Monday, January 19, 2009

Some Observations from Europe trip

Sacre Coeur, Paris

1. Europeans are much more environment friendly than other continents. Much more public transport, avid bikers, energy saving. This is something we should learn from our Dutch or French counterparts.

2. Europeans in general are more reserve then Americans: Its a common thing to greet a stranger with a cheery "Hello, How are you?" or a "Good Morning" in America, not so in Europe. At the very best, one can expect a Nod, or a smile.

3. The Paper is not as ubiquitous in Europe as in America: Ok they do have TP in the restrooms, but don't bet on Paper towels near sinks or in your hotel rooms. They use paper sparingly, most of the places still believe in the old fashioned fabric.

4. People are lean: There were many times when I looked around on a crowded subway platform and didn't find a single person seriously overweight. (How do they manage it - Bicycles?)

5.People are fashionable: In the cold January morning you can find women in sheer stockings. No sneakers for ladies - I looked around many a times and found that I was the only one ( gasp!) donning sneakers around.

6. Paris and Brussels are stunningly beautiful - We kept walking from one place to another and the cities never failed to amaze us. Average walk a day 7 miles or more. Yaay!! for my sneakers.

7. You PAY (Gasps!!!) for the use of restrooms: Seriously people! thats something I had to check twice to believe. Even in restaurants you've to pay to use the restrooms, at least in Holland. And to think they pay big taxes out there.

8. Graffiti Everywhere: I think spray cans are dirt cheap in Europe. Top of the buildings, subway stations, tunnels, trains...nothing has been spared of the big bold letters. I saw graffiti even in the places really difficult to get to, like the inside of a tunnel where trains were passing every two minutes. Either Europe needs to nurture its graffiti talent by organising graffiti marathons and graffiti olympics or they need to increase the price of those spray cans.

9. Going to Europe - Pack an adapter and a pin converter for your electronic devices. The voltage is different and so is power plug design, make sure you are equipped to work with that.

10. Charge, Charge and Charge - This is something that we goofed up on many times. We had a camera, cellphone and a GPS. We inevitably kept forgetting to charge one or the other of these, and ran into issues like the camera dying on us at Notre Dame or GPS threatening to die on our way to hotel late in the night ( We used GPS to navigate in pedestrian mode.) Its a good idea to let the critical accessories charge as soon as you reach your abode.

11. Despite having high speed internet connections, I figure that Europeans dont make a big deal of internet. You wont find many surfing internet on places with wi-fi availability, like the hi-speed trains. In fact, a lot of tourist attractions don't even offer tickets on internet.

12. Walking on foot is enjoyable - Although most European cities boast a robust and efficient public transport system, for closer distance it is actually better to walk. You will come across many a sights and things that you wouldn't otherwise. While going to Sacre Coeur in Paris, we decided to walk and came across a vintage car rally. We wouldn't have seen it we had taken a Metro instead.

13. Metro is the best way to get around in Paris. For 19 Euros per person, we could roam freely through the city for 3 days.

14. Make sure you have a small backpack on you when you go to the tourist attractions, otherwise carrying things like water bottles, light snacks, guide books, umbrella, camera etc would be problematic. It isn't easy to take pictures while your shoulder or other hand is balancing a water bottle or tote bag. We actually faced this issue and had to buy an overpriced backpack at Paris.

15. In Paris, be prepared to stand in long queues, whether its Eiffel Tower, Louvre or Versailles. There are long queues everywhere.

16. Looks like the French skimped on signs and directions, I found that signs for crucial information were missing at many prominent tourist places.

17. Pack sufficient cash and if possible get it converted into Euros while you're in the home country. That would give you a chance to get the best deal for currency conversion, or you'll lose a serious chunk of change when you do it in Europe.

18. Ticketing machines and many offical cash registers don't accept US credit cards ( and sometimes not even European cards). While you are out there, cash is king. Also make sure you have some 50c or 1Euro coins on you to pay for restrooms, train tickets etc.

19. Contrary to my assumption, not everyone understands English in Europe. It will be a good idea to learn some basic words and phrases in French/German depending on where you're going.

20. Europeans are not as big on tipping as Americans. Although we're still expected to tip the waiters etc, it is not mandatory to tip every person you deal with during the course of travel.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Resoultions for 2009: Is it too late for it already?

Setting goals for the coming year (ok, the year is not 'coming' anymore...its already there) is always lot of fun. It makes me look forward to the new year and it makes it sound promising. It also imparts a feeling that I'm evolving as human being and not just aging. So here I'm, writing them down in black and white, for all to see and committing myself to them.


1. Have 20% down payment for our house by the end of the year. We're a little over 10% right now, so this seems doable, but I wanted to set right expectations this year, because of the state of economy.

2. Invest 10K in stocks to keep. This is BEB's demand. He is not happy with us keeping all our eggs in a single basket so he wants to build an investment portfolio.

Health and Fitness

1. Keep up the workout schedule from 2008.
I would like to elaborate a little here - I'm extremely proud of my achievements in this area last year. On Dec 18, 2007 we bought a new bike for me and begin to bike regularly. We kept at it until our India trip in May. While I was in India I couldn't exercise well and indulged in various Indian delicacies which resulted in my putting on about 4lbs. I wanted to lose this extra weight but biking wasn't helping much there. So we joined a gym and it has really helped me achieve some of my fitness goals. This year we want to be a little more aggressive towards this goal. I estimate that we went to gym about 70% of days last year. This year BEB wants to up the ante by taking off only for 50 days through the year. So thats what our first fitness goal is.

2. Keep up the good eating habits from 2008 but work on portion control: We worked to cut down our fat intake aggressively in 2007. It resulted in weight loss for BEB, and he really liked himself better that way. We tried to continue that in 2008 and soon got tired of the tasteless food. I didn't feel like cooking because even I myself didn't like the food cooked with so many omissions. So I reintroduced some oil and salt into my cooking and the results were wonderful. We ate more of healthy food and liked what we ate, indulged ourselves ocasionally and felt healthy overall. The additional fat was taken care of by the extra exercise we were getting at the gym. With all this experiment I feel that moderation is the way to go in order to eat healthy. Depriving ourselves from everything we liked didn't work too well in the long term.The only thing I see amiss from our eating habits is portion control. Both me and BEB are foodies and even though we have learnt to control the kind of food we eat, we still have to work on the amount we eat. We usually dine together, sharing anecdotes, talking about our respective workdays and life in general and usually keep eating till we are completely stuffed. I will try to be more vigilant about how much we eat.

3. Eat Slowly: One thing I keep reading about is that eating slowly helps in losing weight. What I feel however, is that besides losing weight, it also helps us in enjoying our food better and that I believe, is the key to being a good cook. I come from a family of fast eaters and due to the demands on my time, I have only nurtured this habit over time. Now I want to shift gears and try eating slowly and mind my food.

4. Increase the intake of proteins: Indian cuisine leans heavily towards whole grains and vegetables but lacks in proteins. This issue is especially problematic for vegetarians like us, who don't eat meats or eggs which are a n obviuos source of proteins for others. This year I'll try to make pulses, lentils, beans and soy a bigger part of our diet so that we can get proteins we need.

5. Better regime for Skin care and oral care : I have a very sensitive skin and thats why I need to be really vigilant about maintaining it. Caring more for it was my resolution last year but I couldn't really keep it that well. I'll try again this year. Also I'm good at brushing my teeth but not at flossing them, I will try to stay regular at that too.

Career Goals:

1. Aspire to become a better employee - continued from 2008. Last year I tried to get rid of my erratic work schedule and settle into routine working hours like everyone else and was successful to a big extent. This year I want to be proactive in my work and go an extra mile that what is expected of me.

2. Work on my dream career: I recently dabbled a bit in sewing and dressmaking and found that I still love it. I'll get some more books on sewing from library and try to sew more.

3. Be regular with my blog posting: Although this blog is more of a sounding board than a source of income, I would still want to keep blogging regulary. This is something I enjoy and after an year I find that I could write at least a few posts that had value for some other people so why not!

3. Learn Dutch Language: This is a hobby that I picked from my visit to Europe recently. My Sister-in-law initiated me into the language with a few words to enable us to get around in Holland. On our flight back I picked up a newspaper and a travle brochure in dutch and was immidiately hooked. There's something really exciting about trying to read a 5 word sentence and ...FAIL, after a long time. I want to be able to read and understand a dutch novel by the end of the year. Its not really a career goal but I figure it will be a good exercise for my brain and an added lanuguage is a skill anyway.
Social Goals
1. Keep in touch with friends and relatives in India: Make at least two non-regular phone calls to touch base with friends and relatives overseas. Populate my calendar with more birthdays.
2. Make friends with at least 2 new families: By get acquainted I mean, going to each other's place, taking trips together. Having a relationship where they can count on us and vice versa in times of need.
I know how corny the above goals sound, and selfish too. Let me explain - We have been in the US for two years now and till date, whenever we get stuck, we can think of only one family to turn to. I feel that thats not a very pretty situation to be at, especially when we are thousands of miles away from family and friends. It also leads to a lot of boredom, specially for husband when there's nobody around to spend time with except your spouse. Since we had fairly big social networks always, I don't think there's something inherently wrong with our behaviour. I think the only thing amiss is that since we're so used to social network built automatically that we never actively pursued it. It was fine in India, because we knew so many people through schools, work etc and wherever the wavelengths matched, it was the begining of a lasting friendship. It is different here, because we never studied here, worked with a limited number of people, and have no connections through our families. So here we have to actively pursue whatever little connections we make. Also a big issue earlier was my being very picky about friends, again this worked in India because I had a lot of people to choose from but I quickly realised that I was wrong in doing that. Nobody's perfect, so it will be foolish to expect that somebody will fit all your criteria, before we can make acquaintance. I now feel that a better way would be to just keep in touch, if there's a connection, friendship will evolve, if not, we can still keep in touch and stay on talking terms. So as corny as they sound, I'm still going to stick with these goals for this year and see where they take us.

Spiritual Goals:

1 Learn to let go:This is something I really need to work hard at and at multiple levels - I often try to juggle too many things at a time and get frustrated when some of them don't work out the way I want them. I will have to work to understand that its ok to not do that fabulous deal at Walgreens, its ok to pay the 25C penalty on a library book once. I'll try less to become the superwoman.

Besides this, I also have the memory of an elephant - while it comes in handy most of the times there are times when it is not such a good thing - I never forgive some one for hurting me, especially if that incident deals with my big ego. While I am still not sure giving somebody more chances to hurt me would be a good idea, it would be nice to be able to forget the incident and all the negativity attached to it and move on. I wish I could just let go of all the bitterness I feel towards the people who wronged me. I'll try to do that because even writing it in here makes me feel much less bitter. I hope I'll be so busy keeping up my other resolutions that I won't have time to feel negative about others. :)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

January Half Month pulse check: Getting my bearings back

After two months of extraordinary expenses and whirlwind activity ( buying gifts, packing, travel, sight-seeing, jet-lag) we are trying to settle back into routine life. Last weekend was a weekend at home after a long time and I did appreciate the time to catch my breath.
We celebrated the down-time by watching back to back bollywood flicks ( me), repairing the laptop (BEB) and having some heart-to-heart talks about our financial goals in 2009 ( more on that later).
Now on to our financial status for the first half of January: Things are again falling into place after a long time, so far our balancesheet shows all the regular amounts and some of the extra expenses from our trip to Europe, but since there weren't many big expenses during the trip, so far it looks good.
One small change has been in the newspaper bill, which they keep on increasing every 6 months, but I couldn't take it anymore. So I had called the Customer Service and showed my disapproval of their policy and canceled my subscription. I'll probably buy only Sunday newspaper to get coupons from now on.
All the other expenses look fairly balanced, but we got a big shocker in the form of our IT dues. We made a mistake in calculating our dues for the year, and now we have to cough up something to the tune of 10K before March. That would mean no savings for two more months. Oh! How I hate it when we have to live on zero savings, and this is going to be the fourth consecutive month, bravo!
On the brighter side, had we known about this we would have reconsidered our trip to Europe and that would mean missing out on so many beautiful experiences and memories. Good that we came to know about our goof up only when we came back. I hope to still squeeze in some small savings by cutting corners here and there. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Lessons from spending 16 hours at the airport

Photo Courtsey: Creative Commons

This happened to us on our way back from Schiphol, Amsterdam to San Francisco. We had to take a connecting flight from Dulles, Washington to San Francisco and due to long immigration check and security check lines we missed our connecting flight. This was at 4:00 pm . Airline offered to put us on stand-by for the next flight, but after making us wait for two hours told us that they had no seat for us and we were put on stand-by for the next flight four hours later. Four hours later we were told that this flight was full as well, after speaking with customer service we found out that we couldn't get a seat until now because of our low priority status. She bumped up our priority status, but since the next flight was at 7:00 am, we had to spend the night at the airport. Due to the early flight, it didn't make sense for us to go to a hotel so we had to stay at the airport. It was a long night, but here're some of the lessons we learned:

Before your journey

  • If your port of entry is not your destination, keep substantial difference between your connecting flights. At least 2 hours, more if you're not a US citizen.

  • A blanket of your own in the carry on is a big blessing.

  • Charge, charge, charge - laptop, cellphone, shaver, ipod. Whatever is good enough to carry in your carry-on is definitely good enough to be carried fully charged. Especially cellphones - they're lifesavers in many situations, having it die on you while you're stuck could be a double whammy - and the worst part - you won't even have a security line to blame it on.

  • Cash is king - Have some change, and some high value bills in your pocket of whatever currency is used at the airports you will be traveling through. Not all countries honour credit cards - even at the airport.

  • Never ever make the mistake of flying without toiletries in your carry-on. The hassle of putting them in a ziploc and getting them checked separately during security is well worth it. Ladies, some basic make-up is good too. I'm not asking you to carry on a 2 sqft vanity case. But having a lipstick, eye-liner, foundation won't hurt.

  • If you have the space, pack some dry snacks that you're comfortable eating. It is not really essential because most of the airports have eating options. But the options available may not always match your tatse or preferences and moreover, it will be expensive. It will be good to have your food with you. However, that may not always be possible depending on what else you're carrying/where you're flying from.

  • A change of cloth is also a good thing to have. The comfortable, the better.

  • You probably know this but its worth repeating - put some unique, robust and easily identifiable tags on your luggage. Ours are fluroscent orange cloth ribbons with mine and husband's name embroidered on them and they are actually sewn through the luggage handle. When we went to claim our luggage at the destination, I was missing one piece. I just said out aloud - "My suitcase had this similar orange tag with my name" one of the airline agents remembered stowing the suitcase with that tag in the backroom and immediately brought it to us.

You have missed your connecting flight, now what

  • If you miss your connecting flight, don't just take the default stand-by status for the next flight. Asked to get confirmed, failing that, asked to be promoted to a higher priority. Negotiate, plead, tell them over and over again that you are a passenger from an international flight (If you are). Nowadays there are so many categories of special passengers that if you're on an ordinary passenger status, chances of your getting a seat are next to null, specially in a high season. Moreover, airlines do give special consideration to international pasengers who missed their connecting flights due to immigration checks and/or long security check lines, so a little pleading will go a long way. Try to remain polite though.

  • Take advantage of what your airline has to offer. If you want to go to a hotel for the night, ask if they have any discount coupons. Our airline offered us 50% discount for the hotel. I think others may do the same too.

  • Make sure that your luggage boards the plane with you. Although it is airlines' policy to not load the luggage until the passenger boards the plane - you can never be sure amid all the chaos that ensues with all that holiday rush. In fact, our luggage arrived the destination before us. So check and double check the whereabouts of your luggage. The next worst thing to spending night at airport is to arrive at the destination and not find your luggage.

  • Hang on to your luggage tags that airline issued after they checked in your baggage. They are the only proof you have that you had some luggage with you, and it is with the airline now.

So you're in for a night at the airport

  • Inform your relatives/friends about the situation you're in. If you've made any arrangements to get picked up at your destination airport those need to be changed as well.

  • If you have to spend the night on the airport, try to get comfortable. Find yourself a lounge thats dimly lit, a relatively quiet corner, a set of chairs on which you can lie down instead of sitting. Getting a little sleep would help you kill the time, as well as make you feel somewhat refreshed for the day ahead.

  • Depending on the availability of resources, try to do things as you would do routinely at your destination/home. Brush, Shave, have your breakfast, read a newspaper. Key here is not to focus too much on the lack of things/comforts you don't have but to be as ready as possible for the day with what you do have. If you have your razor and cream, shave and feel good about it, if not, see if you have a fresh pair of clothes and can change. While dwelling on the lack of this/that will frustrate you, using what you have will make you feel glad that you packed it, keep you occupied and let you be more prepared for your destination, when you do get there.

  • The restrooms are cleanest between 4:00 am - 5:00 am. Take advantage ;-)

  • If your phone is working - make all the calls that you'd wanted to make but never had time. Call those long-lost friends, or touch base with your clients. Now is a good time to address that pesky issue, for which you needed to call the customer service of some provider(only if you have all the details). Just be aware of the time-zone that callee would be in. You don't want your friend in Los Angeles ( whom you're calling after an year) to wake up at 3:00 am, just because you wanted to say hello while you're stuck at JFK, New York.

  • If you have a laptop - Now is a good time to compose all those emails that you never seem to get a chance to write. Some articles for your blog, goals are all good. You can even chalk out your budget if its something you'd always wanted to do.

  • If you only have your mind - Now is a good time to brainstorm on some puzzling issues. Since you're somewhat removed from your day to day life, you can think fairly objectively and may have your 'Eureka' moment. One word of caution though - try hard to steer clear of any negative thoughts, you're probably tired and likely frustrated with your airline, security process etc. If you start feeling like banging the help desk or throwing your backpack at the security agent, get up, take a walk, use restroom, haggle with shop associate over the price of candy. You don't really need more trouble than you're already in. Jokes apart, I really feel that although there are people who can use such times for creative thinking, for most of us mortals, it is not easy to put aside all the discomfort and frustration and get into a zen state. If you can, think about the good things in your life. If you still feel like negativity building up in your mind and find your self feeling bitter about something or the other, tell yourself that this is not a good time to think about this issue. A better idea would be to chat with fellow passengers, reading a magazine, doing something to keep your mind occupied.

This is based on our experience as a couple traveling back to US. I can't imagine the plight of passengers with young kids and travelers to other countries who find themselves in similar/more difficult situations. Do share your experiences/tips in comments. Enjoy your jouney.