Feb 27, 2012

Getting a visa

This getting a visa issue has been on our minds since the first days of planning this overseas move and was one reason we eventually chose Czech Republic over Germany. Germany was not so easy, but the Czech rules offered some options. It turned out we could apply for a trade license or attend language school and qualify for a 1 year visa. We first planned on applying before we left the US, but after lots of time spent trying to find out exactly what was required, it was going to be better to apply once we arrived. We needed to show a local address, health insurance etc.

It was a bit complicated and we started considering not applying for a visa, which meant we'd have to leave the Schengen Zone of European countries every 90 days. After some back and forth, we decided with 3 little kids, we wanted to have the option to stay put a little more often. So, we hired a guy who handled all the paperwork and translation to help through the process. There were lots of bits of paperwork, several meetings with our guy Richard, and some hoops to jump through, but it was a mostly straight forward process. Finally after a month of prep, we were on our way to Berlin to apply at the embassy. Yes, a bit inconvenient... we had to be out of the country to apply for the visa.

By this time, we were coming up on 90 days within the Schengen Zone and even though we were in the process of getting the visa, we still had to leave for a few weeks to be within the rules. So, we'd barely settled in, but was time for a trip. Closest options were England or Croatia. We'd recently traveled Croatia and never see the English countryside so that's where we were headed.

It was a 4 hour train trip from Prague to Berlin. Train travel is actually pretty great with the kids. That is if we can travel light and get a private compartment like this. I was pretty impressed with us, we packed for the five of us for a month in 2 bags and 1 diaper bag/backpack. We brought books, crayons, uno cards, activity books, 2 baby dolls, and no other toys and they didn't seem to miss them.

We were there before we knew it.

Train versus car is especially nice with a baby as I can feed/change him whenever I need to and don't have to find a place to stop the car. Collin was very content on the train.

And, Jeff loves trains, he can sit and relax with a beer watching the country go by instead of driving.

This is the view from our apartment in Berlin for a few nights. It was especially impressive in person. You could see the old clock towers interspersed with modern buildings and the huge tv tower, making a very interesting skyline.

We stayed in that night and cooked dinner, waiting for the next day to explore the city. First on the agenda though was our appointment at the embassy. It was a few short rides on the metro and we were at the Czech embassy, waiting for our turn. The kids were pretty patient for awhile being entertained with the various travel brochures on the counter. But, it was appearing to be a long wait so I took them outside. They ran around the grounds for awhile and eventually discovered a small playground behind some bushes, which was helpful killing some time.

It was a relief to have that process finally behind us. Now we could enjoy Berlin and get on with our trip. Here is a section of the Berlin Wall, something I'd always wanted to see. I tried to explain the significance of it to the kids, but it was mostly beyond their interest level. The bright graffiti was interesting to them though and it was a fun place to run around.

Next stop, the famous Brandenburg Gates.

We then walked back to our apartment stopping at a few playgrounds on the way. Pretty full few days and then it was time to get back on the train and head south the Wurzburg. We were going to stay at our friend Tani's house and hopefully buy a car.

Jan 5, 2012

Our new place - "An American is moving to Prague 10?"

We planned a month in Prague 1 (the old town city center) to get to know the place and make sure we wanted to stay a year before committing to anything long term. The city is divided into 10 sections and to me on first impression seems to sprawl out forever. Amazing how your perspective changes when you are on foot or using public transport rather than driving. Jeff says its really not that big compared to other big cities.

I'm starting to get used to it and I think once I really get to know the metro system, I'll start to like the change from packing the kids in and out of carseats. We are shopping for a car, but I think it'll be long time before I brave driving in the city. Cars drive right next to the speeding metros and maneuvering around them would make me really nervous.

So, our plan was to rent a place for a year, but travel around 4-6 months of it. There are quite a few websites listing apartments in English (I guess they are used to dealing with expats) and Jeff spent lots of time scouring the listings. The only problem turned out to be getting people to return a phone call during the holidays. Sure, you'd expect places to close down for a few days, but this is one of those cultural differences. Europeans get an average of 6 weeks of vacation time a year not 2 like us Americans. And, come to find out, Czechs seem to not really use voicemail!

In the end, we only got to actually see 3 apartments out of the many we'd considered. Our basic wish list included 3 bedrooms, elevator (our first place had 5 flights of stairs with no elevator), close to grocery store, metro, parks, some option for parking, be in a decent area, and of course price... So, as is always the case you face the tradeoff of location vs. price and size. We kept debating; spend more for something near the beautiful old town or save some money in the budget for travel... and did we really want to live in the midst of so many tourists anyway?

We didn't know this new area very well. Its about 10 minutes by metro from the center and is known as (Prague 10 or Vršovice). It appears to be where the city starts to change over from the colorful, ornate 19th century buildings to the newer soviet era construction. Our building lies on the more beautiful side, but is across the street from a huge towering, relatively stark soviet era church. It might not have been exactly the location we'd envisioned, but it is interesting and I'm feeling inspired to investigate the history of the area. I think we'll appreciate being outside the tourist area and immersing a bit in a real neighborhood. Yes, the owner of the building said "Americans are moving to Prague 10?" Apparently he had rented to plenty of expats, owning several buildings in the area, but never to Americans. Yet, we are right nearby areas where plenty of Americans have moved. We are in the "undiscovered and up and coming area".

Our building; nice architectural detail with little market, middle eastern food, and women's clothing store downstairs. You'll notice graffiti around everywhere, even in the really nice areas. I've yet to figure why they don't seem to do much to enforce it or clean it up. Its a bit shocking at first, but you kind of get used to it.

This is the view from our place.

Our street has a great woodfired pizza restaurant, a toy store, a drug store, a Czech restaurant, and quite a few other little restaurants and stores.

We just loved the apartment and felt at home there right away. It is on the top floor of the building, has rustic beams throughout, two stories, 3 bedrooms, 2 baths. For $850 a month. A great price we think and leaves extra room in the budget for travel, classes for the kids, whatever. It had the amenities we needed; walking distance to a huge grocery store, mall, across the street from a park and nearby several others. Near a beer garden, park with vineyards and tons of restaurants. And just walk outside to the metro. We decided to go for it and sign a 1 year lease.

We've moved in and are so far really enjoying the place. I love the space for the kids. Its amazing that this space seems to work better for us than the big house we'd designed and built ourselves. Being spread out over 3 floors and 3000 square feet was actually too much. And, a big difference has been the lack of a big screen tv as the centerpiece of the living room. It was just too easy with it right there to be turned on too often. I am so happy to see how the have quickly forgotten all about it and are finding so many other ways to entertain themselves.

Now, we have an open area with toys and we bought a new big table and chairs to have plenty of room for projects and all of us. The girls have the whole upstairs loft to themselves which is divided into 3 rooms, but they wanted to share a room. Their beds are next to each other and so far this is working fine. Nice for me when its story time. Jeff has a separate area to work so he's not in the living room trying to work amidst the noise of the kids.

I even have my own work area. I haven't had my own space like this for a long time, its so nice!

The girls, watching the snow come down. This was the most snow we've seen since we've been here. It snowed for a few hours, but melted quickly. No shoveling!

Waiting for the elevator, which is amazingly slow to reach our top floor. Necessary though when I have the heavy stroller.

People in our neighborhood have been so nice! Every time I look like I'm struggling with carrying something or folding our heavy mega stroller, someone seems there to help. We've visited plenty of parks during our time here but during our first visit to the one across the street, we met a really nice mom. We exchanged numbers and she invited us to English mommy & me classes she goes to. I took it as a good sign about the neighborhood.

No, our street isn't as posh as the old town city center, but I'm starting to enjoy its quirkiness and unique little shops. Apparently its one of the few areas in town that still offers mom and pop butcher, bakery etc and hasn't succumbed to the competition from big box retailers. I like that if I decide I need something, I can just walk downstairs and find a good selection of produce, eggs, milk, wine, etc. and that I don't have to get on the metro with groceries.

Its only been a few weeks, but we're enjoying it here and can't wait to explore more of the city.

Dec 26, 2011


We'd been talking about wanting to experience the Christmas markets in Europe for a few years now. Having not yet experienced them in other cities, I'm pretty sure Prague's old city offers what we were hoping for. The main square in the old city is really spectacular with this huge towering church surrounded by brightly colored historic buildings. At night, its especially impressive. So, its a perfect setting for Christmas markets with a huge tree surrounded by little stalls selling food, drinks and handicrafts.

I love the hot mulled wine you can buy all over town and sip while you walk through the winding cobblestone streets. The girls love the sweet breads and sausages.

While the city is festive and fun to explore, I admit, I had a few moments where I was having trouble remembering this and was focusing on what we were missing; (friends, family, and a home with Christmas traditions we knew.) We'd spent several Christmas's away from home before when we'd lived aboard our sailboat and traveled and I loved it, but it was different now with kids. This is now our 4th Christmas as parents and I guess I'm still trying to figure out what traditions we want to stick with to make the holidays special for them. How many gifts are appropriate without spoiling them? How far do with take the whole Santa thing? What should we do this Christmas in a new city to really make the most of this experience.

So, I thought about these things without a lot of clarity while Christmas was soon approaching. Then, one morning I came across some quotes about gratitude and they really helped me refocus.

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow." Melody Beattie

This Christmas was a subtle reminder to be grateful for what we have. The five of us were together and relatively healthy, if you don't count some coughs and sniffles which seem to plague us every Christmas no matter where we are. We had basically what we had envisioned, a new city to explore and the freedom to create any kind of Christmas we wanted. We could escape all the typical obligations and keep things simple.

So, I let go of any preconceived notions about what I thought Christmas should be and appreciated the little things. I realized that this Christmas wasn't magical because of loads of presents, but because of an experience that we were having together. That this would live in our memories longer than a Christmas at home.

Thus, our holiday unfolded... We'd first thought we didn't need to get a Christmas tree, that we'd enjoy holiday decorations in the city instead of at home. Embrace this new city life... But, we'd seen the tree lot at IKEA and Brooke insisted we had to return to get a tree. Jeff said it was a bit of work to carry it on metros and by foot through the city, but if that's what Brooke wanted, that's what we'd do. I'm glad we did, it gave us the opportunity to spend time making decorations, and really went a long way in making our little apartment feel 'Christmasy'.

We attempted to make some Christmas cookies realizing too late that we had no measuring tools. So, these were by far the least attractive and least tasty Christmas cookies I've ever made, but the girls had fun.

Christmas traditions in Czech Republic involve many of the same things as home; getting together with family and presents. But traditional Christmas Eve dinner is quite different. Fried carp and potatoes are the typical fare and big tubs of carp, a freshwater fish begin to scatter the city the week before Christmas. Many people buy a whole fish and let it swim in the bathtub to stay fresh till its time to cook it for the family, but you can request a certain amount to be fileted and chopped to your needs as well. Brooke was fascinated by seeing the tubs of large fish and watching the men remove them with a net to be chopped. So, while at first we weren't too excited about fish for Christmas dinner, we finally decided that we had to take part in the tradition. However, unfortunately we waited too long and Christmas Eve is apparently too late to go out and get carp. The city was pretty quiet by then as people are already home cooking and celebrating.

So, this part of the holiday didn't quite go as planned. We decided to head out in the city and see if we could get in a restaurant. There were quite a few open, but after walking the city and stopping for a drink, Savannah was not in the mood. She'd been fighting a cold and at 2 1/2 is at an age where sometimes she is great without a nap and some days she is not. So, as traveling with 3 young kids goes, we have to stay flexible and do the best we can. We headed back to the apt. for a night in, had whatever was in the fridge for dinner and went to bed early.

The details about Santa or St. Mikulas, as he is known here, got a bit blurry. I'm starting to admire the parents that keep that magic alive for so long. Last year I remember Brooke asking, why Santa used the same wrapping paper we had. (Come on mom... make a little effort, these kids are too smart.) She didn't ask a lot of questions this year, which was good.

Savannah woke first and even though we first pointed her toward the tree saying. "Look, its Christmas, you have presents!" She looked mildly interested and said, "yes, but look, baby brother is awake!" As I was hoping, our Christmas was simple and they enjoyed the few gifts for each other as much as their own.

The girls loved their box of projects and it kept them busy most of the day.Jeff wrapped up things like tape and glue sticks and he was right, they were just as excited about those as any other toys.

So, Christmas morning was like I hoped. We opened presents, made Czech Christmas bread French toast casserole. The girls crafted and then we all got dressed to go out to lunch.

Despite the very crooked tree with half finished homemade decorations, I was happy with the Christmas pic of the three of them.

We found a place nearby that Jeff had been eying which was advertising honey ribs. Without over-planning it, this happened to be our favorite meal out yet. The girls were patient for a long lunch and the food was great. After a few beers, we were feeling pretty relaxed and content with our Christmas day.

Note to self for the new year... Stop worrying so much! Things will work themselves out just the way they are supposed to.

Dec 19, 2011

First week in Prague

Its been a week now in Prague; a big city, in a new country where we don't know a single person. Its exciting and the city is as beautiful as I'd remembered it. We'd last been here 4 years ago, when Brooke was a baby and I remember it exceeding my expectations.

Our apartment for the first month was pretty much as we'd expected from the pictures and we settled in pretty easily. This is the living room/office area.

This is the room the girls will share for now. Its even pink! One of our first outings was to the nearby IKEA where the girls could pick out a duvet cover they liked to make their room feel their own.

I think we brought plenty of books and toys, I'm even thinking we brought too many sometimes and they end up either scattered around or not even used that much.

And, just like at home, we seem to spend most of our time in the kitchen.

The biggest challenge has been jet lag/sleeping issues with the kids. We'd brought them to Europe a year ago and after a few tough nights, we seemed to have adjusted, but this time a week later, Savannah was waking up at midnight, saying she's hungry and isn't tired. No matter how much we try to wear her out and feed her during the day, I guess her body is still stuck in CA time and it was affecting all of us. Collin was also having some challenges, I was so tired! We were sleeping crazy hours and places...

Despite lack of sleep the first week, we've been getting out each day to walk the city, find a new playground, and go out to lunch. This continues to be our daily routine for now. With three kids, by the time we get through the morning routine and bundle up to get out the door its usually at least 10:30, so this makes a pretty full day for us.

We'd brought this big stroller for Collin, but eventually realized that letting the girls use it for long walks and me carrying Collin in the frontpack was the best way to get around.

Getting around town will continue to take getting used to for me. The city is so big and especially here in the old town the little cobblestone streets are not straight and easy to navigate. Jeff has no problem, but he has spent time studying the maps and has a general knack for this. Still, he is continually saying how much he loves the map app on his phone, which shows the photo/gps tracking and makes navigating easy. He's going to set this up on my phone, hopefully it helps. I am definitely directionally challenged.... Then there is the metro system, which I suppose I'll get used to.

One thing we are definitely loving is the price to go out to restaurants. There are no shortage of awesome places to eat here around the city center and they cost about 1/2 what they would at home. Beer/wine prices are even better with beer running $1 to $1.30, wine about $1.50 a glass. So, we can go out and enjoy ourselves and not worry, which is a nice change from home.

The girls are finding plenty they like, sausages, schnitzel, croquettes, pastries, pizza, and of course Europe wouldn't be complete without Nutella.

One thing that had swayed our choice from other locations we were considering was the amount of things for kids in Prague. There is a website called www.kidsinprague.com which has an extensive list of indoor and outdoor playgrounds, swimming pools, kid friendly restaurants (meaning places with play areas in the restaurant, almost unheard of at home if you don't count McDonalds...), activities, classes etc. We have visited a different playground everyday since we've been here and still haven't seen them all.

These indoor places are awesome, some even offer babysitting for a relatively small fee, so the kids can play while we shop or dine. So easy and so nice to get a break once in a while!

So, I think the kids are adjusting pretty well. Savannah had been asking to go home, but seems to have put that behind her and is feeling at home again here.

Collin is really growing so fast and is so sweet. The girls literally love him to pieces and can't leave him alone. He usually loves the attention and only once in awhile they take it too far... I still have to keep an eye on them.

So, overall its a good start to our adventure over here. I'm trying to be patient and remember it takes time to feel settled in any new place, despite being a completely different culture.

Dec 18, 2011

We made it!

After months of preparation and anticipation, we left the house in Big Bear Lake CA, which we'd spent years building, possibly for the last time. It could likely sell before we returned and Jeff may or may not return to move stuff. I wasn't sure how this would feel when the time actually came. It could be that I was relieved to not be packing and preparing to move, but leaving the house and driving to the airport felt amazing. I felt such freedom, like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. A felt an excitement that we could reinvent our lives and ourselves. It did feel strange, I remember thinking, we can't just move across the world because we feel like it, who does that? But, we were actually doing it.

I had to just try not to dwell on the people we'd be leaving behind. I was going to miss my family and friends, who I didn't know when we'd be seeing again. I guess it helped to remember when we left on the sailing venture and returned, knowing we'd see them again one day and pick up where we left off.

Well, Savannah was asking to go home and Brooke was asking if we were there yet about 5 minutes into the drive, but otherwise our 24 hour trip from California to Prague Czech Republic went amazingly well. Our friends helped us get ourselves and our 10 large duffel bags of stuff to LAX.

Thanks to the help of a nice airport bag guy (what are they called?), we got all the luggage and ourselves to the check in counter. It took forever to check in, they weren't sure how to handle our one way tickets and eventually ended up requiring us to buy return tickets (fully refundable).

The wait in the airport went quickly, the girls looked so cute carrying their own little carry-on luggage... So, relatively speaking, the overnight flight was great. All three kids slept almost the entire flight and I even watched most of a movie and slept a bit. Nothing like some previous flights which were incredibly tedious and long trying to keep the kids entertained. We then spent a 6 hour layover at London Heathrow. We decided it would be worth the money to pay $100 for the 5 of us to spend the time in the lounge, which had free food, drinks and several different rooms to relax in. The kids room was smaller than we'd expected but we had it to ourselves and it was just enough for the girls to relax on beanbags, watch tv, and play.

The rest of the time in the airport was fine and before we knew it, it was time to board a short 1.5 hour flight to Prague. The girls slept again and although Savannah woke up pretty cranky, we were all in pretty good spirits when we finally arrived in Prague. It was late and the airport was empty, which was worrisome at first because we weren't sure if we'd be able to load all the luggage by ourselves. It didn't seem possible at first, but finally with Jeff pushing two carts and me pushing one and the luggage tied together so it wouldn't fall off, we made it the short distance where fortunately our van and driver were waiting.

I'd worried that us and everything wouldn't fit in the van, but it did, barely...The driver was really friendly, spoke great English and sounded like he even might be a good prospect for the transportation we needed for the tour business. We eventually entered the old town city center. Seeing the amazing architecture and castle lit up on the hill was really quite beautiful.

Fortunately the driver helped Jeff carry our 10 50 pound bags up the 5 flights of stairs to our apartment. Even with help, Jeff said he felt like he was going to keel over after that. So, we'd done it, the trip was behind us, now to settle in.