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.