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Big Ben and Parliament

Big Ben and the home of the British Parliament behind it

Us Americans take our passports for granted. We can travel to most countries of the world without a visa, and oftentimes without even filling in a form about where we’re staying or why we’re there. It’s probably the main reason I’d rather not give up my citizenship, even though I haven’t lived Stateside for 8 years. Granted, with citizenship also comes a constant fear of the IRS and wondering how much I should care about Obamacare requiring me to buy American insurance—and then not caring after my umpteenth Czech beer and impending liver failure.

I’m long of the opinion that a lot of our immigration worries would actually be resolved if we made immigration easier and not harder. Freedom of movement has long been the pillar of economists on every side of the divide.

In Capitalist theory, as everyone from Smith to Friedman has noted, without freedom of movement the workers are left without a point of market negotiation. The serf who was tied to the land had to accept the abominable conditions enforced by his master, regardless of the humanity of it. He had to idly watch his wife get raped or his children conscripted, else there would be no land, no job, no food and they would all suffer, starve, and die. By being able to relocate to a manor or job-provider who can offer better employment terms, it gives labor a huge bargaining chip.

Foreign banks and local prisons

Without freedom of movement, labor is enslaved. Remember that when thinking about immigration, because one day, for your job, you might have to emigrate, and you will be all the hypocrite for it. In fact, Americans do have to move around lots, from city to city and state to state. Imagine having better opportunities across the globe, wouldn't you move?But back to the subject at hand.

The British immigration system. It has taught me that government services run by the government, might not be such a bad idea. Privatization just means charging everyone more money, milking a failing system, and pissing everyone off in the process. The British care so much about illegals immigrating into their country, that they’ve actually outsourced the visa process to a private company, called TLS Contact, part of the Teleperformance Group. The Teleperformance Group ironically has a board made up of Frenchmen, Portuguese, Chinese, and people of other nationalities and citizenships. Normally I wouldn’t think much of that in any large, multinational corporation, but when you are outsourcing your visa process and border security to a group that has no borders, nor concern for your borders—except in the aforementioned serfdom situation—then I think a red flag should be raised. Especially when this was the primary mover and argument for the government to depart from the European Union, while doing a bit of the above in regards to privatization.

The Tower Bridge

Here was what we went through, dealing with TLS.

My wife, not being from the EU or the US, had to apply for a visa to get into Britain for the holidays, since Britain has opted out of being in the Schengen wanting control of their own borders—an ordeal made even more ironic that the point of contact for their visa service would be for a non-British company. As we live in Prague, the process was that much stranger. TLS’s office is open “every fortnight Wednesday” in Prague, though they don’t define which Wednesday and which fortnight of the month. Is that the second and fourth Wednesday or the first and third? The British government requires that you apply for the visa up to three months in advance, and that you can't do it sooner than that. Fine. But the TLS website didn’t show any openings to put in the application at their office, and you can’t mail your own application to the British Embassy in Poland, where all applications in the Czech Republic are processed. Additionally, instead of showing all openings in a three-month window, they only show openings for maybe one month out, opening one random day at a time, as though the system refresh were being run by a drunk monkey. Remember, that’s just for two days a month. I’m not sure who came up with their scheduling system, but it’s clearly some cynical bastard who hates calendars and computers. We had to check the system every day to make sure one of those two days didn’t randomly open up and other people jumped onto the schedule, forcing us out. We only found out about this weirdness because we called the “customer service” line. On the Teleperformance website, they claim to take pride in their customer service, which is weird, because it’s clearly modeled around the same service a giant steaming mass of elephant dung might provide. “You need a web browser to make an appointment, madam,” the customer service lady said. I might add that you have to enter your credit card number and pay for this excellent customer service. “Yeah, we have one.” “Then there is no problem, madam.” This is clearly the TLS line that means, “We designed a wretched system and couldn’t give a witches third titty about it.” Then my wife went to the TLS office and found out about their scheduling system from a different frustrated customer, who explained that you just have to check back every single day and hope by some Christmas miracle you’re lucky. Which is what we had to do. Over and over again, until we were able to apply for something exactly 10 working days before our vacation was scheduled, so really, half a month. Working day 10, one day before our trip, came, and the passport still wasn’t in our hands. So we called TLS’s Polish office. “Sorry, it’s a 15-day turnover.” The website clearly says 10 working days. 10 working days.

I should call my credit card and block those charges at this point. Let that all sink in. The whole process. And think maybe why our country and the UK have an illegal immigrant process, if this is merely the painstaking retardation people have to go through to have a holiday.

The Shard on a day of typical weather

To get reasonable hotel deals and flights, you want to plan a vacation months in advance. If you want legitimate tourists coming into your country, I would think you’d want the type of people planning things. But then you push them to the edge. You make it so they are either suicidal gamblers like myself, who went ahead and bought everything months in advance, or you make it so that people are forced to buy everything within those last few days, which they don’t even tell you the correct amount of days.

By some Christmas miracle, we got the passport though. We drove to the DHL office next to the cargo terminal ourselves to pick it up. Then off to the passenger airport. Everything just in the nick of time. I know there are differences between immigration and tourism. Do you think it should be easier or harder for tourists and/or immigrants to get in to your country?

View of Dubrovnik from a town wall

What does the home of Marco Polo, lavender ice cream, and a monastery on an island in a lake on an island in a sea all have in common? It was all the thrill of Italy--with people who were friendlier and beer that was cheaper--than anything we’d experienced in the high-heeled boot of Europe. For summer fun in Mediterranean Europe, Croatia is definitely the place to be, and the place I’ll return to a dozen times over. At the apex of this last summer, we took a cruise down the coast of ancient Dalmatia, stopping at ancient Greco-Venetian villages, seeing the home of Marco Polo, and sipping lavender champagne while watching the sun set over the sea. Croatia is a real jewel of Europe, certainly something we had never expected would be so amazing.

Why Croatia?

I was trying to think of some vacation ideas last year for my parents. Ever since I moved to Europe, it’s become an annual thing. My wife and I would be private tour guides for my parents on their yearly vacation, showing them corners of the Continent that they would never think of going. When we were trying to figure out where to go, I suggested Croatia. “It’s where all the Czechs go,” I said. “Which means it must be cheap and it must be good.” I had only been to Zagreb, which is a nice town in its own right. But all the inhabitants were busy telling me to go to two places—“You must see Belgrade!” they would surprisingly say and “You must see the Dalmatian coast”. I followed the former advice, quite happily. In winter, any coast can be dreary, but a city with a huge river lined with boats the herds of gypsies and Balkanistas playing their jams on sounds like some fun. At first my parents were understandably reticent. In American imagination, we still have memories of seeing the Balkan Wars on television and we still imagine mountainsides and towns riddled with land mines, just ripe for an Angelina Jolie movie topic. But all of that is gone, I reassured them. And after sending them some photos of the pristine blue Adriatic Sea, dotted with islands and ancient Greek villages, they quickly agreed that Croatia should be the destination. The Route It was then a long process on deciding what to do. We had a couple of ideas. We’d drive from Prague down to Vienna, to Bled and Ljubljana, and then down to Zagreb and continue onto the coast. But then we decided that was too long to drive, so we should take a train. Maybe a train to Split, a boat to Dubrovnik, rent a car and go to Bosnia, then back to Zagreb. After all that, my mom presented the idea. Sail Croatia. They had a Split-Dubrovnik route and a Dubrovnik-Split route. They had party boats full of hormone-packed yuppy youths that resemble something like floating hostels and liners with a bit more luxury for the settled romantic couples. You can imagine which one we picked, what with a retired couple we were traveling with. Though really, being already aged and in my mid-thirties, I'm slowly becoming the settled sort myself I suppose.

I weighed in on my opinion for the route. But first, some information.

Korcula, the birthplace of Marco Polo


Split is an ancient Roman city, built up as the palace of the Emperor Diocletian. It was a seaside fortress, projecting Roman power across the Dalmatian coast and protecting traders from the infamous pirates who would hide in the coves up and down the shore.

In modern times, it is more known for clubbing than ruins. The center still boasts the remnants of the Diocletian fort and his mausoleum, but much of it has been replaced by cafes, banks, and souvenir shops. A natural enough fate for any famed city of old, true enough.

A view of Split while sailing out

This is the crown jewel of the Croatian coastline. If the trip started with Dubrovnik, then the rest would be a disappointment. It’s a walled city crammed into a narrow peninsula with castles overlooking it and defending it. It has a large claim to history in its own right, for many centuries it rivaled the power of Venice. It’s such a beautiful town that it was chosen to be King’s Landing in the Game of Thrones series. For any history fans, or fans of the sea, beauty, or castles, this is the town to visit.

Ultimately, we made the decision to cap the tour with Dubrovnik for those reasons.

The city gates of Dubrovnik

Getting there

We would fly from Prague to Zagreb and overnight in Zagreb. This turned out to be a ludicrously easy thing to do, as there is an entire village of decent hotels that have been built up around the Zagreb airport that are literally a 5-minute walk. Flights from Zagreb to Split cost about the same as a bus and take only an hour versus the 5-hour bus ride, so we opted for that as well. Choosing to fly meant that we had an entire half-day to spend wandering the narrow corridors of the ancient Roman version of Camp David. At one o’clock, we’d hop on the tour boat and begin the adventure. From Split, our tour would go on to Omis-Makarska-Stari Grad-Hvar-Vis-Korcula-Mljet-Dubrovnik.

Stari Grad

Don’t worry, I’ll give you pictures and information about all those following towns in the upcoming blogs to help with your own travel planning, or to help you imagine yourself somewhere sweet and serene while the snow piles up outside. So, set your sails and get ready to take your mind off of this wintry dreariness. Unless you’re from the southern hemisphere, then get ready to book your winter vacations. Have any of you visited Croatia? Where was your favorite island?

Life could be an empty hollow mess if the word “yes” were never uttered. The other night I was thinking that to myself as though it were a mantra, when my wife told me about the Prague a cappella Festival. I’ve loved music since my birth, but I’ll be honest here and say that I’ve always been a bit tense when it comes to white folk scatting and doing the jazz hands. That’s the image that is somehow burnt into my mind after one traumatic incident of watching Cats when I was a child. Though to think of it, every time I’ve seen Cats, it’s been a traumatic incident. I could never watch Thundercats again after Cats ruined Cat People for me. I could never put that fire out with gasoline, I'll tell you what.

the Prague a capella festival

But I knew this would be a little different. I’m in Europe now, where cultures are allowed to mix and borrow from each other. America’s got so sensitive that we’ve even changed the language, now appreciation and imitation have new words—we call them “cultural appropriation”. But if we don’t appreciate each other’s cultures, if we don’t take the little bits of sweetness that we like—and here it doesn’t even matter if you like the whole culture, but just that part—then we’ll never get on the train of understanding each other and making it to that final destination. If you stop mixing cultures, then you get a lot of the same old thing, as most of what is new and innovative is just an interesting concoction of things done before. Straight shots are for some, but others would prefer their fru fru drinks, pineapples, umbrellas, and all. Hardly church time A capella literally means “in the manner of the chapel”, and was a reference to the vocal style of church music before the introduction of electric guitars, jumbo trons, and evangelical rock concerts for the Lord. It brings us to a simpler time before electricity, when armies of monks would chant across foggy creeks and four guys would sit at the barber shop and doo-wop it out in epic battles of intrinsic laryngeal control. A long time has gone since those days, but hipsters of late have been trying to revive the barber shop and their quartets. Indeed, the first group we saw, the local group Hlasoplet, was a definite nod to this, and a reminder to me that a capella is perhaps some of the most complex music there is.

Hlasoplet belting it out


As Hlasoplet was playing, I gathered from the way the audience kept laughing that they seemed to blend a lot of humor into their act. In all, they caught the attitude pretty well and it was a nice warm up to the genre. They had a great presence on the stage as well, all with suits, well barbered facial hair, active facial expressions and no jazz hands. Check out this video from Hlasoplet:

Sextensially quintessent The group we came to see though—and apparently, as the announcer described, the headliner—was the Georgian group the Quintessence. I was a bit surprised when I saw six people on the stage, since the name would have made you think it was a quintuple and not a sextuple, but the shining white suits and dresses, and their shy youthful smiles made me quickly forget about this mathematical debacle. The name is likely a Quincy Jones shout out, but that's the best of my guess. They opened with a slightly jazzed up version of a Georgian folk song which was quite terrific. If there’s any people that have an edge on a capella music because of their folk styles, it’s certainly the Georgians. There’s one thing I often complained about when I was living in Georgia regarding their music. Many Georgians seem to have a hard core belief in the purity of form. That either something is folk or its rock, and there is very little if not any fusion in the styles. It really leads to a disappointing modern live music culture, since it’s basically just the repetition of European and American styles, if not just straight up cover bands of Oasis and Pink Floyd. It’s the fusion that makes things interesting, and it’s what modern Georgian musical culture has really lacked, and it’s a pity since they have such a deep well of amazing musical tradition.

The Quintessence

The Quintessence—and indeed, whoever their instructor is—are certainly on the borders in an attempt to fix this. The way they handled the Georgian folk songs, the jazz standards, and the outright fusion of the two was phenomenal, and I truly had never seen anything like it. It was no wonder that the entire audience roared with applause after every song like it was the last, and then a true standing barrage of bravos when it actually was their last song. It seemed true that nobody in the audience had ever seen such a fusion either, and the effect was something quite lasting and memorable.

This is unfortunately the best video I could find on YouTube. But still, a good example of how they arranged the jazz standard, Senor Blues, with a touch of the Caucasus:

Just for that, I was glad I tempted fate and the jazz hands to make it to the a capella festival.

But as we were leaving, there was a filler group singing on the smaller stage in the bar room. As they finished their own fusion of genres—a song mixed from “All about the bass” and “Don’t worry be happy”, they did the jazz hands. It was a good time for us to leave, as the Jellicle cats were coming out that night. The Prague A Cappella festival wraps up tonight, Friday the 30th, at La Fabrika in Holesovice.

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