Saturday, July 31, 2010

Corn on a cob

Finally the season for corn on the cob arrived!  During the winter time, we had cravings for corn, and we tried frozen and canned, but they were all pretty bad. We thought we would never get fresh corn here. But, the other day, as I was walking through the vegetable market, I found it. Fresh corn on the cob. And, it tasted just perfect! 

Along with the corn, I decided to take a stab at making a Thai beef salad with the only kind of beef we can get here, which is a kind of beef chunks you typically use for stews. They are tough and not too suitable for grilling.

So, I got a chunk of beef (front meat; it seems we can only get either front or back meat whichever the parts of beef they may be). I sliced it into pieces. I pounded them till they were thin enough (well, probably I should have tried a bit harder to make them thinner).  Then I marinated them in a mixture of oil, lime juice, herbs, etc for 2 hrs. Next I grilled them slightly (well, I did overcook them a bit).  Toss some lettuce on the plate along with other veggies. Top it with the beef you grilled, and there you go!

The salad came out OKAY.  I think I can create more variations using the tough beef by applying similar ideas.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

When you lose someone...

I just learned that one of my hubby's nephews has passed away.  He was only 31 years old... Oddly enough, I learned the news as I was browsing through Facebook, which left me and my hubby a very surreal feeling and took some time to realize that he was gone...

I only met him a couple of times, but I felt rather close to him because of all the updates he made thru FB - strange to say, I know... But, it is true that he was one of the most approachable person among my hubby's family members. Very open, caring, talkative, and not judgemental. I remember only getting a positive vibe from him when I met with him.

It is really sad that he had to go so early in his life. My heart aches imagining what his wife, mother, siblings, and best friends might be going through right now...
Life is not fair for sure. Recently, two of my friends also lost their family members. You lose someone important all of a sudden, and you are left with only a hollow feeling which you can't even seem to seize for yourself.  You don't know if you are sad, mad, raged, sorrow, relieved, or what. When I lost my mother; my mentor and my best friend, I went through a series of feelings very quickly in a very short period of time. I remember feeling as if my root was completely pulled out and that I no longer existed.

It may take some time, but eventually you will be healed strengthened by the great memories the person left behind for you. And, the person will live forever with you in your mind. I am hoping that the day will come soon for his loved ones. Still... losing someone you know leaves you a very distinctive empty spot in your world.

Sandy beach in the middle of Brno?

The other day I walked through the náměstí Svobody (Liberty square) with my hubby, and guess what I found there??  A sandy beach with bright red umbrellas!  Wait... as you know, there are no oceans anywhere near Brno. It was a temporarily set up beach which was being very much enjoyed by the local Brno folks. Although it was well past 6 o'clock, the sun was still hot, and people were wearing shorts, lying on beach chairs, sipping tropical drinks, and just enjoying the essence of summer (without the sound of the ocean of course ^^). 

It was rather a bizarre scene, but I love the "fun" spirit of people just enjoying the summer. There was a great jazz band playing that evening there, too. 

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Beautiful evening in Rosice

My hubby's colleague Jan kindly invited us over to his beautiful estate in Rosice to have a BBQ with his family. Rosice is another town nearby Brno. We accidentally passed it when we made a day trip to Třebíč. Of course, at that time, we didn't know it was where Jan lived with his family.

Evenings are long in Brno nowasdays. Despite the fact it was after long hours of work in the office for both Jan and my hubby, the sun was still up and painting everything around us in warm pinkish-orange; one of my favorite times of the day (another one of my favorites is when the early morning sun casts whitish yellow light into the clean morning air). 

Sitting outside at the deck near the stone grill, enjoying the smell of charcoal slowly cooking the chicken kababs, we enjoyed the conversation in the evning light. Jan and Pavla's two cute daughters were running happily.  It truly was a beautiful evening.

What amazed us later that evening was when Jan told us that they built the house by themselves - yes, from scratch by him, Pavla, and their parents. The house is so beautiful that it was even portrayed in one of the magazines. It is modern, sturdy, and very nicely built. I was just startled to learn that they themselves built such a gorgeous house!  

Thank you Jan and Pavla for a truly wonderful evening!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

First time in Czech hospital

I have stubbed my toes (rather badly) about three weeks ago, and it had been hurting on and off ever since.  I even stopped my regular exercise as it was hurting bad.  So, finally I said to myself that it is time for me to explore the medical system in Czech Republic.

As usual, I had to rely on someone (this time Katka) to find me an English-speaking doctor. She told me that the private practioners don't do x-rays and that I needed to go to the "hospital."  The nearest hospital is right next to our apartment in fact, and she kindly found me a doctor who could speak English there!

The hospital consists of many buildings and I had to find the right one, but thanks to the exterior picture of the building that Katka attached to her email for me.  I found it very easily.  The hospital was clean and rather empty.  It is not like a US or Japanese hospital, where you see lots of doctors, patients, and patients' family walking around and talking.  It was very quiet.  I went up to the reception window and started to talk in English to see how they react.  Obviously they didn't speak English.  Having been in Brno for 6 months, I expected it, so I had a piece of paper that I prepared in advance using Google Translate saying that I stubbed my toes and needed to see a doctor, etc.  :)   Maybe the translation wasn't perfect.  She looked a bit puzzled, but she got the basic idea.  It was 2:40pm when I was told to sit down and wait for my name to be called. 

I waited and waited for an hour.  By then, more people showed up and there were 5 other people waiting besides me.  Around 3:45pm, the speaker attached to the ceiling called my name (well, the voice didn't pronounce my name correctly so for a while I didn't know, but I guessed it had to be me as I was the first one there and no one moved).  I left the waiting room to go into the hallway to figure out where the doctor might be.  I saw an array of closed doors, but I didn't see anybody anywhere (and the receptionist was gone by then).  I looked around more and heard the noise coming from one of the doors, so I knocked.  No answer. It was like a bad deja-vu from the time I went to the Foreign Police office.  Then all of a sudden three or four doctors/nurses came out from the room I knocked previously.  And, one of them pointed the door and gestured me to go in.  Sure.  I went in.

The doctor asked me if I spoke only English.  I didn't want to bother telling him that I also spoke Japanese, as I knew it was't the intention of his question to know how many languages I spoke.  So, I simply said yes.  He looked a bit hesitant, but he invited me in and offered me a seat next to his desk.  He entered my data into a computer and checked my foot.  I also told him that I started to feel an arthritis-like pain on my right hand.  He decided to give me x-rays both of my foot and my right hand. He told me that my insurance unfortunately only covered the accute examinations and that I needed to pay for the x-rays as the pain has been going on for a while. Guess how much it cost me? Only 750 CZK (approx. $40)!!  It reminded me of how ridiculous the US medical system was. Probably the similar visit without the insurance would have cost me at least 10 times or even 20 times more.

I realized it was past 5pm when I got out of the hospital.  I guess that is the downside of the Czech medical system.  No appointment needed, but you need to wait for a long time.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Foreign Police

After waiting a little over a month, I got my Czech visa last week. I am not sure if it is a regular procedure, but upon the receipt of visa, I was instructed to go to the Foreign Police to show the visa and register myself in their database. 

There are two Forein Police offices in Brno. One is located just down the hill from our apartment, and the other is located on Cejl 62, which is about 10 mins away by tram. I had to go to the latter one.

I went there and found the building successfully, but it didn't at all look like a police building from outside. I looked around and found a sign in Czech which I detected that it was the police.  I rang the bell on the side of the door. No answer. I pushed the heavy wooden door, and it opened. I went into a dark building. Inside, it was sooo quiet. No one was there, and just a hallway and staircase going up were there. I went up to the second floor listening to the only sound of my shoes hitting the floor. I saw a door with a sign for some kind of company. I knew it wasn't it. So I kept going up to the third floor. The staircase was blocked out with a heavy prison-like iron gate onward.  So I detected it must be the place.

There was a open door leading into a even darker place with 6 closed doors. I knew three of them were bathrooms and shower room. And there were three more doors. I knocked two of them but no answers. I didn't knock the last one, as it had a sign in Czech saying something about the tenant. I went out to the hallway again and looked around. Nothing else was there. I called Misa who was helping me on the visa issue. She kindly called the police and confirmed the location of their office. I was there.  I just had to knock the last door.  Duh!!  But the thing is, it did not look at all like a police office.  It looked more like one of the apartment doors which could be seen in a movie with smugglers.:-(

I opened the door. There were two rooms. One waiting room with a bunch of cheap looking chairs along the bare white walls, and a room with police officers in that was separated by a glass wall. The waiting room had literally nothing in it except some cheap looking tables and chairs and two small posters on a white bare wall. The room reminded me of the fact that Czech Republic was a communist country only 20 years ago.

There were two other couples waiting in the room. I sat there waited for my turn for about 15 mins. Went up to the window. The police officer was a young looking man who spoke English. Whew!  After all, it is a "foreign" police. I am not sure if they are a part of "police," but I heard that they are specifically set up to deal with foreigner's issues and visa/immigration issues. The process only took about 3 mins.  Got a new stamp with my residential address on my passport. 

I feel stupid every time I have to try something new here, as I have to rely on people. Only if the police office looked more like a police office with clear signs, I could have figured it out by myself - I think.  Anyway, with a great help from people, I managed to register myself.

Anyway... I wonder if they're ever going to decorate the waiting room...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Czech language - Part 1

Now that the 6th month anniversay of us being in Czech Republic has passed, I finally (!) decided to study the Czech language seriously. 

Czech is categorized as a west slavic language. The alphabet is quite similar to English, except that Czech has long (represented by an accute accent such as ú or a ring such as ů) vowels on top of the short vowels (such as u), 6 letters with háček (ě,š,č,ř,ž,ň) and 2 letters with dash on the right hand corner like this: ď, ť. 

The pronunciation could be a bit tricky for someone like me who studied English as the first 2nd language. For instance, "ch" sounds quite similar to the German "ch." Okay, I studied German as my second 2nd language, so this part was not hard to remember.  But, I have to pay attention to something like the "ge", "c", and "j" sounds.  For instance, "energický" is pronounced more like "e-na-r(w/ tongue rolling)-ge-tsu-ki." "Co" is pronounced as "tso" and not "ko."  The hardest one is ř.  I heard most of the local kids also have problems with the sound.  The sad thing is that ř appears a lot.  For instance, when you are asked how you are and if you want to reply back saying "fine (well), thank you,"  you have to say "dobře, děkju."  When you listen to the natives saying "dobře," it actually sounds like "dobuje" - well, almost.  So, I have been compromising by just saying "dobuje" and trying to roll my tongue with the "j" sound :-( 

The Czech language, just like German, has a gender associated with each noun. You just have to remember it. The rule of thumb (with lots of exceptions ^^) is to check the ending of the noun - masculine ends with consonants, feminine with -a, and neutral with -o.  And, depending on the gender of noun, the demonstrative pronouns like the, this, that, and the possessive pronouns like my, yours, his, hers, its, theirs change.  And furthermore (!), adjectives change (in the case of strong adjectives)!

So, when I am asked to say "that strawberry is red," the first thing that I have to determine is the gender of "strawberry." Then remember to change "that" and "red" to match the gender. In this case, since the strawberry is "jahoda," and it is feminine (as it ends w/ "a"), the word "that" which is "ta" in a feminine form shall be applied and "red" which is "červená" in a feminine form shall be applied.  So, I need to say "Ta jahoda je červená."  Just to give you bit more flavor to this one, if you want to say "that apple is red," it shall be "to jablko je červené."

I have been creating my hand-made vocabulary cards and wnet over 200 within two weeks... But, I am very much enjoying learning a new language again.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Relaxing afternoon with our friend Jana

Jana has been a great friend and supporter for both me and my hubby ever since we arrived in Brno. And during the long weekend, she kindly invited us over to her newly renovated flat where she and her husband await the arrival of their new family member.  I was so excited not only because I just love talking with Jana but also it was the first time being in the home of a Czech family.

Jana and her husband Petr welcomed us with great snacks and homemade sweets! I was flattered that she prepared all that for us while her baby could come any time soon. And, they tasted great. Even their bunny Yammi (spell? - btw, his full name is "Yamamoto," which made me laugh so hard the first time I heard it) joined us for some snacks. And not to mention that his way of hopping added more happy smiles on our faces.

The flat was nicely renovated.  The way they broke the walls and made into one big family room adjoining the dining room made lots of sense, and it felt really comfortable.  Jana can watch her baby any time from her kitchen, dining room, or family room.  Great floor plan!

We talked for a while over great snacks and decided to head to the lake for lunch.  It was again the first time for me to visit "the" Brno Lake everyone was talking to me about.  Brno Lake is a 10km long water reservoir and said to be one of the most popular recreational area in Brno.  Indeed, the day we went there, too, was full of families enjoying boat rides, minature golf, and just relaxing. 

We went into one of the restaurants by the lake. And guess what?  They had a variety of fish dishes on the menu!!  I was getting a fish-deficiency attack, and seeing all kinds of fish on the menu was a great pleasure. 

I decided to order a bowl of creamy fish soup and a grilled catfish, and my hubby ordered a bowl of onion soup with cheese and a grilled red snapper.  And of course my hubby and I shared the fish. The catfish was fattier than I imagined, but it satisfied my fish cravings.  The red snapper was excellent! We were both fullfilled with great food and great conversation.

Jana and Petr showed us more around the lake including the dam, but by the time we got to the dam, the sky started to turn very gray. And, by the time we got to the tram station, it was pouring.  Got soaking wet, but it was all worth it.  And, next time we will try the boat ride to the Veveři Castle.

We very much enjoyed the visit. Thank you Jana and Petr (and Yammi!).

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Another day trip to Telč

Having done a quick one day trip to Třebíč, we got into the mode of driving around to small towns around Brno. The next destination we chose was called Telč (by the way, when you see the inverted hat like haček mark on a letter "c,"  it is pronounced like "ch" in English). Telč is further to the west of Třebíč, about 100+ km away from Brno. In fact, we passed Třebíč on the way to Telč, but we (well, at least I who was just sitting in the passenger seat) didn't mind that. What "travelling" brings to you is this special feeling that connects you to "the" air, wind, people, or life in general you pass through as you travel. We enjoy that pretty much.

Telč, unlike Třebíč, seemed to be very popular among the tourists (and bikers ^^). The town is famous for its chateau and the town square surrounded by a series of beautiful Renaissance and Baroque style houses that have been well preserved since the 16th century. The historic center of Telč was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1992.

The town center is very small. It is surrounded by lakes and has a very unique atmosphere - almost as if you accidentally stepped into a movie set of the 15th century European movie (or... as if you walked into a part of Universal Studios ^^). Well, it certainly is not cheesy looking like a studio set, but somehow an array of beautiful houses brings a surreal feeling.

The chateau is one of the must-sees here. It was originally a Gothic style castle which was built in the 13th century, but later in the mid 16th century it was rebuilt in the Renaissance style by a nobleman named Zachariáš of Hradec, who began to rule over the Telč estate in 1550. He was a young, humanistically educated nobleman, who turned this castle into one of the most beautiful chateaus in the area. There are a couple of tours you can take, and you will find what a significant amount of work Zachariáš of Hradec did to the chateau. Cameras are not allowed inside the chateau, but we were able to take a couple of pictures from the outside corridor which connects two buildings.

The sad thing was the family died out on the male side. Zachariáš of Hradec's first wife, Kateřina of Valdštejn, died after giving a birth to their first son, who unfortunately died around the age of five. The second wife, whom Kateřina chose even in the course of her serious illness, had a daughter, but they were not gifted with a boy. Consequently, the lords of Hradec only owned Telč estate until 1604.  But, it was also Zachariáš of Hradec who gave the orders to rebuild all the houses in the town in Renaissance and Baroque style. You can sense that Zachariáš was a great man with great appreciation in arts and beauty just by looking how Telč is even now.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

One day trip to Třebíč

July 5th and 6th were Czech holidays, and we decided to rent a car again and do a couple of short trips around Brno. Our destination was Třebíč, but typical of my hubby, we took a detour and ended up driving through the middle of nowhere land again, which I have to say we enjoyed pretty much :-)  You would be amazed to all the little villages with rather gorgeous houses here and there.

Anyway, Třebíč is a small town located west of Brno. This little town started to grow when the Duke of Moravia built a Benedictine monastery back in the 12th century. And, it became one of the most important cities in South Moravia after St. Procopius' Basilica, which is listed as one of the UNESCO's World Heritage sites, was rebuilt in the 13th century. 

This town is also famous for the old Jewish Quarter, and used to be the most important Jewish settlement in Moravia region. In the mid 19th century, many of the rich Jews left for Vienna and other big cities, and there were only 281 Jews left at the time of WWII, all of whom were taken to Auschwitz (only 10 of them survived). 

The quarter spreads along the north bank of the Jihlava River and up the side of a hill.  It has a lot of character with narrow and winding cobblestone streets.  If you go up to the top of the hill, you can enjoy a beautiful view of the Jewish quarter.

Unfortunately, I heard there is no more Jewish community there. In fact, at some point, there was a plan to destroy the quarter and build a new fancy town with modern buildings. However, the plan was cancelled as they found out the nature of soil there was not particularly suited for the high-tower buildings. Luckily the quarter was saved, and during the years 1995-1999, the town invested 40 million CZK to build a technical infrastructure (like electricity, sewage, etc), and it was then designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site along with the Basilica in 2003.  Since then, people have been moving back into the quarter.

Two synagogues (old and new) still exist, and the new one is being used for community concerts as well as a museum where you can learn about the history of the Jewish quarter.