My media holiday

I’ve been on a U.S. media sabbatical for six months.  I don’t miss it.  And my perspective is slowly changing about my country.

Before I left Boston this year, I was a pretty voracious consumer of news media.  I spent 30-45 minutes reading the Boston Globe cover to cover every day.  I watched the morning newscast before work.  I read my Yahoo! portal page.

Was I a media junkie?  I didn’t consider myself one, if only because I didn’t watch political commentators on Fox News, CNN or MSNBC.  I guess on reflection I was pretty close though.

Today, I don’t have cable or satellite television service (yet).  As I wrote earlier, there’s so much content on the internet that my television functions mostly as a giant monitor for watching iTunes, or streaming TV shows from websites, or watching DVD’s.  The amount of news content I consume has dwindled to a daily skim through the Yahoo! portal and occasional visits to

Having disengaged for a while, it now seems like U.S. media is a tempest in a teapot.  For example, there is a hysteria by which journalists and commentators focus on even the most minute differences between parties on issues.  It’s divisive.

It’s also unfortunate because it serves to distract the citizenry from the real issues.  The big issues.  Such as?

For one, that the U.S. is a huge net debtor to China, given its addiction to inexpensive  Chinese goods (note I didn’t say cheap, or shoddy).  China will surely use its vast holdings of U.S. currency to exercise its interests, and at the expense of the U.S.’

Or, that the cost of health care is materially affected by the degree to which patients receive preventative care.  Waiting until you need to go to the emergency room because you couldn’t afford medical coverage is the best way to ensure costly care of what would then be an acute or chronic condition.  On principle, why can’t the government incent preventative care as a form of industrial policy?  After all, every country has an industrial policy with incentives designed to influence private sector behavior.  This is not the orientation of the current healthcare debate.

Or, the fact that small businesses employ most of the workforce, are the source of most job creation, and are the primary means to grow out of a recession.  But can you find a powerful small business lobby in Washington?

I could go on.

Americans are perplexed why other countries see America differently than it sees itself.  No doubt cultural and societal differences account for part of it.  But could the reason also lay with Americans’ media habits?

Imagining Communism from a park bench

I live on a beautiful square in Prague called Namesti Miru:

Each day and night I cross the square between my home to the tram stop.

I have a recurring thought: what conversations has this square witnessed?  On its park benches, on the steps of the beautiful church or even between passers-by on the sidewalks.  I think especially about the Communist era.

A colleague recently told me how his father’s friend told a political joke only under the condition that my colleague and his father adjourn to the basement to hear it.  Imagine the paranoia of living under such a regime.

At Namesti Miru, did people engage in small talk, knowing more controversial topics would put you under suspicion or worse?  Did they use the anonymity of the place to pass secrets?  Or engage in longer, more substantial conversations away from the prying ears of the Party?

I’m reluctant to ask my Czech friends.  I suspect in any place where some unspeakable past events are fresh on the minds of its citizens, there is reluctance to go there.  And that the answers will only be revealed to me slowly, on the basis of gradual, growing trust.

And as bad as it was to be a Czech as a Communist subject, consider just the recent atrocities that we witnessed.  Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Sudan, Rwanda, the list goes on.  These populations are surely traumatized in ways the rest of us cannot know.  I can only spend so much time thinking about this before I get too upset and depressed.

On a brighter note, back to my beloved square and the secrets it holds.  Any guesses what it wants to tell us?

Things I love and (un)love about Prague, Part 2

Time for an update on living in Prague.


Beer.  This bears repeating from my first post on this topic.

Sausage.  Ditto.

Conservation.  This seems to be a stereotype across Europe; everything is consumed in moderation.  Electricity is conserved as motion sensors are everywhere in residences and commercial buildings alike.  Restaurant portions are consistently smaller than in the U.S.   Soft drink cans are smaller.  Cars are smaller; diesel engines are prevalent.  I could go on.  On the food front, it would seem that everything that’s bad for you (fat, salt, sugar, white carbs etc.) is in the Czech diet too.  But everything in moderation means a lot fewer obese persons to the casual observer.

Restraint.  Perhaps to a fault, Czechs are restrained.  Loud conversations are unusual in any setting except perhaps a pub.  Where everybody gets a bit “jolly”, so no big deal.  Confrontations are muted.  An example: I had a Czech colleague express some serious concerns in a business meeting.  Afterwards, in private, he expressed his worry that he came across as too forceful.  I’m thinking, “Dude, you barely raised your voice”.  On the whole, this makes for a more pleasant way to navigate life.

Public transportation. I covered this one before, too.  But I’m more in love than ever.

Subways, street trams and buses enmesh the city.  At 90 cents a ride or less.  With trains every few minutes.  This is a non-car-owner’s dream city.  I have no idea how the government affords it when I think back to the “we’re always broke/we need to raise fares” mantra heard from Boston’s transportation authority on a constant basis.  At $2 a ride.


Conservation.  Despite all of the benefits of being conservation-minded, it can get carried too far.  At any local supermarket, you are given a small ration of plastic bags.  God help you if you ask the clerk for one more.  An icy stare will ensue, and the bags will be whipped in your direction out of disgust.  These bags neither cost a lot nor are scarce.

Dog poop on the sidewalks.  Is it because those plastic bags are so scarce?

Bureaucracy.  I wrote about it here already.  And there are other examples.  I was required to produce seven (!) signatures in order to receive a credit card.  At Ikea, you deal with one clerk to arrange for delivery of your furniture.  And you wait for another clerk standing next to the first in order to arrange for assembly of what will be delivered.  Any chance this process could be combined?

I believe the Czech workforce is productive on the whole, but something is holding the business world back from inspecting productivity and taking the kind of (ruthless?) action seen in the U.S.  I will be puzzling on the root cause of this hesitation for a while to come.  Heck, by the time I understand why, I probably will have accepted it.

The feeling of illiteracy

What does it feel like to be illiterate?  You and I will never know, given I wrote this and you’re now reading it.  But I might have gotten a view into that world.

During my recent trip back to the United States, I realized how relaxed I was.  I didn’t have to pay constant attention; everything felt so familiar.  I also realized how much of my relaxation was due to comfort with the language, both verbal and written.

Understand that the road sign “Mass Pike” means Massachusetts Turnpike, and that a “turnpike” is a type of highway?  No problem.  Order just what I want in a restaurant (“hold the onions”)?  No problem.

It was that lack of stress that made me realize the constant stress I’ve been feeling by living in a land with a different language.

The Czech language, being a Slavic language, has very few shared words with English.  Unlike Romance languages that have many words with common origin to English.  Hence, I can order a meal in Spain, France or Italy and probably get what I want.  Sausage = “saucisson” in French.  But sausage = “uzeniny” in Czech?  Not so much.

Steve Martin had a stand-up comedy routine in the 70’s where he talked about ordering an omelet in another country, only to get a shoe with melted cheese on it.  Exactly.

If you look past the fact that many people in the Czech Republic can speak English with me, I’m otherwise functionally illiterate there.  How do illiterates cope?  You learn to copy.  Using visual memory alone I can now get places.  But I’m missing so much meaning in communication with others. On a couple of occasions, I looked at loitering teenagers and felt paranoid about whether they’re making fun of me.  I’ll never know.

Stress.  Paranoia.  Ineffective communication.  Imagine how an illiterate person feels.

Illiteracy is a scourge.  It begets poverty.  And ignorance.  And we all know that poverty and ignorance are breeding grounds for much of the behaviors we dislike in the human condition.

Sure, people cope with illiteracy.  Periodically, you read inspiring stories of illiterate, millionaire entrepreneurs.  Yes, they beat the odds and their triumph over adversity makes us feel good.  But the odds they beat are gigantic.  For every person who succeeds despite being illiterate, surely millions of others do not.

You cope.  But you don’t prosper.

IKEA’s journey to world dominance

I must admit that after 6 trips to Ikea in as many weeks, I am beginning to supplicate myself to its dominance.  It’s a bit of a running joke in the expat community in Prague about the central role of Ikea in one’s life.  Let me explain.

You probably didn’t send all of your belongings over when you arrived in Prague.  And when you were deciding what to ship, you probably had no idea that apartment life in Prague is closet-less.  There must be some conspiracy against closets, as funded by Ikea.  So, you start buying Ikea products that can store your stuff.  Armoire units.  Bedside stands.  Kitchen hutches.  Anything that will hold your cherished crap and not break your wallet.

Ikea has managed to become central to expats’ lives for a variety of reasons.  First, their stuff is cheap (as in inexpensive).  You’re willing to leave it behind when you go.  Second, it’s not sufficiently ugly enough to prevent you from buying it.  Damning with faint praise, but there you go.  Third, it’s modular so that you can always find a configuration that will fit the vagaries of your apartment’s layout.

If you step back, that makes for a potent value proposition for a huge portion of the world’s population.  A great solution for students?  Check.  City dwellers in mega-cities like Beijing or Mexico City or Mumbai?  Check.  Parents outfitting their kids’ room?  Check.  Stylish furniture for those who can’t afford something of lifetime quality?  Check.

Like all potent brands, Ikea has also managed to skirt the downside of what it offers.  Everybody thinks it’s a Swedish company.  Which it is, but virtually everything is from low cost production countries like China.  Not much Swedish product content.  Second, its low cost of goods hasn’t (fully) translated into a consumer belief of “too cheap/shoddy to buy”.  It’s of decent enough quality that you’ll probably keep it for longer than you planned.  And who can forget the torment of assembling Ikea products?  Sweat-soaked shirt and a shower are the final steps in any Ikea assembly project.  Yet we keep buying…

So Ikea has achieved what few companies have: the magic of a having successful brand and being a large company.  In order to be a big company, they must serve a variety of customers.  Yet, any of those diverse customers believe that “this product is made for me”.

One product (type).  Many needs.  Potent.


My wife and my son arrived in Prague recently, after 3 months of being apart from them.

In that period, I felt at times like I was an explorer setting up a new camp.  Then sending word back to base camp that it was now safe for the others to arrive.  Except in this case, it meant learning how to shop for food, buy a tram ticket, learn some Czech words etc.

At other times, it was just plain lonely to be without my best friends.  So as you can imagine, their arrival was a joyous moment for all concerned.

My wife and son are now entering their acclimation period, just as I did three months ago.  I started thinking about the parallels of this situation to work life.

Many times, company leaders are planning changes well before others in the company get wind of them.  This leads to an unintended but obvious schism: for the ones planning change, they have been getting used to the idea for a while.  And therefore have gone through their personal cycle of anger, denial and acceptance.  By the time those driving the change introduce it to the broader audience, the “changers” are ready for the future state.  Meanwhile, the “changed” are just getting started on their cycle.  And these impedances don’t match unless someone specifically works to bridge the divide.

An example: a month into my tenure at my new job, I asked my team if things had changed a lot.  “Oh yes” they said.  I challenged them by asking what specifically had changed.  Did they have a new job description?  New work processes to follow?  Nope.  I spent that first month talking about what was *going* to change.  Without actually implementing anything.  I did so deliberately so that everybody went through this journey more or less together.

Another, different thought: I reflected on the case of armed services families.  I just can’t imagine how families stay connected in the face of long tours of duty.  I may be a pacifist in spirit, but I certainly have a deepened respect and appreciation for the sacrifices that service men and women make when separated from friends and family.

OK, so enough ruminations.  It’s time to get on with enjoying (and adapting to) my family’s new reality.  Stay tuned for new tales of life in Europe.

Is there an “Expat persona”?

It’s been two months since I’ve moved to Prague.  By now, I’ve met a lot of expatriates from the U.S. and the U.K.  Prague is reputed to have 25,000 of us.

The first conversation with a fellow expat inevitably includes the question, “so, how did you land in Prague?”  The answers fall into three buckets:

1.  I came for love and stayed for work

2. I came for work and stayed for love

3. I came for adventure (sometimes this is code for “I came for the parties”) and stayed

The recurring theme to these conversations is that arrival in a new and different place set in motion a series of events they never expected.  And that they were universally glad it happened.  Given my fascination with change management, I’m encountering a group of people who somehow welcomed change when many of us don’t.  Or at least were open to where change would lead them.

Maybe that’s what the expats have in common.

Thing I love and (un)love about Prague

If you go back to my first blog entry, I predicted (planned?) that at some point I would write about the differences between life in Boston and Prague.  And that I would start passing judgment on those differences.  Mostly in jest.

A commitment is a commitment, so here goes.


1. Beer.  Sausage.  Beer & sausage.  Sausage & beer.  If this isn’t the beer & sausage capital of the world, state your case.  I mean, the local hypermarket must have 40 varieties behind the counter.

2. Bread.  Your basic hypermarket beats the best artisanal bread store in Boston.  Hands down.

3. Countryside.  Green, rolling hills.  Unspoiled forests.  Lots of both.  If you are a cow, or a walker, you’re in heaven.

4.  Architecture.  Another obvious one next to beer.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s beautiful, revered and preserved.

From my flat...

5. Traditions.  Despite a lot of external changes imposed on the country in the last 70 years (first Nazism, then Communism, then global Capitalism), traditions endure.  Did I mention beer?  But also food, manners, the value of friendship and a healthy dose of cynicism/secularism.

6. Public transportation.  It’s everywhere and it’s cheap.  Subways, trams, buses.  You can live without a car.  Easily.


1. Traditions.  I was told, not asked, that my dumplings would not be served at the same time as my Caesar salad.  They are not suitable together, according to some unspoken food tradition.

2. The damned coins you must deposit to obtain a shopping cart. Is 50 cents really a deterrent to theft?  Plus, I had a job at age 14 retrieving those carts from the far corners of the parking lot.  Why take those kids’ jobs away?  The best example was encountering this system in a grocery store located in a basement.  If you can smuggle the cart out via the elevator, more power to you.

3. Smoking.  If the UK can stop smoking in pubs, Czechs can too.

4. Service.  Somehow I long for the fake, plastic smile of the American server.  Many in the service sector here realize that it’s the customer paying the bills.  A few are still immune to this truth.


1. ZZSHMP.  This is the name of a local ambulance chain.  Imagine calling 911 and pleading for an ambulance.  Caller: “Help, send ZZSHMP!”  Operator, to co-worker:  “Wow, this dude must be gurgling blood.  Probably too late to save him”.

2. This logo.  Are they trying to sell smoked sausages or a means to extract tapeworms?


Battling the bureaucracy, one postal package at a time

I spent four hours last week trying to “liberate” some boxes from the Czech postal service.  It was an enlightening experience that took me deep into the bowels of a bureaucracy.  Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t just about a Czech bureaucracy.  Every nation has them.  But thanks to Ceska Posta, I have the following stories.

My wife took pity on me by sending some boxes by air mail, well in advance of our house stuff’s slow trip by boat from Boston to Prague a few weeks from now.

Weeks after the packages were sent, nothing showed up at my apartment.  The manhunt began…

1. Using an online track & trace (in English thankfully, but with nicely mangled phrases), Ceska Posta informs me that for some packages they had attempted delivery. And that others were in some sort of customs process.

No notice had arrived in my mailbox about this.  Why?

  • It turns out my name wasn’t on any mailbox at the apartment for the first few weeks of tenancy.  Why?  My employer rented a short-term flat on my behalf, so their name was on the lease, though I was a named sub-lessor.
  • Mysteriously, my name shows up on a mailbox a day later without my asking.  I use my key, but it won’t open.  Why?  The property managers put my name on the wrong box.
  • That night, I open the mailbox and voila!  Notices from the post office start spilling out.
  • Some of which say (when translated by a co-worker) that items will be returned to sender within days.

Yikes!  The clock is ticking.

2.  Online track and trace had its own arcane messages.  Herewith is one:


Posting number of an item affixed in the Czech Republic: CV911110562VV.
Item was posted on 22.04.2010.
Item was on 24.04.2010 dispatched to the Czech Republic.
Item was accepted on 27.04.2010 at the Office of Exchange 22000 – pošta Praha 120.
Item presented to customs clearance on 27.04.2010.
The item stored at the Office of Exchange 22000 – pošta Praha 120 on 05.05.2010.
Customs clearance discontinued on 05.05.2010. Addressee called upon cooperation (my emphasis).


“Called upon cooperation”?  Holy sh*t!  What kind of meeting for “ko-operation” am I invited to?

3.  An empathetic co-worker agrees to accompany me to the two post offices where my stuff is being held.  I think his role in our office is a “fixer”, as he seems to relish the forthcoming fight with the bureaucratic machine.

4. We get to the first building.  Outside of office “A” there are chairs.  People are nervously pacing the hallway.  A chime sounds, and the next party is invited to enter.  We enter, only to find another set of chairs, there for no apparent reason.

The sheaf of official notices is presented.  We are directed to office “B” down the hall.

In office “B” several supporting pieces of paper are retrieved from a file.  They are stamped in multiple places and given to us.  We are invited to return to office “A”.

In office “A”, my passport is requested for review (your passport is asked for everywhere.  I’m waiting to be asked for it in a coffee queue).  I’m asked for a copy of my lease.  Thankfully, I had read up on the topic of immigration and knew that proof of accommodation was another common requirement for various government processes.

The official then asks for me to fill out an affidavit that these are personal belongings, meant to accompany me as a (now semi-official) resident.  The purpose of which is to avoid any customs or excise fees.

However, there is no form.  Instead, the official pulls out a binder and begins reading phrases, which my Czech co-worker is furiously writing on a clean sheet of paper.  My affidavit is thereby constructed.

Some of the other documents are stamped.  By then, these papers are a sea of ink; there had to be 10 stamps on each.  We are asked to proceed to office “B” for further processing.

After more furious stamping in office “B”, we are done.  Four of my 8 boxes are released.  They are crushed, and wrapped like mummies in Ceska Posta packing tape in an apparent effort to stop the contents from spilling out.

“Have a nice day!”, everyone says to each other in pleasant, singsong tones.

5.  Off to the other post office, located in my neighborhood.  Apparent, these four boxes passed through customs without any affidavit needed.  Though the contents we nearly identical.  A little while later, after struggling with a computer system from a bygone era, the clerk presents the packages.  Crushed.  Mummified.

“Have a nice day!”

6. Two more boxes were still being processed by customs.  I asked my co-worker if he wanted to bet on the outcome: would they both pass customs and proceed to the neighborhood post office?  Would they require another visit to the affidavit-takers?

NE!  (No.)  One box went to customs for affidavit-retrieval, and the second to the neighborhood depot.  The arbitrary processing was a beautiful thing.

7.  So why does this bureaucracy still exist?

One has to keep in mind the central role of the Czech post office and its legacy as the main interface to the government on many matters.  For example, you can still go to the post office to pay your rent, utility bills, mobile phone bill, etc.  They are in effect the central payment processor for the whole economy.

So the post office is designed to remain involved.  Processes are designed to ensure full “utilization” of its employees.  Ceska Posta was never, and is still not, about getting money from you.  Such is the legacy of the communist era.  Heck, this whole experience of mine cost me nothing in fees but for a few taxi rides.

No, it’s about ensuring the bureaucracy justifies its existence with mandatory, arcane policies and processes.

And that, my friends, we can find in our governments the world over.

Oh yeah, for a “documentary” on how this all works, watch the movie Brazil


My wife, in parallel, had sent a desperate email to a general mailbox at Ceska Posta.  In it, she made a plea for help in locating the boxes and telling us how to get them.  Days later, a thoughtful reply arrived.  The email had been forwarded through multiple people.  It was clear that with each reading, someone had made an effort to get it to the right person.  They might be working for a bureaucracy, but they’re nice people.

Impressions from a train ride

Czech countryside from a train

I made the first of many coming train journeys between Prague and Brno this week.  Life in the Czech Republic for now is a series of first impressions.  And the first impressions you get from a train ride can be quite different than a car.  Maybe I was in a reflective mood, but the things I saw led to further reflection on what it means to be part of the global economy today.

So here goes….

The landscape

The Czech countryside is beautiful; full of rolling hills that are especially green as it’s now Spring.  Little villages and hamlets are tucked in valleys formed by larger hills or small rivers.  Pastures surround others.  You can imagine a simple, agrarian lifestyle here.

However, many villages have small factories within.

What has become of the factories?

Reflecting on the villages led me to think about those factories.

One can imagine the fate and prosperity of the village as being tied to the financial health of the factory.  Certainly this was the case in Massachusetts.  Across the state,  you see evidence of bygone prosperity in the mill towns that were once leading the Industrial Revolution but have since been left behind.

It could be worse for the Czech factories.  After all, under the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, production (“produktion”?) was determined by the State.  So, a factory in many respects had its life assured so long as the apparatchniks decided so.

Fast-forward to today, where these factories at a minimum have to compete with any others in the European Union.  And perhaps the world.  How would they survive?

Business literature is full of material on the need to specialize in the face of global competition.  Perhaps one narrows the products offered to create a very strong niche.  Or uses skills resident in the workforce but applies them to another type of product.  I’ll leave it to you to explore the topic.

Change and change management

The more I thought about those little factories, the more I realized the role that change management would play in their survival.  Imagine the upheaval of changing the products that a factory produces, and the skepticism in the workforce that it’s needed.  Or disbelief that it’s even feasible.

What might be necessary might not be what happens.  Such is our innate resistance to change.  I’m willing to bet lots of those factories are making it: the ones that embraced change.

I’ve come to believe that virtually every business challenge is about change.  More specifically, the immense difficulting of change.

I’m going to leave it at that for now.  Change management is a rich subject, and I’ll be writing about it more.  In my own company, change is afoot with the arrival of non-Czechs such as myself.  So I’m getting the experience first-hand.

Stay tuned.