20 December 2011

Truth and love

Some sights from the memorial set up for Vaclav Havel at Wenceslas Square. People began coming on Sunday evening and they continued to come in droves to place signs, light candles and pay their respects.

19 December 2011

You'll hate me when this gets stuck in your head

The Czech Republic, I am learning, has several Christmas traditions I hadn't heard of until this month. They eat carp and potato salad on Christmas Eve. They cut apples in half, with the core lying horizontally, and if you don't see a star formation inside the apple, you'll die. They place candles in water, and among the various options include whether you will stay put or leave, whether you'll be alone or with someone, or whether you'll die. Lots of Christmas traditions here include the possibility of dying, including the likelihood of jumping off a bridge upon hearing Mariah Carey's Christmas song one too many times.

18 December 2011

Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011

Vaclav Havel was most comfortable penning plays, but he will forever be known as the man who led the overthrow of the Communist government in Czechoslovakia. He led the Velvet Revolution that ushered in a new era -- all without a single death despite the masses of people who protested in November 1989.

You will no doubt read or watch a ton of news stories about him, so I won't bother attempting to recount every detail of his life -- although, for the record, it went something like this: playwright, banned playwright, author of Charter 77, political leader, first post-Communist president of Czechoslovakia, first president of the Czech Republic. He died today at 75, in a nation that would be nowhere near what it is today without his bold efforts.

Update: This article from the Czech Position is worth the time -- for reaction, perspective, and a photo of the mass of people who gathered to light candles Sunday in Wenceslas Square. One local paper is apparently going to publish a 117-page special edition on Thursday.

13 December 2011

Not Prague, Part 9: Dresden

No place does Christmas quite like Europe, and no place in Europe does Christmas quite like Germany, which is why a 135-minute train ride to the Christmas market in Dresden seemed like the ideal way to spend a Saturday. This was an idea shared by -- and this is just a rough guess -- 77 million other people.

The city, set on fire by Allied bombers at the end of World War II, has recovered quite nicely. Despite being one of only two locations ever to have been removed from UNESCO's World Heritage list (thanks to the building of a four-lane bridge near the city center), tourists continue to visit for the stunning architecture, the shopping, and the Christmas market that has the reputation for being among the best in Germany.

Stalls served bratwurst and hot alcoholic drinks, the latter of which included a cup you could keep simply by not coming back to claim your 2.50 deposit. People crammed in narrow pathways to peruse the massive selection of nutcrackers, ornaments, dolls and other figurines. Children rode on merry-go-rounds and small trains. Adults gathered in a small lodge to listen to Christmas stories, and children sang carols on a stage.

08 December 2011

Angels, devils and poems

This is indeed a wonderful, festive time of year. In the United States, people are gathering to buy presents, sing carols, and, in the spirit of goodwill and even better taste, lay off a dozen employees three weeks before Christmas.

Here in the Czech Republic, traditional Christmas markets have popped up at some of the city's main sites -- Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square, Namesti Miru and Vysehrad to name four.

The market at Old Town Square.
The markets obviously are a tourist draw, but they lure a fair share of locals as well, particularly to the ones that aren't at Old Town or Wenceslas squares. But Old Town was the place to be on Monday night, which was the eve of St. Mikuláš (Nicholas) Day. There, I was joined by the Special Assistant to the Blogger, who helped me understand the Czech tradition of the evening. People dressed as St. Nicholas (apparently the precursor to Santa Claus), an angel and a devil would approach children and ask them to either sing a song or recite a poem. Successful kids received candy. Unsuccessful kids would be stuffed into a bag carried by the devil. The latter did not happen, at least while we were looking.

21 November 2011

Touch of grey

First of all, I know this isn't most Deadheads' favorite song, but it is from the '80s, which means I am contractually obligated to link to it.

Second, the process of turning my apartment and/or flat into a home took a significant turn this weekend. I also found out what everyone in Prague does on a Saturday. The tourists go to Old Town Square, and the locals go to Ikea. Now that I am among the latter, I took it upon myself to buy a couch for the bedroom, which, thanks to the TV, also doubles as the common room.

Before. I wonder if I get to chew this, Baldy asks himself.

16 November 2011

The beginning of the end

Tomorrow, the Czech Republic celebrates one of the most significant and stunning days in its history -- the anniversary of the students' march that led to the end of the Communist era. It began with police abusing a suddenly emboldened populace and concluded 11 days later with the announcement that The Party would no longer be in power.

First, the backdrop as the sun rose on November 17, 1989. Mikhail Gorbachev had implemented his openness and reconstruction policies in the Soviet Union by the summer of 1988. Poland had formed a non-communist government in September 1989, and Hungary had followed suit a month later. On November 9, the Berlin Wall had fallen. And in Czechoslovakia ... nothing yet. There's a reason for this, as outlined in a diary written by someone who was 16 at the time:
If you got caught [demonstrating against the government], you might have been beaten, arrested for days without any trial, and afterwards you might have been deprived of your possibility to study - high school and higher, to work in any but the worst of jobs, to travel out of the country, even to walk free. Not just you, but your entire family could face that fate; all that was needed was just one small mistake on your part. So any anti-government activity was a high-risk business and something you wouldn't dare to even talk about to all but close friends; so ordinary people were very scared and very obedient. Perhaps more than in the rest of the communist bloc. The sudden raise of personal and national courage during the 11/17 and afterwards was totally unexpected... and totally euphoric.

14 November 2011

TV signals and crawling babies

Prague is home to a smorgasbord of architecture: Gothic, Baroque, neo-Renaissance, and a huge metallic,  rocket-type thingy rising from a former Jewish cemetery 216 meters toward the sky with crawling babies on it.

The tower, lit up in the national colors of Russia the Czech Republic (I kid, my Czech friends, I kid ...)
When construction began on the Žižkov TV Tower in 1985, criticism was muted, but only because doing such things under the Communist regime was highly frowned upon. Upon its completion in 1992, the mockery was in full force -- locals said the structure ruined the skyline, was disproportionately tall, was too Communist, and even caused cancer in children. Over time, most locals' views have softened to either acceptance or indifference. It's even one of 31 towers to be on the list of the World Federation of Great Towers, although admittedly I don't know what that entails or means (perhaps a spot in the second round of qualifying for the Champions League).

12 November 2011

Just (more November) photos, part tři

St. Nicholas Church and the Jan Hus statue in Old Town Square.
Painting on a building at Old Town Square.
It's about St. Wenceslas -- that's about all I know.

07 November 2011

Letná Park: History, HIStory, and the passage of time

As one of Prague's few open spaces, and with a location overlooking the city, Letná Park (and its adjacent plain) has hosted some of the city's most memorable events. From the coronation of Czech king Přemysl Otakar II in 1261, to the annual May Day parades during the Communist era, to the construction and implosion of the world's largest Stalin statue, to the massive and life-altering Velvet Revolution rallies in November 1989 that helped end the Communist era, to Michael Jackson opening his 1996 world tour in front of more than 120,000 fans there, Letná Park has been a witness to history (as well as HIStory).

And if you're not into history, well, there is this:

The second bridge you see is the Charles. That building is the Ministry of Interior
Strakova akademie, the seat of the Czech government. The balloon is part of the Kafka Museum.

City of 1,000 Spires. Go on, count them.

A man's castle is his (and his four wives') home

Long before the end of the Communist regime, and the start of the Communist regime, and the invasion by the Nazis and the country's subsequent removal from the map, and independence from Austria and Hungary, and its centuries-long period under the control of the Habsburgs, Prague was the center of the Holy Roman Empire.

As such, Charles IV, King of Bohemia, commissioned the construction of a castle in the middle of the 14th century to protect his royal treasures. Today Karlštejn Castle remains among the most popular tourist destinations outside of Prague, thanks to its history and its convenient 30-minute train ride from the city.

The castle overlooks a village that has roughly 800 people
and nearly twice as many shops.

05 November 2011

Reunion of the Plastic People (and others)

The year is 1976. The place is communist Czechoslovakia. The scenario, quite simply, is this: Some rock bands decided to put on a concert. And the government didn't like it. So four musicians were placed on trial, found guilty of "organized (and/or organised) disturbance of the peace" and sentenced to jail sentences ranging from 8 to 18 months.

For many bands who wanted to perform songs about topics other than how wonderful the Communist regime was, playing concerts was a chore. They could play at friends' weddings or other clandestine operations. And when they did play under the watchful eye of the police, they risked a quick end to the show and an arrest for their so-called rabble-rousing. If my Internet sources are to be believed, the outspoken founder of one band was arrested 300 times and named an Enemy of the State.

Times, obviously, have changed, and this weekend in Prague the bands are getting together for a show. There's been plenty of advanced notice and there is no risk of arrest for dissent. An article about the reunion, and the backdrop of these bands' shows during the Communist era, is here.

01 November 2011

"You're hired. You start when the deer have sex."

Most European countries use Latin-based names for their months, but not the Czech Republic. Instead, the names translate into something symbolic for that month. For example, the 11th month is listopad -- which literally (or close enough to literally) means "leaf-fall."

Letna Park is a lovely place to be during "leaf-fall."
Or when the deer have sex, for that matter.

26 October 2011

Birth of a nation

Friday is a national holiday, as Czechs celebrate the anniversary of an event that has forever changed the cultural landscape. I am referring, of course, to Charlie Daniels' birthday.

Or perhaps they're celebrating a slightly more significant milestone: the birth of an independent Czech-Slovak state. Czechoslovakia was born on Oct. 28, 1918, thus severing itself from the Austro-Hungarian Empire that had held its grip on the Czechs (from Austria's side) and the Slovaks (from Hungary's side). The area that is now the Czech Republic had been under Hapsburg control for 300 years. Despite this, Czech language and culture survived, a persistence that was rewarded with the declaration of an independent Czechoslovakia at the end of World War I.

The scene at Wenceslas Square in 1918. No, I didn't take it myself. Photographer unknown.

24 October 2011

"It was the past perfect sentence structure of God"

Teaching English to the employees of Radio Free Europe has forced me to keep up with current events -- as well as the occasional 25-year-old one ...

Hey, don't blame me. One of the most famous goals in the history of the World Cup is detailed in this textbook, in a section on cheating. The book recounts three famous sports cheats: Maradona, whose goal helped beat England and thus can't be considered all bad; modern pentathlete Boris Onishenko, who rigged his sword to register hits on the computer scoring system; and runner Fred Lorz, who finished first in the 1904 Olympic marathon thanks in large part to riding 11 miles in a car.

22 October 2011

The heart of Europe is in the ... East?

The classification of Prague and the Czech Republic either as part of eastern Europe (to associate it with the Balkans or former Communist countries) or central Europe (preferred by those who don't want the CR associated with former Communist countries) has been going on a while. Today the often-interesting Czech Position website takes at look at the issue and reports that, despite several countries laying claim as the Heart of Europe, the true central point could be in Lithuania. So maybe it's not just Americans who have geography issues after all.

20 October 2011

If I knew Czech for "Catching Up," I'd put it here

My third week of teaching is nearly complete, our kitchen is stocked, my cable TV and Internet are connected, my room is decorated, my Czech is still crap (but getting better), and I have gotten familiar with the Prague subway system, which is good considering I travel on all three of its lines every Thursday. Now that I have allowed myself time to breathe, here are some nuggets from the past three weeks, many of which are worthy of their own blog entry in due time.
  • As mentioned in my previous post, I am lucky to have met some interesting people in my classes at Radio Free Europe. I recently learned that one of my students has been jailed in his home nation of Turkmenistan twice, once for three years and the other time for less than two weeks, because he dared write something that went against the official government story. Earlier this month, another Turkmen journalist received a five-year jail sentence. Turkmenistan, according to another student of mine from the country, is "a large, comfortable prison -- nothing else." Just a reminder that I'm teaching some brave souls who truly are enemies of the state in their homeland for the wrong reason. Speaking of Radio Free Europe ...

03 October 2011

Calling all in transit

The night sky was dark and vast, and to the left I could see the Orion constellation with clarity. It was nearly the perfect night ... except that it was 5:30 in the morning. This was how my first day working for Akcent-International House Prague began, and my friends who know that I normally enjoy an early wake-up call as much as I like purple cabbage bathed in tartar sauce will get a kick out of the fact that two weekday classes start at 8:30, two others at 8 and one more at 7:30. Baldy, I don't think we're in Korea anymore.

(UPDATE:  One astute colleague has accused me of grumbling too much about my schedule. Indeed, his weekdays start, on average, earlier than mine: 8, 8, 8:30, 7:30, 7. So this morning schedule is new to me, especially when compared to my 3:10 p.m. starts in South Korea, but far from unfair. Not complaining, just adjusting.)

Today, I caught the 7:03 bus to Budejovicka, rode two subway lines and walked five minutes to the modern and pristine Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty building. Radio Free Europe, backed by U.S. taxpayer money, began as a means to provide uncensored news to Communist-bloc countries and now is broadcast in 21 Eastern European and Middle Eastern nations.

Our school has been hired to teach two types of courses there: one for general English skills, the other geared toward the broadcasters, most of whom must read stories in English, understand them, and then translate or talk about them in their native tongue to listeners or viewers in their home countries.

01 October 2011

A dog walks into a pub ...

Friday night, Baldy celebrated his fifth birthday in a place where he was unable to enjoy any of his previous birthdays: in a pub.

Baldy joined my roommate and me for dinner at the neighborhood pub, just a two-minute walk from our apartment. I ordered the goulash, Stephen had some chicken on a skewer, and Baldy had whatever morsels I was willing to give up. He sat on the floor quietly, and the biggest indication of how this sort of thing is handled in the Czech Republic is what didn't happen. Nobody batted an eye, or pointed, or recoiled in horror. The waitress smiled and a couple of customers acknowledged with a fond look, but other than that, there was nothing -- except for one pleasant surprise.

28 September 2011

The view from Petrin Hill

Today is Czech Statehood Day, which commemorates the patron saint of the Czech people, Saint Wenceslaus, aka Good King Wenceslaus. The Good King was Duke of Bohemia until his younger brother had him murdered on his way to a religious feast in 935, which also happens to be the last year the Jets won the Super Bowl.

A handful of teachers at Akcent-IH chose to gather for a picnic at Petrin Hill. This wasn't a full-on sightseeing day, just a chance to find a spot where we could overlook the "City of a Thousand Spires" (it's true; I counted) and relax.

27 September 2011

More of this 'n' that from the first week

The paperwork is almost completed for me to officially work and live in Prague. Also, I have settled on two professional sports teams to support. Go on, guess which of these facts matters more.

Here's a summary of the past few day as I prepare for my two-day induction that begins Thursday ...

26 September 2011

Just photos, part jedna

Prague Castle, with St. Vitus Cathedral within its walls, overlook the Vltava.

The Charles Bridge and other buildings on the Old Town side.

One of 30 statues on the Charles Bridge.

The scene on the Vltava on a sunny Sunday.
For more photos taken from the weekend, including a metronome where the world's largest statue of Stalin used to be, click on the Flickr photo album here.

25 September 2011

It's a dog's life

Five days in, I decided to unleash Baldy on Prague.

Here, he is sitting in an area of Mala Strana (or "Little Quarter"), a beautiful, quaint, tourist-filled area of Prague nestled against the Vltava River and near the Charles Bridge. As I've alluded to before, Prague is extremely dog-friendly. Dogs can ride on the buses (toward the back), on trams and on the subway. They can even enter pubs and restaurants. The general rule seems to be: Unless there is a specific sign that says dogs are forbidden, then dogs are welcome.

23 September 2011

Oh, no! The kitchen's exploded!

If you participated in the "How Long Will It Take For Fitz To Obliterate Something In The Apartment?" pool, whoever selected "the second morning in the place" is the winner, with bonus points to anyone who specified an explosion in the kitchen.

I didn't take a photo of the damage, so I'll just take the Action News Team path and show you the much cleaner aftermath.

"I'm live at the very spot where, 12 hours ago,
Mark Fitzhenry exhibited the IQ of a doorknob."

22 September 2011

Video: My apartment in Prague

For a combination oven/dishwasher and other stuff, allow Baldy to lead you on a tour ...

This 'n' that from my first two days

The journey began Tuesday, with Scott Folsom behind the wheel of his pickup truck and a damp Baldy sitting on my lap in the passenger's seat. A five-hour wait followed. After that was a flight in which I napped for 30 minutes tops, a four-hour layover in which I dozed for 40 minutes tops, an hour flight to Prague, bedtime at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, 90 minutes of lying awake starting around 1 a.m., a 7:30 alarm when I wanted it half an hour later, and lots of shopping and general getting-to-know-the-neighborhood stuff.

Here are some snippets from the past two days, starting with what you really want to know:

Poll results: My fate after three months in Prague

Looks like our readers have a measure of respect for my knowledge of '80s music, but not necessarily for the way I move to it:

Response No.
Become "Assistant Director of Curriculum/'80s Music" for my school 5
Banned from nightclub for horrific dancing 5
Receive lifetime free pass in nightclub for fantastic dancing 3
Married after using "I was Deer goalkeeper of the year" as a pickup line 2
Bludgeoned to death by English after 1,473rd Robert Green joke 2
Deported for letting Baldy run rampant in St. Vitus 1

As for Robert Green, if I have the opportunity to make a joke about him, I can't let it slip through my fingers.

20 September 2011

See you on the other side

This has been a summer unlike any other for me, most notably because it's been the first one since my middle school days where I didn't have a job. I was able to survive, thanks to the South Korea pension payments, a bit of savings, and some very low-key nights in front of a large-screen TV and the Boston Red Sox, a PlayStation3 and my DVD collection.

Since I finished teaching in South Korea, I have:
  • Driven from Southern California to New Hampshire by way of the Grand Canyon
  • Taken a teacher certification course in Prague
  • Visited four European cities in seven days
  • Returned home with no job
  • Found a job in Prague
  • Driven to Boston, D.C. and New York (twice) to secure paperwork for said job
And today, I finished packing my suitcase and backpack. At this time tomorrow (at least as I started to type this) I'll be in Logan Airport, waiting for the boarding call, as Baldy is in the good hands of the Lufthansa staff. I've spent much of my summer looking ahead, but today, I'm going to take a brief look back to salute all the people who enabled me to survive this summer in the States:

Ladies and gentlemen, my mattress the past two weeks.

17 September 2011

You had a question, I have an answer

I'd like to thank my aunt Ann for providing the only question for my first (and hopefully not last) mailbag. For submitting the only question, she receives no prize whatsoever, other than the ability to tell her friends that she submitted the only question for this mailbag.

Do you already have a place to live? -- Ann, Connecticut

Yes, I do. When I arrive at the airport on Wednesday, a taxi driver hired by my school will meet me and Baldy at the airport and drive us to our new home. I'll have to pay for the Internet, and for cable TV if I choose to get it (which I imagine I will), but all other expenses are paid for. I'll post a video of my apartment once I get settled in, but chances are it'll be cozy and include a door to the patio that can also be pulled straight down to allow fresh air to enter the apartment from over the top of the door.

An apartment complex, which may or may not have a completed paint job
upon my return, located in Praha 5.

Any other questions? Write a comment in the proper section below or bat out a note on Facebook.

Have I mentioned the poll in the upper right of the webpage? Yes I have. Nobody ever accused me of not belaboring a point, so there you go. Please vote.

16 September 2011

On the plane? No thanks -- Baldy will be in the plane.

First off, a tip of a pilot's cap to George Carlin for the title of this blog entry.

Today marked the final step in getting Baldy everything he needs to join in me in Prague. People often ask me if bringing him overseas is difficult. I'd call the process time consuming, and detail-driven, but not necessarily difficult. The most important things to remember are to do the research and plan ahead. Airlines have rules and guidelines. The U.S. has rules for exporting pets. The EU has rules for importing pets.

All told, I'll bring four items of paperwork with me when it's time to bring Baldy to Logan Airport on Tuesday. Here's a brief chronological look at the tasks I had to complete:

Yes, I'd like an aisle seat, please.

14 September 2011

Not Prague, Part 8: Mount Monadnock

New Hampshire is the proud home of one of the United States' most nondescript presidents, the coolest license plate slogan, and, if one is to believe the numbers, the most-climbed mountain in North America. I climbed Mount Monadnock on Sunday, along with half of Cheshire County, the varsity softball team from Franklin Pierce College, and eight other family members.

Monadnock is not the most majestic mountain you'll ever climb, but it draws hikers because of its grand views over New Hampshire and its relative ease to conquer. My 8- and 13-year-old nieces made the trek on Sunday, and my childhood friend's 76-year-old father completed the climb several months ago. Larry Davis climbed the mountain 2,850 consecutive days until his doctor warned him that doing it again while suffering from pneumonia might result in death. Garry Harrington enjoyed the climb so much he did it 16 times in one day. For us common folk, it's a satisfying day for exercise, scenery and bonding.

Not quite at the summit.
At the summit -- 3,165 feet above sea level.

09 September 2011

Somber times in the square

Prague's Old Town Square, often the home of admiring tourists, rousing protests or rollicking bachelor parties, took on a decidedly more somber tone the past couple of days.

Photo from the Czech news agency. Story here
Photo from the Czech News Agency. Story here
Wednesday, a plane crash in Russia killed all but one every member of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team that was flying to its season-opening game of the Kontinental Hockey League season. Three of the players were Czech: Jan Marek, Karel Rachůnek and Josef Vašíček. Czech officials announced there would be a memorial event at Old Town Square on Thursday, but fans in this hockey-mad country didn't wait that long.

Photo from the Czech News Agency.

08 September 2011

Yes, you may see my papers

Got a present in the mail today: My passport, complete with a 90-day short-term visa stamped onto one of the pages, sent from the Czech consular office in New York.

As frustrating as this process has been, this step has been very satisfying. After it took five weeks to obtain a work permit, and after a delivery company kept my paperwork from Prague on hold from me in Boston for a week, and after I drove to New York one time only to change visa strategies and return four days later, this step took exactly as long as the consular officer told me it would. She said I'd be approved within seven days, and they'd send the visa to me via overnight mail. Sure enough, I got the visa eight days after I applied for it.

This concludes the necessary paperwork to get me to Prague, at least to start the job. Shortly after I arrive, I'll take a train to Berlin and apply for the long-stay visa. Once I apply, I should receive the visa within 60 days, and then the process, which started in late June, will be complete.

Reminders and/or self-serving requests: 
  • If you haven't voted in the new poll, it's located in the upper right of the webpage. It's early, but some people out there are guessing that my school will value my '80s music knowledge more than most institutions.
  • Also, as I wrote in my previous post, I'm asking all y'all what questions you'd like to have me answer, which may or may not include, "Do you really have to write all ya'll?" Please post them in the Comments section below or on Facebook. "Why are you such a git?" is not acceptable, mainly because it's rhetorical.

07 September 2011

Your turn: Questions, please

No pressure or anything, but the one of my future blog posts will depend on you.

I've enjoyed sharing the buildup to my next job, which will begin later this month in Prague, but I'm not sure if what I write always interests you, or if I'm overlooking an aspect of this job that you're truly curious about. So consider this an invitation -- even if it really is a plea -- to ask any questions, either in the Comments section below or on Facebook, about the upcoming job. I'll post your questions with my answers sometime next week -- like a Bill Simmons mailbag, but with fewer "Shawshank" references.

I have a question: How can you be so obtuse?
In other housecleaning news ...
  • There is a new poll question on the upper right of this webpage.
  • If you want to get notified every time I post, you can use the feature on the right. Just enter your email address and Google will send you a message when I have posted.
  • If I die in a plane crash on the way over there, who wants my PlayStation?

01 September 2011

It's a date

I finally have a date, and not the kind I'd eventually ruin by spending 35 minutes dissecting Dave Roberts' stolen base against the Yankees in 2004. The date is September 20, and that's when I finally leave the U.S. for Prague, where I'll land the next day to begin the latest chapter/adventure/prelude to an international incident.

When I last left you, I was getting ready to head to New York to apply for a long-stay visa on Friday. But I was unable to secure the starting date until I returned to New York to apply for a short-term visa on Tuesday. As always, I will explain.

New York, New York: So nice, I drove there twice.

25 August 2011

Poll results: The 2011-12 EPL champion

Looks like some Liverpool/Chelsea/Arsenal/and perhaps Stoke supporters chimed in, as did those from the school of In Bill We Trust:

Response No.
Someone other than Manchester United or City 3
Manchester United 2
New England Patriots* 2
Manchester City 1
Definitely not Liverpool 1
* - Actual wording of option: "I don't know what the Premier League is, but if the Patriots were in it, I'm sure they'd win it."

I've voided my vote for "Reading, in 2018," but for posterity's sake, when it happens, there you see it.

Mail bonding

Well now, those in the delivery industry had better have me on the top of their Wintertime Celebratory Event of Their Choice card lists. In the past five business days, I've sent an overnight package to South Korea, received an express package from the Czech Republic, sent two boxes to my school in Prague, received an overnight package from South Korea, and sent an overnight package to New York.

Why yes, of course I'll explain:

1. Thursday, I sent my criminal record check to South Korea from Washington so I could receive an Apostille. I've already written about that adventure here.

Excerpt of the criminal record check from South Korea.
2. Monday, I received the materials I need to apply for the long-stay visa in New York. This package was overdue, and it's a long story, and believe me, a thorough analysis of the impact of photosynthesis on the blade of grass underneath some maple tree in Thunder Bay would be more interesting. 

The package included a work permit, application form, and an affidavit I must sign in front of the Czech consular that says I have not committed a crime in the U.S. I'll be bringing those materials to the Czech consular in New York City on Friday, along with ...

23 August 2011

And Petr has run himself over ...

There's been some news out of Prague this week that will impact the global community for the foreseeable future: The Czechs have hired John Cleese to be an ambassador of sorts for the Czech Olympic team in the buildup to the 2012 Games in London.

Cleese is no doubt getting the public excited about the thrill of watching world-class athletes kick a beggar or pose for Hunt Ball photographs ...

As for other news, there's this, too.

22 August 2011

How to get a South Korean Apostille from the U.S. in 23 easy steps

The most painful part of a visa process is that so much of it is out of the control of the person who needs the visa. Work is done at government offices, both abroad and in your home country. Trust is placed in delivery companies, including those that leave a package at its shipping center in Boston, two hours from your home, for three full days after promising each day that it was on its way, not that I would ever mention DHL by name.

This is my second go-round with a visa, and there are three facets that make this one with the Czech Republic more stressful than my previous experience with South Korea: It's a longer process, I live a four-hour drive from the nearest Czech consular office (as opposed to when I lived in L.A., which had a Korean consular), and I'm required to produce a criminal record check from my previous home, South Korea.

I had little trouble receiving the criminal record check from Seoul. The tricky part has been getting the Apostille -- a stamp or form that tells other countries that the document is genuine and not, for example, the product of an expert forger from Bangkok.

This is process, which is not over, has been so fun that I thought I'd take you along for the ride, which, incidentally, took me on an emergency trip to Washington, D.C., that I may or may not have needed to take in the first place:

17 August 2011

Fun with Czech: Cooking words

Tonight, while compiling some more words for my homemade English-to-Czech-and-vice-versa cheat sheet, I learned ...
  • grilovaný doesn't mean "grilled" (It means "broiled.")
  • na roštu doesn't mean "roasted" (It means "grilled.")
  • and pečený doesn't mean, um, "cooked on top of your pecs" (It means "roasted.")
I'm so hot, brother, I cooked this on my pecs last night.
Meanwhile, the visa process continues. I won't bore you with the details, but a lot of it has involved waiting, and it's about to involve drives to Washington, D.C.; Concord, N.H.; and New York City. Should I wear my Tom Brady jersey on the latter trip?

Poll note: Only one day left to have your say on this year's English Premier League champion. Poll is on the upper right of the blog. Knowledge of soccer not required, which should be good news for my friends who follow Manchester United.

11 August 2011

Poll results: What aspect of Czech should I learn before I go?

Response No.
"Do you have the Red Sox score?" 4
Ways to hit on women 3
Greetings and such 2
Menu items 2
Numbers, months and days 1

Now that I've learned the popular choice, the next phrase I guess I should learn is, "The Red Sox are a baseball team in Boston." (Pause.) "Baseball is a sport where people use a rounded wooden bat to hit a round ball thrown toward them ... "

A slightly more serious blog entry about my adventures in language learning thus far is here.

From the Red Sox-Dodgers exhibition at the L.A. Coliseum in 2008.

10 August 2011

Ths hdln s prctc fr lrnng mny Czch wrds

I didn't learn Korean while I taught there for 2 1/2 years. I knew the alphabet, which was crucial when the sports channels listed which soccer matches they'd show that weekend. I was aware of the rules, such as the verb ending the sentence and the subject of the sentence often being understood and therefore left out. So I knew enough about the language to understand the students' most common mistakes. But when it came formal lessons, I opted to absorb the key words and phrases as passed down from people who (a) had been there longer than me or (b) were not nearly as lazy than me. I was able to communicate most of what I wanted, but was unable to carry on the simplest of small talk.

I will not make the same mistake when I begin working in Prague (which, paperwork pending, will likely be late September). For one thing, outside the tourist areas, English is not prevalent. For another, I don't think I'll get the positive reinforcement I got in Daegu, when middle school girls reacted to a simple Annyeong haseyo as if I was just named the latest member to join Super Junior.

If this violates any copyright laws, I am sorry sorry sorry sorry.

But most of all, learning Czech while living in the Czech Republic is the right thing to do -- and I have no excuses. My school offers free weekly classes. I also have had plenty of time to get started here in the States.

Memorizing the word for "embassy" has been a true joy.

03 August 2011

Overweight but well-endowed: Meet your average Czech male

Just a brief catch-up before I begin: I'm not in Prague yet. I've been hired to work there, beginning either later this month (not likely) or late September (more realistically). The paperwork's been started. But I remain in the U.S., basically living the life of a retiree, only without the golf (I do have standards). I've introduced myself to Peep Show, reacquainted myself with Red Dwarf and won a fake ACC football title (and the Orange Bowl) on PlayStation3. I also water the plants once a week and peruse the Internet roughly five hours a day.

Among the sites I visit, just to get a sense of what's happening in Prague and the rest of the Czech Republic, are The Prague Post and the Prague Daily Monitor. The latter site linked to an interesting article in which the author, after scouring several studies, painted a picture of the average Czech. (The article also got me in the mood to do my own research. My composite of the average Englishman can be seen here. And, to be fair, the average American can be seen here.)

29 July 2011

Happy anniversary, defenestration!

On July 30, nearly six full centuries ago, a crowd of demonstrators converged on the New Town Hall in Prague. They wanted reform in the Catholic Church, and on this occasion in 1419 they were demanding the release of prisoners who supported Jan Hus, whom the Catholics had burned at the stake four years earlier. When the councillors politely but firmly said no, the demonstrators entered the building and politely but firmly threw the councillors out the window. Those who survived the fall were then politely but firmly beaten to death.

New Town Hall, site of the First Defenestration.

27 July 2011

At the end of the day, it is what it is

What is correct English? This question, or something very similar to it -- you'll forgive me if I don't remember every question, verbatim, during a monthlong intensive course -- was posed by one of our CELTA tutors in May. The answer is not as simple as you think, especially if you're from England and just chimed in with, "Our version!" The answer, to keep it simple, is whatever enables people to communicate effectively.

This means the job of an English as a Second Language teacher is more than hammering home grammar. In fact, despite the fact that grammar is the most corrected component during a standard class, a person's communication is more likely to be effective with grammar mistakes than it would with register or tone errors. If you don't believe me, walk up to strangers and:
  • Ask, "May I get cigarette please?"
  • Say, "Give me a cigarette."

You have hopefully noticed that the first option is more likely to earn you a cigarette, even though the first option is spoken in incorrect grammar and the second option has correct grammar. So, yes, we teach the finer points of grammar, and we want students to get it right, but the bottom line is that our No. 1 job is to teach effective communication. This means that while "Can I go to the bathroom" just might lead to a response of "I don't know -- can you?" when asked to a stickler, the reality is the "Can I?" form has, over time, become acceptable as a means of asking permission and not just stating the ability to do something.

What prompted this post? A series of stories published recently on the BBC Website. Naturally, the stories are about American English (or, as it's called in England, "bastardized English") vs. British English (or, as it's called in England, "proper English") ...

21 July 2011

The Cup Cometh Over

The Stanley Cup, awarded each year to the champion of the National Hockey League, has been left frozen in a canal, used as a flower pot, taken to a strip club, used to baptize a child, doubled as a bowl of ice cream and sunk to the bottom of a pool. Wednesday, it arrived in my future home country, the Czech Republic.

The person lifting the Cup is Tomas Kaberle, who joined the Boston Bruins in the second half of the season, helped them win the Cup for the first time in 39 years, and has since signed for another team. For those of you unfamiliar with the tradition, starting in the mid-1990s, each player and staff member with the Cup-winning team is allowed to hang out with (and in some cases sleep with) the Cup for one day. Most players opt to take the Cup to their hometowns, which is what Kaberle decided to do; David Krejci is also Czech, and captain Zdeno Chara is expected to bring the trophy next door to Slovakia. (Thanks, Boston Herald.)

20 July 2011

New title, same lack of humor

First of all, I want to thank everyone who has stopped by, intentionally or otherwise, to read this blog, in the past month. I've had readers from 10 countries spanning four continents, so thank you, kamsa hamnida, merci, dankeboche' bru and děkuji.

I have dumped the working title of this blog before the Beatles could sue me and finally settled on what you see above. The title is a doff of a civilian hard hat to Franz Kafka, who was born in Prague, is buried there, and has a bronze statue and a museum in his honor. I'm still trying to figure out my favorite part of the museum, which I have yet to visit: the statues of two men with rotating buttocks urinating, or the fact that the museum is divided into sections called "existential space" and "imaginary topography." More specifically, the blog title, while avoiding obvious "Czech" and "Prague" puns, is a play on words of one of Kafka's short stories.

Franz Kafka statue in the Jewish Quarter.
I've also added a list of the four most-read posts, in case you missed any of them. There's also a link to my Flickr photostream at the bottom of the page. Other than that, it's the same blog. You can still answer poll questions; you can still subscribe by email or join the blog's Facebook group; you can still read my jokes, lean back in your chair and say, "I don't get it."

Not Prague, Part 7: Berlin

Berlin has had quite the evolution in the past 100 years -- artistic and industrial epicenter during the 1920s, capital of the Third Reich, a sad symbol of division during the Cold war, and now ... well, how can we describe Berlin now? Poor but sexy seems to be a popular choice.

Two nights was enough to get a taste of all Berlin has to offer: historic buildings, the UNESCO-honored Museum Island, the Jewish Museum, poignant monuments, controversial memorials, stark reminders of an ugly past (including buildings with damage from WW2 and the site of Hitler's bunker), tourist traps, hot dogs and curry served with french fries and mayonnaise, a bustling nightlife, painted and unpainted sections of the Berlin Wall, and a thriving art scene in an area that was under the watchful eye of the Soviet Union 23 years ago, and, most importantly, the building where Run Lola Run was shot, a 10-minute walk from my hostel, if only I had known it at the time. [Note to self: Go there next time, dye your hair red, bring Baldy and a bully to leap past, and run down the stairwells.]

Museum Island.

Building with remnants of World War 2 bombing.

19 July 2011

Not Prague, Part 6: Munich

For the final stop of my post-CELTA European jaunt, I made my first repeat visit to a European city. Five years previous, I visited Munich for the 2006 World Cup, a trip that included a memorable but bittersweet stop here. (Side note: Ghana, the bane of our national men's team's existence ... who knew?)

So when I stopped by for a six-hour layover between Florence and Prague, I figured there would be a certain comfort level from the start. Indeed, gazing at the Old Town Hall and the towers of the Frauenkirche brought back memories of a plaza teeming with Brazilian and Australian supporters, including the Brazilian fan at a restaurant who wanted us to sing about how the Aussies having sex with donkeys or chickens or something (and the Aussie fans singing "Five World Cups and you're still third world" to the tune of "Camptown Races"). I ate a tummy-busting breakfast (bread, eggs, meat, cheese, fruit, coffee, the sweetest and best orange juice I've ever tasted) in a restaurant overlooking the plaza. From there, I was off to the English Garden and Ludwigstrasse before returning to the Marienplatz for the traditional Bavarian lunch of white sausage, a soft pretzel and beer.

Theatinkirche, as seen from Field Marshall's Hall at the start of Ludwigstrasse.

14 July 2011

Woke up, got on Facebook, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head ...

According to a news brief in Thursday's Prague Post, a study released by Prague Radio has revealed that roughly 70 percent of Czech Republic residents go online before they finish eating breakfast. This figure includes nearly one out of three people who go online before they get out of bed. This may surprise some of you, this may not surprise others of you, and some people might even dismiss it as wacky propaganda by The Liberal Media, not that I would ever mention Sean Hannity by name. I'm in the former group (but would not be surprised by the latter). Regardless, one can imagine how different the bridge to this song would be had it been written after the survey ...

13 July 2011

Not Prague, Part 5: Florence

My mom will be proud of me for this: In Florence, I went to church several times. Well, OK, I should change that: In Florence, I went to a church several times. And who could blame me? Florence is the epicenter of Renaissance art, and much of that is on display in the city's visually stunning cathedrals.

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, with the largest brick dome in the world.

Galileo's tomb, inside the Basilica di Santa Croce.

12 July 2011

Poll results: Are you coming to Prague or what?

Response No.
Yes, and I need a place to crash. 5
Yes, but only to see Baldy. 5
Where's Prague? 3
Yes, if I don't have to speak to you. 1

Baldy remains unimpressed that only five people are more interested in visiting him.

11 July 2011

Not Prague, Part 4: The rest of Rome

Before I talk about Rome, I invite you to watch this once, or twice, or two hundred times, at least until the FIFA Copyright Police take it away. I know I haven't gotten sick of it ...

So, anyway. Rome. To bring you up to speed, after I took a certification course in Prague that ended in June, I spent another week traveling. As per the "orders" of my good friend, The Guvnor, the Captain, the Lothario of Lowestoft, Silky Steve Moore, I visited Rome for nearly three full days. My priorities were the Forum, the Colosseum and the Vatican. Everything else fell into the category of Things I'll See While I Walk Around.

Inside the Colosseum.