Monday, August 31, 2009

An ode to Czech beer. Volume one.

Cruzcampo no more.

I think the people at Lonely Planet guides will forgive me for borrowing some from their overview of Czech beer, and its central importance in the culture.

"Czech beer is so famous it needs little introduction...the superlative taste of their pivo is one reason Czechs drink more per head than any other nation."

Czechs destroy competition in beer consumption, slamming 166 liters (293 16-oz. pints) for each and every man, woman and child of the population annually. Germany comes in a distant second at 144 liters (253 pints).

The superior quality of the beer is difficult to explain without experience. How do you define quality? You just know it when you taste it. It's clean, it's balanced, and you feel pretty great the next day.

The beer quality here is attributable to a few measures taken: first, the Czechs have something of their own Reinheitsgebot (German purity law) that allows for strictly water, hops, yeast and barley to be used in the brewing process. No rice derivatives, no adjuncts, just beer. Think about it America.

Storage is also a huge factor. The beer you find at a factory is always superior due to its freshness. It is such a fragile thing, its taste can be distorted by even the slightest handling and transportation. Domestics dominate practically 95% of the market so beer doesn't have to move far in a country that is slightly smaller than the state of South Carolina. It really makes a difference.

Even so, led largely by the Pilsner Urquell company, pubs have recently come up with a remarkable solution: the tankovna, which are large specially designed vertical storage tanks that keep unpasteurized beer fresh and especially flavorsome, and eliminate taste-distorting kegs and taps from the equation.


Stroll by some pubs at 10:00am on a weekday, and don't be surprised to see dudes working on their second half-liter of the day. There's a joint around the corner from my flat that I wandered into because I saw a sign outside advertising 19-crown Kozel svelty (one of my preferred choices - though you can't really go wrong with any brand). It was around 11:30am on a Wednesday, and the place was packed. I almost immediately regretted going in, because heads turned in the smoke-filled hall next to the bar.

Imagine a dozen or so Czech equivalents of Billy-Bob the mechanic/construction dude shooting you a "I knows yer ain't from round' her, boy" look. I contemplated backing out slowly while at the same time I thought about but failed to spit out: "prosim,'equi" (beer please, thanks). Though I was just slack-jawed staring at the tap, the tender knew what I needed and put a cold one in front of me. I calmly sat at a table covered in grease, dirt, and cigarette ash. All the comforts of blue collar Praha. Awkwardly, I took out a book and drank fast.

Standard fare

Your standard draft at a restaurant or bar comes in .5liter mugs (roughly 17 ounces), and as previous mentioned runs around 19-40kc ($1-$2) depending on the joint. I'm now in the habit of sticking my nose up at prices over $2, something I may have to work on in preparation for life anywhere else in the world...

To be honest, the differences between styles and brands here are few. 99.9% of beer are light lagers/pilsners ranging from 10-12 degrees (4-5% ABV). I'll do my best to distinguish them for you in the next post (see list below). There are a few cerny (dark) varieties, but you often have to really look for them.

Forgive me if after my first beer factory tour in the Czech Republic, I believe the Staropramen brewery will be tough to top. Showing up 10 minutes early paid off. I thought Staropramen would be appropriate to start with as the #2 domestic producer and one of the few actually located in Prague.
Originally I walked in around 2pm and said my "dobry den" to the woman at the counter. The problem with politely using their greeting is they sometimes take this to mean you speak Czech. So I waited for her to finish before I asked if she spoke English. She told me that the next English tour would not be until 3pm, so I decided to go sit on a tram stop bench around the corner and read. I shuffled back over around ten of.

This time the woman was gone, and there was a dude behind the bar on the other side of the divider in the room, chatting with a girl. He again spoke Czech to me and I asked about the tour. For some reason he had a quizzical look on his face, but then assured me I could go along no problem. I didn't know what this meant at the time. I didn't have a moment to really think about it because he then offered me a beer. Though usually reserved for the completion of the tour, my arm, as always, needed no twisting. I learned that the girl was in fact a friend of the guide. Her name was Judith from outside Frankfurt, Germany. Her parents are Czech and she had studied in Prague the previous year.

Soon a group assembled on the other side of the divider, and Tomas (toe-maa-sh - very Czech) the tour guide led us into a room to watch a short film about the history and tradition of Staropramen. These brew tours are already starting to look pretty similar.

Despite Tomas' best effort to engage during the tour, the group could not have cared less, paying little attention and having their own loud conversations. We soon realized they were all a bunch of Slovenians together on a school trip. I mean I would understand if they were restless at a pottery museum, but come on. Overall though, they're alright in my book. I now think I know why Tomas gave me a look, but let me "tag along." It's possible the Slovenians paid a group rate of sorts and Tomas just let me slip in, because I later learned that although I didn't pay anything, the tour was not free, it cost 150 crowns. Thanks Slovenia.
11-meter wide vat, one of the largest, most modern machines in European beer production.
Bottling-production line.
Fermentation vats. To demonstrate their capacity, Tomas asked us how many beers we could drink in a night. Someone said "ten," he told us that if you were to drink 10 every night, it would take around 140 years to finish a vat. Yikes.

With the completion of the tour came the tasting, which had less built-up anticipation that I'm used to since I'd already had a preview. Tomas made it clear to Judith and I that while the Slovenians and all guests of the brewery get one beer at the end, we were free to as many we liked. I found this very pleasing.

Once the Slovenians made their way out, Tomas, Judith and I hung around the bar while the next tour group assembled. Tomas had one more tour for the day, and Judith was waiting up for him to get off work. He suggested we just wait there and as he left to lead the next group through, he muttered something to Judith in German. She told me that he said we were free to self-service at the bar. WHAT

So there I found myself, alone with a rather pleasant German gal commanding unlimited reign over the taps of the Staropramen brewery. Yes, indeed. By the time the tour came back around, Judith and I were feeling pretty good. Tomas ditched our plastic cups and started grabbing the beautiful glassware on sale behind the bar and pouring for us into those. Naturally, the group had to have been wondering who are they, and why do they get those? As I said, it pays to show up 10 minutes early.

Volume two preview:

An overview of brands and their varieties

Pilsner Urquell
Budvar Budweiser

A review of local microbrew-pubs

Novomestky pivovar
Pivovar U Bulovky
Pivovarsky dum
U Fleku
U Medvidku

10 Days

With only ten days left in Prague, there are many things I would like to do. I've composed a list of tours/museums/restaurants I want to hit and from these, hopefully you'll be treated to more Czechisms of note and what I've learned about their art, food, and of course, beer.

While I fit in what I can, may I suggest a blog about teaching English in Japan by my dear friend Brian Peckrill. Click here to check it out. You may remember Brian as the host of my trip to Copenhagen (I'll even throw in a link to it as well if you care to refer back). I have to defer all credit to Brian for the idea to teach abroad in the first place. I trust you'll find his blog plenty entertaining.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Change of Plans...

Okay, so I understand that I fell off the radar with everyone for a while there. Allow me to explain.

The last few weeks I have been looking for jobs, but unfortunately, things haven't been going quite how I hoped. Long story short, a few jobs fell through and with my visa closer to expiration by the day, finding legal employment in the Czech Republic looks unlikely. I think Uncle G will forgive my recycling to explain further:

Basically you get 90 days after entry to file for a work visa, and the application takes around 30 days to prepare (sometimes longer, as I've found out). As September 5th marks 60 days, I'm in a bit of a bind. Taking the course sapped 30 days and then the interviewing process took around 3 weeks. I had been frantically searching for openings at schools that would be willing to give me a shot at this point, but nothing promising came along until a few days ago.

I got referred by a TEFL Worldwide employee to a school that has an opening. The catch is that I probably wouldn't be able to get the visa through in time, meaning I would have to work illegally. At many schools, this is not a problem, and perhaps a third or more of the teachers here in Prague have no visa and work illegally. This comes with downsides: a) it is impossible to leave the country, as you would be refused re-entry if your passport were to be checked by an authority; b) you pay taxes that you never recover; c) you have no health insurance; d) you risk deportation at any moment, once they track you, immigration police come to your door and inform you that you have 3 days to leave the country.

Many people get away with this and live fine with it. I weighed my options, and decided that perhaps a big ol' plan B operation may be in order.

I recently got in contact with a recruiter in Korea that found a job for a friend of mine here and can help place me just about wherever I prefer at better-than-average wages (an option that I didn't really have without my certificate when I was looking before). The salaries are more than double over there (~$2,500+), they pay for your plane fare to and from AND they provide single-apartment housing with utilities. I hear cost of living is low, so there is a possibility of being able to save around a few G's a month. Compared to Prague where my housing taps nearly half my 20,000 crown ($1,000USD) salary, leaving little left over for spending let alone paying my loans, it seems like a practical choice. I was agreeable to going there before and I still am. At the moment, I have two friends from UMass in Korea, and this morning I spoke with Domhnall on Skype (he's in Tokyo, Japan at the moment) and with the Japanese job situation not exactly what he hoped, he may be heading to Korea as well.

SO. Last night I booked a flight back to Boston, as I need to return to the U.S. to get visa paperwork/consulate interviews for Korea in order. My plan is to regroup, make a necessary preparations, and hopefully land a job sometime in late September/early October. I will have a job, an apartment, and a plane ticket handed to me by an employer and I'll be off.

My thoughts are that the culture shock that awaits in Asia will make for some good material. I'm excited.
And if anyone has concerns about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Ill and his bottle-rocket experiments, rest assured, teenage boys have posed more serious threats to national security.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Budapest, Hungary Part Two

So about that bike tour...

Having refined our Euro-bicycling skills in Moravia, Domnhall and I thought a bike tour of Budapest would be in order. I favor this style of tour to any other, not only for the exercise and the freedom, but also for the thrill of narrowly avoiding death by urban traffic.
One of our first stops along the tour: the Budapest Opera House. When it was constructed during the 1890s, it was the most modern opera house in Europe. I think that held up for a decade or so. Bravo, Hungary.
I think this picture sums up the state of Budapest at the moment, particularly when compared to Prague. It is very much in a state of renovation and rebuilding. You can find scaffolding like this all over, some of resting against buildings that have not been touched in years. Maybe give it another 10-15 years and it will rival other European cities. It's just not quite there yet.
One of the more frightening attractions: the former headquarters of the Hungarian Secret Police. Our guide informed us that over 4,000 people may have been killed here during the Soviet period, many using torture instruments similar to medieval torture devices. As much as I am against torture in all forms (unless perpetrated by Jack Bauer on 24) I think contemplating what went on in that building really puts the water boarding controversy/extreme interrogation techniques into a new perspective.
Lorand, our trusty guide kept us informed.
Me in Hero Square rocking my UMass tee. Go U. I wonder how many locals read it as "UM...ASS."
Artsy flower shot.
Inevitably, our tour made a pit stop at a local beer garden. This is me and György (I'm guessing on the name, I had a hard time understanding). We exchanged stories about beer and he tried to educate me about Hungarian drinking. I told him stories of the great brewer-patriot Samuel Adams. Apparently, he used to live in Germany, in the center of one of the leading beer producing regions. For one reason or another, at the time he only really drank cheap wine. When he relocated to Hungary, historically a wine-producing country, he switched to cheap beer. In limited English, we contemplated and discussed the irony.
We capped it at two to ensure safe (and comfortable) riding.
The next leg of the tour brought us up the hill that leads to the palace and old district.
A view from the top - note Parliament (tallest dome surrounded by spires) to my left. It ranks #2 behind the British Parliament in size.
A look back to the Széchenyi Chain Bridge we crossed. These views are from the Buda side, facing Pest (they were once considered two separate cities divided by the Danube).
A grand Gothic cathedral obscured by scaffolding. So it goes.

After the tour, we made our way to some Turkish baths - an incredibly relaxing experience after pedaling around on those bikes all day (the tour lasted 4 hours). If you're not phased by old naked dudes trudging around, I recommend it.
The Danube at sunset, having emerged from the baths.
A little nightlife action...
...results in hangover city.
One last pic of the side of the Parliament. It was too big to get a complete shot of it from any angle. That's big.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sziget Festival 2009; Budapest, Hungary

BUDAPEST, Hungary.

110 Hungarian Florents in my pocket (about 57 cents), one foot with a sandal, the other barefoot, and a few postcards...a vacation fulfilled.

Nine of my nearest and dearest TEFL alums up and decided to hop a cheap bus to Budapest this week. The Hungarian capital resides roughly seven hours south east of the Czech Republic. The trek brought us through the scenic (not really) Slovakian capital of Bratislava. The absurdities of Budapest began on arrival.

The bus, while comfortable (serving free coffee/tea periodically during the journey) dropped us off in God-knows-where on the southside. During the last leg of the ride, Domhnall and I met a Spanish/Hungarian couple that gave us a few pointers on the city and what to expect to pay for cabs from our desolate drop point.

If given the opportunity, cab drivers here are total theives - a few locals explained this as the Hungarian interpretation of how capitalism functions, and one that is not culturally exclusive to cabbies. For my part, I prefer hour-long walks to getting my wallet cleaned out, but sometimes you gotta bite the bullet. We were told 2000-2,500 florents ($10-$13USD) would be fair. The cabs next to the bus stop offered 40Euro rides (10,800 florents; $56 USD), which, for obvious reasons we argued about for a bit.

The girls couldn't be bothered with the negotiations. After seven hours on a bus, their tendency toward that familiar feminine impatience reaches a high. We managed to talk them down a bit, piled into the two cabs and headed for our hostel, not really sure of where it was. After about 2 minutes, we were finally able to communicate that we only had Czech crowns, which are about as useful as Japanese Yen in Mexico. Naturally, the cabbie found this upsetting (another case of mistaken Euro possession). After thinking of numerous ways to say "we need ATM," someone came up with the Czech term "bankomat!" I guess Hungarian isn't that far off.

There really is no comparison to the feeling of helplessness when you've just arrived in a foreign country lacking currency, language, and any real sort of bearings. We're getting gradually accustomed to it, though.

We pulled up next to a bankomat after some driving in circles. By now, the yelling, exhaling, sighing, and cursing was coming strong from our middle-aged Hungarian chauffeur. [I later found out that roughly the same was going on in the other cab, though they seemed to resist more. Domnhall kept shouting back "don't you raise your voice at me!" Awesome.] He originally only let one of us out, but we all needed cash so myself and a couple others piled out anyway. Our friend Jorge made the mistake of staying behind, so he got an earfull. Adding to urgency of the situation, it was rumored that the area where we pulled up was restricted and stopping there for any period of time was punishable by a 200Euro fine. Who knows if this was true. It was probably just a "stress the foreigner out so they will gladly empty their pockets to get the hell out of this cab" tactic. Clever alright.

I remember the ATM stop as more of a Chinese fire drill than a trip to the neighborhood bank. Only a few of us were able to run around and use it before we got back in when the cabbie threatened to pull away with all our luggage in the trunk.

We finally got to the hostel, and of course the dude wants 4,000 florents - skim a cool extra 1,500 off the foreigners. We agreed on 3,500 after consideration of all the time we wasted at the ATM. Not a terribly steep "tourist tax".

In contrast, our accommodation was great and the staff was extremely helpful directing us to places of interest: tours, restaurants, bars etc. Surprisingly, I realized this was my first youth hostel experience. For about $25 a night, you rough it in bunkbeds (a friendly squeeze), share showers and other amenities, and can expect a modest but decent breakfast included. Hostels are the way of European backpack tours on a shoestring and they are almost constantly full of worn, scraggly travelers. I saw some gargantuan packs, some of which fit instruments (when the cash runs low, you gotta strum for your bread). Our room was extra cozy because we were a group of 10 that only booked for 8 (the room capacity). We had to put on this whole charade and try not to make it too obvious when we would come and go.

We went out for a bit the first night - the vibe I got was that Hungarian beer openly acknowledges its inferiority to Czech brands. It sure wasn't Plzen, but I thought it alright.
The first day called for a trip to Margit (Hungarian Margaret) Island for the Sziget Music Festival. Dev, Dom and I show off our wristbands.
Think a week long Euro-Woodstock held on an island in the middle of the Danube river. It was huge and crunchy camping hippie-style was IN. Peace, love, and understanding dude.
Dev and Dom get rowdy on the booze-fueled see-saw viking ship rock-war.
Vlad Putin and I embrace. I am openly upset by his refusal to acknowledge the harmful erosion of democratic freedoms in the Russian Federation.

Big acts of the day we went included the Brit-electro-pop wonders The Ting-Tings, the energy-charged punk/pop/alternative guitars of Bloc Party, the rhythmic Cubano-Latin folk-jazz of Buena Vista Social Club, and the unmistable mash-up beats of Fatboy Slim. Bloc Party stole the show for me, as they kept the crowd jumping start to finish. Devon took it a step further, crowd surfing (see below) and losing a sandal and his hostel keys in the process.
Waiting for the next act to start.

Sun setting, intensity increasing.
From my shoulders, Dev gets a better picture.
He maintains it was worth it. I don't really doubt it.


You may still be curious as to how I eventually lost my own sandal. We'll get there. The next day, Domhnall, Devon, Jorge and I went on a bicycle tour of the city. It really is a pleasant way to see the sites as it allows for you to cover a lot of ground without having to move at too quickly a pace. I took around a hundred pictures - stay tuned...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Moravia and the Road to Olomouc

An impromptu visit to the Czech countryside? Absolutely. Our instructor Trish invited Domhnall and I to spend a few nights camping and biking the region around her village, an opportunity difficult to pass on, even if I found out I was going the day of.

We had to sprint to the station platform to catch our train with a minute to spare. This is more the European travel you see in movies and read about in books. In fact, I think this may be my first distance train-ride over here. A view of the scenery from our boxcar:
Onward to Moravia, the southern region of the Czech Republic. Our main destination was Olomouc (pronounced Oh-la-moatz). Here's a map for orientation:
We planned to meet Trish and her Czech husband Peter (pronounced Pet-tair) in Prerov, the village next to theirs, called Zeravice.

Standing in front of the train station in Prerov, it was clear that we weren't in the big city anymore. We could sense that foreigners don't make it down this way much.

Shortly, a Skoda wagon pulled up and off we went. The ride reminded me a bit of dark drive to Kentville when Jess and I first arrived in Nova Scotia - dark farmland as far as the eye could see (not that far at all). Though Moravia is known for its wine, most vineyards reside in the southmost part. Northern Moravia is the major hop-producing region, providing sweet bitterness to the soul of everyone's favorite fermented beverage - BEER.

Admittedly, the state of our accommodation was a bit unexpected. The details were scant at best and we were pretty amused on arrival. These photos were taken the following morning. You can imagine how spooky it was when we arrived in the pitch dark.

This past Christmas, without consulting Trisha, Peter bought a house a town over from where he grew up. House may not be the right term, as it appears to be something of an ancient brick barn. Accordingly, Trish calls it "the ruin."
Built around 300 years ago (to Peter's best estimate having consulted village elders), the nickname "the ruin" implies something even older. In some ways in appears so. I'm not sure exactly how they found it, but at the moment, it is quite empty; completely gutted to the point of dirt floors, missing walls/doors, and a well aged wood-and-clay frame. They led us through to the backyard where they had been so kind as to set up a tent with sleeping bags in it (no floor, no walls, obviously no beds). We learned that Trish and Peter are "temporarily" living with Peter's parents, so we were really just watching their place by ourselves for the night. They introduced us the designated bathroom area of the yard, gave us T.P. and shovel, and handed us the keys (no walls, no floor, no of course not.) The morning gave us a chance to get a better look at the place. With a ton of work it has potential.
Trish mentioned her ambition to be able to move in this coming winter. Since they are doing all the work themselves piecemeal, Domhnall and I are skeptical, but I do love their fruit garden, which needs no work: When we woke up, we followed their advice and chowed down on fresh apples, plumbs, and blackberries. When they came to pick us up with the bikes, Trish kindly brought us more breakfast and coffee. I'm coming around to rohlik Anglicky (English bacon bread - kind of like a bacon pizza roll that's typical for a Czech breakfast. The catch is that even though it has meat and cheese baked in, they don't refrigerate it or anything, leaving it in uncovered bins at the grocery for days at a time...).

It has absolutely POURED all night, but thankfully the tent was equipped with a rain cover. It became a continuing problem as the rain picked up again as we got ready. Always thinking ahead, Trisha brought us both ponchos and visors which she had picked up while teaching in Korea. It made for some interesting wardrobe - you'll see.

With bikes in tow behind the Skoda, Peter brought us up to a beautiful turquoise quarry that would have been ideal for a cliff jump and a swim if not for the rain. Unfortunately, it was raining so hard that couldn't get a picture of it.
Domhnall and I mount our chariots in the rain. We were hardly deterred by the weather. Besides, we had to show off our goofy outfits. "Us? Foreign? No way." To begin our trek, they drove us up to Hellstyn castle. I was immediately brought back to the fortified castle in Trujillo, but this castle definitely bested it.
Roll over Braveheart...
The misty rainy weather actually may have added to the medieval charm of the place... The view from the tower was excellent.
This may be my favorite picture I've taken since I've been over here:
With our limited command of Czech, we signed the castle guest book. Domhnall wrote "dobre!" (pronounced dobe-shay, it means "good!"), while I wrote "super" (means the same, but pronounced "sue-pair!").
After exploring for a bit longer, we had the garlic soup at a little restaurant in the castle (a Czech favorite, and even more devastating for one's breath than the name suggests...) before setting out. Luckily, the weather let up as we left. So off we went, a stinking Irish guy and an American with XXL ponchos and Korean sun visors...
The hops fields from afar:
Completely edible fruit grew on the streets (we of course cleared this with Peter). We made a plum stop along the way. Our journey began east of Lipnik and 30 km west of Olomouc. With a rather undetailed map, we had our work cut out for us.
The scenery was outstanding, but our bikes were not. I started out on a Soviet-era tank of a 4-speed with soft tires and an impossibly low seat. Domnall had similar issues with his and as a result we were constantly on the verge of kneeing ourselves in the chest while pushing up our Korean visors off our noses. It was all in good fun.
Here's an anecdote titled "The angry cashier of Velky Ujezd" (above, the church that prompted our pass-through)

On of the detours from our main course led us to one of our more interesting interactions with a local. At the potraviny (mini-grocery) in town, we picked up some fruit and juice to keep us going. It took forever to get through check-out though, as the elderly lady in front of us would put something on the belt, shake her head, go to an aisle, bring something else back (at a painfully slow pace mind you) and all the while the cashier (also an older lady) grew increasingly annoyed. We could almost feel her blood pressure rising. This is not exactly how we wanted her to be primed to deal with us.
Domhnall, after the successful transaction, one that was not assured at the start.

I was first through the line before Dom and she just started talking. Not at me, not about me (exclusively at least), but her barely audible mumbles seemed to have few nice things to say, we took it mostly about the poor old woman and her struggles to shop. We imagine the cashier was saying something like: "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, that old bag was un____ing believable. As if my life in this sleep Czech town was crumby enough boys just wouldn't understand the half of it, dressed up like water-proof elderly Korean vagabond cyclists..."

By the time Dom got through and we left, she was still at it to the lady and her kid that was behind us. So off we went.
At times the sun was beating down, and our bikes made us work twice as hard to get just as far, but boy was it worth it. The road to Olomouc had its share of visual treats...
Olomouc was even prettier than I expected. Well off the beaten path, it is like an oasis, a compact version of some of the quainter areas of Prague. It makes me wonder how many beautiful places there are in the world that no one knows about and has the chance to appreciate...
Thoroughly spent after hours of cycling up and down country roads, it felt incredible to just sit down and have a beer.
We resolved to take a train back down to Prerov thinking it would be easier. Trish had invited us out to dinner and we didn't want to keep them waiting. We ended up on a train in the complete wrong direction - something that is easily done when not a single soul speaks English. The rule of thumb is that the farther you are from a major city, the fewer people speak English, and we were a 3 hour train ride from Prague. No go on the communication front. Peter later said that he had never even heard of the town we ended up in. The only thing that redeemed the mishap was this rainbow:
We eventually found our way back and went out for steaks with Trisha, Peter and Philip. But first, I requested we make a stop so that I could get a better picture of the hops fields.
Trish suggested we run out to them, and it made for some great shots. With the sun setting, we reveled in the beautiful significance of the hops vines.