Friday, May 31, 2013

What is Supplied at Oakwood Falls Church

Two weeks until departure and I have shifted from -what to get rid of- to -what do we pack in our suitcases and UAB-. The last time we headed to language training at FSI, I was able to get a specific list of items provided by Oakwood Falls Church, directly from our contact at HRPCSLODGING or from Oakwood's National Account Coordinator.

Here is the list of items that were in the Oakwood Apartment:
1. Bed including: pillows, sheets, quilted blanket, duvet set and mattress topper
2. "Stunning photographic art captured from around the globe" by Chairman, Howard Ruby [quotes not added by me]
3. Television and DVD player in living room
4. Clock radio
5. Television in every bedroom
6. Cordless telephone
7. Answering machine or voice mail
8. Decorator accessories
9. Fully equipped kitchen (see below)
10. Microwave oven
11. Designer vanity set
12. Hair dryer
13. Bath towels
14. Iron and ironing board
15. Laundry basket
16. Vacuum cleaner

Kitchen (one bedroom or two bedroom):
1. Dishes (four or six 4-piece settings)
2. Flatware (four or six 5-piece settings)
3. Beverage glasses (eight or twelve)
4. Wine glasses (four or six)
5. Can opener
6. Coffee maker
7. Toaster
8. Baking dish (two-quart)
9. Casserole dish
10. Ceramic utensil holder
11. Colander
12. Cookie sheet
13. Cookware set (eight pieces)
14. Cutlery tray
15. Cutting board
16. Grater
17. Juice pitcher
18. Mixing/serving bowls (three)
19. Storage containers (three)
20. Barbeque brush
21. Corkscrew
22. Knife block

Can customize with these items:
1. Stereo with CD player
2. Fax/copy/scan machine
3. Roll-away bed
4. Crib with linens
5. High chair
6. Blender
7. Patio furniture
8. Asian Kitchen Package
9. Asian Stir Fry Package

Looking at the Oakwood website today, here is the listing of items provided in another format:
The Oakwood Signature Apartment provides the highest standards in accommodations, adding four-star luxury to your Oakwood stay. It includes the following:

Oakwood Dream Bed
Television with DVD player
Additional television in bedroom
A collection of images from Oakwood Chairman Howard Ruby's own photo collection
Fully equipped kitchen
Deluxe bathroom accessories

An Oakwood Dream Bed, offering a sumptuous night's sleep to rival any top-of-the-line hotel. It includes fourluxurious pillows, down blanket, lush duvets, a signature 'Oakwood' decorative pillow, and high thread-count first quality sheets.

Color television and DVD player
Picture and plant packages
Decorator accessory package
Linen package
Clock radio
Bathroom accessories
Vacuum cleaner
Iron and ironing board
Dust pan and brush

Fully equipped kitchens have everything you need to cook meals as if you were in your own home, including:
Dish settings, glasses, and flatware
Cookware and baking dishes
Cooking tools and serving utensils
Knife block set
Coffee maker
Microwave oven and toaster

Basic utilities include:
Local telephone service, including answering machine or voice mail
Optional long distance service (additional charge)
Cable television service
In-unit or on-site laundry facilities
Parking (at most locations)
Professional weekly housekeeping service

Additional Items: The following items are available at an additional cost
Crib (with linens)
Electric Fan
High Chair
Patio Furniture (two chairs, one table)
Patio Chair - additional
Roll-Away Bed
Stereo with CD Player
Telephone - Cordless

Looks like a long list, but we ended up bringing or buying extra items for our 10 month stay last time. Items were:
1. Hooks, those removal sticky ones
2. Better bath mat for when kneeling to bathe kids
3. More hangers, they provide some
4. Extra food storage containers
5. Shower caddy for shampoos, etc
6. Sponge holder for sink
7. Key rings
8. Blender
9. Small bucket to hold recycling under sink
10. Coasters
11. Reusable bags, and more bags
12. Cupcake pan
13. Bigger frying pan
14. Bigger pot
15. Extra serving bowls
16. Salad spinner
17. Our good parring and chef's knife
18. Small tray for keys, change, etc
19. Toy organizers
20. Small table and chair for kids

These items were in addition to the toys, DVDs, clothes, books and other various items packed in our UAB and suitcases. Probably not necessary for a couple of months but once you pass 4 or 5, some of these items make living there a little easier. There is a BJs, Target and a Goodwill store about a mile walk away; and a Saturday shuttle from Oakwood to the shopping area.

If you are in the area in March or September, I highly recommend the kids consignment sale at St. Andrew Episcopal Church in Arlington. I was able to pick up a bunch of toys for the kids for our stay.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Saying "Good Bye" to the Ambassador (our car) in Kolkata

[I found this old post that I forgot to publish before we left Kolkata. We are currently trying to figure out what to do for transportation with a six month TDY in Falls Church, VA for language training, and then a three year post in Astana, Kazakhstan, so the topic is at the top of our minds...]

Although the pictures may look like a specimen from the History Detectives, above and below is the car title and registration for our (and others before us) Ambassador. Another reason to be fond of owning one in West Bengal. It reads like a passport for its decade plus service for those posted at the American Consulate.

From our brief experience in the Foreign Service, owning a car is tricky financially. The import rules for bringing in a car can change even after all the research and your orders, sometimes you can only bring right-hand drive cars into right-hand car countries, and the same with left-hand cars in left-hand car countries. It may be best to have a vehicle for rough terrain, a small car for congested city or no car for one with great public transportation and little parking.

The road of least resistance seems to be to buy when getting to post (or training in D.C.); and then selling when you leave a post. You may loose money or break even (not ever allowed to make a profit), so hopefully it evens out in the long run. Buying from another diplomat at post, American or another country, also seems to be the path of least resistance for registration and having it available soon after arrival.

As we head back to D.C. for training before Prague, we have decided to look for another Mazda 5 (our car in D.C. that we transferred the lease to another foreign service officer before we left for Kolkata) at either CarMax or Hertz Rent2Buy, even though it drives me crazy when "2" is used in that way. We will use the car in D.C. and then hopefully send to Prague (crossing fingers that the import rules don't change before then). Others have said that they have successfully purchased and then sold at Ballston Auto Center in Falls Church, when in long-term training in D.C.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Tribute to Kolkata: Buffalo Boy’s Calcutta Crush!

Yesterday in The Telegraph, the departing political officer in Kolkata beautifully captured what it is like to live in "Calcutta," a unique city that you either fall in love with or dread. An excerpt:

"When people ask me what I will miss most about Calcutta, I have a hard time explaining the loss I already feel when I think of leaving. I will miss the dosas at Jyoti Vihar and the pan-fried momos at Blue Poppy. I will miss the slow, seemingly prehistoric rumble of the trams and the incongruous orderliness of the Metro, even at rush hour. I will miss the Hooghly, swirling chai brown in the wake of a Howrah-bound ferry boat, with the view framed by two iconic bridges and the Calcutta skyline. I will miss the orange and gold radiance of the krishnachura trees in bloom and the other-worldly colours that take over the Calcutta sky when a storm approaches. I will miss the vibrancy of Calcutta’s art, from heart-wrenching photojournalism to age-old tales retold on patachitra scrolls from the Jungle Mahal. The roaring drums and frenetic flips of chhau dancers and the saccharine tones of a sangeet recital."

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

That Arlington/Falls Church State of Mind

As we start our countdown to leaving post, I can't help but once again sing the Arlington Rap while sorting stuff. Need to remember to put our brown flip flops in our UAB to fit in.

Monday, May 6, 2013

May Day in Dresden

Early May brings two national holidays in the Czech Republic, each one typically falling in the middle of a week. It is a good time to take a day trip or head to the commissary in Grafenwoehr, since the crowds are smaller during the week. We decided to head to Dresden for the day, since it is a scenic two hour drive away.

Using our favorite series of European maps, USE-IT Europe, for Dresden, we plotted a series of things to do, mostly kid-friendly. USE-IT Europe is a collection of guides put together by local, "young people." It shows a different perspective than the typical travel guide.

Things We Thought We Could Do in Dresden with Kids:
1. Visit a Historic Cheese Shop
("cheese" would be our kids' middle names, if they could name themselves)
2. Go to the Dresden Castle Grounds
3. Take a Boat Ride on the Elbe
4. Ride the Train in Tivoli Gardens
5. Go to the Zoo in Tivoli Gardens
6. Go to the Deutsche Hygiene Museum
(or the better sounding Museum of Man)
7. Go to the Transportation Museum

Things we Ended Up Doing:
1. Ate Curry Wurst
2. Went to the May Day Festival

Dresden has a good Christmas Market, but we were surprised and happy to see a May Day festival in the center of town, complete with May Day pole dancing. We started off the day with an early lunch at Curry & Co in the Neustadt area of town. Sicily was fascinated by the holes in the table for the cones of fries. Alani was just fascinated by the fries.

Then the -festivaling- began with a children's ride area. "Festivaling" should really be a word, especially in this part of the world. In the Spring and Fall, it seems like you could almost find one every weekend.

The May Day festival is smaller than the Christmas Market, and less crowded as well. We were able to park right under Altmarkt Square, use the very clean public bathroom in the parking deck and take an elevator right up to the festival. Those conveniences are magic when you have two small kids.

Ferris wheel on the main square. You can barely see the festival booths behind it. I forgot to take pictures of the four rows of booths, main stage and may day pole.

Many people were enjoying wurst, fish and wine on the square. Sicily's choices were ice cream and running though a fountain. We did get to walk around the area a little. One of the most impressive sights was the Fürstenzug mural, a large mural with a mounted procession of the rulers of Saxony.

As in most tourist areas throughout Europe, there were several men posing as statues and dressed up as silver clowns, kings and what-not around the Dresden castle. One guy had a little more flair than normal. After Sicily dropped some coins in his hat, he combined an old school mime routine with a split and moon walking. Made the history a little more fun for the kids.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Some CZ vs. USA Cultural Differences

Not liking the bundle

I just finished reading a short article on by Elizabeth Haas called 10 Ways I’m More Czech Than American; and can't help but repost. She delightfully explains some of the endearing cultural differences you can experience while a newbie in Prague.

One of my favorites is:

"9. I frequently fret that my daughter will catch cold.
Long before I became a mom, I worked at a Czech nursery school. The parents continually nagged the staff, no matter what the season, to tuck the kids’ shirts into their pants and pull the pants high, as if a thin scrap of denim could shield vital organs. Cut to a well-heated living room in the U.S. last fall as my baby niece braves the elements barefoot with a slice of back exposed, while my own child plays alongside her in punčochy, the thickest Czech tights money can buy...hiked beyond her navel, naturally!"

Although I did not become a bundler, the Czech use of tights is brilliant and we adopted them for our youngest. The two other Czech behaviors for infants that stood out here:

1. Many Czechs keep their infants lying flat in a stroller until they are one year old. You rarely see a Czech infant in chair position. I was told that Czech's believe that it helps promote spine development. In Prague, there are many expensive and well designed strollers.

2. In cold or windy weather, Czech's make sure to put hats on their kids, especially to cover the ears. I am not sure if a majority of Czechs adhere to this practice but I have been scolded for not having a good hat on my kids. A Czech mom told me that they believe it protects the ears from any sort of damage.

I have also been scolded for having about 2 cm of skin exposed between Alani's leggings and socks in the Fall. When at a festival, three women came up to me separately to tell me that Alani's full legs weren't covered, and that I should get a blanket. Its been fun to learn the different beliefs in India and now the Czech Republic, makes me see my own American expectations in a new light.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Paying Czech Income Taxes

 One of the great image results, when you search for "daň z obrázku" 
or "tax image" in Czech

As I documented in the post Working as a Freelancer in the Czech Republic, I landed a contract for a user experience project in Prague. In order to complete the work, I had to get at least front-office approval and a živnostenský list (a business license).

For the front-office approval, I signed a statement pledging that I would pay Czech income taxes, and as an proud owner of a živnostenský list I needed to report my income as well. Of course I put off researching what and how to pay Czech taxes until the very last moment, but in the end it was actually less painful that some of my U.S. tax returns.

The universal image for paying taxes

After the contract work, I also landed a full-time job, so my income for 2012 included both freelance and "employee" income. Employees of organizations in the Czech Republic typically pay income taxes with every paycheck. Rumor has it that employees that pay regular taxes may not have to file an income tax report, unless they owe taxes for other reasons, but since I also had freelance income, I didn't research this further.

My experience is relative to income earned in 2012. I have seen comments on Prague expat groups that the rules may change for 2013, but hopefully my experience can serve as resource for someone with similar circumstances.

The best source of information on this subject is the population of expat freelancers (writers, actors, teachers) that live in Prague. I was lucky to meet a creative, opinionated one at my job, who had been navigating Czech law for several years. Although he had someone else report his taxes, he did tell me about the 40%/60% rule, which would have been mind boggling without explanation.

This is a common feeling when paying taxes, with Czech actors

Talking to people in my situation, searching online and the awesome expat Facebook group CrowdSauce CZ, lead me to the following:

1. Taxes are due on March 31st
2. Most individuals pay 15% income tax
3. If you have a freelance z-list, you can take a standardized deduction of 60% expenses, and then pay tax on the remaining 40%.
4. Use to prepare your taxes. It is the Czech TurboTax and you can navigate it with Google Translate open in another browser tab.
5. There are post offices open on Saturday, and the lines aren't that long in the morning.
6. If you owe taxes, you can make a direct bank transfer to the account information for your tax office. See more at How to pay taxes to Bank Accounts of the Czech Tax Offices.

Three other things to mention related to this subject:

1. The Czech Republic has a reciprocal agreement with the United States, in that if you pay social taxes here you can get credit in the U.S. This may be useful for someone making a substantial amount of money for multiple years, since you do not automatically get credit in the U.S. and it can boost your U.S. Social Security payments.

2. You still need to report the income earned in the Czech Republic on your U.S. taxes, as foreign earned income, if you are a U.S. citizen. If you make less that $80,000 U.S., you will not owe any U.S. taxes, and you can claim business expenses that will lower the net foreign earned income. So save your receipts even though you take the standard 60% deduction for Czech taxes!

3. I hopefully will remember to close my Czech živnostenský list before we leave. From my research, when having one for multiple years, self-employment fees are charged for the z-list on a quarterly basis. Since I would like to visit Prague many times after we depart post, I need to close my z-list so that I do not have a huge fine on our return!

Happy Taxing!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Easy, Weekend Fun with the Kids in Prague

The playground in the Vysehrad park complex

There are a lot of playgrounds in Prague, almost every neighborhood has one. Someone was clever enough to list many of them at the website Dětská Hřiště. One of our favorites is at the Vysehrad park complex. It has two zip lines, small and large, and structures built from wood. Another reason why we like it so much is that it is one stop in an easy weekend with the kids.

When we get an urge to get out and get some fresh air and sun, there is one circuit we enjoy that includes good food for us and fun playgrounds for the kids. Our route in the Vysehrad area has four parts that we try to include (but usually only get to three):

1. Náplavka Farmers Market
2. Playground
3. El Paisa, Mexican restaurant
4. Vysehrad Park Complex: Vysehrad website and Kids in Prague's Review

The Náplavka Farmers Market along the Vltava river bank takes place on Saturday morning. During the warmer months there is also a antique/used market that has some interesting finds. The highlights for us are Balkan food, fresh fried fish, new wine and fresh bread. A list of other farmer markets can be found on this website.

The girls love to feed the swans, ducks and pigeons at the market.

The playground next to the entrance of the farmer's market is great for toddlers and older kids. It has two sections and is covered in rubber flooring for any falls.

The last time we went there actually was chalk at the chalkboard. One of many fun weekends in Prague!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Ski Week at Lipno Lake

Lipno Lake Resort's Kid's Ski Park

Most of the international schools in Prague have a week off in February for skiing. At Park Lane International it is given the official title of "Half-term Break," but it really is a time to take advantage of the great skiing in the region. Many head to Germany, Austria and Italy, where there are fantastic resorts. One is the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in Germany, an all-inclusive U.S. military recreation facility that U.S. Foreign Service overseas has access to. The lodge fills up quickly and far in advance for school holidays.

Since this Florida native needed to take her time getting back her ski legs, and Sicily is learning, we decided to head to the Lipno Lake Resort in the Czech Republic, where they have a kid's ski park with instructors, chair lifts, and three easy blue runs. The resort was developed and is run by a Dutch company, so there is an international crowd with Dutch, German, Austrian and Italian visitors. It is about a 3 hour drive (in good weather) South of Prague, on the Austrian border.

There are actually two places to stay: the Lipno Lake Resort, closer to the ski park and Landal Marina Lipno, closer to the man-made lake. We have stayed at both and found them to be relatively equal. What is more important is how far away your assigned apartment is from the kid's park and lift than which company you choose. 

Some of the benefits of the Lipno resort include: relatively short drive from Prague, great ski instruction for kids, activities for kids besides skiing, proximity to Cesky Krumlov and Linz, relatively reasonable in price, and if you are VAT exempt - you get VAT refunded! There are two other ski resorts nearby, so if you get bored of the runs at Lipno, you can move to another park.

Since this is the region for fantastic skiing, if you are looking for something more challenging or luxurious, I suggest looking to Austria and Italy. There are only two small red runs at Lipno resort, so if you are more advanced, you may be easily bored. The accommodations are IKEA-like furnished apartments. They provided a crib and high chair. There are several restaurants and a grocery store at the resort. You can also arrange for an daily order of fresh bread.

Preferred mode of transport for the kids

While we were there, it snowed almost every day so we were able to shuttle the kids around on sleds. They built snowmen and Sicily was able sled down hills after skiing. It wasn't cold enough to skate on the lake this year, but we were able to last year. You can rent ski and skate equipment at the resort.

The best part of Lipno resort is the ski instruction for kids. After a half hour in the kid's park, Sicily's instructors had her up the chair lift and down the blue runs. By the end of the week, she and Joseph were catching some air off the moguls in the snow park on the back runs. She had two instructors during the week and they both were excited to have a native English speaker. They are used to having German, Dutch or Austrian kids and speaking English to them as the common language. Joseph had lived in Kansas as an exchange student, so he was very excited to practice his American English.

Snow park with moguls on one of the runs

From the top of one of the blue runs

It snowed almost everyday so there was fresh powder

There were a lot of kids on the slopes. It can be a little frustrating for a beginning adult skier to see all these little kids zoom by you with no fear. I kept telling myself that they have a lower center of gravity, right? I was so impressed with the parents teaching their kids. There is this seat-belt type device that you can strap on the child and help them turn left or right, while you ski behind them. In about two years, Sicily will be using it on me!

The runs at the back of the resort

Lifts through the trees

Sicily sledding

On the toboggan run

The toboggan run

One of three playgrounds at the resort, still fun in snow!

Trampoline jumping

We took two side trips, one to Linz about an hour away and another to Cesky Krumlov, about thirty minutes away. Another fun trip is to the original Budweiser brewery in České Budějovice.

We had to eat Linzer torte, from Linz

A side trip to Cesky Krumlov

We went back to this restaurant in Cesky Krumlov for the beans, yum!

Our drive home after all of the snow fall.

We were behind three trucks on the largest road in the Czech Republic, yikes!