Thursday, February 28, 2013

Praha 4

I know I must be sounding horribly negative about Prague and it might seem like the entire trip was a flop.  It wasn't.  I saw some beautiful architecture (pictures to come), operas, ballet, art and had some great interactions with people while I was there, some really funny (more later).  There was just something underlying that nagged at me the entire time. 

I guess I am more used to going to countries where I was the "poor" one.  Countries that have a very high standard of living.  And the ones that don't, the people there seemed content and happy -- Slovenia for example.  But in Prague I didn't detect that simple happiness. 

How would you like to live in a country/city that is known as "cheap" (starting to be less now as cost of living has increased exponentially), when it is just chalk full of culture, history, intact architecture?  And who do you suppose would be attracted to "cheap"? 

Young people looking to have a good time.   So you get groups of students (and some adults) drinking their faces off (short weekend jaunts are popular due to low cost flights) and subsequent evidence of them throwing up.  Every morning you see teams of people (retirement age) cleaning Wenceslas Square.  They march down in rows of 4. 

It seems so disrespectful but isn't that what you get in Latin America?  Think of all the places people on a budget like to go for extended periods of time?  Right?  How do you think locals feel seeing all that and seeing what has become of their cherished city? 

As an adult, I can no longer just think of my own fun and enjoyment.  That's why I haven't been able to go to the many of the popular winter destinations for Canadians ie.  Cuba, Dominican etc and feel OK with being "the big guy" cordoned off in a compound.  I can't ignore what's going on around me, how people who call Prague home live. 

You just have to go to some supermarkets to find out.  I hadn't planned on having to do a lot of cooking as Prague isn't an expensive city for dining out.  Once I sorted out my food reactions, I had to. 

I must have gone to at least 5 supermarkets all over Prague districts 1 - 3 and the common denominator was lack of choice.  I wasn't expecting what I was used to at home.  I wasn't even expecting to find organic choices, but there was one in the core.  Still it was the least amount of choice I've ever seen for a major city. 

The store may seem large but half of it is alcohol and cleaning products.  There was more processed food than I would have expected.  Their deli sections were neat.  Everything was already sliced and placed in stacks.  In all my wandering, I only bumped into 2 butcher shops.

What was surprising was I hardly saw anyone buy meat when pork was The meat there.  Barely anyone bought fruit either.  But I saw people buy potatoes, lots of them and cabbage and cheese.  The quality of the meat wasn't so good.

Only saw seafood for sale at a couple of specialty stores and even then, we are talking about handfuls of shrimp and fish available.  The meat, fruit and veggie aisles could fit in my kitchen.  Though people may be buying their fruit from the numerous neighbourhood "convenience" stores. 

You could tell who the foreigners were by what was being bought.  We were the ones buying the other types of fruit, veggies and meat -- Not just apples, potatoes and organ meats. 

Half a head of cabbage cost 8 Kc vs  A small container of cremini mushrooms 39 Kc, a small container of raspberries 49 Kc, four pork loin chops 139 Kc.  When you do the currency conversion, I would not say what I bought cost a lot of money.  It was certainly cheaper than at home but for there, you don't see people buying it.  And the lack of choice reflected it. 

And it is mostly tourists and young people who were spending money at Starbucks, McDonalds, Paul.  I think I shocked the young lady (judging from her face) at Paul by the amount I bought (about 300 Kc worth, 5 items) -- It was during the first 2 days when I was feeling like crap and what did I lean to?  My weakness,  French pastries...I only ate 1/4 - 1/3rd of each (allergies) but nonetheless, emotional eating + indulgence + food wastage = not my proudest moment.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Praha 3

After finally sleeping for about 12 hr I started feeling like my curious self again.  Buildings still looked run down in places but I didn't feel overly negative about it.  What a relief!  It still took another day before I felt like taking pictures. 

During the day there were many side streets in the old town, new town, lesser town that were deserted.  You don't even see activity within housing units.  At night, residential areas were darker and quieter than I've experienced before (no outside front door lights but I did have a live video intercom system) and people walked quickly with their heads turned down.  Street signs weren't plentiful.  And I stayed in a what is supposed to be a "trendy" location/neighbourhood.

Of course there are rich people everywhere but I didn't get the general impression of wealth from Prague.  Architecturally, you can tell that in its heyday, this was one grand city.  I've never seen such wide old town roads, made of hand laid stones.  And the main square was built at such a scale, you can imagine the royal processions that used to take place there.  The city has done a great job preserving the buildings in and around the old town. 

Present day Prague is a city of contrasts.  At the ever popular Wenceslas Square you will find your tacky souvenir shops, groups of foreign guys ready to party, all day police presence, numerous Thai massage parlors (with crazy guys in costumes trying to drum up business) and at night, prostitutes. 

Contrasted that with a surprising high density of cultural events and theatres.  You could seriously go see opera, ballet, symphony, concerts every night of the week.  And it was widely supported.  This was by far the biggest surprise for me.  I spent 3 lovely evenings at the State Opera House.

Every Czech person I had a chance to talk to was genuinely interested to know if I liked their city as they are fiercely proud of theirs.  Nationalism is prevalent.  Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence that upon landing, the Czech Airlines plane I took from Amsterdam immediately started playing Smetana's Vltava (The Moldau).  I told them I'm still trying to find my way around and it has been interesting so far. 

You will notice that fur is widely worn.  Young people were pretty practical in their choice of clothing.  I didn't see many people who coloured their hair or had on strong makeup.  Black and grey is the colour of choice.  Older people dressed in a dignified way.  I knew I was fitting in when the guys outside the tourist restaurants didn't shout out at me while waving their menus. 

A few days after my "detox", I broke down and bought a sausage (almost 3 pm, hadn't had lunch, tired of being pummelled by sleet the past 4 hr, starving!) from a stall at the old town square and couldn't sleep that night.  So the hypothesis was proven. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Praha 2

I felt anxious, negative, paranoid (silence sounded so loud!), scared and angry the first few days in Prague.  Despite being a bit of a control freak and despite how I may come across on this blog, feeling that way isn't my normal state. 

I couldn't figure it out and my left brain kept asking "what is going on?!".  There was no real reason for feeling that way.  It was a fine voyage over.  Had a real aggressive fellow beside me on the plane but that's not enough to set me off like this. 

Was picked up by the apartment manager from the airport.  Didn't expect someone so young (early 20s) so we listened and tried to talk over the techno music blasting out of his car speakers.  He drove a 5 series wagon so the ride was smooth. 

It was lunch time by the time I got checked into my place for the week and once I freshened up, the next thing I did was look for a place to eat lunch.  So armed with my handy dandy Czech language cheat sheet and the map of my neighbourhood pretty much memorized, I had a pleasant walk to what was supposed to be a good area restaurant.

Everyone I encountered was really kind.  There was a sadness to the people I met.  They weren't crying or anything but it was a feeling I saw in their eyes and felt from them.  Czech people seemed quite private and reserved.  So you don't tend to find the larger than life persona emanating from them, like you would find in say, North America.  I liked that. 

And people obey the traffic lights!  I was so used to jaywalking when in Europe I had to quickly stop because I stood out!  D often laughs at me because at home, I'd wait for traffic lights to change even though there are no cars as far as the eye can see.  He has to say "pretend you are in Rome" to get me to cross the street illegally. 

Lunch was OK.  I had read you don't go to Prague for the food and I would agree from this and subsequent meals I had.  Consistently the food tasted way more seasoned and salty than I'm used to.  Chalked it up to different culture.  No big deal.  Drink more water.

After 2 nights of not being able to get to sleep until between 3 - 4 am Czech time and not feeling one ounce tired, I had plenty of time to start wondering if there was something else going on.  I've been to Europe often enough to know it was not normal. 

There is a 6 hr time difference (ahead) compared to home so I ended up calling D more than I originally expected.  It was he who figured it out -- I must have been reacting to something in the food.  On day 3, I stopped eating out and started cooking.  And a day later, found myself again.

***I'd like to say I was delighted with the Oscar results.  I'm not a watcher of it nor the Grammys but I was curious this year of the outcome.  We saw Django Unchained a couple months? ago and I was hoping Quentin Tarantino and Christoph Waltz would win.  And having seen Argo twice, I was really pleased Ben Affleck took home an Oscar.***

Sunday, February 24, 2013


My first impressions of Prague weren't too positive.  The airport was nice.  More modern than I expected.  The drive into the city reminded me of its Russian past.  Depressing concrete apartment buildings that felt dingy and looked dirty.  The colour of the concrete and stone facades have a tone of dirty dirt/grey that could make you feel depressed if you looked at it long enough. 

I immediately thought, wow, this is going to be a long week.  Once we got close to the Prague Castle vicinity, the buildings were markedly nicer, with architectural significance, like what you see on travel advertisements.  Once I got to my apartment, I felt better.  The last time I felt this way was in Stockholm.  Beautiful city but just didn't resonate with me.  And now Prague, even less so.  Enough that I am willing to give Stockholm another go.

It is definitely a con being in a new place for the entire length of time when you are not particularly moved by the location.  I honestly didn't expect this.  Every picture I've seen of Prague looked so beautiful.  And after having such a great conversation with my seatmate last summer, I was convinced this was going to be a super city to spend time in. 

Each day I tried to dig a little deeper and look for the gems but the thought that kept coming back was "I want to go home".  I even went as far as looking into flights home on the 3rd day.  D was pretty concerned as I didn't sound like myself. 

Even though there are varied architectural styles evident, most buildings outside of the core did not feel like they were well kept.  A coat of paint can't hide a crumbling building.  They often did not give me the sense of being really solid. 

It is like buying trendy fashion that is made with lessor quality materials.  At first glance it may resemble what you see in fashion magazines but look a second longer and you realize the shoddy workmanship.  The energy of these buildings weren't too positive and it felt like a lot of people were suffering.  I'm sensitive to these sorts of things. 

I think if this was your first foray to Europe, you'd be delighted, especially if you were young, as young party people tend to have high energy and aren't too concerned about energy of places and buildings.  

Didn't end up leaving early.  Things did get much better.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Resistance Is Futile

Being part of a group is such a great learning experience.  We are such mirrors for one other.  The key word for our art class last fall was "Resistance". 
  • For sure I felt it in myself in the first couple of classes.  Resisting what was.  When I decided to let go and  learned from what seemed like a "boring exercise", I actually started to enjoy a medium I normally had no patience for.  Like most instances, I resisted because I didn't know yet how interesting or diverse something could be.  Defensiveness in advance.  Silly Girl.
  • D "jokingly" said he wanted to leave many times and seriously said he "couldn't do it" even more times.  He got so red when faced with the lesson for the night I couldn't help but laugh.  He suffered from the same lack of confidence I have with respect to skiing when in reality both of us can do both fairly decently.  Our perception can be such a hindrance. 
  • In one of my classmates I saw resistance with using larger sheets of paper!  The push back was incredible.  Even til the end, he refused to draw anything bigger than an orange, no matter how intricate the piece.  He also refused to buy an art board either.  Just like I see that as "different", I'm sure they looked at me and thought "she has an attitude". 
  • One fellow wanted validation for his "style" so badly, it interfered with his current learning.  He continually bragged about how his family owned an art gallery in cottage country and how he had already sold 2 of his 20 paintings.  I think he assumed he would automatically do well as none of us had sold our art.  In the end, he got a "C" and left without saying goodbye.
  • One gal refused to move from her station, even though the view or angle to what we were supposed to draw was obstructed.  It was kind of funny how she dug in no matter what the instructor said.  I'm kind of that way too.  But I sat at a spot with a good vision line. 
  • I resisted trying different types of paper and pencils.  Didn't really feel it was necessary nor would make that much difference.  Again little did I know.  When I saw people bring and use other materials to class, I realized the error of my ways.  And when I did one exercise on better paper with an ultra scratchy pencil where I could not get it to blend (was not allowed to use an art stomp) no matter what I did (and it was an exercise on Tone), I smartened up and off I went to the art supply store.  I'm still working on my resistance to conte sticks and textured papers. 
  • I discovered how much I enjoy "gesture drawing".  Never done it before and with my love of control, we both thought I would be very agitated with being given a time limit.  D thought it would be right up his alley being so laid back.  In reality, it was reversed!  D found it aggravating and I found a looseness I didn't know was in me.  The shorter the time (30 s - 1 min), the better my sketch was.  When we were given 2 min, I fiddled too much and my mind got in the way.  Goes to show how you can't always count on what you think your reaction will be. 
  • Our instructor hated the use of erasers and wish he could just banished them.  He felt it encouraged too much "picking" at the work and got in the way of flow.  "You are not drawing for a museum!".   That's why he had us do a large number of our drawing exercises on newsprint pads -- Cheap and so we wouldn't take ourselves so darn seriously.  All except one of us.  There was one lady who refused to use newsprint.  It wasn't good enough for her.
  • Ironically the one guy who was the most easygoing and friendly (being from Brazil may have something to do with it) had the most difficulty with letting go of his collection of erasers (hard, soft, long, short etc).  It would literally take him 1 1/2 hr to do half of an installation.  The rest of us would be working on our 3rd view of the thing.  He acknowledged his resistance and struggled with being OK seeing guidelines on his work.  His level of detail was breathtaking. 
  • There were 3 others I felt had a great attitude throughout the class.  Even when the subject matter wasn't their strength, they attacked it with gusto and humility.  Something to strive for. 
  • All of us had a distinct drawing style that came out with each exercise even though we all tried to draw the same thing accurately.  It was surprising to see just how different we all were.  I guess I didn't expect that much individuality within accuracy.  Not anything we could copy from each other either.  There is no "one way" or "right way" to draw anything.  Great lesson right there. 
  • And despite ourselves, I believe we all learned something. 

***By the time this post has reached you, I will have arrived in Prague.  Back in a week or so.***

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Flight Cancellations & Upgrades

I'm beginning to think the "travel gods" don't want me to go to the eastern seaboard.  Another (4th) east coast flight plan diverted.  A flight that was supposed to connect via JFK got outright cancelled 3 days after I bought it!  

Because I am anal about checking statuses of flights, I caught it before they even got a chance to notify me (Delta/KLM flight combo). 

Normally JFK is not even close to my first choice of airports to fly to or from.  That's how much I want to go back to Barcelona this year. 

When a flight cancellation happens, you are usually notified by phone.  Online you'll be asked to click "accept" (not all airlines offer this), which may give you the chance of choosing another flight if the difference in the new flight time they've assigned you is too far off course.  I've never been successful in getting a better flight until now. 

I braced myself for what is usually a min half an hour call while they read up on what happened and tell me they have given me the best option and that I'll have to stick with it.  Last time it happened, I ended up with an 8 hour layover at JFK -- That was the best they could offer!  Makes for a very long day when the rest of the journey was going to take another 14 hours. 

The fellow I talked to this time looked at my file, at what was assigned --1 hr 35 min layover at JFK! --- Way too close for comfort for an international flight when you have to change terminals, go through xray again, even with Nexus...and that's with no eating (Don't trust airplane food anymore).  I originally had a 3 hr 50 min layover.  Plus there are no guarantees the long awaited new Delta terminal will be open by then.

He paused and asked me what I wanted?  Can you believe it?  Threw me right off.  I was already online looking at all my options.  So I hesitated for a few seconds and decided to bravely tell him the flight I'd really like, which connected in Amsterdam, not the US.  He told me to hold while he looked into it.  I knew I was pushing it (had another flight connecting in Atlanta as back up) as it cost 50% more than what I paid, but was an ideal flight. 

Ten minutes later he came back on and told me he had sent the request to another department because he wasn't authorized to make such changes.  But he could refund the economy comfort fee I had already paid for the cancelled flight.  And should I want that class of seat for the new flight, I'd have to deal with KLM. 

I was a bit confused as I wasn't sure if he meant I got the way better flight for free or I had to wait to see if it got approved?  He confirmed it was set (signed out and back in and saw it too) and I'd get an email once the changes firmed up.  I was flabbergasted to say the least.  The new outbound flights meant I got economy comfort for free.  The journey home wasn't affected so I'll still have to pay for the upgrade.  Trivial issue when I just got $600 worth of flight value for free. 

Speaking of flight bonuses, D finally got a chance to experience KLM's World Business on our last flight to Munich as we paid for the upgrade last minute.  He had been extremely curious about it ever since I came home with those Delft houses (gift from KLM when you fly that class) last summer when I got upgraded for free. 

We didn't know they offered hugely discounted prices on the day of the flight at the check in computer terminals (when they have vacancy).  I guess what's left over are offered as free upgrade to Skymiles members?  You almost need a degree in airline upgrade policies to understand their algorithms.

Normally I don't use the check in terminals but I was too busy to have my boarding pass printed in advance.  They were asking $294 for the outbound leg ($428 if you were upgrading from economy vs economy comfort).  A normal outbound leg is in the 2K range so the discount was substantial.  So if you are in the market, check those terminals out before you go through security.

As our flights were "free" (points), we went for it.  The way back we didn't bother because the way there is when sleep/rest is more important to us.  I think it may have ruined D forever...

Friday, February 8, 2013


The first couple of shovel fulls usually tell me what I'm in for.  Back from shovelling the 1+ foot of snow we got overnight (love it when there are drifts).  And it wasn't the dry light stuff but what I would consider moderately wet and heavy.  Not quite "heart attack" snow but much closer to it than powder. 

Because I didn't want to fiddle with getting snow blower going, I did it old school with my handy shovel, my preference anyways.  Our driveway can fit 6 cars, is double width but our attached garage is only a 1 1/2 car width. 

Despite us really really wanting a 2 car garage, our house is the only old house in the neighbourhood that has an attached garage as an addition, so cannot complain.  I like being able to go from the house directly to it as well as go from it to the basement. There are also stairs going to the attic of the garage which serves as storage. 

So part way through shovelling, I would need to move D's car down so I can get the top part of the driveway cleared properly.  If I'm organized, I would have cleared the snow from his car first before shovelling around.  Wasn't that organized this morning.  I started at 7 am and it took me a solid hour to do the driveway, walkway, deck and sidewalk (only one shovel width) for a 1/2 acre corner lot.  It was good exercise.

Where is D you ask?  He's out west this week working and skiing and sent these pictures of his snow action.  Apparently it was a powder day yesterday and he over did it.  Yup, feeling pretty sympathetic right now...


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Is "Love" Necessary?

I had a "Perfect" work day yesterday.  It started gently and ended with energy to spare, like it took no effort.  Can probably count on both hands and feet the number of times I remember days like this in the last 15 yr. 

The thought "I love what I do" wandered its way unexpectantly through my head.  That's even rarer.  D said he has never heard me say that in the years he has known me.  Honestly I don't remember ever saying it.  I'm more likely to say I enjoy it or get a lot of satisfaction from it instead. 

I've never been able to relate to people who gush about their work.  Mind you the only thing I really only come close to "gushing" about is food and travel and even then the word "gush" might not be the best choice.  I don't even gush about D and he isn't offended by the lack of it.  There are other more appropriate words to describe us. 

You can be competent in your skills but not "love" it.  Love is strong word and I don't like to use it lightly.  Even without the "L" word, you can have a pretty ideal day. 

I had a mini discussion about being capable but not enjoying something and how that may (or may not) serve you in life, in the context of a friend describing her 2 very different daughters.

One hates school but can put her nose to the grindstone and pump out 80s.  Her other daughter is enthusiastic about education in general and when told that in order to be competitive in medicine, she needs to be in the 90s, she pumps herself up and does it.  Mom is worried about the one who hates school.  Whereas she stood out to me. 

There's something to be said for being able to override the "I hate this" internal commentary and produce results despite personal preference.  We aren't always going to be doing something we "love" and using I "hate" it as an excuse for not doing well can be a dangerous trend for a kid to fall into.  I believe it takes more discipline to succeed despite lack of interest. 

I've seen many examples of parents getting all irate at teachers they haven't met just because their child says they don't like them and that's why they are getting low marks.  That would have never flown in my house.  My mother has a very strong, proud, stubborn streak and for the most part, imparted it on me.  It doesn't always serve either of us well but in this case, she taught us to rise above all that "noise" and just do it. 

It makes it difficult later on (speaking of myself here) to figure out what one's real preferences are when you can force yourself to do well with a lot of internal pushing and shoving.  And it is extremely difficult to "call it quits" on anything because of the pride thing.  I'm not convinced that is the healthiest approach.  I'm still working on figuring this one out. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Updating Stuff

I've started the somewhat long and tedious process of updating credit card information all over the place.  You don't realize the extent of it until you start doing it.  There's Paypal, cell phone, parking, airlines, utilities, banks, office supply places etc etc. 

This does happen once every few years with the expiration of cards but this time it is because we are registering a new card altogether.  D has finally managed to talk me into paying for a credit card, one where we will earn direct Skymiles.  He has calculated based on our spending patterns, even with a yearly fee, we ought to be able to earn a free flight to Europe yearly. 

I've been pushing back on this idea for the last couple of years because I had just gotten away from credit cards I paid for and was enjoying free cards and free stuff (mainly gas cards) that came from said free cards. 

The one Visa we use isn't really a free card ($145/yr) but I get it for free because I have my business accounts with that particular bank.  It is the one that provides us with travel insurance.  This new one has travel insurance too but with slightly different coverage amounts.  We are also covered under D's health care plan. 

Another thing we have done this year is up our life insurance, not by much (not entirely convinced it was necessary), but enough to warrant a few pages of insurance questions.  Not having filled out stuff like this for over a decade, I was surprised to read the type of questions being asked (are you planning to learn to fly a plane, do your engage in any extreme sports etc).  They seem more appropriate for travel coverage whereas I remember life insurance questions to be pretty much all health related. 

After 5 yr of forgetting about it, D and I finally remembered to request our credit reports.  We've always used Equifax whereas D decided to try out TransUnion this time.  One word about the TransUnion report -- Confusing!!!  My opinion, it gives too much outdated and unnecessary info.  Who cares where D lived when he was a kid and what accounts he had closed back then? 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Property Tax

An interesting point came up when D hosted a couple of his team members who were up visiting from South Carolina and Florida. 

First off, they were disgusted with our weather.  The last time they came up, it was 8 C and that was enough to cause complaints.  This time, they didn't have words as they were so cold. 

At lunch, D's friend's (from Michigan) housing struggles came up during a conversation about housing and school districts.  The one lady from South Carolina who moved about 4 years ago piped up and said she didn't think 9K was a lot in property tax.  She paid much the tune of 22K a year for a 160K house!!   

The other fellow, from Florida was a young guy who is considering buying his first house.  So far he hadn't come across such numbers yet in his search.  He was shocked at the amount as well.

In Canada, we pay taxes according to how much the house and land are valued.  It has nothing to do with school districts.  So you would never find a house worth 160K with a 22K property tax price tag.  You would have to own a house in the millions or be waterfront in a popular cottage area (same difference) to have those kind of taxes. 

If you don't want to send your kids to the school in your area, you can choose to apply to another school but it would be your responsibility to get them there.  It happened to me during my last year of high school.  My parents moved so I applied for "flexible boundary" and took public transit to get there.  Had I decided to go to the art school instead of a regular highschool, it would have been an even bigger commute.  Thank goodness we have options like that here. 

***Speaking of housing costs, I just got our bank's annual mortgage summary.  In 2012, D paid $23304 in principal and $1599 in interest.  No complaints there.***