Category: Expat

The Upside of a Ceiling Collapse

“Any fool can write a book and most of them are doing it; but it takes brains to build a house.”
– Charles Fletcher Lummis

As some of you may recall, we dealt with a series of leaks in our building over the summer which, since we are on the ground floor, our apartment took the brunt of. A steady stream of water flowed through our walls and ceilings until finally about a quarter of our bedroom ceiling came down on us (literally) and our master bathroom was damaged so badly that we had to turn the majority of the electricity off in the room to safely access the area. It’s been really frustrating to deal with several months of insurance people, repair work plans which couldn’t start until the new year, and just generally feeling like our living space was compromised and could get worse at any minute.

Thankfully the repairs have started, though it’s not all rosy. We’re sleeping in our living room (again), while our master bedroom is effectively gutted and rebuilt. We’re using our second bathroom (and thanking our lucky stars that we have one), but the showerhead in it just broke for the second time. There is some kind of water damage in every single room of the house so we are having to do repairs in a rotation so that we retain some kind of functional living space. I’m eyeing some of the repairs in the ceiling already because I’m worried the drip has started up again and my paranoia is in full swing. Basically everything is just harder than it needs to be right now.

But a few good things are coming out of this process!

We’ve built a relationship with our landlord instead of relying on the management firm to handle issues. We’ve also tried to demonstrate that we are conscientious tenants who are able to help manage a less than ideal scenario. We will have to decide whether to renew our lease this year or move again, and having a good relationship with our landlord is a definite reason to consider staying put–which would also be a much less stressful proposition!

We negotiated. Because we have lost the ability to live in whole rooms of our apartment for weeks at a time over the past few months, we were able to negotiate on temporary rent reduction, which has enabled us to make larger payments towards debt.

It’s compelled a few good habits and shake ups. There is nothing like the reality of impending building works which will compress your living space to make you seriously evaluate your wants and needs! Jeff went through his closet and got rid of damaged and stained items that he had already replaced with better pieces. We both also identified a bag of items to donate to a trusted charity, and prioritized a few items that needed dry cleaning or a tailor. The journey towards less but better continues!

We also became a lot better at forgoing big weekend cleaning sessions (impossible due to the amount of dust in the air and closed of rooms) in favor of smaller and more regular tidy ups.

We’re styling. Our apartment was painted three mismatched colors in different rooms, none of which correspond with one another, before we moved in. We’re talking lavender, gray, and seafoam green walls. While the height of privilege problems, because we didn’t have exact paint reference to repaint damaged walls in the same hues, I got the landlord’s permission to do a nice neutral gray throughout the whole apartment. Well, except the second bedroom/storage closet. That’s staying seafoam green. Alas.

We evaluated. Going back the issue of whether or not we will have to move, we’ve had a chance to review our budgets and consider what our life would really be like if we chose to live in a smaller space or in a different location. Could we find the same square footage and amenities for a better price? What is our physical set up really worth to us? We love our neighborhood, but do we want to live here another three years? We don’t have all the answers to these questions, but it’s valuable to be thinking of this now rather than when we’re up against the wire. The last time we moved it was with very little warning and it’s an experience I’d strongly prefer not to repeat!

We’re still in the middle of this work and there is still plenty of time for stuff to go wrong. Meanwhile, we’re stressed and cramped and trying to recapture the romance of childhood when camping in the living room was a treat and not a project. But if we get some of these upsides in exchange, that will make it worthwhile.

Prague, Part II

“When you are quite well enough to travel, Latimer, I shall take you home with me. The journey will amuse you and do you good, for I shall go through the Tyrol and Austria, and you will see many new places. Our neighbours, the Filmores, are come; Alfred will join us at Basle, and we shall all go together to Vienna, and back by Prague…”
― George Eliot, The Lifted Veil

Alright, let’s talk specifics about Prague! If you yourself are planning a trip, here’s a whirlwind tour of what we enjoyed during our visit and which I could heartily recommend to any of you looking to alight on the Czech Republic’s fair landscape. Summer is the preferred time of year to travel but be mindful that as Prague has become a more popular destination in recent years, you may be competing with other tourists! However it’s not at all expensive and you can eat and sleep well there for decent prices while getting to explore an absolute jewel of a city.

Stay

We got a combined travel deal of plane fare and a room booking at Hotel Hoffmeister but this hotel was extremely easy to get to and ended up being a great place to stay. The subway from the airport to the nearest stop is a direct shot and the hotel is a just a couple of minutes away from that and you are within walking distance of all the major sites of the old city. The service is friendly and the facilities excellent. A fabulous breakfast is served every morning with all the continental trappings including teas, coffees, breads, cheeses, pastries, fruit, yogurts, eggs, and meat. Local favorites feature heavily! There is also an in-house restaurant which we enjoyed one evening, and a in-house spa. You better believe I booked a massage and felt all the better for it!

See

The palace complex. Set high above the historic city, the historic castle of Prague is a mix of buildings from different eras with absolutely stunning views. It’s worth booking a tour ticket which gives you access to several of the individual palaces, the national cathedral as well as several smaller chapels and areas. However if that’s all you do, you’ll be missing out! Several of the individual palaces or buildings hold their own schedules of events including lectures and daily concerts or performances. Lobkowicz Palace is a privately held building with a justifiably famous collection of art and music that is well worth the admission price. May I also recommend the cafe where you can dine on the terrace in the summers?

The history city square is home to a famous clock tower and several civic buildings all worth a check in as well.

The Charles Bridge. One of the iconic sites in Prague, this bridge dates back to the reign of Charles IV but the statues lining it now are mostly baroque. It is always packed with tourists and buskers, but no trip is complete without a wander across its arches.

The Jewish Quarter with several history cemeteries, synagogues, shops, and eateries.

Prague is such a foot friendly city that I’d recommend not scheduling your time too closely and make sure you genuinely just spend some time wandering the streets. You are sure to stumble across shops and places to catch a cup of coffee or a local pastry that are deserving of exploration. We had a general idea of what we wanted to do each day, but we also played a lot of this trip by ear and it ended up being a fantastic decision.

 

 

Eat

Basically eat every where you can! In addition to the cafe mentioned above, we loved Cafe Savoy for lunch and Cafe Imperial (lots of French inspiration in this city if you can’t tell) for dinner and sheer ambiance! The photos above are from the main dining area with its famous tiled walls and ceilings.

Speaking of French food, the Cafe de Paris was a joy to discover. They are famous for their house special of steak frites made with a secret bernaise sauce which is fearfully and wonderfully made. I highly recommend!

However, there is no point of travel if you don’t eat local food and one of our favorite finds was a food hall called Lokal Dlouhaal which was not just cheap but utterly Czech. The dishes were not particularly Instagramable to look at, but were fantastic to eat! Red cabbage and potato dumplings feature heavily, as does beer. I enjoyed a stew style dish of beef that was wonderfully and heavily seasoned while Jeff ate his body weight in schnitzel.

Pilsner is a local invention and is cheaply found across the whole of the city from the original Pilsner Uquell brewery. But if you want a fun night out, Hemingway Bar does amazing and fun cocktails with a great mix of traditional drinks and their own unique concoctions.

Prague, Part I

“It’s easy to fall in love among the winding cobblestone streets and snow-covered castles of Prague, but is it a good idea?” 
― Dana Newman, Found in Prague

It has taken me a ridiculously long time to try and write up our Prague trip, it’s been nearly two months! But I did want to try and put together a couple of posts on it because it was a location that had been on my list of places to travel to at some point for a long time, and it was such a lovely short holiday.

We didn’t really plan out this trip, except to check in with pals who had previously visited the city and had a few tips and tricks for us. Other than that, our only agenda was to explore a new place that neither of us had ever been. I was really lucky to see a lot of Western Europe growing up due to my father’s career and our family’s opportunities to travel, there’s a lot of countries and cities I’ve been fortunate enough to see, but Eastern Europe was always a bit of a mystery to me. We didn’t make a list of places to see (although we did have a list of places to eat! Priorities, people) and just sort of decided what to do on a day by day basis. It turned out great.

Cities have very distinct personalities to me. It’s some combination of architecture, food, music, smells, style…every place has a very unique and stand alone identity. Some cities have a very modern vibe, some feel more medieval, and many are just hodgepodges. Prague is an old city with a lot of history that is interwoven throughout its structure, but so much of it feels distinctly Baroque. It was a major city in the Holy Roman Empire and while some of its most major building works were undertaken in in the 14th century, a lot of what remains in terms of architecture and decor is straight out of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Baroque is about grandiosity and large spaces, large proportions, detailed design elements, and rich colors. In terms of symbolism and themes, religiosity and grandeur are important common motifs. Prague has all of this in abundance, not only in its grand cathedrals and palaces, but almost everywhere on the streets. The buildings were brightly painted in most cases, with historic stone carvings and fresco artwork plentifully included. But there was still a lot of other morsels of style shot through. Gothic featured heavily, as did remnants of Communist and Cold War era architecture and art.

You can enjoy a complete cultural history of the Czech Republic on a wander through the city! We ate at a traditional food hall where the contents on the plate were not particularly photogenic (think thick stews, cabbage and potatoes, and “peasant food” dishes common in Soviet period) but the taste was incredible. We also scoped out the luxury areas and dining spots where French style cuisine is prominent and not entirely unrelated to the Imperial period where everything French was all the rage. Meanwhile, you’re constantly aware that you are not in Western Europe or what most Americans think of when they think of Europe. The buildings have Slavic style domes rather than Italian ones, and none of the languages here are Romantic.

I felt very out of my comfort zone here, but in the best possible way. Everything was new to me–visuals, taste, and sounds–and it’s been a while since I’d had an experience like it. To have the whole thing packaged in a city where the carbs are plentiful, the pilsner is flowing, and everything is decently priced or cheap is a joy.

I was struck by how “low” a city it was, development work and skyscrapers were not at all plentiful, which certainly adds to its charm! While not untouched by it, Prague was spared a lot of the destruction of the 20th century which other parts of Europe have had to manage. It’s also long been a multi cultural city. It has a prominent historic Jewish Quarter, which in turns holds several synagogues in various “styles (the Spanish Synagogue, for example), and has served as a meeting ground for the languages and cultures between eastern and western Europe for a long time, as well as some overlap to trade (and conflict) points with the middle east in the Holy Roman Empire.

As for culture, my god! Mozart debuted Don Giovanni here (we scoped out the opera house) and Kafka is one of its famous literary lights. Classical music is everywhere in the form of daily concerts and performances. We actually didn’t take one in, which is a mistake in retrospect, but we heard it playing everywhere we went.

Exploring a city just by wandering it is one of my favorite parts of travel, but it has been a surprisingly long time since we did it. By not really having an agenda, I think it allowed us to relax more (ironically) and simply follow what interested us on any given day. We only had four days in Prague, but it was an absolute jewel box of a holiday. I’m endlessly amazed at how refreshing travel and exploration is to the mind and soul. It renewed our desire to try and plan more and shorter trips, rather that just try to save up time and money for “big” ones.

I highly, highly recommend a visit.

Taking Time

“Every person needs to take one day away.  A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” 
― Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

I am bad about this to the point of commentary from my colleagues who point out when I have not taken a holiday, especially in periods of high stress and hectic projects and encourage me to book my next holiday. It’s a very strange, but very nice thing to be encouraged by bosses to take time off regularly–it’s antithetical to the American work culture (according to Forbesless than a quarter of Americans take all of their available vacation, and I KNOW I am personally one of them).

Time off is built into British work life and I’ve had the experience of bosses policing my requests–not because I was asking for too much time off, but because they thought I wasn’t asking for enough. It is assumed that regularly scheduled holidays, even a three day weekend every couple of months or so, keeps workers more balanced and productive. I have been amazed to observe how holiday time is respected. On one occasion, early in my British working life, I checked my work phone for emails on a day off, saw that an urgent request had come through and immediately responded. The recipient thanked me and then scolded me for breaking my holiday to provide him with something he himself had stated was important, and forbade me from responding to anything else until I was back in the office. This was astounding and confusing to me!

I’m a big believer in time off. But I’m also a badly inconsistent practitioner.

Over the past year I’ve been working on a contract that’s been deeply interesting and rewarding. The work is challenging, the people are nice, the location is great, and there’s a lot to do (which is something my hyper personality requires). But it’s also been a hectic year with constant surprises and challenges, with a stream of unexpected projects and short deadlines. Because I was running a small team, I genuinely was afraid that if I took time off, I’d be responsible for balls dropping or delays, or…oh I don’t know. I had a vague sense of dread about being out of office that I couldn’t shake.

At a certain level this is fundamentally egotistical. The world spins on without you, and it’s important to be reminded of this fact.

Paradoxically, my feelings were also mixed with a sense of Imposter Syndrome because…the world spins on without you. Because I was managing a big contract and wanted so badly to do a good job, I think a part of me was strangely afraid that people would cope without me in a crisis, and what would that mean? Also, please note, fundamentally egotistical.

Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.

And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state. I had to expend more energy to focus and concentrate than I needed to. My anxiety was ratcheting up.
“I think…I need a holiday,” I mentioned tentatively to a coworker during a coffee break.
“YES, YOU ARE LONG OVERDUE,” was her disconcertingly swift and loud response.

Et voila. I booked two weeks off and we went to Prague for one of them. Ironically Jeff was summoned back to work this week due to some crises but we’re now looking at what mini breaks we can take through the rest of the year to get in the travel that we have been reminded we desperately need and thoroughly enjoy. In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying the surprisingly great summer weather, wandering through my favorite neighborhoods, and indulging in some vintage scouting. I’ve still be checking my work phone more than I should, but I’ve

There will always be a crisis you don’t expect, there will always be an unanticipated hiccup that your coworkers will need to deal with. They will. And your work will still be waiting for you when you get back. The world spins on, after all.

 

The Best Things I Bought Last Year

“Buy what you don’t have yet, or what you really want, which can be mixed with what you already own. Buy only because something excites you, not just for the simple act of shopping.” 
― Karl Lagerfeld

Inspired by Janssen over at Everyday Reading, I thought I’d run through a few things that I spent money on last year that sparked a lot of joy. Budgeting continues to be a big thing in the Small Dog residence this year and posts on this theme will continue to flow as I continue to think about consumption and responsible consumerism, as well as debt management. All of which I’m sure you guys find riveting.

That’s right, ducklings, come for the political angst, stay for the sensible money talk!

So, while I’m in the midst of a three month-long personal spending freeze to kick off the new year, here are the best things I bought in 2017.

Vintage Chairs

We took an apartment at the upper end of our budget when we moved into this place, negotiating a better rent rate in exchange for furnishing it ourselves rather than asking our landlord to do so. This has had tradeoffs. We live in the nicest place of our married life but have had to curtail spending elsewhere as a result; we have an amazing home, but are taking literal years in putting it together and saving up for big buys one at a time. But both of us were in agreement when we saw this pair of vintages chairs show up at one of our favorite antique stores that we wanted them. They were our only big budget item for our house this year but they’ve leant our place charm, personality, color, and a much needed place for people to actually sit. I love them.

Party Dress

It had been years since I bought a party dress that didn’t come in the LBD variety, but this past holiday season I had enough events to go to (with a broad range of dress codes) that an update to the wardrobe was justifiable. This dress was in my December favorites post, but deserves another shout out because I have definitely gotten my money’s worth out of this thing.

Lea Stein Brooch 

I picked this up on our long weekend trip to Paris with the glorious Caitlin and her lovely husband Jose. I fell in love with Lea Stein designs years ago and stumbled across an amazing shop in the Rue Jacob that sells vintage costume purely by accident. This was the only purchase that came home from Paris this year and it’s a wonderful bit of treasure.

Greek Vacation

Without fail, the best thing we spent money to me this past year was a week in Greece just the two of us. I’m very bad at relaxing, and this trip was a much needed reset. Even though we were crazy and flew into and out of Athens in less than 24 hours, we had a wonderful day in the city and an amazing six further days on Santorini with hiking, sailing, and an awful lot of food. It was amazing and has really helped me remember to prioritize time off better than I have before.

Weekend Links: We Aren’t Even Halfway Through January Edition

“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” 
― James Baldwin

Kittens, what a week. This could be written about any week for the past calendar year and a half but once again, it was a doozy and I’m not even going to attempt a recap. Who would have thought we’d get Oprah trending and yet more vulgarities from our vulgarian in chief? As I put the finishing touches on this post I glimpsed something from the Washington Post about an adult film star and Trump hush money? Whatever, I’m not clicking.

God, this man is humiliating. NPR had to send out a briefing memo to its news team today instructing them on the proper usage of the word “shithole” throughout the day. What a world.

MUST READ: If you wanted to avoid our rage, perhaps you shouldn’t have left us with so little to lose.

Many women wore black gowns for the Golden Globes as a statement of solidarity, protest, and attention direction this year. And to anyone who naysays fashion as frivolous, I say it has always been used as social and political statement, especially by women. As Tom and Lorenzo point out, far more articulately than I could, fashion and style choices are some of the most potent weapons some of these women can use in an industry that traffics in their images. I loved that several women also brought activists as guests. More of this in 2018, please.

Oprah Winfrey’s speech knocked it out of the bloody park at the Golden Globe Awards.

WGSN’s trend forecast for beauty this year is nicely optimistic to me.

I am poised and ready for the future discoveries of these documents in someone’s attic or in some abandoned vault. You all know I LIVE for those stories.

For your reading consideration this year.

Bad feminist confession, I adore the film The Women and love but have always questioned the technicolor fashion montage that appears halfway through it. Well, color me educated (see what I did there?).

David Frum cautions that the real threat to our democracy is not in, “…corrosion, not crisis. In a crisis, of course we’ll all be heroes—or so we assure ourselves. But in the muddy complexity of the slow misappropriation of the state for self-interested purposes, occasions for heroism do not present themselves.”

So help me god, 2018, if you take Trebek from us

In Mormon news, the president of the LDS church passed away last week, and this write up from Harvard Divinity School is an excellent explanation as to why his ministry was important to the faith, what happens next in the organization, and what happened during his stewardship of the church.

Truly, which of us couldn’t use some more executive time?

This story on literal muckraking is great.

Senator Feinstein released transcripts of the interview of the man whose research firm was behind the infamous Steele Dossier, it’s a long read but political junkies should read it. Here’s ongoing NPR analysis for the pressed-for-time.

This take on the whole Fire and Fury situation and what the book reveals (he argues, whatever errors or faults in contains) by Ezra Klein of Vox *feels* fundamentally correct to me. It’s also weirdly sad, or it would be were not the stakes so damn high.

Wow, Steve. 2018 came at you fast, huh?

Hey! Some good news about the planet!

I like this list of things to declutter from your life in 2018.

A while back, as the sexual assault conversation was ramping up, a list made headlines. Created by an anonymous founder it was called the “Shitty Media Men” list and documented anonymous woman-to-woman heads up about potential bosses or work situations they might want to avoid. It broke into wider consciousness when it was discovered and shared on reddit. The thinkpieces, attacks, and defenses flowed. This past week on Twitter reports surfaced that the magazine Harper’s intended to publish a piece that revealed or “doxxed” the identity of the original creator. Feminist Twitter flew into a frenzy with writers pulling their pieces from the magazine and calls to protect the identity of this woman since backlashes against women have been so historically vicious and awful (see: Gamergate). But then…the creator of the list unveiled herself instead in The Cut. I have no idea what the backlash is going to be but I choose to read something into this decision and attribute it to the moment where women are collectively deciding that past terror cannot dictate future action.

And finally the president managed yet another revealing statement when he apparently referred to immigrant hopefuls from the global south, and Haiti and African nations in particular, as undesirable candidates for citizenship. I’m of course cleaning up his own language which was news-breakingly vulgar. 

All I can say is that I’m thrilled Mr. Trump cancelled his visit to London, as I was fully intending to protest and now I don’t need to request time off for that. I’m also endlessly bemused at how he lacks even the most basic grasp of history and facts (in this case regarding the plans and timeline of the new US embassy). I didn’t expect much from him, but does no one on his staff brief him on anything? At least one ambassador has resigned and several more have been summoned to their various host governments to explain the inexplicable.

And finally, Roxanne Gay has a word of warning.

Weekend Links

“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.”
― Oscar Wilde

So, we went to Paris for a few days, and didn’t miss any news at all.

Just kidding! Because it’s 2017 and the pace of the spacetime continuum is on warp speed!

The UK had a general election that did not quite go according to the Prime Minister’s plan, and Mr. Comey testified before Congress on the investigations into Russian interference in the US election–sounding for all the world like a victim of sexual assault or pressure from the way the president behaved to the way people are trying to make the subsequent decisions of all involved Mr. Comey’s own fault. It’s been shocking. The US president continued to tweet up a storm (which, let’s be clear, is precisely what kicked off this whole mess with Mr. Comey in the first instance), leading to his own teammates delivering the weakest defense possible to explain away his actions: “He’s just new this this.” No shit, Mr. Speaker. That’s always been the problem, and in no way absolves him of the responsibility of catching the hell up with professional expectations.

At time of writing, the White House has canceled an anticipated state visit to the UK. Trust me, President Trump would go down like a lead balloon at the moment, following his outbursts in response to the London attacks. Current reports are that he doesn’t want to have to deal with prospective protests or negative coverage, the poor dear. Though let’s be clear, the UK government is far from having its ducks in a row at the moment! Nevertheless, it astonishes me how he continues to casually do damage to some of the most enduring relationships in Western democracy, and I continue to be dismayed by the failure of his own (supposedly constitutionally mad) party to check him. The fact that the most likely outcome of the Comey hearing is, at this moment, nothing at all is deeply disheartening.

But a break from that, ducklings! I’m feeling marvelously refreshed after our short holiday–posts coming as soon as I clean the house, do masses of laundry, shop for food, go the gym, try to meditate, and generally try to get our lives back into some semblance of working order. Stand by. Not sure for how long. Meanwhile, I’ve put together a delightful batch of links to make you feel prepped to take on the coming week, regardless of whether or not you are currently stuffed to the brim of delicious French food.

A diverse list of female medieval writers.

I loved–LOVED–the Amazons of Wonder Woman, both the fictional characters and the casting. Different sizes, shapes and colors. Some were teachers, some were fighters, some were senators, some were thin, some were highly muscled, and every last one of them was a badass. Where the hell do I enlist for the Claire Underwood battalion? The outpouring of love and appreciation from other women for this film has been a source of internet joy for me from the get go, but

In tragic nerd news, Adam West passed away. A writer I enjoy pays tribute here.

In heroic and joyous nerd news, the first Black Panther trailer came out!

This generator gave me quite a chuckle. My favorite thus far have been “Islamic Revolutionary Thatcherite” and Post-Colonial Anarcho-Communist.”

Nope.

A fashion designer urges consumer to not buy anything this season. I see the appeal!

 

Album of the week: Ti Amo, by Phoenix