Monday, May 31, 2010

What the Heck?!

I just got some shocking news from work. In a last minute emergency meeting a couple of days ago, it was announced that everyone's cost of doing business there is going up -- get this -- June 1st -- that's tomorrow. There is a lot of speculation as to why the owners are so cash strapped.

We have been given sheets with the new rent rates with no potential of negotiation. Is that even legal? For a second there, I had to ask myself if I was still living in Canada. I spent hours yesterday fielding phone calls from my co-workers, brainstorming about options etc.

Some of my co-workers do not have a lot of assets and are in a tight spot. I feel for them but I need a plan for myself first before I can decide if I would be willing to sign a new lease for everyone in the group.

The bottom line is I need an exit strategy fairly quick as the idea of paying $1400/month extra in rent when I'm already paying around $4000/month isn't sitting well. One of my co-worker's has a family member who is a lawyer and they are looking into that aspect.

Either way, the planning needs to move ahead swiftly. And the owners have now made it OK to give 10 people/business owners 2 days notice...

First D a couple of months ago, and now me. Are there extra full moons this year? I'm doing my best to focus. The positive thing is that I haven't lost my job, just my costs have gone up significantly. I don't want to rush a decision nor do I want to dawdle.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Some Pictures Explained

A few people have asked about the pictures I posted of Berlin. I find it so much easier on Blogger just to load up pictures, that is why there are no captions. That's a round about excuse for being lazy... :)

The first picture is a presentation with a portion of the Berlin wall at Potsdamer Platz. Under the umbrella is a fellow (border guard) dressed in olive green army garb who, for a small fee, will stamp your passport with the east and west Berlin stamps that were used before reunification. That is what the line up was about.

The last picture is the remnants of a church (Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirchethat) that was bombed in WW2. It has since been turned into a museum/memorial/education center. I must say, when we got to it, the energy of the destruction was distinct and affected me more than I would have thought -- especially in contrast to the new buildings around it.

You cannot tell from the outside but the tall and short geometric buildings beside form the new church and the small squares that make up the buildings are glass inlay/mosaic. When inside the colour is stunning -- mostly sapphire blue.

One fun note about the picture showing the tour boats and water taxis on the Spree River. They were moving fast, dodging in and around, as if they were cars on the autobahn! It was hilarious! I am so used to cruising up and down the Seine when in Paris at such a leisurely pace, it just struck me that's all, the contrast.

Friday, May 28, 2010

New Electrical Reality

I've heard from other people I know in our city they have gotten their "smart meters" already. We've had ours at the cottage for a while now and how it is going to literally hit home.

What it will mean is we will be billed for when we use hydro. The day is split into 3 regions of low, med & high usage rates.

What we are paying now will be the "low" rate and in order to continue paying it, you'll be need to stick to the time of day restrictions which on average will be between 9pm and 7am during the weekdays and it will be low on weekends and holidays.

Mid and high pricing will be almost double and over double.

We are at the cottage on weekends mostly so we will be in the low range. We've had our new meter up there for a while now and we haven't noticed a significant difference in billings.

Some of our neighbours have seen their bills double, to their dismay and others have seen it drop. I think it is just a reflection on household routines and habits.

Some of our routines at home will be changing. D and I will need to discuss laundry routines, cleaning times and when our hot water heater gets charged up.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Early Sales

You know how they say opportunity favors preparedness? I'm finding it applying more and more with respect to airfare sales. Our flights we like to take out west for Christmas are on sale already. Three years ago, we didn't see them on sale until the fall. Last couple of years it had been end of summer. Now spring.

Our flight costs are saved in a yearly expense account which also includes funds for the ski condo insurance and property tax and season passes. I do my best to have that account funded by April of each year so we are prepared for whatever comes up.

Good thing because this year, D has already bought his season's pass (I'm going a la carte again) to save on the new tax that is coming in July, and now the plane tickets. We will only buy one way as the Jan routes have not been put on sale yet. We wait for it and end up coming home after New Years and when school has started up again.

Prior to 3 years ago, I'd be working our spreadsheet on an as needed basis and this caused a lot more stress and work because I'd hear of a seat sale and then end up re-arranging numbers to make it work last minute. Saving in advance is much easier especially when you know you are going to be spending it anyways. Sounds simple right?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fix It

It looks like we will be needing the services of a plumber at the cottage. This weekend, D identified a pipe joint that has come loose in the crawlspace which helped explain the drop in water pressure. Oh the joys of owning a cottage built not so professionally 65 yrs ago...

Other than that, the drive in was great. Ate too many french fries and onion rings but it's all good. Caught up on a lot of sleep. It's funny how sometimes you don't realize just how tired you are until you are away from your everyday routine.

On the car front, good news and so so news. The rear brakes didn't need to be replaced. They ended up just machining the drums at a cost of around $90. The tail pipe showed 3 holes along the longest length of it so to replace it cost $345, so with taxes, the whole bill was $501 something, $100 over what I had hoped.

For what it's worth, they also said for the age and mileage of my car, it is in great shape. A good thing as I am starting to think of road trips...

Friday, May 21, 2010

You Win Some

Even though it has happened before, it still bugs me when I find out flight prices have gone down when I had booked it not long ago. The same goes for computer prices, car prices etc.

The list is never ending. So this time, I find out I could have saved $162 on my trip out east had I held off til this week... oh well, you win some you lose some. I still get to go, so that's a win.

My car's rear brake job and exhaust appointment is today. Hoping the bill will be under $400. My travel clinic appointment is in a couple of weeks. Estimated bill from there is in the $200 range.

This category of health care is not covered by our country's universal health care program. The expiry dates on Yellow fever and Typhoid shots are 10 yrs and 3 yrs so it is a good investment towards your health, especially for someone like me who attracts mosquitoes like nobody's business!

On a fun note, I've been shopping around for stereo components online and have found it is significantly cheaper (40%) to buy it from the States and have it shipped over for installation. This finding just might do it for me... I could get what I want and have it installed for the price of parts only here.

This is a long weekend for us Canadians so have great weekend everyone -- back on Tuesday!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Stereo Summary

Wow, did I get lucky! After pricing out their basic Pioneer speakers and deck, the bill was already at $700 plus including installation. I know I paid many thousand for our surround sound system at home but I couldn't get my car's age out of my mind. Plus I had set a mental limit of $300 for today's appointment...

In the end, there was only a loose plug and once plugged, voila, I had sound again. I had to forced them to take some money for their time as they didn't want to charge me anything. Would I use them should I wish to upgrade my system in the future? Absolutely.

In fact, after spending time today learning about the choices out there, I am kinda hooked and I think I will put a stereo upgrade on my list of dream account wishes for the future. I want to give them my business because they were so honest and kind. What a great experience today! It is hard to put into words just how relieved and grateful I felt, not having to spend any serious money.

It was a gorgeous day today with everyone out in shorts and T-shirts. As I was driving by, I could not help but notice the number of teenagers drinking coffee. I don't know about you, but I never even tasted coffee until I was in university and even then, it wasn't until exam time and I gave up on it pretty quick because I couldn't sleep well for 2 - 3 days after having a cup.

I don't believe that starting young with stimulants is such a great thing. I've also never tasted stuff like Red Bull or others of the like and don't plan to. Our nervous system and adrenals can get worn out when exposed to chemicals like this over time. I also think it can help age us. I got enough of a high today without caffeine.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Investments & Commitments

I've been fairly satisfied with my accounts with ING. A newer player on the scene is Ally and I am considering opening an account with them to try them out. Feedback I've read have been positive.

By the end of Sept. I ought to have my yearly $5000 towards my tax free savings account saved up and this is what I'll put towards my new Ally account.

My end of summer getaway to New England has firmed up, courtesy of credit card points and dream account. I'm going to get to noise around Boston, Bar Harbour and Portland ME for a few days.

I arrived at work yesterday to my first issue of Iceland Review! The photos of the volcano eruption were something. As a new subscriber, I got a mini hardcover book on Puffins. They are really cute. I'd like to go back at a time they are there.

Today I am biting the bullet and bringing my car to our local car audio place. Last fall, when I had inquired about not having sound in my front drivers' side speaker, I got intimidated by their description of having to take apart my dash to get to things. Plus D had just gotten steering column work done on his old car and ended up losing his cruise control...

Don't laugh but there is a 3 movie marathon this weekend at the drive in by the cottage and I want sound...Ironman isn't going to cut it for me with partial sound.

On a philosophical level, I believe my ability to make this move represents my commitment to my car for the remainder of its years. I've been doing a lot of that lately -- with our location, our house, with turning down a job opportunity overseas.

I'm heading in early to pick out a new deck and speakers just in case either or both need to be replaced. It could be as simple as faulty wiring. They tell me it will all be done in a few hours. I have a long lunch meeting so the timing ought to be good.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Berlin Real Estate

When we were nosing around the real estate offerings in Berlin, we found out some interesting things.

Less than 15% of Berliners own. So the sales pitch we were given was that Berlin is a great place to invest in. So much so, most real estate we saw offered came with tenants and you are guaranteed an annual yield of 5.5 - 6.8%.

For those of us who are interested in actually using the apartment, it took a bit of time to sift through the newer developments. We never found out exactly why owning isn't very popular.

My guess is that there are a lot of people who have moved to Berlin to find work rent first. We were told that banks require 30 - 40% down for a purchase with interest rates in the 4.5% range.

Berlin is also a fairly young city population wise with women making close to what men earn and at the end of the month, lots of disposable income. You'll need it if you are hoping to own one of those Maseratis!

There is a lot of value in Berlin real estate. The cost of an average 1 bedroom apartment around 55m2 would buy you a 20m2 apartment in Nice France. Property tax is differs according to the area of city.

The process of purchasing is similar to France as you'll need a notary as well as a lawyer and you will need to be present for the final signing. We feel Berlin would be a great and exciting European home base. The year round climate is also quite reasonable.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Great Inspiration!

First of all, A HUGE Shoutout of CONGRATULATIONS to Sue who participated in the 24hr race in Brive France where she ran just over 197 km to win the Canadian Association of Ultramarathoners 24 hr record for women 40 - 50, surpassing the old record of 185 km. What a debut!

I don't know about you, but I feel like strapping on my running shoes and going for a run!

Remember I wrote about having gone to university with a fellow who is now a professional Rally Car Driver? Well, he won The Oregon Trail Rally yesterday!

Congrats Andrew! In fact, it was a Mitsubishi sweep of the first 3 places with drivers all driving Evos, my dream car...

Now, back to my fairly ordinary life with more ordinary news...

It looks like trying to order tickets online for a performance at Teatro Colon is going to be just as frustrating as for the Deutsche Oper... so I'm going to leave it until I get there in person.

Turns out I'm going at a time where it won't be condusive to catching a Polo or soccer match either. Oh well, I'll need to consult the calendar of events a little closer next time!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Books and Car

A couple of books I just finished really touched me. The kind of books that make you question the way you live. They are "Stones into Schools" the follow up to "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson and "The Last American Man" by Elizabeth Gilbert. And no, it is not written in the style of her more public books. I would highly recommend both.

While we were away, I got used to reading eBooks. I rather like that method now. The audio book didn't work for me too well.

I found the voices of the readers too different from the way I would read things in my head and some of the background music too distracting. I had no idea there was going to be background music. It made some books sound like a musical.

So 50% success is good enough for me. I can now understand the appeal of the Kindle. The type is brighter and there is less eye strain. I'm still OK with reading from my laptop. It is free and our library has a good enough selection for me. If I ever use it up, then I may consider alternatives.

My car is finally ready for its rear brakes to be replaced after 13 years. It is starting to make a racket during braking and it is embarrassing D to be in my car... I'm going to make an appointment hopefully for next week.

While it is in, I'm going to ask them to take a look at my exhaust system. It sounds like there is a small hole somewhere. I use oil spray on my car so this is the first time it has shown symptoms of this. Hope the bill won't make me faint!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Youth Hostels

The monthly numbers are in for April and I did end up with some extra -- to the tune of $1440.95. As with most bonuses, my half will be tucked away for the next travelling adventure. I'm thinking of going to Maine at the end of the summer.

I was talking to someone I casually know yesterday about travelling as he is planning a trip to Ireland. He and his girlfriend are hoping to do that trip "budget" by staying in youth hostels.

Youth hostels can be a great savings but it depends on the country and city. Sometimes 2 people in a hostel can add up to a what a hotel charges. A solo traveller will often do better than a group travelling together but paying separately. It is worth looking into and to not assume it is always the cheapest option.

Personally, I like my quiet, my own washroom and a good night's sleep so group dorm rooms don't appeal to me anymore. They appealed much more when I was on a limited budget. Why go on vacation and be cranky all day when I know my tolerance isn't that great? I also prefer to come home somewhat rested and not sleep deprived. Nowadays, I will save up more for a trip so I wouldn't have to be.

I've stayed at youth hostels on 2 occasions in my life. Back 15 yrs ago when I was in New York to see the US open. Believe it or not, I took my mother for the first part of trip as a gift to her and it was all I could afford as a student. I saved up my earnings from teaching piano all summer to be able to pay for it.

Let's just say she didn't much care for the hosteling experience! There was a lady in our dorm who was a lawyer and my mother made me promise her that I will be successful enough that I wouldn't ever have to stay in hostels again. She didn't realize that some people chose to stay there, rather than be forced by circumstance.

The second time was on a road trip with a girlfriend about 13 yrs ago. We met in Las Vegas. I arrived earlier so I could see the Cirque du Soleil show that just opened "O" before embarking on a journey that would take us through Yellowstone, San Francisco, Napa Valley, down the Pacific Coast highway to Santa Monica before returning to Las Vegas.

Our friendship almost went away on that trip but that's another story...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Berlin -- First Thoughts

If you are looking for Lederhosen and other Bavarian inspired sights, you are not going to find it in Berlin. In fact, we only saw 2 restaurants serving German food in our entire time there and we were looking.

I had braced myself for endless days worth of eating sauerkraut, wurst of every sort, ham hocks, downing it with a different beer each time. Instead our first meal was Vietnamese, then Taiwanese, then Turkish, then French etc. Berliners are into world food.

In fact, the 6th floor of the KaDeWe department store is all about good food. It probably houses around at least 20 mini bar style restaurants based on food region.

For example there are champagne bars run by big names like Veuve Cliquot etc., caviar bars where you can buy $1000 Euro tin of Beloga cavier and enjoy it with top line Volka, oyster bars, any kind of major food from around the world is represented there.

The smells are amazing -- except the cheese area where I know, the best types are frequently the most stinky...

I cheated by visiting that floor 3 times to buy french pastries from Lenotre. Normally I eat what is local but I couldn't help it. Seriously, I was almost in tears when we bumped into that area of the store. D and I haven't been back to France for 2 years and it has felt like decades to us.

Germany has the world's 4th largest economy and you can see evidence of it all around you. There is serious money in Berlin. The kind of serious money you feel from people who live in places like Monaco, Nice and Cannes. The kind of wealth that is palpable, but not heard.

I love European style wealth because it isn't of the showy sort (outside of their cars and boats) and much much more classy and understated. The people who could afford to shop at the glitzy stores on the Kurfurstendamm just wore everyday no label (that I could see) clothes and didn't have their makeup and hair just so.

And they are not looking around to see who is watching. Berliners have a very eclectic personal style. It is one of those places where everyone seem to fit in. I didn't feel like I needed to dress differently (like I do in Paris), walk around in heels all day. It is a very freeing place -- everything goes. We love that.

Holy smokes, did we want to buy cars in Berlin. The dealerships are amazing. They are beautifully designed, located on the main shopping areas and have bars and restaurants to woo you into buying. If you are going to buy anyway, why not go for the full experience?

Those of us in North America, for example can buy a BMW here and then fly to Germany when it is ready whereby you are wooed with great stuff and then you get to drive it right out of the factory whereby they will shipped it to you.

Berliners take their cars seriously. Small compact cars and scooters are few and far between, unlike other major cities in Europe. They are all spotless and they park them with good spacing. It is an ordeal and expensive to get licenced so people are naturally careful. I would not be intimidated to drive there.

D and I left Berlin wanting to own the cars those people go into though -- a Maserati Granturismo, a Porsche Panamera, an Audi A8 and a BMW 5 Series Wagon. We even saw a Bugatti Veyron. There are Mercedes everywhere.

Because people tend to drive high end cars, what you'll notice immediately is how relatively quiet the city is compared to those where the cars and scooters going by are subcompact and have to be revved to go. Our apartment faced a main street and we were able to keep our balcony doors open -- unheard of for us!

We also love flying into Tegel airport. They have things arranged so well. You get off the plane on the tarmac and are bused to a door that opens right where your luggage arrives. I am so used to walking and walking and walking through airports on arrival, it was a very pleasant surprise.

After you pick up the luggage, you go though a small corridor and you are right at ground transportation. The easiest transition and arrival ever.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Back At It

I finished my first day back at work yesterday and as with most first days post vacation, it felt strange, a little surreal, as if I didn't really believe I was back.

Not much jet lag this time around. I think I'm getting used to it. The Ash Cloud Gods we kind to us and we managed to make it on all of our flights there and back on time.

The only delay was upon coming home where the air traffic was so congested, our plane wasn't allowed to take off for 2 hours. Luckily our connection afterwards was booked with lots of leeway.

It wasn't until we got home we found out friends of ours who were heading to France last weekend were delayed 10 hrs.

They are planning to head to the south of France to take part in the Monaco Grand Prix / Cannes Film Festival and then journey to Portugal... hope for them, the cloud has drifted away from the area by then.

We did take evasive action should we become stranded in Berlin or Amsterdam by figuring out which hotels / apartments had availability and jotting down numbers, addresses etc.

We figured should entire flights get cancelled, we didn't want to be part of the mass all trying to find hotels etc at the same time. It would be easier to know where we'd like to be ahead of time and just hop in a taxi and GO.

I have to admit, airport personnel were really on the ball. Most of the people connecting our flight coming home missed their connection and it was announced upon arrival that everyone had been rebooked and new boarding passed will be printed.

Everyone we encountered were genuinely concerned about getting people home as quickly as possible.

We know we got lucky. We could have easily been stranded. It has made us consider travelling to different parts of the world for the time being until the volcano calms down -- places like New Zealand, French Polynesia, Asia etc.

Berlin was awesome. Not at all what we expected. Liked it enough to consider owning real estate there. Will post a travelogue soon.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Ready to Go

Last minute packing this morning after checking the Berlin forecast and we will be ready to go catch our flight later tonight.

Ended my work month on a high note -- Anticipating close to $1000 bonus monies if my calculations are correct.

I really want to use my portion as a deposit on that houseboat in Amsterdam...they are very popular so you need to book way ahead.

Just found out airfare is subject to the new HST tax as of May 1st. Glad I bought my ticket for BA when I did.

Checked to see what it would cost today -- $200 or so more than I paid 3 weeks ago.

Guess my travel budget will have to be increased to take this tax into consideration.

Managed to strain a muscle the other day so the week or so away from work will be good for recovery.

Have a Great Weekend Everyone -- back in 10 days.