Saturday, October 19, 2013


After I graduated from college a little over a decade ago, I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my bachelor’s degree in general music (non-teaching) and a minor in linguistics and English and Teaching English as a Second Language (although the last two were undeclared). I found this program – I forget the name now – where I could travel to one of three European cities to take a 4-6 week course that taught how to teach ESL and then they’d place you in a school somewhere to teach English. Since I was fresh out of college, I wasn’t able to come up with the money required for housing, tuition, and airfare to get to Europe. But when I was thinking about it, I wanted to do the program in Prague, Czech Republic. I was so serious about it, in fact, that I bought myself a book on learning Czech (I still have it on my shelf). I really do love the Slavic languages – I may start learning Czech next, right after I master Portuguese and Spanish. And as a music major, one of my all-time favorite composers is Antonin Dvorak, a Czech.

The Czech Republic lies in central Europe, surrounded by Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Austria.  The country itself is landlocked, but several major river systems and their tributaries meander their way through the country: the Elbe, Vltava, Ohre, Danube, Morava, Thaya, and Oder. These rivers either drain into the North Sea, Black Sea, or Baltic Sea. Rolling hills, forests, and farmland cover most of the countryside.  The climate is generally temperate with hot, rainy summers and cold, snowy winters – not unlike most of the Midwest United States.

The area now known as the Czech Republic once was the independent states of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia.  I’ve often used the term “bohemian,” meaning someone (especially artists, musicians, writers, etc) who live unconventionally.  (Actually, the term was originally French, in reference to the Romani people who they thought were from Bohemia. Some may have been, but many of the Romani or Roma people were from Romania and Bulgaria and other areas. The English term “gypsy” was from a belief that these tribes originated in Egypt, from a Middle English word “gypcian.”) The famous Duke of Bohemia, Wenceslaus I, is the subject of the Christmas carol “Good King Winceslaus.”  He was murdered by his brother in 935 AD after an argument and subsequently overtook the title.  The Black Death which took its toll on Europe during the mid-1300s, completely devastated Bohemia; some estimates say 10% of the population perished in this horrific outbreak. 

During the 1500s, it fell under the Hapsburg Empire, and later the Austrian Empire, and then Austria-Hungary. After WWI, these states together became Czechoslovakia (which is how I learned it growing up).  During WWII, Germany invaded Bohemia and Moravia and turned it into a protectorate.  The Nazis were brutal to the Czechs, killing many and shipping other out to kill them in other countries.  So it was natural that there was an anti-Nazi resistance towards their occupation.  Even after WWII ended, Czechoslovakia remained a Communist state until 1989.  The term “Velvet Revolution” is often used when describing the non-violent transition from a single-party state to a democracy.  Four years later, Czechoslovakia itself will be no more, but as the separate countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, also separating peacefully. Since then, the Czech Republic has enjoyed a growing economy and high quality of life.

Sitting on the Vltava River, the capital city is Prague (called Praha in Czech), a city of around 2 million people if you count the larger metro area.  Prague is known for its architecture – from Gothic to modern – and especially for its cathedrals (one of its nicknames was “City of a Hundred Spires.”) Prague is not only the center of government, but also a center for the arts: from music and theatre to art and literature.  

Prague Castle
The Czech Republic is highly developed and has a high-income economy.  In comparison with other post-Communist states, the Czech Republic is one of the more stable ones today.  Its infrastructure is vastly improved with airports, railways, and extensively paved roadway systems. They also enjoy having one of the fastest Internet speeds and have the largest number of Wi-Fi subscribers in the EU (one more reason I should retire to live in Prague). The Czech Republic has long been a hot bed for scientific research.  Some of the more famous Czech scientists include such celebrities as Gregor Mendel (“father of modern genetics,” the only part of high school Biology that truly interested me), Jakub Krystov Rad (inventor of sugar cubes), Jan Jansky (discovered the classification of blood types), Josef & Karel Capek (invented the word “robot” – not exactly scientific for coining a word, but I’m including it), and Otto Wichterle & Draholav Lim (inventors of the modern contact lens – I thank them everyday).  Tourism is pretty important as well – the country in general has a fairly low crime rate. Castles (they have over 2000 of them!), cathedrals, museums, theatres, puppet festivals, and beer festivals are all pretty popular destinations. 

The official and most widely spoken language is Czech, a West-Slavic language. Before the 20th century, it was known as Bohemian in English. It’s closely related to and mutually intelligible with other Slavic languages. Actually, there’s a variety of Czech spoken in Texas which I had no idea existed, but apparently there were a lot of Czechs who immigrated there during the late 1800s.  However, there are a lot of other languages that are officially listed a minority languages: Slovak, German, Polish, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Greek, Hungarian, Romani, Russian, Rusyn, Serbian, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese.  The vast majority of Czechs describes themselves as indifferent to religion, or just simply believes in a spiritual or life force outside of any kind of organized religion.  Of the remaining religious folk, the more people adhere to Catholicism while a smaller percentage is Protestant.

This country is surprising, and I’m in awe of what I didn’t know. For instance, 90% of Czechs graduate from high school, compared with only about 75% of Americans (and even the highest ranking state, Vermont, only graduated 85%) And I’m embarrassed to say that’s a 40-year peak for us.  Unfortunately, Czechs also have the second-highest death rate for cancer in the EU – but on the plus side, the Czech Republic has the most hospital beds per inhabitant in the EU.  Czechs also have a serious passion for mushroom hunting. I know a few who do this, but I never have gone mushroom hunting myself. I would have no idea what I’m looking for. I do know that I’m looking forward to making kolaches. There’s a place on the north side of Indianapolis called Kolache Factory, but I never went inside because I didn’t know what a kolache was. Now, I’m waiting to go after I make my own. I’m very excited about writing on the Czech Republic, the world’s largest consumers of beer.  I end this post as I grab me another cold one from the fridge.

Up next: holidays and celebrations

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