women. A highly toxic media environment persists for women candidates, often negatively affecting their campaigns. The ever-changing media landscape creates an unmonitored echo chamber, often allowing damaging comments to exist without accountability.
We must erase the pervasiveness of sexism against all women candidates — irrespective of political party or level of office — across all media platforms in order to position women to achieve equality in public office. We will not stand by as pundits, radio hosts, bloggers, and journalists damage women's political futures with misogynistic remarks. When you attack one woman, you attack all women.
I read that and said, sign me up! I'm a 1970's feminist. Feminist activism was the ferment of my youth.  Indeed, the feminist heroine of my twenties, author Gloria Steinem, was one of the founders of this new group (Czech ladies, the definition of that word in America is not "woman who henpecks her husband" as it is in the Czech Republic - I don't even have a husband.  It is woman who believes in Equal Rights for Equal Work, etc.).  I knew there was a need.

Yet, even I - someone who pays a lot of attention to this stuff - had no idea how much need! Every day "Name It. Change It." shares a different sexist media outrage.  When someone takes the time to organize and send media examples day after day after day, the toxicity of America's misogyny toward women is baffling and mindblowing.

Imagine if you were a Harvard-educated physician running for Governor, and your local newspaper declared that what you were a prime candidate for  - was a makeover! Or imagine this: as a candidate for President of the United States and the first woman to ever achieve 18 million votes for the office, you wake up to find a famous news and opinion aggregator is wanting readers to evaluate the hair clip you wore to the U.N - " is it a do or don't?" It happened to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Yes, I know, she'll survive.  But once you have put the time and work in to reach a certain level, you'd expect to be treated with some gravitas. One of America's shakier Senate candidates, a political novice named Christine O'Donnell of Rhode Island, is the subject of an anonymous severe misogyny attack.  "Name It. Change It." describes sexism in the media according to this pyramid of egregiousness. 

So this week I was reading their latest missive and it's not about American elections, it's about Czech elections! Apparently, the ladies you've elected have chosen to model in a calendar that emphasizes their body parts over their policy positions. Hence, our unbridgeable cultural gulf!  American women decry the treatment of a candidate who gets discussed in the media like this but if your female politicians are voluntarily choosing to pose for a pin-up calendar, are they not asking to be accepted based on how they look, not how they believe and vote?

I remember being in the room once with a bunch of Czechs politicians.  By the end of the night, it came out that the most respected man in the room was the one with bright red cheeks and the biggest belly in the room.  Not a single ounce of him was judged on his looks.  But every man at my table spoke of him with admiration. Reversibility is a key measure of media equality - that Czech politician would never need to, be expected to, or want to pose for something like a pin-up calendar to inspire voters.

Ask yourself, Czech ladies, if your female politician's calendar impedes achieving the gravitas needed to gain that level of respect. It's not useful for you to say that the standards are different for women.  They'll never be different if you don't ask for them to be different. Name It. Change It.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Americans, if you want to support the work of this exciting new group, you can follow them on Facebook and Twitter.  What leaders you would be - there are less than 1,500 people following their work to date - they are simply that new.  Once, you sign up to follow Name It. Change It., can you ask your friends to follow them too?  Election season will soon be over.  If you're a journalist, I would suggest following them as well.  Heightened sensitivity to how media plays into old archetypes brings progress in coverage.  Name It.  Change It. Sexism and equality don't mix!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Czech People Overlooked Yet Again for the Nobel Peace Prize

I am sure that 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo of China is a brave and amazing person who puts mere mortals to shame. However, it made me sad this year to hear that yet another year passed without Vaclav Havel receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.  It would have been so moving for him to receive the most prestigious decoration humanity offers  - last year - when the Czech Republic was celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.  It could have been one giant festival of appreciation between President Havel and the Czech people who helped him transform their nation.

Instead of using the prize as a carrot and a capstone for a statesman's career, it seems the Nobel committee wants to use the prize as an accelerator of change, demanding almost through recognition that winners and their governments conform to what the Nobel Committee thinks should happen.  This cheapens the prize in my opinion because it switches it from honoring the noblest and bravest among us to having a political motivation.

Last year, when Barack Obama won, I was offended, because I felt that as President he would need to make decisions that could be at odds with the Peace Prize goals.  It felt manipulative to me, as an American, that the Committee would try and influence the course of his Presidency while it happened.

My emotions conflicted, though, because I recognized that anyone who voted for Barack Obama could feel a bit of pride in the Nobel Committee's contention that no one of that particular year had done more to change the landscape than Barack Obama.  Since he had been in office such a short time, the American people could be proud that we had changed the landscape with new leadership.

I remember when I got on my half-full bus at 6 a.m.on that bleary day, I shouted out to the whole bus "how about that Peace Prize?" I was living in Madison, Wisconsin at the time where there was close to a 100% certainty that anyone on a bus in that town had voted for the President.

The Peace Prize selection glory reflects to those who followed.  No one can be a prophet without followers. Vaclav Havel was the statesman he was because the Czechs chose to follow him.  Barack Obama was elected President because the people of America chose to follow him.

Vaclav Havel's moral authority transitioned the country from Communism to freedom without violence and retribution in the Velvet Revolution and again to the stand-alone Czech Republic during the Velvet Divorce with Slovakia.  How fraught those giant changes were and how much worse they could have been!

Even in retirement, Havel's moral authority can slice through rationalizations made in the name of strategic interests. Once, meeting with an American reporter for an interview, he asked,  "Is it true Barack Obama cancelled his meeting with the Dali Lama?" (presumably to pacify China's leadership).  Havel demonstrates the courage it takes to speak truth to power when your own country's is less.

America is comng to the age where our power will be eclipsed in size by China.  Havel's success in keeping true to his values while navigating this size differential between the Czech Republic and the former Soviet Union is an example the whole world can learn from as the globe copes with China's rising, and frequently bullying, power.

One measure of a leader is how institutionalized the changes he embodied becomes;  yearly, the citizens of the Czech Republic set new attendance records at the internationally-famous "Jeden Svet (One World) Film Festival in Prague, devoted to human rights around the globe.  Czech people, having lived through totalitarianism, have a sophisticated understanding of oppression that is rarely found anywhere in the Free World. Havel, and the citizens of the Czech Republic, have something to teach all global citizens about what it is to speak truth to the larger power.

As I understand it, Liu Xiaobo and his fellow Chinese dissidents who created Charter 08, were inspired by Vaclav Havel and the Czech people who were signatories to Charter 77.  Would a science Nobel go to a scientist whose work was derivative of another's theory? Wouldn't the committee honor the original thinker of the idea? Shouldn't Vaclav Havel receive a Nobel for inspiring freedom in the Czech Republic but now also China? It seems he is becoming worthier and worthier.  Is there not time to honor that young man and not much time to honor Vaclav Havel?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Czech Women Seek Horrifying Plastic Surgery

How great can culture shock be when you become an expat?  I didn't actually hear about this in the Czech Republic, instead coming across the article in American news and opinion aggregator "The Huffington Post." Regardless, it's jaw-dropping.  We have a word for this in English: it's 'misogyny.'  But since these ladies are doing this to themselves, maybe it falls under the category of 'self-hatred' or 'body dysmorphic disorder?'  Click on my title to read the article (not suitable for work or minors).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New Prague Pub Celebrates Czech Beers

 What's on tap at the Prague Beer Museum?

Here's a story that could prompt every reader to think, "Gee, I wish I'd thought of that."  It's so deceptively, brilliantly simple an idea that there is no way it could not possibly succeed.  Someone has started a Prague Beer Museum with the idea of collecting some of the nation's' best brews in one place for beer aficionados to sample. Brilliant! Click on my title to read the whole article.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Are Guidebooks Facing Extinction?

 Travel writer Benji Lanyado in Vienna
Should he be looking at his phone instead?

My goodness, I never expected to be away from my blog for so long. This week I expect to begin blogging again, so I invite you back.  In the meantime, I was fascinated by this article and wondered if other people are using suggestions specific to the moment as you travel?  Is a newly-printed guidebook too out-of-date for you the minute it is printed? Are you turning to locals real-time via Twitter for suggestions? Click on my title to read how one traveler does it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Thanks for following!

I feel like I've been on vacation from my blog - gee, I didn't even need one! I was having fun posting almost daily.  So while I can't really do my regular blog posts until I get internet access installed, I would like to celebrate reaching a count of 40 followers of my blog! Thank you so much for following, I love hearing your feedback and hearing about your adventures too.  If you're not a follower yet, why not sign up today?  It's an easy way to know when I'm "back at it" and posting to my blog.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Empty Nest Expat" Just Named Among Top 50 Blogs for Expatriates

Yea! I may not be able to post right now without steady Internet access but I still have plenty of readers coming to my site.  Thank you everyone for reading.

I just learned that 'Empty Nest Expat' was handpicked as one of the "Top 50 Expatriate Blogs" by Business Degree Online. I'm #32.  I recognize quite a few other blogs I enjoy on the list.  Thanks for the honor. You can click on my title to see the full list of blogs.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Thanks for caring!

One of my loyal readers contacted me and said, ''Are you alrıght? You haven't posted since the 14th of June.'' Thank you, Karin, for caring!

I just moved into a new place and don't have internet access yet.  New posts should start soon when I'm wıred.  I have so much to tell.

Bye for now!


Monday, June 14, 2010

Little Corruptions

The Czechs had a phrase during communism times: "If you're not stealing, you're stealing from your family."  Since the government back then felt oppressive, and wealth created through industry often felt like it was shipped off to the Soviet state, and no one was really "the owner" of property, this felt like a victimless crime to an entire society.

This attitude is slowly dying out, but I learned to always make sure when buying something that the price was clearly displayed ahead of time because if I had to ask, as a foreigner, I was going to be charged a higher price.

I had been told by Bulgarians that "wealth by any means, no matter how you get it" was a continuing problem in Bulgarian society.  This attitude, far from dying out, is continually glamorized in Bulgarian pop culture, and infecting the young.  It reminded me of of the gangsta culture of a lot of American hip-hop music.  To me, it seemed in both places, Bulgaria and America's urban projects, that new freedoms brought a confusion of how to use them and a slow build-up to wealth through hard work and investment didn't have much attraction. Where's the drama in that?

You have to constantly watch and make sure that you are not getting ripped off in formerly Eastern Europe.  For example, when I left the Czech Republic, the luggage storage attendant told me that my cost was going to be twice what I had expected.  The sign said the stated price was for 24-hour storage. "But you brought it in one day, and left the next." said the attendant. Hmmmm, I guess I should have confirmed beforehand the price was for 24 hours in a row.

"How much is it for extra bags on the bus?" My Czech bus ticket attendant told me 200 kc extra for each bag.  I decided to wait to pay this because I wasn't sure what my final bag count would be. When it came time to get on the bus, no one made me pay for extra bags.  The question was viewed as a money-making opportunity according for the staff.

Leaving Bulgaria, I rolled my suitcase onto the tram and an inspector insisted I pay her 10 lev on the spot for not buying a ticket for my suitcase.  I knew if I was supposed to buy a ticket for my suitcase the Bulgarians who first helped me when I rode the tram would have told me I needed to do so.

"Nope, sorry, not paying it."  I started to write down her badge number and name.

She got more and more insistent.  I just kept writing.  "I'm calling the police because you're writing down my name and number." 

"Okay, go ahead. Call them." This stance had the potential to make me miss my bus to Istanbul and possibly have to repurchase a $50 ticket, but I wasn't going to be bullied into this shakedown. Surely, writing down an inspector's name and number could not be a crime in Sofia.  Indeed, she probably had to wear the badge for precisely this occasion.  After lots of shouting in Bulgarian, she finally let me off the bus when I put another one lev into the tram box for my suitcase.  All talk of the 10-lev "fine" was forgotten.

Upon arriving at the bus stop, the lady in the bus office wanted to charge me 2 lev on the spot as the official cost for having my luggage stored for five minutes in the office while I ran back to the luggage storage spot to get my additional bags.

"Could I have your name please, I would like to confirm this policy with your management." I asked politely about seven times.  She slowly slid the two lev back over the counter to me with a glare.

The shakedowns in Bulgaria are so obvious they were hard to miss.  Giving in would mean I had helped contribute to dysfunctional culture rather than help healing dysfunctional culture.

These examples made me think of a famous book called "Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity" by Frances Fukuyama where the author compares two cultures on two aspects: their trust in each other and their relative wealth. Societies with high wealth have enormous degrees of trust in each other.  The author used the example of Jewish diamond merchants who did million dollar deals on a handshake.  Their word is their bond and should they ever break it, they would be finished as a diamond dealer.  He then compared young men living in an urban culture with no trust in each other.  No wealth either.  Bulgaria's poverty is profound, it felt cruel to photograph it, so I didn't.

There are other examples out in the word though for all of us to see. The Scandinavian countries are known for both their wealth and their lack of corruption.  African nations are getting bled by leaders who are using their countries for their own wealth creation through bribery rather than working on behalf of the people.

The United States has gone through a period of constant erosion of public trust.  Is the wealth of the United States increasing or decreasing? The evidence provides more proof of Fukuyama's theory.

I wish the author of "Trust" would create a pop version of the title for regular people. The book is recommended more for academic circles and frankly, at 480 pages, it's too damn long. But the central premise of his title needs to move out of the academy and into the living rooms of the world! Wouldn't it make a great "One Book, We All Read It" selection because it's all about changing public culture for greater prosperity?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Eating My Way Through Sofia

Some friends of mine in Iowa, the Hamiltons, had told me years ago about how much they had enjoyed Bulgarian food when they had visited. I wanted to make sure that in my short two days in Sofia, I too made a point of experiencing great Bulgarian food.

A local hotel recommended a wonderful restaurant with authentic Bulgarian cuisine. It was but a short walk away (everything in Sofia seems very easy to find and get to on foot).  I loved the family story on the menu which I've linked to here. It kind of let me know "you're not in Kansas, anymore!" figuratively speaking.

Here's the restaurant name in
our alphabet.

And then again in Cyrillic.
The inside of the restaurant
had a wonderful rustic feel.
Very comfortable.
Bulgarian gypsies
  played for each table.
They could instantly come up
with a song
for any nationality
dining there
no matter where people were from.

I would love to load my video
of their music
but I'm writing this from Turkey
where YouTube is censored.

As a feminist, I have no problem
dining alone anywhere in the world.
I like my company!

But I struggle when tipping the musicians.
I do it, but it just seems like it's 
"a man's job."
Hopelessly out-of-date thinking, isn't that?

I noticed that I tipped, but the
table of six businessmen
from various nations
next to me didn't.
They sure made a point
of complaining loudly about gypsies
after the musicians had left the room.

 Yet, these artists were doing a lot
to enhance the cultural reputation of
Bulgaria while earning an honest living to boot.
They deserve to be honored for it,
don't you think?

This gorgeous plate of food
is called Chicken Shashlik.
It's a marinated grilled chicken kebab
with grilled lemons.
It would bring out the inner carnivore in anyone!
I paired it with Bulgarian wine
called Logodoj.

For desert, I had this
extraordinary concotion
Grandmother's Cream
with Carmalized Pineapple.
To die for!

My waiter Konstantin
was very funny.
When I told him
I was from America
he said,
"America, that's a small country
close to Canada, right?"
He teases his British customers
the same way:
"England, that's a small island
near Ireland, right?"

I finished my evening at
Pri Yafata
with Black Sea Gold,
a regionally-produced cognac.
What a great time and
what a great meal!
Shopska salad on the left (fabulous),
A stuffed pepper and stuffed cabbage roll
on the middle plate, and
does anyone know what that
mystery salad is on the right?

I also wanted to make sure I tried a stuffed green pepper while I was in Bulgaria.  I had made stuffed green peppers as a young cook, but I had given them up, because they always seemed a bit bland to me.  I wondered if Bulgarian stuffed peppers would be any spicer?  They weren't.  I was glad to know it wasn't me.  They're good, just without a kick. This represented my first taste of a stuffed cabbage roll too because I would never have had the guts to try wilted green leaves as a kid.  My thought back then would have been "eeew."  Cabbage rolls were also tasty, but standing tall rather than kicking hard.  The chef threw in the salad on the right.  I don't know what it is, I only know it had some sort of Balkan cheese in it.  Anybody out there know? This meal was from the Bulgarian Kitchen Cafe, inside one of the local mall food courts.

My last great meal in Sophia
was at a restaurant called 43,
named after the street it was on.

At my sidewalk table,
I enjoyed a Bulgarian brew
called Zagorka.

This delicious stew of chicken meat and other good stuff
was called pileshka kavarma.
Wow, was it tasty comfort food.

I especially enjoyed the chance to savor it
in this traditional Bulgarian pottery.
After this meal,
it was time to catch my night bus
to Turkey.
I loved doing that on a full, satisfied stomach.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My First Day in Sofia, Bulgaria

Arriving at the Central Bus Station
I almost felt as if I was at the Denver, Colorado airport
with these white-capped "mountain" roofs

My couchsurfing host Kamilla had given me excellent directions in advance for finding my way from the bus station to her place.  Bulgarians on the tram showed me how to pay and made sure I didn't miss my stop.  When I got to Kamilla's place though, no one answered the bell.  While I had stored most of my luggage, I brought one suitcase into town with enough stuff to get through a couple of days. Hmmm, if she wasn't home, I would need to take my suitcase with me sightseeing that day.  No problem. I could do that. I'm not one to let that slow me down.

A couple of Bulgarian ladies noticed me standing there and asked me what I needed.  When I told them the situation, and that I was ready to go sightseeing, they insisted on walking me the one kilometer or so to what they felt was most important for me to see. I couldn't believe the time they gave me! And I found that friendly attitude all day long.  Bulgarians made me feel incredibly welcome. My sidewalk hostesses said I needed to start with a couple churches.

This giant egg was opposite
the Russian church.
The sign says,
"This is the egg of happiness.
Touch the egg and make a wish."

Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle Maker,
a Russian Orthodox Church,
built on the site of a mosque.

It was started in 1907 to pacify a Russian diplomat
who refused to attend Bulgarian Orthodox services.
I would have just reposted the diplomat somewhere else,
but then, Sofia wouldn't have this gorgeous church today.

The outside has been lovingly restored
by a Russian government
no longer threatened by religion.
The inside,
full of candles
and the damage candle smoke can do,
is much darker and mystical.

 Upon entering the church,
I returned to an intuition I often have
when I encounter Russian culture:
a sense that an American
can never completely understand
"strange Russian soul."

A beautiful side view.
This church was just down the street
from the most visited church in Sofia.

I was glad I had taught myself
how to read and pronounce
the Cyrillic alphabet about 20 years ago.
I could get a sense of what this sign said:
something like Moscow House in Sofia.
The Russian Embassy?

This is the most visited church
in Sofia, Bulgaria:
built to honor the Russian soldiers who liberated Bulgaria
from the Ottoman Empire.
Gee, no wonder Bulgaria and Russia
have always been so tight.

Beautiful iron scroll work outside the church.

A mosaic of Jesus just outside the front door.
And on the other side of the front door,
a mosaic of St. Sophia and her three daughters:
Faith, Hope, and Charity.

I tagged along with a tour group to listen to a description of the church.  It was very beautiful and I could have enjoyed the church even more if someone had turned the lights on.  The tour guide said that her company had asked the Bulgarians many, many times to light the inside of the church (it has sublime chandeliers waiting to do just that) but the Bulgarians had never been willing to turn on the lights due to the costs.  She said, "tourists would be willing to pay, no problem, just to see it.  That didn't sway the authorities. They weren't going to charge people even one lev to enter a church."

I agree with the tour guide.  It would be as if a Bulgarian had traveled halfway across the world to see the Jefferson and Lincoln monuments and Americans didn't bother to honor their interest by lighting them at night.  I suggest putting the utility costs in the Bulgarian national budget if Bulgaria doesn't want to charge tourists.  Many people only have one day to get a sense of the country - why not make the opportunity to tell the Bulgarian story count?

It was at this church that I learned the single most impressive fact about Bulgarians: during centuries of Ottoman rule, a majority of them resisted conversion and remained Orthodox Christians.  That attests to a level of stubbornness and will that is truly uncommon.  People who can do that, can do anything.

This lion statue
is a part of a memorial
to unknown soldiers
who have fought on behalf of Bulgaria
through the years.
It's fairly recent,
having been put here in the early 1980s.

Next to the cathedral
was the second most ancient church
in Bulgaria: the Hagia Sophia
(in English, St. Sophia's Church)
During Ottoman times,
it had been turned into a mosque
and minarets were added.

I went into St. Sophia's church, and it just so happened a service was in progress.  I slipped into a back seat and listened.  It was magical.  The parishioners were so devout they were standing and carrying flowers.  There were unseen someones, (monks? a choir?) chanting an unbelievably beautiful liturgy.  I could not believe my luck to get to see and hear this. I sat down, not being quite as devout as all those standing, and also worshiping outside of my own Christian tradition so I could beg off as not knowing when to stand, and also being a tourist rolling a suitcase all over Sofia in need of a little rest. Wow, that chant was magnificent!

All of a sudden, the service seemed to be over and the standing parishioners parted.  Many people up front seemed to be crying.  Could they have been that moved by the service? I marveled to myself about Eastern mysticism that I could never quite completely understand.

Then I saw what the parishioners had been standing around with their flowers.  A casket! And a photo of the departed! OMG, I've CRASHED somebody's funeral. I wheeled my suitcase, as quietly as one can wheel a suitcase over cobblestones, back out the front door.

It's one thing to see a church, but this time, in my own boorish fashion, I saw an ancient church in use.  Even with my unexpected need to skedaddle, I felt deeply grateful to have heard and seen what I did. Later a Bulgarian told me that only very important people would get to have their funeral in that church. I licked my wounds in a nearby park before grabbing my suitcase and "rolling on."

My goal was the Happy Bar and Grill, closer to the center, which I remembered from my Prague chaplain's blog as a place he had eaten. As I was heading there, I heard someone behind me call my name. I didn't know a soul in Bulgaria.  I turned around and there was Kamilla, fresh from the doctor's office and the tourist office where she had stopped to get some literature about Bulgaria to share with me. She had recognized me on the street!

Kamilla was an incredibly thoughtful hostess
to have provided all of this literature.
We enjoyed really delicious roasted vegetables
at our outdoor cafe.

When I had made a comment earlier
to a Bulgarian saying I had heard
about the miniskirts at Happy Bar & Grill,
the lady said, 
"Hey, it's a free country!"
Why, yes, yes it is.
  Kind of gave me shivers when she said it.

I loved the contrast of the
Happy Bar & Grill
miniskirts with a
a priest in ancient garb
waiting to cross the street.

After lunch, we went back to Kamilla's apartment and I opened my suitcase to discover I had grabbed the wrong one.  This one was filled with books.  So I had spent my day wheeling a suitcase full of books all over Sofia. Sigh.

I went back to the bus station and traded suitcases.  When the luggage attendant discovered that I could say "thank you" in Russian, she immediately dropped her demand that I pay for the privilege of changing out my suitcases. Man, these Bulgarians and Russians are tight.

I'll continue with my first evening in Bulgaria in my next post.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Drivers and Passengers without Borders

As an American, one of the things that impresses me about Europe is the amount of political risk-taking the average European is willing to step up and try as a citizen of the EU.  To tinker with elements of government as basic as currency, and border controls, and levels of local vs. continental control requires a level of shared vision that I find extraordinary in such a compressed space of time. These people are really taking thoughtful yet exciting risks with their governance.

I look at the resistance to change in reforming an outrageously dysfunctional element of American society,  health care, and then compare that to European real and actual political risk-taking and marvel at what they get done.  I celebrate one of the EU reforms that I believe Europeans cherish:  the right to cross country borders within the EU without inspection or stopping. It completely serves the people's interest.

Our travel itinerary to Sofia
included crossing the borders of
Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria.

The ability to just drive through the border
stopped when we reached Serbia.
Serbia is not a member of the EU.

 When you are here in Europe,
not being a member of the EU
seems like you and your fellow citizens
have lower class status.

Everyone piles out of the bus
while we go through Serbian border controls.

It was definitely a pain to stop
when everywhere else
the people's representatives
have negotiated speed.

That's how it feels and looks to an American.  I'm interested if it appears the same to Europeans.  Do Europeans without membership in the EU get treated as second-class citizens? Do they feel like second-class citizens? Do those of you who are Europeans cherish this right to cross borders as much as I think you do? What other reforms do you cherish?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bulgarian Beauties

 My beautiful
young couchsurfing hostess

Somewhere between Prague and Sophia, the look of the people changed.  I don't know where that line was because we probably crossed it in the dark in the middle of the night.  The Bulgarians have a slavic alphabet, but the people no longer look Slavic. While there are exceptions, it's a beauty with a darker coloring.  Here are some of the beauties I saw in Sophia.

Two young women at the movies

A young woman
at the Central Bus Station

My server for dinner one night,

A beautiful Bulgarian shopkeeper.
If you've ever worked in retail,
did you do it in heels like these?
Not me! I admired her polish.
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