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Czech envoy writes a lasting legacy in PHL.

PRAGUE, capital city of the Czech Republic, lies deep in the heart of Europe-half a world away from the Philippines. And yes, the good-natured Ambassador Jaroslav OlA!a Jr. loves to point out that one of his country's beloved creations have always been in our midst.

'In the main room of Malacanang are chandeliers produced in Czechoslovakia in 1937,' he said, and added that any hotel or resort in major cities in the archipelago today are adorned with the colorful and splendid pieces of glass: 'You don't say 'chandelier' anymore, [but rather,] 'glass sculptures.''

(Czechoslovakia used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was split into two independent countries on January 1, 1993; thus, the creation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Czechoslovakia itself had been formed at the end of World War I, following the collapse of the aforementioned empire. Before WWI the region consisted of Bohemia and Moravia-often called the Czech lands-in the west, and Slovakia-a part of Hungary-in the east.)

Explaining the Czech Republic's role in the world, the envoy mentioned about their membership in the European Union, 'which is positive and fortunate for us. We are in the heart of Europe, and the peace in the continent is important for us.'

He shared that his country is worried about the ongoing trade war between the United States and China, 'because we are one of the economies supporting free trade in all possible ways. And of course, we are also concerned with Brexit.'

OlA!a explained: 'We have tens of thousands of Czech citizens living and working in the United Kingdom.'

This is because Britain is an important trading partner of his country, 'and the fact that Germany is the most important trading partner of the Czech Republic. Brexit might also somehow harm the German economy, and it could immediately [affect us].'

'If the German economy starts coughing, we'll have serious problems,' he noted. 'That's one of the important things of how interactive we are; but also, we are traditionally a trading country.'

'Bit different' beer

ONE of the main tasks of an ambassador, he said, is to promote his country's main export products. So OlA!a revealed, during a BusinessMirror Coffee Club forum in November, that he is introducing a premium brand of beer in the country called Pilsner Urquell-'the original pilsner.' The name of their iconic drink was from the Bohemian city of Pilsen, where it was first produced in 1842.

OlA!a said in jest that they do not wish to challenge the local brand known throughout the world, but 'we'd love to give you Czech beer, because you'll find it is great, and you can believe and trust it.'

'We [actually] brought two major Czech beers in the Philippine market; the other one is Budvar,' which is sold locally as Czechvar because of some legalities involving the American Budweiser brand that took over the trademark from Budvar a century ago.

Surveys, according to him, had shown that many travelers have attained a status that they are able to afford premium beer: 'It's quite important that people have a variety, so we open the market for a specialized brew; something a bit different.'

The Czech Republic actually has a long, colorful history and despite its relatively small population of 10.8 million citizens (compared to Metro Manila's 12.8 million). The country is known for its heavy industries and manufacturing prowess, aside from the many inventions its citizens had produced.

Cars, computer parts

THE third Czech product the ambassador wanted to be present in Philippine showrooms is their automobile brand Skoda, which is sold in more than 100 countries and in 2017, achieved total global sales of 1.21 million units.

OlA!a claimed, 'One of the most important products of our country are cars. We are the second-biggest producer in the world, per capita.'

Skoda is now being produced at 1 million units a year in factories in Czechia (another name for the Czech Republic), Slovakia, Kazakstan, India and China.

Another brand he hopes to find a niche in the sport-utility vehicle market is Kodiaq, 'an SUV with a very competitive price.' It will be powered by Volkswagen-group gas and diesel engines.

As an economic juggernaut, he pointed out Czechia's other products such as hydro-energy plants. 'There's a couple [in Mindanao and in] Northern Luzon,' he said, and added that in the last 100 years, they have been producing Kaplan, one of the most important and still widely used turbines in the world. It was developed in 1913 by Austrian professor Viktor Kaplan.

Posted in the country during the last four-and-a-half years, Olsa said trading volume between the two countries 'has increased tenfold in the last 25 years. That means our present trade is close to $500 million, and that the Philippines is a country we're interested in.'

Interestingly, he said the balance of trade is in favor of the Philippines, because its export to Czechia is higher than what we import from them. 'That means you are more successful in bringing your products, like computer parts and all the usual related things, into [my country].'

Bookworm, bibliophile, writer

AUTHOR of books and articles on history, culture and literature of Asia and Africa, the Czech ambassador will soon end his four-and-a-half-year tour-of-duty.

'There was a time as teenager when I was reading one book a day-which was quite crazy-but it really gave me a chance to evaluate, and I know so many things: [from mountaineering], to the history of the Medieval Ages. The love of books is with me all the time; and wherever I go, to every country, one of my first visits is to the book shop.'

During his early days in Manila in 1994 he would find himself at Solidaridad, F. Sionil Jose's bookshop in Ermita, Manila. Back then he remembered strolling along tree-lined streets: from Intramuros, then Padre Faura, and back to Ermita.

Olsa spent the next hour looking at shelves of books, 'very badly produced and darkish paper; not nice covers,' he recalls. Then he bought a couple of the paperbacks and brought them back to his hotel. 'And I still remember the titles.'

He and the bookstore owner eventually became close friends.

'Since I landed here the first time 24 years ago in April 1994, I still go to Solidaridad. When I come back one day, I will go [there] and hope it will [still be operating,] as it was over the last quarter of a century.'

After having read through thousands of short stories by Filipino writers, the envoy had finally completed an anthology comprising 40 short stories by the same number of authors. He avoided reading Filipino classics, though, but only accommodated auteurs 'born after World War II, or those who were active in the last 25 to 30 years.'

The Czech ambassador-author was in constant touch with the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino as he prepared the anthology of contemporary Philippine writing, but said: 'It is not yet published because I'm lazy, and I haven't finished my introduction, which has become longer and longer. I will have to eventually finish it, and hopefully [it well get] published in the second quarter of next year.'

In his capacity, he tried to promote the Czech cultures to Filipinos, 'like film festivals, exhibitions, literary projects [and the like].' But the most interesting, he said, is tourism promotion.

Travel and tourism

AT the moment there are no direct flights from any Philippine airport to Prague (which urban legend says, was untouched by bombings of the Allied Forces in World War II because it was too far for UK bombers to reach. However, according to American pilots, the capital was mistakenly bombarded toward the end of the war 'as a result of a navigation error').

Which explains why the city has retained its unique charm and unrivaled beauty as the home of many original castles, verdant gardens, baroque churches, age-old museums, cultural landscapes and enchanting villas. It has 12 Unesco heritage sites, which are visited by some 30 million tourists a year.

To get there from Manila, one can fly to Istanbul, Dubai or Doha to Vienna, the nearest capital and Prague's virtual 'twin city,' before getting on a train to the Czech capital.

'The best combination is to fly to one city in Europe, and go by train to Czechia from Austria, which has a similar history and everything in between,' OlA!a volunteered.

During our interview he revealed that 15 years ago, 'virtually nobody had an idea of what the Czech Republic is, except for the Santo Nino of Prague,' and added that Filipinos, Spaniards and Latin Americans are fond of visiting the revered statue.

The envoy discoursed about other attractions, such as the German town of Leitmeritz (Czech: Litomerice), some 64 kilometers northwest of Prague, where Jose Rizal's long-time friend Ferdinand Blumentritt lived.

There's also the only Filipino shop in Prague, appropriately named 'P-noy.'

Ideally, OlA a would suggest that Filipinos wanting to go to the Czech Republic should try 'going to two or three more nearby places, such as Warsaw, Salzburg and Vienna, then eventually end in Budapest.'

He said some 25,000 Filipino tourists come to the Czech Republic annually.

'It looks like a very small number, compared to the 400,000 Koreans or 500,000 Chinese, but it's a significant number, and you'll see more and more Filipinos going there.'

Coming in the opposite direction are his fellow citizens, but rues that the main obstacle is the absence of direct flights. However, Emirates has just opened up the route from Turkey, as well as Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways, 'which have changed the picture. And now Manila is accessible to Czech citizens. With the advent of long-range flights, there would be direct [access] to an area in Europe near Prague.'

He went on to say: 'Let's hope 'Build, Build, Build' will bring some success, and [that] something will be done: new airports, new highways, [as well as] new interconnections, since the nonexistence of these are blocking the influx of tourists.'

This reporter asked: 'What would a Czech citizen expect doing or seeing by coming to the Philippines?'

OlA a intimated they like diving and sunbathing, but there's actually more to those: '[We] are people who want to travel, as well as 'find and see' places. That means for Czechs, the Philippines is not solely beaches or the sea, but more like a combination of all.'

The diplomat cited the example of so-called Viking trips to the provincial-island of Bohol, which he says are a perfect combination of seeing many spots within short distances of one another.

'You can see churches, tarsiers, the Chocolate Hills, islands and do sunbathing. It means [one] can very easily travel on bike, and the Czechs are not worried of [the dangers] of biking.'

If sunbathing is all what Czechs look for, he said it would be very easy to go to Bali in Thailand because of the existing air connections, 'but what is more important [to us is to show] the Philippines's historical sites, which in a way are very similar to [those in Czechia.]'

Tracking PHL development

ENGAGED in various ways to help lift the quality of life of the poor in the island of Samar and elsewhere in the country, the envoy, who finished International Relations and Comparative European Social Studies at the University of Amsterdam, has been tracking the Philippine's economic development for the last quarter of a century.

'In the 1990s the Philippines was quite 'grayish,' with not much movement going on; with very few shops. But today the rise of the country is undeniable and incredible, and I see it in our trade and in our companies, who were practically not interested in the Philippines as they are now.'

The diplomat challenged us to look at the major newspapers, and we would see the many Czech brands in the market, 'which I will count to tens and hundreds a year.'

Among them are firearms and armaments. He said one of these guns had been used by the Philippine military for decades, 'and one of the favorite globally.' In this sense, he said defense cooperation is another area where the Czech Republic would like to explore.

'We see that the important task of your government is to safeguard your coastal areas, and we're working with the Departments of Transportation and Defense to bring small aircraft for coastal defense.'

He said their surveillance planes are used by many air forces across the globe, such as their subsonic-training aircraft. He said those are ideal for coastal patrol requiring extended flights at low speed 'to watch out for what is happening below' (which puts into mind the patrols needed to survey the West Philippine Sea).

The Czech Republic also supplied the original coaches for the Metro Rail Transit 3 (MRT 3) under Japanese contractor Sumitomo. OlA a underscored they will rehabilitate the coaches 'and in two years we will see the [trains] coming back into operation as it was in the beginning.'

'I say it all the time: The fact that the Czech trains are still in operation 21 years after, with many years of 'problematic maintenance'-using diplomatic terms-shows that it's a good technology; it survived.'

He added that if the rehabilitation of the coaches is being done viably and financially, 'they can operate for the next 20 years.'

Leaving a legacy

OLA A will also leave a legacy that includes visiting the country's most remote places to uplift the lives of the 'poorest of the poor' in Samar, Leyte and parts of Mindanao through Czechia's nongovernment organization People in Need.

After saying his final goodbye at a reception marking the 100th anniversary of the Czech state, the diplomat said his stay here was 'amazing! The Philippines is really, truly perfect.'

'Diplomacy is an industry full of pauses, and a lot of people marking their experiences and stories see more than they actually are because, I believe, ambition is not a dirty word; it's just believing [in] yourself, your team and your abilities.'
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Publication:Business Mirror (Makati City, Philippines)
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Dec 13, 2018
Words:2670
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