Culture Shock in the “New” Central Europe

Absinthe in Bratislava

Absinthe in Bratislava

Things I Like

  • Buying a beer that is 1/3 larger than an American domestic beer, tastes better, and costs less than $1; wine is also about $1 a glass.
  • Flushing the toilet in two different ways: regular flush and super flush.
  • Awesome herb-based water, which tastes great and is good for you. Why do we only have boring spring water in America?
  • Colorful Euro paper money and interesting historic European pictures on coins.
  • Drinking Absinthe in a restaurant.
  • Buying a bottle of 70% Absinthe for less than $30.
  • Friendly Slovaks helping translate that the train attendant is saying you are sitting in first class but you only bought a second-class ticket.
  • Paying only a few Euros to continue to sit in first class.
  • Friendly Slovaks helping you on the bus find out what next thing you are supposed to ride to get to your destination.
  • Talking to very interesting Europeans.
  • Drinking in a bomb shelter converted into a bar deep underground.
  • Friendly Czechs in restaurants that make you feel like their extended family.
  • Watching a guy in a bar in Prague roll a joint and smoke it … and no one caring.
  • Paying about $25 for two dinners with side orders, 5 glasses of wine, coffee and a dessert.
  • Not being rushed in restaurants.
  • Inserting a 50-Euro cent into a shopping cart with all four wheels working properly and getting the coin back after using the cart.
  • Having your laundry cleaned for free in a hotel.
  • Watching TV in Czech, Slovak or Hungarian.
  • Bankomats.

Things I Don’t Like

  • Small showers with funny hand-holding shower heads.
  • One- and two-Euro coins.
  • Different sizes of paper money; each denomination gets larger to the point that you can hang the 500 Euro on your wall as a picture.
  • Train attendants who don’t speak English telling you that the train you are on is no longer going to your destination and that you will have to take a bus or another train at the next stop.
  • Missing your next train and being stuck in a large city celebrating some holiday while lugging your 55-pound backpack from one 4-star hotel to the next looking for a vacancy.
  • Paying 50 Euro to have your laundry cleaned in a 3-star hotel that charges 4-star prices.
  • Learning the hard way how to use public transportation.
  • Waiting for your waiter/waitress to bring your bill.
  • Meat-cornucopia breakfasts that come with your accommodations.
  • Hand jesturing to Slovaks who don’t speak English.
  • The guy who turns the light on in your dorm at 4 a.m. after his pub crawl so he can pack.
  • Sleeping in mixed dorms.
  • Church bell clanging … especially that one in Levice, Slovakia that clangs every morning for about 15 minutes, but never quite at 7 a.m.
  • No coffee machines in hotels.
  • Tolets in separate rooms from bathroom.
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Luggage Problem. …

Deciding what to carry when you travel can be a “luggage problem”. But this problem can be amazingly resolved, as demonstrated in one of my favorite movies, “Joe Versus the Volcano”. Incidentally, this movie was brutally rated by critics, which goes to show you that they can be just as clueless as us minions. This movie is now a cult classic.

Before showing my solution to this problem for backpacking through Central Europe for several months, see first how Joe learns his through the ultimate in luggage salesmen!

Below is my solution to the luggage problem. A suggestion … when packing, start by sectioning off all your gear in three groups; 1) what will go in your dopp kit, 2) what will go in your day/backpack, and 3) what will go in your actual large backpack.

Travel Gear

My Travel Gear

• Rick Steve’s carry on, convertible backpack/suitcase
• Dopp kit (plethora of pockets and shoulder strap)
• 3, 3-oz plastic bottles in plastic bag
• Money belt
• Poncho (converts into picnic blanket & pillow)
• Travel Cubes
• First-aid kit
• Cloths bag compressor
• 5 combination locks (for backpacks)
• Small flashlight – LED light
• Laptop and charger
• USB cable for iPhone
• Flash drive
• Converter
• Monocular
• Hostel sheet (36×83″ w/hood & mesh-panelled stuff sack)
• Laundry wash leaves
• Super-absorbent towel (20×36″ soaks up 10x its weight)
• Ultra-strong repair tape
• Foreign currency
• Collapsible umbrella
• Padlock (hostel lockers)
• Maps (iPhone maps also)
• Guidebook

Not Shown in Image

• Backpack (w/laptop compartment & multiple compartments)
• iPhone and car charger
• Moistened Wipes
• Passport
• Drivers license
• IDP (International Drivers License)
• Detailed Travel Itinerary
• Photocopies of documents
• Ecco Shoes
• Glasses / Sun glasses
• Clothesline
• Soap
• Spot remover
• Insect repellent
• Wool cap
• Emergency blanket (for extreme cold)
• Waterproof matches
• 6 function whistle (signal mirror, thermometer, magnifier, compass, LED light)

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The Joys of Inoculation

Travel Inoculation Shots

Travel Inoculation

If you´re like me, the last thing on your list in planning a three-month trip through Central Europe would be inoculation, a.k.a. immunization. But after seeing several of these little reminders in travel guides, it finally got added to that list … then became an afterthought. Finally, I seized the moment and took a short trip to my local Health Department. And after an intense hour of very thorough and expert consultation, and light conversation on a cornucopia of infectious diseases both here and abroad, I became very glad this afterthought on my list was getting done.

In all, I got five shots, two in one arm and three in the other. For the squeamish, the shots were painless, like very light pricks to the arm. I was originally going to just have the “Tdap” done at my doctor’s office. This one shot includes immunization against Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis. But then I learned the cost of this one shot would be would $84—and, of course, my health insurance doesn’t cover this. Fortunately, my local Health Department charges only $8 for this shot. In its fight against infectious diseases, the government pays the greater portion for these shots.

Below is a list of my inoculations:

• Measles, Mumps & Rubella (MMR)
• Hepatitis A & B
• Tdap (Tetanus, Diphtheria & Pertussis
• Pneumococcal Polysaccharide
• Inactivated Influenza

The total cost of all five shots was $94. To extend the immunization, I will have to return in 28 days to get a second shot of the MMR and “Twinrix” (Hepatitis A & B). There are two more inoculations I need to get that the Health Department did not have: Typhoid and Tick Born Encephalitis. The Health Department provided me with a long list of local clinics that provide these shots. So, overall, I still have two more trips to make before the “big trip”, but I am taking this much more seriously. Just Hepatitis A & B alone are highly contagious, so why risk it.

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Buying an International Driving Permit

International Driving Permit

International Driving Permit

In order to drive in a foreign country, you need an International Driving Permit (IDP). If you have a U.S. driver’s license, getting an IDP is easy.

To buy an IDP, I went to a local AAA office. There I was able to buy the permit and get my picture taken. A picture is required and goes inside the permit. The photo cost $12 and the permit cost $15.

After your picture is taken, you need to fill out a simple one-page form, including current residence address and when you want the permit to be activated. The IDP may be issued six months in advance of activated date.

Note: Make sure your current driver’s license will be active throughout your trip; otherwise, if it expires during your trip, so does your IDP.

The IDP is valid in 150 countries. It is also supposed to be a useful document to show to foreign authorities as a recognizable form of identification. Another note of caution: Verify the activated date on the front of the permit, as well as all other personal data, are correct before leaving.

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Ana Vidovic

This post is a bit off the beaten path as my posts are of my own content. But, after studying classical guitar for several years and immensely appreciating its huge world of compositions, I really wanted to share an outstanding an example of this beautiful instrument.

As many are still stuck in the ad nauseam and mind-numbing world of commercial radio, I hope this youtube video can serve as a launching pad to at least one gentle reader, and introduce a new world of music that is at a level never before experienced.


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Purchasing Foreign Currency Before You Go

Czech Korunas

Czech Korunas

Before arriving in Prague, I thought it would be a good idea to purchase some Czech crowns (korunas). My bank sells foreign currency at no additional fee if you have an account. Although there is about an 11% cost on top of the going exchange rate that the bank’s provider tacks on, it’s nice to have cash in hand—removing one logistic task before your arrival.

If your bank is like mine, you will first need to go to your bank in person to place the order before you can actually pick up the currency. I had to pay in advance. The amount is determined by the foreign currency’s closest denomination to the amount you would like to purchase. I was able to choose whether I wanted the currency in mixed denominations or in lowest denominations. I picked mixed but next time I will pick lowest. I think it’s best to have money in the lowest denominations—you don’t want to give a vendor a 2000 Czech crown when buying a cup of coffee, for example. After this, I waited a day before the currency arrived at the bank. When I went the second time to the bank, I was required to sign a receipt showing I picked up the currency.

Overall, it wasn’t a bad experience although it takes two visits. One final note: the Czech Republic, a member of the European Union, has yet to adopt the euro like its neighbor Slovakia, which started using the euro on January 1, 2009. There is talk that it will in 2012.

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Agent Zigzag

Agent Zigzag

WARNING: Reading Agent Zigzag may seriously diminish any respect you may have for James Bond movies.

Once you read Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre, you’ll probably look upon all that you’ve enjoyed about the fictitious James Bond character as just a cheap imitation of the real deal: Eddie Chapman, the first successful double agent—who was much greater than MI5, Ian Fleming, Sean Connery, EON Productions—and certainly more creative. This truly is an example of truth being stranger than fiction.

Chapman is first found in jail on a small British island just off the coast of France. World War 2 has erupted and Hitler has overtaken France, including the island where the protagonist is jailed. Chapman has just started a 3-year sentence for burglary and decides to use his time wisely by first reading every book in the jail’s library. And once finished with this self-imposed task, he reads them all again. He also learns French and German, wisely thinking that these languages may come in hand considering the close proximity to France and that the island is occupied by German forces.

This dedication to learning, which Chapman exhibits tenaciously throughout the book, may seem slightly odd since, as a child, he hated British-styled schools and would play hooky more often than attend. He thought there must be a better way to live and he was determined to find it—but, on his own terms.

Chapman eventually gets out of jail early and begins to immediately manifest new adventures. He acts upon the brilliant and equally insane idea of informing the top German officer on the island that he’s interested in working for the German army as a secret agent. But secretly he’s only interested in finding a way off the island. Eventually, the Germans take him up on his offer and, after first throwing him in one of the most severe prisons in France brutally run by the Nazi’s, he finds his way to a palatial chateau in beautiful French country. There he is trained as a top German secret agent by some colorful characters. Here Chapman continues his life of learning by absorbing everything to do with the life of a spy, while pampered by the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence organization.

This begins a series of equally interesting events that lead Chapman back to England, Portugal, France, Germany and Norway, making Agent Zigzag a great travel book of Europe during that momentous period of the 20th Century.

Agent Zigzag reads like a biography of Eddie Chapman’s life around WWII, but read like the actual events were unfolding before my eyes. I couldn’t help but see how my favorite James Bond scenes where somehow lifted from this extraordinary life. It was like I was getting a chance to relive all my favorite James Bond movie scenes—but at a much more sublime level. And I couldn’t stop thinking how a person could live such an interesting, creative and adventurist life.

What’s so interesting about Chapman’s well-lived life was it was like he was living in a dream world where he always seemed to manifest the most unusual and interesting paths. He lived a very dangerous life where the stakes were life, but Chapman seemed to treat it as a great adventure—the higher the stakes, the greater the reward. He marched to the beat of his own drummer. And in this fashion is how Great Britain’s MI5 gave him the agent’s name “Zigzag”. As the author puts it so eloquently, whenever one would zig in life, Chapman always zagged. This also explains how what surely would have been a short life for most, Chapman manages to live to a ripe old age. The name also describes well the path Chapman takes in life, a series of zigzags but always leading to the goals of his own making.

A final note: Agent Zigzag is also based on a plethora of recently released MI5 documents previously hidden by the British government.

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A Polish Son in the Motherland

A Polish Son in the Motherland

A Polish Son in the Motherland

“A Polish Son in the Motherland” describes the many months the author spent living in Poland. Unlike that typical American tourist who goes off to Europe hoping for great adventures but ends up only grazing the surface of another culture as he barricades behind 4-star hotels and bused tours–the author boldly strikes out in search of distant relatives and plunges head first deep into Polish culture.

Leonard Kniffel initially stays at a local hotel in the village near where his grandmother lived as a child before immigrating to America. But eventually he moves into the house of a recently divorced but newly liberated bachelor. And so the author’s mission is set, and surprisingly simple, as the author makes his way on an adventure that many would think a near impossible task.

Growing up in America, Kniffel would often hear stories of distant relatives in Poland and would become familiar with them through old photographs from a distance. But once in Poland, he seeks them out one by one with pit bull tenacity. And what follows are a series of many funny and a few sad experiences of an American treated most warmly by Poles anxious to know him. Kniffel seems to gravitate toward the humorous side of humanity in the things he chooses to observe. Many of the idiosyncrasies he sees in the Poles he meets, also show how very similar they are to Americans having Polish ancestry … me being one.

The book also serves as a great guide to seeking out distant relatives in another country. I think the best example is just going there and asking people if they know so and so. Things just happen. And the Poles Kniffel meets and befriends make the magic work with their openness and willingness to help. And along the way, Kniffel joins in the celebration of life with them and their unique ways.

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Learning a Foreign Language using Livemocha

Livemocha ( is a community-driven foreign language website. Its tools are similar to Rosetta Stone, but it has one feature that makes it far superior in my opinion. Native speakers of the language you are leaning review and grade your writing and speaking. And in turn, you review and grade those who are learning your native language. A perfect give-and-take scenario.

Below is a screen shot of the homepage showing my “Mochapoints”, which is based on the lessons, writings and speeches I submitted; and my “Teacherscore”, which is based on my reviews of other users’ writing and speech submissions.

Livemocha Homepage

Livemocha Homepage

Livemocha also seems to cover a lot more languages than some other language websites, which only cover the four basic languages (you know what they are; no point in documenting them here). Basically, it’s a really turn off when you go to a site that is only offering the languages you learned in either high school or college (yawn).

Livemocha also has plenty of material to study. A language usually consists of four courses (101, 102, 201 and 202). Each course consists typically of three units. Within each unit there typically consists of five lessons. To complete a lesson can take anywhere from 3-5 hours (based on my own experience). Basically, its up the user how much time they want to stay in a lesson before moving on.

Each lesson consists of a Rosetta Stone type study guide (see below) followed by review. Then it’s on to the speech. This is where you record a short reading based on the lesson. Then you submit the lesson and wait for other users (native speakers of the language you are learning) to review your recording. Some users will leave a recording of the same reading, which is really helpful since you are getting a chance to hear a native speaker with their own particular dialect. But most just leave written comments.

Livemocha Lesson

Livemocha Lesson

The last part of a lesson is the writing. Here you write a short one paragraph essay (or as long as you want) on the topic at hand. Again, you submit this and wait for native speakers to review your writing.

There are also other tools I have yet to use, such as, their live chat with native speakers.

A social network is also integrated into the website, which is a great support system when learning a foreign language. After all, who else to ask a question when it comes to learning a foreign language than someone who speaks that language. You can also provide valuable information to those who are learning your language. You’ve been studying that language all your life. You don’t need a degree or a teacher title to help someone say from Brazil who is trying to learn English (incidentally, there are a lot of Brazilians that are learning English).

Overall, Livemocha is a great community-driven website. I’d even go as far as saying it’s a killer app. If only this was around when I was bogged down in endless grammatically lessons of Spanish in college, which I really can’t say I can speak, even though I took three semesters! Personally I think you just have to start using the language as soon as possible once you learn the very basics. From there you are going to learn from your mistakes and by native speakers.

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Adding Foreign Language Keyboards to iPhone

Because the iPhone has a software keyboard (not hardware keyboard like on Blackberry), it makes entering text in a foreign language very easy; thus, the limitations of a hardware keyboard. So, if you want to email that friend in another country in their native language (with all the different characters of that foreign language) it’s easy to do. This post describes how to install another keyboard and use it.

  1. First select “Settings” from your iPhone.
  2. In the “Settings” screen, select “General”.
  3. In the next screen, scroll down and select “International”.
  4. The “International” screen appears as displayed below.

International Screen

  1. From the International screen, select “Keyboards”.
  2. The “Keyboards” screen appears, as shown below.

List of Added Keyboards

  1. From the Keyboards screen, you will see a list of keyboards that are currently added to your iPhone (that is you have access to switching to before entering text). Note: In this screen, you can remove currently added keyboards by selecting the “Edit” button at the top-right corner and then selecting next to the keyboard you wish to remove.
  2. From the Keyboards screen, select “Add New Keyboard…”.
  3. The “Add New Keyboard” screen appears as shown below.

Selecting and Adding Keyboard

  1. From the Add New Keyboard screen, select the language you desire. Scroll down if you do not see it listed. If you still don’t see it, tell Apple to add it!
  2. Once a new keyboard is selected, the Keyboards screen will appear with the new keyboard listed. At this point, just back out of the screens because you are now ready to try out your new keyboard.
  3. Open up a new Note or launch a new email or whatever you want to enter text in. In my example, I open a new Note. From this note, I tap on the screen to display the keyboard. To switch to a new keyboard, you select the little globe icon that appears to the left of the space bar. See image below.

Selecting Keyboard

  1. By holding your finger down on the globe icon (as shown in the image above) you will see a list of all the keyboards you have added to your iPhone. At this point, drag your finger up to the keyboard you want to use and lift your finger. Your keyboard will now be configured for the language you selected. For example, If I wanted to enter “slovenčina” (note the soft č), I would just hold my finger down on the “c” key and the soft č would appear for me to select (by dragging my finger to it and lifting).

That’s it. Easy! No need to learn a new keyboard configuration, unless you’re using a Chinese keyboard. I can only image what that would look like! Then this may not be so easy. But I don’t need to learn this … yet!

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