Thursday, July 23, 2015

Notes from the Czech Republic ii

Report 2 – Czech Republic 7.23.15

To set the proper tone for this blog, listen with “Ma Vlast” by Bedrich Smetana in the background ... 

Prague is magnificent –It has prospered for over a 1000 years, serving as a center for political power, commerce, and cultural arts.  It was a center of power and glory before Columbus came to America!  Given its great wealth and long history, the architecture is a treasure of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles. Today the inner city is a recognized “world heritage center”.  The old town of Staré Město is located at the base of the great castle and cathedral.  So much human history has occurred here!  Across the Vltava River is the Nové Město district with its classy neo-renaissance buildings, museums, squares, and theaters.  We stayed with our exchange student and his wife in his large apartment overlooking Castle hill and the Vltava River in Nové Město … Beautiful location!

Prague offers amazing sights.  The city was not bombed in the Second WW.; so buildings and streets, cathedrals and classic houses are still intact. To maximize your enjoyment of Prague, “avoid areas overrun with tourists”. Venerable old Charles Bridge is a joy in the early morning – but forget it later when the crowds, street hawkers and guitar players fill the bridge.   There are many wonderful classic historic locations to choose between . We love to get lost in the old narrow streets of Staré Město.  These narrow stone streets with fascinating shops and homes date back hundreds of years.  They say that all Czechs are musicians – at least music of many types is much loved by all – especially in Pargue    Judy and I attended a ballet with music by Prokofiev, the  Laterna Magina show, and a summertime popular music festival in a park by the riverside. These days there are many small concerts in churches – some are OK, but in many cases they are held to raise money.

Many city people (Prague and other Czech cities) have city homes but also have a country cottage – In some cases these may be the family country farmhouse once owned by grandparents.  Often they are a specially made “chata” (what the Russians called a “Dacha”)… they can be simple cabins – but are often nice homes… We were told that many live in the city apartment during the workweek and then enjoy the country life on weekends and holidays. It wasn't unusual to find that the ‘chata’ was nicer and better furnished than the city home. In California, ‘cabins’ are often hours of travel away from home – in Bohemia is it common to travel little more than ½ hour to the tranquility of the countryside home.

We spent 3 weeks of our travel visiting in the homes and ‘chata’s’ of my newfound cousins.   My new relatives were all so very kind; showing us points of local interest; castles, natural sites, family churches and homes, evening events, and historic sites… We often walked good long distances in our outings.  In addition they prepared for us the most delicious traditional meals and baked goods.  The Bohemian cuisine is amazing!  Also the Czech beer and plum brandy - So good!    (The common toast is "Na zdravi!"- and you must make eye contact when you say it. ) Communication was sometimes a challenge – but   was usually someone to translate and if nothing else we drew pictures, used German, or Google Translate.  I felt such a kinship with all my new cousins and am very fond of them all!

This month, I learned so much!  ...about culinary and healing herbs, and Linden flowers ( a valueable herb for respiratory problems)... about picking big red Bohemian cherries,  I learned about “Unter Wasser Man” “the man proported to live  under water in rivers, ponds and canal who likes to snare unaware children – when they drown he takes their souls in little boxes or teacups.”  There are statues of this guy frequently in ponds or canals. Certain other figures are used to warn children about staying out too late after dark and not going to sleep in naptime… Kind of like our concept of the ‘Bogie man”.  I learned how to make several varieties of kolach, how to grow “mak” poppy seed, how to make Czech style pizza in an outdoor oven, and how to speak about 60 words of Czech., and I learned so much about Europen history and how it has intersected with my family.

Czech cuisine is quite different from American fare…Each meal begins with everyone saying “Dobrou chut'!” – “Enjoy your meal!”
The breakfast that we were often served was fresh white Bread rolls, slices of rye bread served with slices of processed ham, a variety cheeses, ‘quark’ or yogurt, jam (djam) and coffee.  Sometimes cold hard-boiled eggs were also served.  It wasn't unusual to have fresh baked breakfast kolache (there are many forms)  for breakfast too.
The midday meal (served from 12 – 2 PM) was usually the big meal of the day – almost always starting with a bowl of homemade soup, the main dish was frequently pork or beef meat served with vegetables or large dumplings sliced into convenient pieces, gravy.  But the ‘dinner’ menu could vary tremendously to include schnitzel, stews, a wide variety of sauces and vegetables, meat fried, roasted, stewed… One of my favorites was a grated fresh potato and onion pancake served with sour cream. – Ah! So good!!  A wide variety of garnishes might be included: Sauerkraut (cooked as zeli), mild dill pickles, potato/tomato/onion salad, olives, cheese… Beer or wine was often served with the food.  These meals were an art form – magnificent!

The evening meal was usually served between 7-8 PM and was generally a light meal.  It might be a smaller dish, soup, stew, schnitzel made with cauliflower, etc.  One of my favorites was the endless variety of small open-faced sandwiches. “Obložené Chlebí” I liked the ones with a dollop of potato salad, a bit of ham, a thin slice of tomato, and topped with a small bit of cheese…Generally they came to the table with several types arrayed on a tray. Here is the recipe to get you started:

The cuisine of ‘supper’ was most always light and took many forms.
Incredible homemade cakes and pastries were a frequent addition to the meal along with beer or wine…Sometimes we ended with small glasses of plum brandy (slivovitz).  It was explained to us that some foods were winter foods – like Potato dumplings with Pork and gravy.  Summer foods would be lighter making use of summer vegetables and salads.

Czech history has affected all families.  Prior to the First World War, “Czechoslovakia” was part of the vast Austro-Hungarian empire centered in Vienna.  After the first World War, Czechoslovakoia emerging as a free country included rediscovery of the Slavic identity distinct from Austria and Germany influence.     This was a golden time of high ideals, good government, a blooming of the arts and industry.  The Second World War, with occupation by Germany was a harsh time.  The Zlatnik and Sadek families lived in the region of north Bohemia called Sudatenland.  The Nazis insisted that all Czechs must leave the area and move into the heart of Czechoslovakia.  After the war, the Czechs could reclaim their homes - and all Germans were required to move to Germany.  After freedom returned it was short lived before Communist domination.  These were times when even passive resistance was dangerous… times when open resistance could be fatal and often was futile. With the Prague Spring and  the lifting of Communism there came a time of energy and creativity…  Many people today work long hours in order to accomplish what was not possible a few years ago…

Modern Czech Republic has a number of very enlightened social policies - all qualified students can attend the Prestegious Charles Univeristy in Prague at no cost (The future of the Czech Republic  depends on enabling of all qualified students to get the education they need to benefit the country.)

Female employees are entitled to 28 weeks paid maternity leave beginning six to eight weeks prior to birth, during which time they can collect assistance. Fathers may take over the leave, by written agreement, seven weeks after childbirth.

Healthcare (including dental treatment) is free to all citizens in the Czech Republic. It is provided through compulsory contributions to a state approved insurance fund. Healthcare costs here are well below the European average, yet standards are in line with some of the best health centres in Western Europe.

Taxes in the Czech Republic are levied by both the state and local governments. The most important sources of revenue include the income tax, social security contributions, value-added tax and the corporate tax.  Income taxes in Czech Republic are levied at a flat rate of 15% on gross income. The total tax burden can largely be described as flat to regressive as no progressive taxed are levied.