Tuesday, May 29, 2007

TV in Prague

Many people have asked me if I've been able to keep up with American TV and pop culture while in Prague. The answer is a definite YES! Technology advances in recent years have made it easier than ever to stay up-to-date while living overseas. Let me explain.

Before I moved to Prague, I bought a Slingbox for my father. (For those of you who have never heard of it before, a slingbox is a device that hooks up to our cable box and your Internet connection. It let's you view the TV from any computer in the world. You even have access to the remote control and recorded shows. Read a review here.)

My father doesn't watch much TV and travels even less, so a Slingbox may not seem like the perfect gift for him. But, he has been kind enough to let R and I tap into his slingbox whenever we want to in order to watch and record any American show that we want. You may think that this is the most selfish gift I have ever given anyone, but I'm sure R would disagree with you.

Anyway, the Slingbox has been an life changing invention for us. We moved to Prague half way through the TV season and didn't miss a beat with any of our favorite shows. We're up to date on Lost, The Sopranos, Entourage and The Office. R was even able to watch all episodes of American Idol - although she had to do this first thing in the morning to make sure she didn't find out the results.

Although I can't say enough good things about Slingbox, it still isn't perfect. here are some of th issues we faced:

1) While it's very cool to watch TV on a computer, it kind of sucks to watch TV on a computer. I'm around computers all day at work, the last thing I want to do is go home and bask in the radiation of another LCD monitor. It makes it even harder when R and I want to watch the same thing at the same time. Have you ever tried to position two people on a couch with a laptop sitting at just the right angle to make viewing equally enjoyable for both parties? It's not possible.

To get around this, I tried to output the video display of my laptop to the TV that came with the apartment (circa early 1990s). I'll spare you the gory details of trying to hook up an S-Video output into a SCART input, but it didn't work so well. I could see the picture 50% of the time but all shows were in Black & White. This was great when I wanted to watch Leave It To Beaver reruns, not so great for everything else.

I played with this setup for about a week and finally gave up. Much too unpredictable and not worth the hassle. I ended up buying a projector that is supposed to be used for business meetings. The laptop plugs right into it - just like you would a normal monitor. It was a little bit more than I wanted to spend but the results are - in a word - FANTASTIC. The picture must be the equivalent of a 96 inch television screen. Every time I turn on the TV it's like going to a Drive-In movie theater. I'm not sure if I should focus on the TV show or try to get to second base with my wife. Everyone should own a personal projector at least once in their life.

2) The quality of the video in Slingbox isn't great. Back in New York, I was the kind of guy that owned an HD-TV before HD content was even available. I'm used to watching all of my prime-time TV in the clearest picture imaginable.

Watching a TV show on slingbox is kind of like that - except the exact opposite. It's kind of like when you come home after a night of drinking and try to watch TV before you go to bed. You can make out most of the content, but the picture is pretty blurry. Sports is the major problem. I can see basketball players running up and down the floor and I can see them shooting the basketball, but once the ball leaves their hand I can't tell if it's gone in the basket or not. I have to judge by the players reaction.

3) Our Prime Time televison viewing occurs at approximately 3:00 PM EST in the afternoon (six hour time difference). There is not a lot of great programming on at this time. It means we have to pre-record every show we want to watch or become big fans of Judge Judy. We choose the former option.

When you have to pre-record every show you want to watch, it makes you ask some questions about yourself that you may not want answered. For example, when I lived in New York you could have asked me if I watched How I Met Your Mother and I would have responded negatively. It wasn't a show I watched, I just happened to be sitting on the couch with the channel turned to CBS at 9:00 PM on Mondays. Now that i live in Prague, the show made my season pass list. What does that say about me?

You also miss those random saturday shows - such as My Super Sweet Sixteen and Made - that nobody admits watching but everyone secretly enjoys. There is no way in hell I would ever record those shows, but I must admit that my TV diet is missing a bit of the fat that it used to have and I used to enjoy.

Despite the problems mentioned above, the slingbox experience has been great. I even have a few backup plans in place in case I miss a show, it doesn't record, or someone in Cleveland "accidentally" changes the channel during a climactic scene in Lost. I won't go into them all now, but visit the site http://www.tv-links.co.uk and you won't be disappointed.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Week in Paris

R and I recently got back from a week in Paris. I was there for a conference, but we decided to extend the trip and take some vacation as well.

There is not much you can write about Paris that hasn't been said before. So I won't go on and on telling you what an amazing and beautiful city it is. You already know that. I will, however, give you some of my own unique thoughts.

This was the second time that R and I have been in Paris together. The first time was in 2000. I have to say that our recent trip was much more pleasurable than the first. It's not that we had a bad time on our first trip - because we certainly enjoyed it - we just thought the city was a little shady. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we first arrived to Paris at the train station (via London). It does not leave a good first impression.

We've also become more experienced travelers in the last 7 years. We're not the wide eyed, bushy tail young kids we once were. I think that makes us get along a little easier in a place such as Paris - which is not known for the being very friendly to international travelers. We've learned to fit into the culture a little better than we may have in the past.

Finally, this vacation was much more relaxed. During our first trip to Paris, we felt the need to see every landmark possible. Go to the top of the Eiffel Tour. Check. Go to the Louvre. Check. See the Arc de Triomphe. Check. etc.

On this trip, we didn't have an agenda. We just walked around the city and did what we felt like doing. We did a few touristy things, but we did it at our own pace. For example, we went to Versailles, but didn't rush to go through each room in the palace. Instead, we brought our own food and had a picnic in the park on the grounds. We went to the Louvre on our last day, but just saw a few noteworthy exhibits and left after a few hours.

All in all it was a great trip and I definitely hold Paris in a higher regard than I once did.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

RETIRED.....by Raffy Tasca

The dream goal has always been to retire at the age of 45-50 and then frolic and travel the world, but having accepted the offer to relocate to Prague also meant EARLY RETIREMENT!

Yes, after working 10 years and 10 months at the Millennium Broadway Hotel in NYC.. I am now unemployed although I like the sound of "retired" better... AGE 33!

So what the hell do I do with myself now...hmmm... well, I made a long list of some of the things that I want to do although some of them get done real fast like... "sew the two buttons on my black jacket" so my list already has a few completed tasks which I seem to feel proud of yet, all I did was sew a button!

Another item on the list is "Become a Spinning instructor" but then I ask myself how likely can I get hired here speaking English only and not the wonderful language of Czech (sarcasm obviously).... as N mentioned before it's really not a pretty language.

Also on my list is to "start looking for a new job" ...... now here is the depressing part. N works in Prague as an EXPAT and so is paid in US dollars with a US salary..... I on the other hand would be hired as a "local" which means...............local currency! To give you an idea of how little jobs pay here....I am striving to make what I made as a management trainee in NYC in 1996 which was $24,000.00 a year! Yah.

So.... do I get a job or do I continue working on my list?

You feedback and comments are greatly welcome....

Raffy :)


Friday, May 11, 2007

Learning Czech

Dobre den!

Jak se mas.


After living in Prague for 3 months, the above statements represent the extent of my Czech language knowledge. Rand I take a lesson every week (well, almost), but the learning has been pretty slow going.

When I was in New York, I never understood how people could live in the US and not speak English. There were so many different ethnic communities in NYC that many people can get by without speaking a single word of English. I always said that if I lived in a foreign country, I would make sure to learn the native language.

Now... I might be making a liar out of myself. In an ideal world, I would love to speak Czech, but there are a few big hurdles that I cannot get over.

1) Everyone in Prague speaks English. All restaurant workers speak English, all store workers speak English, people in the park speak English, etc. When everyone speak English to you, there is little incentive to learn Czech. I went to a restaurant for lunch today and tried to order in Czech - but the guy responded back to me in English. Honestly, if they're not going to work with me, what's the point of trying.

The only person I can't communicate with is my maid. She doesn't speak a word of English. But, you know what, my maid in New York didn't speak much English and we got along fine. I don't see this is a problem. It makes me feel less guilty when I ask her to wash my underwear.

2) I would learn Czech if I thought it would be a useful skill to have. But, once I leave Prague, it's a pretty useless language. There is only about 5 Million people in this world that speak the language. I'd probably be better off learning Klingon - it has a bigger following.

3) Czech is not exactly a romance language. At least with Italian, French, etc. - you're learning a beautiful language. Something that will impress the co-eds if the need ever arises (not that it would - I'm just saying). I think I'll be offending no one when I say that the Czech language is very hard on the ears. Think of Borat doing an impression of Cookie Monster - and you should get a good sense of what the average Czech conversation sounds like.

All of these factors make it very difficult to get motivated to learn Czech. We'll continue our weekly lessons, but I'm not expecting to become a master any time soon.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

My Dog is My Training Partner

With R in New York this week, it's been just me & B alone in Prague. That means I'm stuck with almost all of the daily walks. That includes the walks at 7:00 AM, 6:30 PM and 11:00 PM. Fortunately, the hot landlord that works across the hall has been kind enough to take Bauer on his lunch time walk.

We've found that tired dog is a good dog - so we try to give B as much exercise as possible. It just makes him easier to manage during the rest of the day. That being said, I've tried a new tactic this week with Bauer. Instead of just taking him on his regular walks, I've been taking him on some runs with me.

Regular readers of this blog (or, as I like to call you, Mom) will know that I've been suffering through an injury the last couple of months. I've had a self-diagnosed stress fracture in my lower right leg. Although its self-diagnosed - I'm 90% sure it is a stress fracture. R thinks it is a mild bruise. One of us is obviously way off base but, regardless, I haven't been able to do any seriousness running for the last 3-4 months.

I started running again this week and the leg is holding up well. Since I am relatively out of shape, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to transform B into my training partner. The results have been mixed, at best. Here are some random observations:

  • Five minutes into every run, B has to stop and take a poop. This is not the kind of behavior I'm looking for in a training partner. It makes it difficult to get into a rhythm. I used to have a similar problem; a problem I coined the "Five Mile Dilemma". Whenever I went for a run, I would get a certain rumbling in my stomach right around the five mile mark. I had an important decision to make - either keep on running and take the risk or make a beeline for the nearest toilet and scrap the rest of the run. Hence the name "Five Mile Dilemma". I'm happy to report that I always chose the right option and eventually grew out of this habit as I became a more seasoned runner. I'm hoping B does the same.

  • B is much faster running up hills than I am. On a flat surface, he is marginally faster than me. He can always catch me, but I usually put up a good challenge. Not so on hills. He can get up the hills twice as fast as me (we have plenty of very steep hills in the park nearby). I've even tried to stand at the bottom of the hill and throw his ball as far in the other direction as possible. As soon as he takes off for the ball, I sprint up the hill. The hill takes about a minute for me to get up and by the time I reach the top, B is waiting for me ball in mouth. I can't explain this disparity.

  • B thinks he's in good shape, but he doesn't have the heart of a champion. Earlier in the week I was doing hill repeats, where I sprint up to the top of the hill, jog down very lightly and then sprint to the top again. It's an absolute killer workout. I started doing these runs and at first B was with me every step of the way - following me up and down the hill. After about 5 runs, B was apparently done. He stood in front of me barking and tried to bite me as I ran up the hill. It was his way of telling me to stop. I had planned on doing 10 runs that day but had to stop after 8. When we got to the top after #8, B had enough and started throwing up chunks. He obviously couldn't take the training and was worked to the point of exhaustion. My training partner needs to learn how to pace himself better.

  • One thing I was surprised to learn about B is that he is really good at taking angles. Let me explain. I found a nice soccer field nearby that is fenced in. B and I hop the fence, I can take him off the leash and run some laps. B stays with me the first 2-3 laps but then gets bored and starts to sniff and wander. However, he gets nervous if I get too far out of sight. So, after stopping for 30 seconds or so, he'll sprint to come and catch up with me. The impressive part is that he doesn't sprint to where I currently am, but he takes an angle and sprints to where I'm going to be. My high school football coach tried to teach this technique to the defensive backs and it took them half the season to understand it. B knew it naturally coming out of the womb. Impressive

  • The fact that I go on training runs with my dog and devote an entire blog post to him should tell you the obvious - B is my absolute best friend in Prague. While that is pretty sad in itself, its even sadder when you realize I'm only 3 or 4 on his list.