Friday, January 29, 2010

What Flavor Do You Associate with the Czech Republic?

Quick.  What flavor or spice do you associate with India? The clock is ticking...oh you didn't need any extra time, did you? Most people answer "curry." What's flavor do you associate with Japan? The clock is ticking...everyone may not answer this one the same way. I would say "wasabi."

What flavor would you associate with the Czech and Slovak Republics? Before arriving in Prague, I would have drawn a blank.  Today I would say: "honey."

Do you like honey? Let me tell you about two fabulous Czech specialties that are delicious!

The first product is an alcoholic beverage.  It's mead! How can an American learning about other cultures resist a beverage with such a long and storied European history and medieval name.  It sounds like something one should be served at a Renaissance Fair along with a big fat turkey leg.  Mead is wine made out of three ingredients: honey, water, and yeast. If you want to call it by it's Czech and Slovak name, it's marketed as 'medovina.'

I discovered the joys of medovina one night when I had arrived at a friend's flat, cold and shivering, and my friend offered me a cup of warm medovina to take the chill off. I sat down with a deliciously warm, yummy glass of medovina and fell in love with the taste.

I wish I had noticed the brand name at the time (it came in a clear bottle) because ever since then, I've been tasting different brands of medovina to try and reproduce that exact memory of deliciousness. It's easy to find medovina that is sickly sweet and needs to be watered down.  This wine tasted like a gently sweet, low-viscosity form of honey. Try it. If the first brand is too sweet, give another brand a try.  Mulled mead (doesn't that sound medieval?) is available at Christmas time.  It has additional spices and fruit flavors added.

Are you more of a show-stopping dessert type? I'm not as much.  But I remember one of my fellow teacher's reaction to Medovnik, an exquisite honey cake served everywhere in Prague for dessert.  She was in utter rhapsody! She loved it so much she tried to make it at home.  "Don't bother," she reported after her attempt. "It's not for amateurs.  It's w-a-y-y-y too much work." So I guess she's back to turning heads in cafes with those moans of ecstasy as she consumes her medovnik.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Communist Art in the Prague Metro

Andel Metro Stop

When I first arrived in Prague, I would get off at the Andel Metro Stop every morning to go to class.  The Andel station is beautiful, firstly, because it's all done in different shades of pink and cream marble. The colors gave it warmth and femininity.

 Bronze reliefs
mounted in the walls

Nothing made me appreciate the leap I made more than seeing the Communist art embedded in walls of the Andel station in Smichov.  I liked being in a place where the ideology was different than mine, the history was different than mine, the aesthetics were different than mine.  That's the whole point of travel, isn't it? To challenge our thinking! And maybe, to be a little scared, to push ourselves into experiencing new things.

I hope Czechs never remove this art from the station. Originally, the whole station had been designed by Soviet architects.  Andel (Angel) used to be named in honor of Moskevska (Moscow). The Soviets built this station and one back home in Moscow they named in honor of Prague. The Czech couldn't change the name of the station fast enough after the Velvet Revolution.

Czechs don't appreciate these period pieces now.  Americans do.  It's Orwellian art. I felt the privilege it was to get to see it.  Czechs are just grateful not to be living it anymore.

 All of the art in the Andel Station
celebrates the "friendship" between
the Czech and Soviet peoples.

 Mir - the Russian word for Peace

 My name for this:
"The Happy Cosmonauts"

No Art Represented My Image of Communism
More Than This
-Everything For the Glory of the State!

There's a gorgeous city
out there waiting to be explored.

I'm glad I made the leap.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

How Czech Government Delighted Me As a Consumer

"Can you tell me," asked my native-Czech student shyly near the end of a lesson one day, "anything you see here that is better than in your country?"

"Can I? YES!" I answered enthusiastically. "Czech people haven't the faintest idea how FABULOUS their transportation networks are. They are simply amazing."

Hlavni Nadrazi
the Main Prague Train Station
 What I admire:

1) Czech transport makes Czechs more competitive. Here's why: In America, it is suggested that 15% of the average household budget be devoted to paying for transportation. That usually includes cars for both parents and possibly for any teenagers living at home, car insurance, gasoline, and licenses for the car and drivers. That's 15% of American salaries, which run higher than Czech salaries.

Czechs don't need to spend so much of their salaries on transportation because it's possible to survive, indeed thrive, without a car. Not only can companies locate in the Czech Republic and get high-quality, hard-working, highly educated, often multi-lingual employees, it's possible to pay them less because they don't have these household costs that exist in America.

How low are the transport costs in the Czech Republic? Envision living in a city of 1.3 million and paying a mere $300 a year to get around. And if you want to be able to travel through the entire country (similar in size to the U.S. state of South Carolina), an annual train pass is only $100 more! Can you imagine, my fellow Americans, being able to get around your entire state for only $400? As far as I can tell, Czechs spend around 8.8% of their salaries on transportation.  What a competitive advantage in the global fight for jobs!

On the Hlavni Nadrazi
train platform
where you can catch a train to Plzen
or another city or village 

The comfortable seats
on a City Elephant Train
What's missing: stress!

Czechs have the most extensive rail network density in the entire EU.  Railways were built to transport the military in the 19th century.  A CFO for a construction company pointed out to me Communist government also made it easy to create this incredible system of national and metro railways because the apparatchiks just 'appropriated' whatever property was needed from the citizenry. Property owners weren't compensated. If a government such as mine were to develop this today paying retail prices to property owners, the cost would be exorbitant.  Bummer.

Right up this Metro escalator
is one of Prague's newest malls.
Prague kids don't need their parents
to drive them there.

The kids can't get in too much trouble.
See those spiky things?
There will be no sliding down that shiny metal
all the way from the top!

2) Czech parents don't have to be chauffeurs! When children are between the ages of 10-16, American parents spend their "free" time chauffeuring them from one activity to another. Think about this, America.  Imagine your city safe enough that your 10-year-old and his friends could get on the metro and go to hockey practice without you driving them there! Yes, remarkably, Prague is that safe.  Tweens and teens travel on the metro and trams unchaperoned as they pursue their interests.  When Czech children are free to explore the city, Czech parents have a vested interest in making sure that all parts of the city are safe, not just their neighborhood. Surely, that lessens crime.

Czech students on a field trip
using the Prague metro
to get from Point A to Point B
3) Superb public transportation facilitates learning outside of a classroom. It's a giant hassle to take kids on a field trip in America.  The teacher has to coordinate a school bus, discuss it with all the other teachers, get liability release forms from each parent, etc., etc.  Plus securing that bus is all dependent on whether or not there is budget for it that year.  Is it any wonder field trips are dying out? In the Czech Republic, the teacher can just take her class on ever-present public transit that serves everyone! No need to call ahead and order a bus just for her and her kids.  Kids don't need school buses to take them to school either.  They ride the metro like everybody else.

Poetry in the Metro

4) Public transportation creates readers which is good for democracy and good for wealth creation.  One issue poor families face in America is 'a poverty of print.'  No books in the household and no billboards even in their neighborhoods (companies don't bother advertising to folks with no disposable income).  Low-income children don't start kindergarten with the pre-literacy skills developed by observing readers and reading materials on a daily basis.  A sight seen again and again on Czech transport is a variety of people greedily opening their book with such reverence it reinforces the message that reading is fun. At-risk kids in the Czech Republic have other role models beside their parents.  I've even see Czech parents use that transit time to read to their kids!

All those readers create a healthy market for print newspapers and weeklies which is great for democracy.

Good readers grow up to earn 20% more than average readers. Constant reading builds up a skill critical to wealth creation.

5) Public transportation is safer than driving. Americans curtail their activities because they fear driving when drinkers could be on the road.  I went out with full confidence on New Year' Eve in Prague because I knew I didn't have to worry about dangerous people on the road. It's a little crazy, isn't it, to deprive ourselves of activities because we fear driving?

A new, less predictable, driving danger is becoming known: texting while driving. It results in driving so distracted it is the equivalent of twice the impairment of driving while intoxicated.  Why not bring laptops and electronic devices on public transit to use that time to accomplish work undistracted rather than try to work and drive at the same time?

6) Public transportation creates a pedestrian culture that limits obesity.  I offer my own experience.  Twenty pounds lost in the Czech Republic in six months without trying! But think of the money slimmer people save the country's health care budgets with less chronic diseases caused by overeating and inactivity.

Life goes on!
Here a Czech takes home
a Christmas tree on the metro

 7) Public transportation limits human isolation. You know how people who have just broken up with someone have a grudge against the opposite gender?  It would be hard to keep that attitude alive using Czech public transit. You may not be in love, but everyone else is.  My goodness, I've never seen so much public smooching in my life! On the metro, you'll see couples in love, families moving their household furniture, students studying madly for a test, and people on their way to a potluck with a dish balanced on their lap.  I think it's healthy and gets people outside of their own head to see the wonderful parade of humanity that happens on the metro.  It's a conversational banquet too.  I can't count the number of interesting five-minute conversations I had with perfect strangers on the metro!

The futuristic feel
of the Prague Metro
is part of the fun

8) The Czech Republic is already armed with an infrastructure that limits global warming. Every family that uses public transit saves 20 lbs. of carbon emissions annually from entering the atmosphere. Czech people already have it built!

9) Public transit keeps the air cleaner. - the street my language school was on was like a valley of trapped car exhaust.  I'm sure vehicle traffic has made the air in Prague less healthy for the people who live there.

10)Public transit creates a very livable city. In a city of 1.3 million people, I could go home for lunch!  That's what delights me the most.  The incredible, extensive transport network allowed me to move into Prague without a car and get about the city without any anxiety.  An English teacher in Prague gets to know how to use the metro, trams, and buses in combination with each other so extensively it would be normal to get from one side of Prague to another in 20 minutes.  If I was going someplace new I just used a first-class website to help plan the trip.  All included in my $22 a month transit pass.

An elevated Metro tube
headed into Luziny Metro stop
in Prague
The Challenge for Czechs

Czech families with the funds available are purchasing cars.  Because that strata, articulate in their demands, tends to get listened to in a democracy, there's a danger that public transit budgets will begin to favor highways more than public transit.  In America, 80% of the money goes for highways and 20% for transit. Our transit looks like it too. It's not world-class.  How will the Czech Republic maintain it's fabulously competitive transit system if the loudest citizens value something else?  Are you rich enough as a country to afford both? We aren't - or at least haven't prioritized it that way. What would Prague and other cities be like to live in if the car became the dominant vehicle of choice? Would you have additional costs to your society if obesity was higher, carbon emissions, pollution, and foreign oil imports were higher, stress was higher, human isolation was higher, educational costs were higher, and household expenses were higher?

Czechs, do you understand what an infrastructure gem this is? Have you purchased a car? What do you think will be favored more in the next twenty years? Vehicle traffic or transit traffic?

Americans, does this appeal to you at all? Is there any American area that comes close to this level of transit service?  What kind of public transit do you wish you had where you live (I would love high-speed rail from Madison, WI to Milwaukee and Chicago, Illinois. Rockford, Illinois is a city the size of Plzen that would explode if it had any kind of rail service to Chicago, 90 miles away.

You can also read my previous post about what I valued about the United States Government:

The United States Government Saved My Life

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The United States Government Saved My Life

I moved to Prague in November of 2008. It was the day after the Presidential election so I left full of hope and excitement for my country's future. The preceding month, however, with the credit crisis and the bank bailouts pretty much drove American belief in the fairness of our system out the window. It would have been so, so easy to give up in cynicism. I was grateful to be in Prague where I would be avoiding the continual depressing drumbeat of economic calamity in American news.

When I came to Prague, I discovered Czechs had their own cynicism about democratic politics. I'm not talking about before 1989, but after. Immediately after the Velvet Revolution, Czechs felt all of the assets of the country were stripped away in a big "grab" by politicians and carpetbaggers.

I don't want to be cynical. It's not my nature and cynicism never advanced the cause of humanity. So as I made my transition to living in a new country, I vowed to celebrate one wonderful thing about my government and the Czech government so that I could keep cynicism at bay. In my next post, I'll talk about one wonderful thing I admire about Czech government, even though there are actually many things (just as there are for America). Today, I'd like to celebrate my own government's actions. It actually ended up saving my life.

A typical sign
that conveys how socially unacceptable
smoking is in America.

I am grateful to the United States government for providing leadership in my country on the elimination of smoking as a socially acceptable practice. This wasn't a grass-roots movement from the people pushing up but a top-down campaign from the Surgeon General of the United States (our top public health official) to the people.

In 1964, the Surgeon General declared that "smoking causes cancer." That took real courage to say back then because 46% of American smoked. They smoked in cars, elevators, planes, offices, and their homes. The 1964 report was issued on a Saturday, so great were the worries about what it would do to the American stock market.

The news that smoking causes cancer finally sank into my brain in 1991 when I was 31 years old. Up until that point, I smoked more than I care to admit (okay, I'll admit it: 3-4 packs a day).

When I came to Prague, I had never seen so many smokers! Not even when I was 17 years old and thought smoking was cool. Just walking down one of Prague's very lovely streets, one has to be careful not to get a cigarette burn in one's coat because people are actively walking and smoking at the same time! I once talked to a young Czech college student who was smoking and he was astonished by the idea that anyone would want to quit. "It relaxes me." I don't even think he knew it could kill him. And it's not just Czech young people who smoke.

Most educated people in the USA have educated themselves about the danger.  In America, the majority of smokers left have less than a high school education. I've entered salons frequented by Prague intelligentsia where nearly 100% of the people had a PhD. But they are uneducated about the dangers of tobacco. The air was so thick with smoke you could see it move!

I  was mystified by how unlikely it would be that my country led on this and the Czech Republic lagged on this. After all, in a socialist health care system, wouldn't the government want to eliminate preventable chronic disease because it would eliminate expense? Wouldn't Czech people resent their neighbor's smoking if that drove up national health care costs and their taxes? Isn't it in a socialist government's fiscal interest to change this smoking culture?

Maybe the taxes raised on cigarettes more than cover the cost of the increased disease and people who smoke are used for financing public budgets. I don't know. I will occasionally razz, with a joking smile, my smoking friends who are huddled outside for warmth where they've been banished nationwide in America: "hey taxpayer, thanks for paying more than your fair share through your smoking. You make it easier on the rest of us. But you don't have to kill yourself in the process - why not just mail in the money if you're so insistent on paying these extra taxes?" One of my young coworker has taken to calling his smoking breaks "paying everybody's taxes."

Why did my country lead on curtailing smoking culture when we had a giant tobacco industry that was hugely powerful, created tons of jobs, and lots of export income? The government continually, over and over again, did the right thing despite all that. We have all kinds of industries back home that sway the government from doing the exact thing in the best interest of the public as a whole. I would love to understand why the American government was so terrific on this issue when the government didn't even bear the health care costs of increased smoking, insurance companies did. What do you think, Americans? How could this sort of extraordinary leadership on an issue be reproduced? We sure could use an awful lot more of it.

I am so grateful to the Surgeon Generals of the United States for saving my life. Thank you for continually reminding the public that we were killing ourselves. And since all movements have a drum leader, I would like to take a moment to honor the individual human beings who have led this movement in my country. Thank you!

American Surgeon Generals from that period onward:

Leroy Edgar Burney (first federal official to state that smoking causes lung cancer)
Luther L. Terry (commissioned landmark 1964 report on smoking)
William H. Stewart
Jesse L. Steinfeld
Julius B. Richmond
C. Everett Koop (led a campaign to create a smoke-free society by 2000)
Antonio Novello
M. Jocelyn Elders
David Satcher
Richard H. Carmona
Regina M. Benjamin

See, it's not so hard to keep cynicism at bay! Next post I will talk about what I most admire about the Czech government:

How Czech Government Delighted Me As a Consumer

Thursday, January 14, 2010

How to Make Friends In Your New Country Before You Become an Expat

I suppose expats become old hands at arriving in a country and figuring it all out. The first time sure isn't like that. It's a bit, well, daunting! Luckily, there are resources to help you!

One of the first I discovered was I loved it because it was so beautifully organized. There were stories about life abroad as an expat, lists of expat/international women's clubs, and advice about settling into specific countries from expats who live there. My friend Sher put together the advice for the Czech Republic and it's dead on!

And how do I know Sher? Through! The coolest feature on the site is called "Your Blogs." It lists country by country expat blogs in each country. There were two others listed for the Czech Republic and I became friends with both ladies (even though, I haven't even met one of them because she lives outside of Prague!). It helps though to have a blog yourself so they can get to know you as much as you get to know them.

When I was looking at other possible countries to teach English in, the country specific blog directory was really helpful. What are those blog writers writing about in their blog? All I had to do was read the Ukrainian expat blogs to see I didn't have an interest in moving there. In Kiev, they were freaking out about keeping the heat and the lights on because of continual power outages. Next country! Not going there. I need heat.

One day I looked at African blogs. In one country, the expat were worried for their physical safety and the physical safety of people in that country. Next country! Not going there. It's an incredibly powerful resource from REAL people. Are the writers having fun? Are they being exposed to new ideas? Can they afford living there? Do the locals make them feel welcome? Does the local government treat them with respect?

So take a look at The site is celebrating it's third birthday on January 16th - (Happy Birthday Expatwomen!) Even if the only traveling you are going to do is in your armchair. Your vision will expand as you take in other people's experiences in faraway places. You might even end up with a friend or two.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Discovering a Prejudice Against Germans I didn't even know I had

The Czechs had a pretty horrific 20th century. First, it was the Austrian-Hungarian empire, then the Nazis came, and the Soviets. You'd think Czechs would harbor a grudge. Not so. While every Czech I met knew their history, Czechs seem not to devote a whit of space in their heads to grudges against Germans or Russians.

Conventional wisdom says the opposite of love is not hatred but apathy; that would describe the Czech attitude toward Russians. The Russians left only 20 years ago but they're just never talked about much. Sometimes it seems the Ruskies were never there, and evidence of their being there can only be found in traces, such as the Czech habit of not smiling on the subway for fear of giving your neighbors something to report.

I was surprised though to discover Czech open hearts toward German people. But "how can you trust them?" I'd ask. "Don't you worry the same thing could happen again, where Germany tries to take over all of Europe and make everyone miserable and/or dead?" "Nah," my Czech friends and students would say. "They're not like that."

I always wondered how the Czechs could say that with such confidence. How could they be so sure? Didn't my country have to come over to Europe twice and bail everyone out because of how the Germans behaved? If it happened not just once, but twice in the last 100 years, didn't that mean that deep in the heart of every German there was a blustering Imperialistic Nazi hibernating inside? Over and over again, I heard Czechs negate that thought.

It wasn't just Czechs who had an open mind and heart. While I was living in Prague, I entertained some friends from Israel. The lady discussed making her first visit to Germany to make her peace with the German people. She was content with moving on. What? A Jewish person has such incredible capacity to forgive and trust? Incredible!

I never understood what people were seeing and feeling about Germans that I wasn't until I went to hear Andrew Bacevich, an American professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism" speak at the Wisconsin Book Festival. He and two other learned professors were describing how countries that pursue empire are doing so rather than look inward and reforming themselves. I don't know if he meant this, but I got the idea while listening to his talk that pursuing empire is a country's version of addiction, a non-conscious expression of pain and harm toward other populations so as not to feel or reform ourselves.

After the talk, I asked all three professors separately, "Okay, if the way we Americans are living now is all about Empire building, who then offers us the model of how we are to live?" Each professor commented on what an interesting question that was and that no one had every asked it (yea me!). Andrew Bacevich then answered without hesitation that "the Germans are our example. They have no interest in empire building whatsoever."

Bacevich made me realize I was operating on 65-year-old information. It wasn't fair to judge the Germans of today against the Germans of yesterday. I needed to update my vision of them as a people and open my heart as countless Europeans and my Jewish friends had already done.

When I went to Berlin, all those monuments documented a dark past from which the nation was recovering. Building monuments and talking about the crimes that had been committed in their name is an acceptance of responsibility. They are choosing to deny denial. One of my friends from Italy told me, "if only my country had learned as much from its mistakes as the Germans have."

It made me think. Is my country accepting responsibility for the things that we've done wrong? Are we ready to discuss them out-loud? Are we able to discuss our past mistakes? One of my U.S. Senators told me if Americans thought the Abu Ghraib photos were bad, the ones not shared in public were much, much worse. If we don't prosecute the alleged abuses and torture done in our name, doesn't that make every American responsible for them? If we choose not to talk about them or acknowledge them, it means we approve, cause we'd rather live in denial. I don't want to live in denial.

I also don't want to operate on 65-year-old information. Heck, if people didn't update their visions of each other, we'd all be worrying about Scandinavians looting and pillaging ala the Vikings!

Look at Iranian leadership. They are operating on a paranoia developed from 55-year-old information when the CIA overthrew their leader and they've been overreacting ever since.

I vow to open my heart to German people and look at them as people completely and wholly new to me. I know nothing about them and my mind is now an open slate.

You may be interested in these other posts:

Understanding Iran: The Power of One Graphic Novel called Persepolis 

Recommended Reading for Thoughtful Americans: "The Limits of Power" by Andrew J. Bacevich

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Most Popular Posts for the Empty Nest Expat Blog

As Empty Nest Expat blog begins a new year, it's interesting to look back and find out which posts received the most readership. I knew nothing about search engine optimization when I started this blog. I now try to at least make my title have a keyword or two related to the subject at hand.

I'll no longer write a post with a title who's meaning is as hidden as "Good Things Happen to Good People" when it's about UNESCO naming one of my favorite places, Iowa City, Iowa, the third-named City of Literature in the entire world. No one finds the post except those who return to my blog on a regular basis!

For those of you who do read my blog on a regular basis, I want to say thank you. I have learned so much from you and have enjoyed our two-way conversation. If you're one of my "lurkers" and are nervous about leaving comments, please go ahead and do so. I'm constantly surprised when someone will send me an email telling me they took some action based on something in my blog (such as visit or move to the Czech Republic, or picking a particular part of Prague to live in, or going to a particular tourist attraction) and I knew nothing about them reading it cause they never said hello! Say hello - I'd love to meet you (at least the best we can - virtually).

When I write, I write about what fascinates me and I write from the heart. Writing gives me a chance to relive the experience and know it more precisely. I have no idea what you'll enjoy. It was fun to go back and see what posts generated the most readership. If you as a reader can share your favorite posts with me in the comments, I would love to hear your opinion!

Here are some of my top read posts over the last two years. The individual posts to read are in green. I've grouped them under some general subject headings.


Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life

Shedding a House and a Full-time Role

A last spin around America before moving overseas:

The Legend of Starved Rock (Illinois)

Wonderful Food Eases a Newly Empty Nest (Madison, WI)

"An Iron Curtain Has Descended" (Fulton, MI)

Czech Housing:

My First Taste of Czech Village Life

Was Living in Soviet Housing on My Bucket List?

Czech Art and Architecture:

It's David Cerny Appreciation Week

Welcome to Capitalism!

Inspiration at the Post Office

Czech Books:

"I Served the King of England"

"The Restoration of Order: The Normalization of Czechoslovakia"

Czech Fashion:

Beautiful Slavic Faces

Tall Black Boots

First Beautiful Spring Evening in Prague

Out and About in Prague:

The Infant Jesus of Prague

Futurista Builds Upon the Past

I Needed Some Cash in My New Neighborhood

Prague Kavarnas (coffee shops):

Pavel's Prague II: Grand Cafe Orient

Come Join Us for Coffee

Fantova Kavarna Waiting for It's Closeup


My First Week of Teaching English

My First Class of Students

Yea! We're done with Our TEFL Class


"You Americans Are Obsessed With Communism"

Two Capitalist Running Dogs Visit the Museum of Communism

Disarming the Velvet Revolution

President Obama:

Dear President Obama, Please Come to the Czech Republic
(he did, too!)

President Obama will Speak to the Most Vibrant Part of Czech Democracy: the people

Obama in Prague!

Leaving the Czech Republic (unexpectedly and not by choice):

The Czech Government Denied my Visa

What Just Hit Me?

Why Can't Visa Departments be Like UPS?


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