Friday, January 25, 2013

Feeling just a tiny bit of stress

Today I'm going through my clothes, packing some away, getting rid of some, and considering a too-large pile to bring on our year-long Field Trip. I've been mentally preparing for this for days and also expounding to the kids on how they should approach the packing. "Think versatility!" I say. And someone usually says, "What's versatility?" just to bug me. Or Phin says, "Your mom thinks versatility." (That's his latest joke, putting "Your mom" at the beginning of every sentence someone says. Isn't he so funny?) The other words I'm thinking are "practical" and "comfortable" and "minimal." I think it actually helps me to get these words into my head, so I can be merciless in my choices. I've convinced myself that even if we can't quite manage to travel with only carry-on luggage, we will be happier if we limit our checked luggage as much as possible.

The idea of the eight of us dragging two carry-ons (I mean a carry-on piece and a "personal item") plus a checked bag each through airports, train stations, and various forms of public transportation sounds really bad. Let's do the math: that's 16 duffle bag/backpack size things and 8 giant suitcases! Not a good idea. So I'm shooting for three or so checked things for the whole family. We are bringing my acoustic guitar in a hard case, so that's one big piece, but at least it's pretty lightweight. We might also bring a monitor for Jon to use with his laptop for work. Other than that, I plan on the big (checked) suitcases having some extra clothes, shoes, and some toiletries. And a bunch of yarn that is going to be a sweater vest for Zed. It's funny that the yarn takes up more space than the vest will.

I look forward to a year with relatively little stuff, but it's kind of hard getting there. Like I hadn't thought of this before, but what do I do with the giant basket of single socks that I always keep, just in case I find the other one? I guess after all of the packing, I'll be throwing those away. Anyone want to make sock puppets?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

If you want to hear some Czech ...

Here's a five-minute video in Czech (with English subtitles) if you're interested in hearing the language we're trying to learn. It's a man's short but moving story about growing up Jewish in a town called Mukacevo:

I can't understand much of it, but I hear the numbers and a few other words. I'll keep trying! :)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Finding a place to live

One reason we bought our tickets to Prague back in September was that I knew there'd be many times along the way that I'd want to say, "Never mind. This is too hard." And I was right! But because we spent that money, I'm pretty motivated to overcome all the obstacles. Finding an affordable place for eight people to live in a big and popular city has been one of those obstacles.

First, an aside: I have no idea how anyone would do this without the internet! Huge phone bills, I guess?

Way back when we began scheming, I found some great-looking furnished places for rent in Prague that were very reasonable, well under the budget we'd decided on. It turns out that those places were for long-term rent, of course, and the possibilities for shorter term rental are much more expensive. Jon and I agree that it might be a good thing that we allowed ourselves to be misled in that area. There's a very fine line between going and not going (as I've mentioned before and will certainly mention again and again), and if we had seen the real prices back then, we would have been very discouraged.

There are a lot of great places you can rent in and around Prague. For example, there's a beautiful apartment right on the Old Town Square (where you find the Astronomical Clock, the Jan Hus statue, and Týn Church) that sleeps 12 people, but it's €3,000 a month (nearly $4000), even in the low season. There's also a great hostel near the square that has small apartments. Our family could get two of them (each sleeps four) for about $3000 a month. These places are a great deal compared to hotels, but for longer-term rental, not an option for us.

There are many real estate companies with an internet presence, but most of their offerings are for short-term (nightly rates) and long-term (monthly rates based on year-long leases). One company cheerfully called Happy House Rentals has a section on their website for mid-term rentals (one to six month rentals), which is just right for us, but still, the prices were mostly too high and they don't seem willing to consider putting eight people in a house that is intended to sleep, for example, six. I'd be just fine cycling the kids between bed/couch/floor, but I didn't find anyone willing to let us do that. Jon and I briefly entertained the idea of getting two apartments in the same building -- it'd be a clever way to get two bathrooms (most apartments seem to have one bathroom) and Jon would have a more secluded place to work during the day. But in my exchanges with the agent at Happy House Rentals, she ended up finding only one suitable place available for our time period. It was at the very top of our budget limit (due in large part to a hefty broker fee) and was otherwise not ideal: 80 square meters (about 860 square feet), no washing machine, one bathroom, and the kitchen was a two-burner stove, a microwave and a tiny fridge (no oven). It did have a largish terrace, ten beds and looked very nice, though. I think we could have made it work.

Around the same time, I got a response from another real estate agent, who offered a choice between a couple of different apartments just off Wenceslas Square (a busy, central part of Prague). The prices were reasonable and they looked like student apartments -- not fancy at all, which did not bother me -- but almost immediately I found some scary reviews of some apartments on that same street (broken things! landlords steal money from longer-term renters and come in at all hours unannounced!). I had no proof that the offered apartments were the same ones reviewed, but it made me nervous.

Then, within a couple of days of that, we had a run-in with, apparently, a Nigerian scammer. He claimed to be a Czech citizen named Ashleigh Jones (sounds Czech, right?) who'd had to move suddenly, with his wife and children, to the U.K. to be a missionary. All he wanted was a God-fearing person who would take care of their ideal-sounding, inexpensive apartment while they were gone! While I was exchanging emails with "Ashleigh," I started to get phone calls from a Nigerian cell phone number (I never answered the calls). And the internet proved extremely useful yet again. It told us first that the foreign number was indeed Nigerian (and later that it was a cell phone number) and eventually it led us to some blog posts about other apartment-hunting people who'd had eerily similar emails. Different names and places, but most of the wording in the emails was very similar. Some of these people showed up at the place to be rented and encountered owners who had no idea that their home was being offered for rent on the internet. So that was a fun learning experience! And Jon and I now speak fondly of our friend, the Nigerian Prince. (Fortunately, there was no loss of money, just some time. It was all very entertaining and a complement to the many emails from Nigerian princes and honored and esteemed ladies who need to transfer a large sum of money to you right away, etc., etc.)

Well, we put things on hold for a few weeks. We met, via email, the leader of the local LDS congregation (in LDS talk, a branch), who also happens to be a real estate agent, and he told us we still had some time and could probably find something better for less money. I allowed (sometimes forced) myself to stop thinking about it while we got through Christmas. (I could write several blog posts about the anxiety that I experience around Christmas time, but I will spare you.) It was a much needed mental rest.

On Christmas day, I found a place on HomeAway.com (the parent company of vrbo.com, where our house is now listed) that looked promising to me, for some reason. (Both of these websites are for owners who rent out their own properties.) I wrote email to the owner and asked him about a possible monthly rate that would be significantly lower than his listed daily rates. Over the next couple of weeks, we exchanged lots of emails. Eventually, as we got closer to reserving the apartments (there are two! -- more details later), Jon called him on the phone. He refrained from asking him if he was a Nigerian Prince (by this time, I was 98% sure that this was a legitimate offer -- there are several very positive reviews on the website and he'd answered every question I asked him with nary a sign of fiction -- but it's hard to forget your first real run-in with a Nigerian Prince!), but it was good for them to talk and get more details over the phone. Long story short (I know, it's too late for that), we have the place reserved for two months beginning in February, and I'm relieved and glad.

The owner, Michal, and his wife and two children (close to the ages of Mira and Seth!) live on the ground floor. Michal and his wife are both multilingual, between them speaking Czech, English, German, Spanish, Italian, French, Slovak, and Russian! We will have the second floor apartment (2 bedrooms, beds for six, full kitchen, one bathroom) and a smaller apartment on the third floor (1 bedroom, beds for three, one bathroom, kitchenette). Between the two apartments we'll have 125 square meters (about 1345 square feet), and Jon will be able to work from the smaller apartment while the kids do school work in the bigger one.

The view from the larger apartment is of the nearby Břevnov Monastery, a Benedictine monastery founded in 993 AD. The monastery has its own website, but it's in Czech, German, French, and Latin and not in English. This is where I discovered that St. Margaret's Basilica, the cathedral at the monastery, has a new pipe organ in it, completed in 2007. It's a mechanical action pipe organ built like a German Baroque organ from Silesia (which is now in Poland). I'm very excited to hear it!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Maybe a little progress

Lillian and I had the following conversation today IN CZECH! Okay, I know it's not much of a conversation, but I'm a little bit pleased.

Lillian: I'd like to have lunch.

Me: With whom? Where?

Lillian: I'd like ... (runs away to ask Seth, who knows more than all of us about Czech vocabulary, how to say ...) ice cream!

Me: We don't have ice cream.

Lillian: But I'd like to have ice cream!

Me: We don't have ice cream!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Defenestrations of Prague

Did you know there's such a thing as the Defenestrations of Prague? I didn't until recently. I'd like to know how familiar the word "defenestration" is to everyone. I know what it means because of the German and French words for window -- "Fenster" and "fenêtre" -- but I can't tell if I'd know if I didn't know that.

From Wikipedia's entry on Defenestration:

The term originates from two incidents in history, both occurring in Prague. In 1419, seven town officials were thrown from the Town Hall, precipitating the Hussite War. In 1618, two Imperial governors and their secretary were tossed from Prague Castle, sparking the Thirty Years War. These incidents, particularly in 1618, were referred to as the Defenestrations of Prague and gave rise to the term and the concept.
How about that? An interesting way to demonstrate political outrage.

There are other incidents of defenestration, in Prague and elsewhere, listed in the Wikipedia entry on it.

Jon's insistence that we all study up on Czech language, culture, and history is proving to be fun and interesting!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Why we are going to Europe

The short answer is: Ultimate Home School Field Trip before the kids start leaving for college!

The ridiculously long answer follows.

I didn’t travel a lot growing up. When I was 12, my family started to take yearly (almost) vacations from our home in Ramona, California, up to Oregon, where many of my dad’s cousins had relocated over the years. When I was about 16, I think, we went to Utah and met those cousins at Lake Powell. One time when I was really young, we went down to Ensenada in Mexico with those same cousins. (I remember my dad taking me on my first motorcycle ride. I also remember speaking Spanish to someone, so maybe we went twice, once when I was little and once when I was in high school.)

When I went to BYU, Provo was about as far as I’d ever been from home. I started taking French, because my major required reading literature in at least one foreign language. I chose French because even though I’d taken four years of Spanish in high school, Spanish literature didn’t really interest me, and because the one day of Russian 101 that I took was terrifying.

Soon, a Comparative Literature professor suggested that I go to Vienna on study abroad. This idea had never occurred to me, but it was immediately appealing. It’s possible that I was a little flattered that he thought I should go, but I was also intrigued by the idea of going to Europe, though I hadn’t thought much about it before. I started taking German in addition to French. The language classes are one reason it took me kind of a long time to graduate! Lots of credits that didn’t fulfill any requirements for my major.

I tried to talk my parents into footing the bill for study abroad. I did not succeed. I think they were right to say no. But I kept on with German and French at BYU. And then, I was lucky enough to be called on a mission to Dresden, Germany, where I actually learned to speak one of the languages I’d been studying!

Fast forward (ha) to Jon and me, married and planning how we will live in Europe someday. Jon will work for an as-yet-unknown company that will conveniently transfer us and our kids and our stuff to an ancient, storied, European city, where we and our children will (of course) be bilingual or maybe even trilingual.

Well, that never happened. What did happen is that Jon eventually started working from home (it’s been ten years now!), we had a bunch of kids and started home schooling them. We lived in Virginia for 3 ½ years and then moved to Teton Valley, and somehow we’ve now been here for 8 years. The kids are involved in music lessons and classes, church, Scouts, etc. We’re busy and involved.

A few years ago, we revisited the idea of taking the family to Europe, but with Reality thrown in. We did some math and decided that the airfare for all of us would be way too expensive for anything shorter than a few months. At about the same time (2008), Jon had the opportunity to go to LinuxTag in Berlin for work and I got to go with him. We had a wonderful time — Berlin is a beautiful, friendly city, I discovered that I could still speak German, and we visited Dresden, Prague, and London briefly. Jon also discovered that going to a conference in Europe could be less expensive than some conferences in the U.S. We came up with the idea of Jon taking a European business trip opportunity every year or so (when possible) and taking one kid with him each time he went — the business part of Jon’s trip would be paid for by his company and we would pay for the kid.

In 2009, Jon took Zed, then age 13, to Berlin (where Jon helped staff a booth at the LinuxTag trade show) and Jena, Germany; Prague, Czech Republic; and Amsterdam on the way home. In August of 2011, Jon took our second oldest, Jacob, who was 14 at the time, to Riga, Latvia (where Jon spoke at the YAPC Europe Perl conference); Tallinn, Estonia; and Helsinki, Finland. They also happened to spend one night in Amsterdam on the way home.

Jon came home from that trip determined to move us all to eastern Europe.

At first, he proposed that we wait five years, because by then we’d only have three kids at home and it would be so much easier to find housing for five than for eight. But when I started thinking about actually living in Europe, I knew it would be too sad to go without our three oldest boys. We like them and I’d want to share it with them, too. Besides that, I’m pretty sure they would be mad at us if we took only the younger kids on a great adventure like that. So we decided it had to be soon, before Zed goes away to college. And thus our plan was born. We thought February of 2013 would be a good time to go—it would give us plenty of time to prepare and we could take advantage of cheaper, off-season airfare.

At first, we looked into moving to one place and putting the kids in local schools, but then we thought maybe moving to Europe and suddenly sending all of the kids to a public school in a foreign language might be a couple of huge changes too many. While Zed, Jacob, and Phin have been going to a few classes at our local high school, the younger kids have never been to any school and are pretty used to our home school routine, such as it is. We also thought at first that we would try to get a long-stay visa and move somewhere for good, but when we started looking into the paperwork for that and wondering if anyone would allow us to home school the kids (Europe is generally not friendly to home schooling), we moved onto the next idea: we could just use regular tourist visas (which require no special paperwork) that allow U.S. citizens to stay in the E.U. Schengen zone (their open borders area) for up to 90 days at a time. You can do a 90-day stay twice in a 12-month period, as long as you are outside Schengen for at least 90 days between stays. Countries outside of Schengen include Great Britain, Croatia (until probably 2014), Bulgaria (probably until sometime in 2013), Romania (also likely until sometime in 2013), Turkey, and several even further east. Jon is intrigued by Georgia right now, so maybe we’ll end up there for a while. Americans can stay in Georgia for up to a year without a visa.

Through some convoluted reasoning and speculation, we arrived at Prague, Czech Republic, as our starting point. I’ve been to Prague once, and Jon has been twice. It’s a very old and very beautiful city. When we stayed there in 2008, the hotel we stayed in was in a building that dated back to the 1400s. Down the street a ways was a church built in the 1200s. Unlike Dresden, Germany, where I spent nine months on my mission, and many other Western European cities, none of it had been bombed during World War II, so its antiquity remains.

One driving force behind our plans is that Jon really wants to learn another language. His degree from BYU is in Linguistics, and for that, he learned a little French, plenty of German, and a good amount of Hebrew. He has some familiarity with several other languages, as well, and is especially intrigued by Slavic languages, of which Czech is one. So we’ve been trying to learn Czech. We have been doing Pimsleur audio lessons (there are thirty half-hour lessons for Czech) and using a website called Memrise to learn as much as we can before we get there. (I highly recommend Memrise for lots of other things, too: other languages, geography, music theory, etc. It’s a great resource!) Learning the language is less important to me, but I don’t mind trying, and since the kids are under our control, we can force them! Mwahahahahaha! (That’s supposed to be an Evil Mastermind Laugh.)

Now that I’ve written all of that, I’m not even sure it answers the question. Why are we going to Europe? To live in some old cities, to walk more and get away from using cars (we’ll use public transportation over there), to hear some great music in beautiful cathedrals, to learn at least a little of some other languages, to get to know people from other cultures, to experience living in a smaller space than we’re used to, to see what the LDS Church is like far away from here, to learn some history by actually seeing it, to eat different food (great bread and cheese and of course chocolate!). To get out of our comfort zone.

Maybe I should have just written that last paragraph!