Showing posts with label Czech culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Czech culture. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain" by Peter Sis

Yesterday I read a children's picture book that took me right back to the nine months I spent in Prague, Czech Republic.

Peter Sis, a Czechoslovak immigrant to America in the 1980s, wrote about what it was like to be born at the start of the Communist regime and grow up in a totalitarian system.

When I lived in Prague, I had listened with extraordinary intent to Czech friends who had gone through this history. I loved hearing their experiences, their wisdom from what they had been through, and learning from them how people and families cope with a dystopian reality.

Peter Sis has compressed his own history and his nations' history into this graphical history that can be read in less than an hour. He bore witness! He warned! It's as if he is handing the reader at home the conversations we expats got to have in Prague with our Czech friends about what it was like.

I can't recommend the book enough. It would make a wonderful book to read together as a family for an intergenerational discussion about freedom.

This book has been widely acclaimed both as a Caldecott Honor book for distinguished illustration (the author's wonderful drawings help tell the story), and as the winner of the Siebert award for the most distinguished informational title in America, for children, in the year it was published.

Here is a short interview with the author.

From "The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain"

“When my American family goes to visit my Czech family in the colorful city of Prague, it is hard to convince them it was ever a dark place full of fear, suspicion, and lies. I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it’s hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life— before America—for them.”                 —Peter Sis

You may be interested in these other reads:

The Restoration of Order: The Normalization of Czechoslovakia" by Milan Simecka

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulic

In Prague, You Can Enjoy Reading "Café Europa" at the Café Europa

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

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

Understanding Iran: The Power of One Graphic Novel named "Persepolis"

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bravo David Černý! You Have Europe Giggling Again. This time with your Red London Double Decker Bus doing pushups!

Longtime readers of the Empty Nest Expat blog know I am a huge fan of Czech artist David Černý and his very Czech brand of irreverance and black humor. His sculpture created to see if Europe could laugh at itself, "Entropa," certainly provided entertainment for me and my Czech friends when he created it in 2009.

"Entropa" was the official art chosen by the Czech Republic to represent itself when the Czech Republic held the Presidency of the European Union. It seemed only Czechs got the humor. I loved it.  I was so grateful to have seen it myself in the flesh when I went back to Prague a second time. By then it had been moved from Brussells to DOX Contemporary Art Museum in Prague.You can read more of my posts about him here.

This time I don't see how he can fail to make the whole world smile. Look at what he has created for the London Olympics: a bright red London double decker bus doing push-ups!
How can we not smile?
Iconic bus doing iconic exercises!
No, it really does do the exercises!
Černý built in hydraulics to make it happen.

I love seeing tiny Czech Republic,
with a mere 10 million citizens
represent itself so above 'its weight class'
at the Olympic games
with their irreverant humor.
I believe Černý's bus will delight worldwide!

What do you think of David Černý's bus
named "London Boosted?"
Does it make you smile?

Is there an artist you have discovered in your travels
you think the whole world should know about?
Who is it?

Click on this wonderful Daily Mail article to see more photos of David Černý
assembling his bus and to see the video of it in action!

You might also enjoy these posts:

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What's there to do in Wichita, Kansas? Why not see breathtaking art?

No matter where I go in the world, I swear I could find the most interesting things to do in any given town. Wichita, Kansas was no exception. In fact, there were so many interesting things to do around Wichita, I couldn't fit them all in.

Walt and Mary, my couchsurfing hosts in Columbia, Missouri, had recommended two attractions nearby in Mary's hometown, of Hutchinson, Kansas.

I didn't get around to seeing: the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center or the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. Why, you'd have to go all the way to Poland or Austria to see something similar to this salt mine! I didn't get it done. Next time.

I ask you, however, what is something really wonderful in your neighborhood you haven't yet experienced? The problem isn't finding interesting things to do - it's actually doing them! What are you waiting for? Go see it! There may never be a next time.
I am mesmerized with this Modernist view
from the main lobby in the Wichita Art Museum.
These pictures make me giddy!
One of the fun things my friend from Prague, Gulnara, and I did while I was visiting her in Wichita was go see the Wichita Art Museum. I love the surprise of finding this modernist museum in the middle of the prairie.

I was enthralled to find two fantastic exhibits there: the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African-American Art and another exhibit called "Visions of Mexican Art."
Surprise matters.
a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture
in the main lobby or entrance foyer
has become an American art museum cliché.

I say that respectfully, because I recognize
the energy, power, and majesty of his pieces.

Please surprise me, curators.
Is there a new way his works could be exhibited?
From the visions of Mexico exhibit:
a new representation of Chac Mool,
the ancient Mayan God.
Another artist's homage to Frida Kahlo.
Love her!
These paintings were from Mexico's innovative art-for-taxes program that allowed Mexican artists to pay their taxes with their creative output.

The African-American collection represented works from three centuries. I love African-American art and music, especially jazz. Two of my favorite American artists are Romare Bearden and Jean Michel-Basquiat. Romare Bearden is represented in the collection, yet there were many drop-dead gorgeous works new to me. How proud these collectors must be to have assembled this collection of extraordinary works on paper. Thank you for sharing it, Dr. and Mrs. Kelley.
Sharecropper, 1952
by Elizabeth Catlett
"Jitterbugs III," ca. 1941-42
by William Henry Johnson
"Dance Composition, #35," 1981
by Eldzier Cortor
"Anyone's Date," 1940
by Ernest T. Crichlow
"Thistle," 1966
by Walter Williams
an expatriate artist who lived in Denmark
during the 1960's.

You can see the Scandinavian influence
in the background, yes?
"Boogie Woogie"
by Charles Louis Sallee, Jr.

I loved the energy communicated
in just these few simple lines.
"Street Car Scene," 1945
by John Woodrow Wilson

What do you suppose he's thinking?
"The Carpenters," 1977
by Jacob Lawrence

Do you know any carpenters?
Lawrence completely captured
their stance, their energy, &
the dignity of their work.
I love this piece.

What I deeply appreciated about the Wichita Art Museum's mounting of these two shows is their highlighting of the best of the America's minority populations (here assuming that Mexican culture carries over into America).

All over the world, institutions are in crisis for breaking their social contracts with their publics, but I've noticed museums have really stepped up to help their citizens cope with change, prepare for change, and accept change.

In Wichita, it was these very visible celebrations of two ethnic groups that will make up a larger segment of American life in the future.

In Prague, I saw the City Museum of Prague put on a terrific exhibit explaining Vietnamese culture to the Czech population, because Czechs have a hard time relating to their new Asian immigrants.

In Istanbul, the Istanbul Modern Art Museum mounted a show celebrating all of the Armenian-designed buildings in Istanbul, generating recognition for Armenian contributions to the beautiful city people experience today.

I admire the work of these museums. Our globe thirsts for this level of strategic engagement. Acceptance of "the other" can't happen fast enough. These institutions, probably operating with very small budgets, are engaging their publics beyond the museum's artistic mission, to an even larger mission of cross-cultural understanding. Bravo!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

What Creates Compassion?

"If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it" ~Atticus Finch, "To Kill A Mockingbird"
All around the world today, bloggers are uniting to celebrate our human quality of compassion.  I love participating with other like-minded souls on a project like this because it then also becomes a celebration of the new kinds of connection that the internet makes possible. You can find other blogs on compassion by clicking on the "May 15 - Day of Compassion" badge to the right.

Compassion allows us to sublimate the feeling of "other" that we see in people and instead find out how we are alike.  To really feel compassionate, we have to do what Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of "To Kill A Mockingbird" suggested to his daughter Scout. We need to consider life from the other person's point of view.

How do we do that when the "other" is "the other?" If a group of people is unknown to us, and we fear them, we don't know any of them, we haven't talked to any of them, we will probably let fear of them grow in our mind.

I suggest the quickest way to grow compassion for others that we do not know or understand is to consume each other's literature and media.  My country would be a different place if the American people had access to Al Jazeera and could see the Arab point-of-view.  My country would be a different place if it would choose to have a more global appetite for media, and not just consume home-grown American books, TV shows, and movies. I believe we would literally be nicer.

The useful thing about consuming media of "the other" is that it is not threatening.  We can hear the opinions, emotions, feelings of those who disagree with us or see things differently without having to instantly react.

I remember when I saw the movie "Cesky Mir," a thought-provoking Czech movie describing how Czechs were working to end a possible American-installed radar system on their land.  What stunned me was not the arguments against the missile system, but the knowledge the Czechs had about how corrupting all that American money floating around would be to their tiny little democracy.  I believe Americans are so used to that wash of money over our government we can hardly see its influence anymore - it seems normal.

In the movie Cesky Mir, one old village lady asked, "how can we trust the Americans? You see the kind of crap they send to our country for our young people through their movies!" Yikes, that cut me to the quick because I knew it was true. We do create a lot of crap movies! I acknowledge and agree with her point-of-view.

Could that be the future? Citizens of one country getting citizens of another country to question how they do things through media? This could be the start of mass grass-roots diplomacy!
Maya Angelou

One area where I feel that I have a lot of compassion and where my country has grown a lot of compassion is in race relations.  That has been the work of my generation of white Americans: opening our heart to the full participation of African-Americans in American life. I have consumed untold quantities of African-American literature, music, and movies. I defy anyone to read Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" or Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and remain compassion-less.

Ralph Ellison
This is why literature is so incredibly important and why I am so proud of my profession of librarianship.  It heals society. It strengthens our heart muscles and makes them more daring and more loving. I have scads of African-American friends because I feel comfortable with them because I am comfortable with their outlook on life (as much as one can generalize about a whole group of people) through the consumption of their media.

I can see both the good and the bad in African-American culture just as I can see the good and the bad in my Caucasian culture.  What is so healthy in my country is that we can laugh at ourselves and each other and discuss all of these things publicly. We are listening to each other and enjoying each other. I would hate to think of what my country would be like if we never choose to become more accepting of each other. I think it would be similar to this parallel, non-touching existence of Coptic Christians and Muslims that a famous Egyptian blogger describes in his blog "Rantings of a Sand Monkey" here.

In contrast to how comfortable I am with African-American culture, it was recently announced that America is now 16% Hispanic.  I have consumed hardly any Hispanic literature, hardly any Hispanic music, and hardly any Hispanic movies.  I tried to think if I had any Hispanic friends (one may call me on it later, we'll see).  I couldn't think of any. That doesn't surprise me since I have opened no window into their culture other than food.

I had never been inside a mosque until I moved to Turkey.  It has been so darn healthy for me to come form my own opinion of Muslim societies rather than stick with the image Osama Bin Laden thought I should have. The more I learn from Turks about who they are and what their culture is about, the less distance I feel between me and them.  It is impossible for a group of people to be "the other" when you can see yourself in them and feel what they are feeling.

If I could ask something of you today, gentle reader, ask yourself: "whom do I fear? Whom do I resent? Or who is invisible to me because I choose not to see them?" Then go out and find their best literature, movies, or music.  Start a relationship with an entire culture.  You may end up with wonderful friends who will enrich your life.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Checking Out the History of Dissidents: New Vaclav Havel Library to Open in 2013

A Force for Good
Vaclav Havel

Modeled after the American Presidential Libraries, the new Vaclav Havel Library will be a repository for Vaclav Havel's published works and unpublished papers. Unlike Presidential Libraries, this Library will carry the samizdat of years of repression and the official papers of years of expression.  The unique gathering of that collection makes for an interesting juxtaposition and the final triumph of Prague dissident voices from repression - to rule  - to Presidential level archives. It's a fairy tale, really.  A political fairy tale.

Click on my title to read more about the project.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Religion will be 'nearly extinct' in the Czech Republic by 2050

The Czech Republic is already the most atheist nation on Earth. Mathematicians and scientists are predicting that the Czech Republic will become even more atheist, and that by 2050, religion will have virtually died out in the Czech lands and in eight other European countries. The exact same modeling program used to predict the death of languages is being used to predict the death of belief. You can click on my title to read the article from the Prague Post.

It's hard to know if Czechs believe in anything because their sense of humor is so black.  I would often tease my Czech friends that they would be completely skeptical when their spouse said "I love you," because Czech people believe no one in authority on anything! What do Czech people believe in?!?

A nation of atheists was planted when the Catholic Pope rejected Czech requests for Mass to be delivered in native Czech instead of Latin more than 100 years ago. The Pope should have learned from the history of Saints Cyril and Methodius (two Byzantine priests from Constantinople) who translated the Bible into Slavic languages so the Czech people could learn it in their own tongue. Cyril and Methodius even created an alphabet for Slavic languages to make translation of the Bible easier.

During the Czech National Revival, if being told they couldn't worship in their own language wasn't enough to drive religion out of Czechs, later in the 20th century, the Communists then further drummed religion out of them.

When I moved to Turkey, I could feel the difference in religious belief immediately.  Maybe the most visual way of seeing it was a conservatism among people on the street.  I saw no public display of affection anywhere and of course, Muslim dress in its varied forms. I also felt my possessions were completely safe on the Istanbul streets. I felt completely safe leaving my consumer electronics not locked up at work because I was 100% sure they would not get stolen. But it was more than that.

Comparing societies, I'll quote my former President.  Bill Clinton says the United States has gotten away from being a "people-centered society & become a money-centered society." Sadly, I agree with him completely. In America, I would say you can literally feel America's predominant religion and values are "commerce," in the Czech lands the dominant religion is none, and in Turkey I would say the dominant religion is, actually, religion.

Upon my arrival, it stunned me is that I found Turkey's spirituality refreshing. After all, they practice a different religion than me!  It was refreshing because the values came from the people themselves. The values in the public square have not been overrun by corporate salesmanship that degraded all things sacred in pursuit of selling something.

My Turkish friends cite the Jesus cage match on the TV show "South Park" as evidence that we in the West hold nothing sacred.  It is completely fair criticism. I see evidence everyday that "The People" are still dictating the values here, not the corporations and the people who create for them.

When the Muslim World doesn't like something the West does, rather than rail against someone exercising their free speech (a value the West holds so deeply it could and would never give it up), they would create more thought and changed behavior with the question "is there nothing you hold sacred?" It's a question that isn't asked enough in my Western culture. 

Now what will the Czech lands do with all those spectacular baroque churches? And what will a nation without belief be like? What will Czech people hold sacred?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Prague's Anglican Minister: The Reverend Ricky Yates

Happy Good Friday readers! Today I was delighted to see my pastor in Prague, Chaplain Ricky Yates of St. Clement's Anglican Church, properly written up in the Prague Post and recognized for his work serving the English-speaking expat community in Prague.

Regular readers of my blog know how incredibly tight-knight I found the expat church community at St. Clement's and how Pastor Ricky was there for me and my friend Anna when we got in a tight spot with our visas.  I simply can't say enough about the community of people there and his leadership of us.  Click on my title to read the whole article. You can also look to the right of this post and see the link for Ricky's blog.  Best of all though, if you're in Prague, head on down to the church on a Sunday morning at 11 a.m. to tell him hello yourself.  You'll be glad you did.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Czech President Pockets A Pen

President Klaus brought home a great souvenir of his State Visit to Chile.  Click on my title to watch the video.  Five million people have already sought it out and watched it!

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 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.''

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?

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.

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?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hiking the Sázava River in Central Bohemia

I had used several times as I started my empty nest vagabonding adventure for accommodations, but it was while I was back in America, I discovered I wasn't utilizing all of the wonderful parts of the site. So  I joined several groups related to where I was living and took part in the events that people organized. What a wonderful way to meet fabulous people immediately in a new location. Each person had an adventure tale to share!

Now back in the Czech Republic, I joined the group on Couchsurfing dedicated to hiking Bohemia and signed up for a hiking adventure organized by a lovely young Muscovite studying for her Ph.D. in the Czech Republic. Natalie, or Tashka to use her Russian diminutive, had gone kayaking along the Sázava River in Central Bohemia the week before and wanted to hike the Posázavská stezka (trail along the Sázava River) this week.

We took a train about an hour south from Prague (24 km) to Kamenný Přívoz; Tashka knew all the tricks for booking at the lowest cost such as group discounts and buying the ticket from the last station out of Prague rather than from the center (a Prague metro pass covers everything in the city).  For our tickets, we spent 51 kc each (about $2.50 for a round trip) and the price would have gone down to 30 kc if were five.  Amazing value! Regular readers of the my blog know how in love I am with Czech trains.

The train followed the Vltava and the tributary we were heading to, the Sázava River, the whole way allowing us to enjoy the gorgeous, sparkling view from the window.  The one cultural difference I discovered on the train is that Czech dads don't make silly fake-scary sounds whenever the train went through dark tunnels thereby fake-embarrassing their families.  Pity.

my hiking companion

Just off the train in Kamenný Přívoz at the start of our hike
Our first view of the river is below.

We started our hike the way Czechs start their hikes:
with beer.  This Czech brew was new to me: Svijany.

We laughed: This house sign translates as
"Such a normal family" 

A relaxing view of the river rafters
from one of the many beautiful little cottages

One of the railway bridges our train used
to drop us off at Kamenný Přívoz

It was highly entertaining to watch the rafters and kayakers
decide what was the best way down the river

One of the many beautiful cottages along the river.
I love the humbleness of these cottages.
It's all about relaxing, not impressing the neighbors.

Most of these cottages had their own privy.

This cabin was under construction so you could
see their future river view through the back window.

Magificent, isn't it?
And the sound of the river was so refreshing.

This area was known for the cherished Czech tradition
known as "tramping." During Communist times, people would
come out to the forest for the weekend.  They could do and say
what they wished.  They built makeshift camps or slept on the ground.

Is your stress lessening just a little?
Any I had, melted away.

The view looking away from the river.
Peaceful, towering forest on the mountain of Melnik.

This cottage owner created his greeting for the rafters.
"Ahoj" is Czech for hello!

A sleeping platform or treehouse close to the water.

The trampers were in love with Wild West themes from America.
Often the camps were "cowboy" or "Indian."
We saw cabins with names like Oregon and Ogden.

Tramping is dying out with each ensuing year of capitalism.
I don't think the land is owned by the State anymore either.

A Czech cottage owner
getting his place ready for the season.

The sign says something like:
"Be patient hikers, in 280 steps you will find a restaurant."
 I liked Taska's subtitle for this photo best:
"It's impossible to die in the Czech forest."

Don't look now but we have an unexpected guest.
She maybe here for an old Czech tradition.
I don't know. I hope she's here just to delight us.

The wind catches her skirt.
Can't get enough of her, can you?
Ok, one more picture.
Look, she's drinking and flying.

How would you like to carry your groceries
up these steps?

"Drinkable water" was available at this spring
along the trail.

War memorials are everywhere in the Czech Republic.
On our 10 km hike we saw about eight different ones.
Notice that the little village we finished our hike in, Pikovice,
had lost what looks like three members of the same family
in the first World War.

This is the map Tashka used to plan our trip.
It shows all of the hiking and biking trails within that
white square of territory in the Czech Republic.

All of the trails are marked by volunteers
so you never have to worry about getting lost.

A last look at the Sázava River
as we cross over to the Pikovice train station.
This is where many of the kayakers
and rafters end their journey too.

Our train was perfect for this route.
Older and not the fanciest carriage in the fleet,
it welcomed wet kayakers, rafters, dogs,
tired and aching hikers, and bicyclists
who were in that back compartment
beyond the seats with their bikes.

On the trip back to Prague, we watched people
rollerblading along the river stoking ideas
of new adventures to be had.
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