Monday, October 27, 2008

Blogs on a Plane

I am writing this blog while I am 30,943 feet in the air somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. I have no idea when I will actually post this blog, but rest assured that this is my first ever post on a plane.

R and I are heading to the States for my official “home leave” from work. I get one of these trips paid for by the company every two years. We have are taking a direct flight from Prague to Atlanta – then jumping on quick flight from Atlanta to Cleveland. There is just one small problem. Our plane left Prague about an hour late and the wind over the Atlantic isn’t helping us any.

Based on our current arrival estimate, we have 45 minutes to disembark the plane in Atlanta, go through customs, pick up our suitcases, take the underground shuttle in the airport, and get on the plane heading towards Cleveland. Right now I’m taking the optimistic approach that we will make our flight. R is being a pessimist and says that we have no chance.

Either way, I see this as a win-win situation. If we make the flight, then we make the flight and we arrive to Cleveland on time. Everybody is happy. But, if we miss the flight, we get to go to Chili’s for dinner!

I am a notorious hater of nearly all franchised restaurants. Don’t do Friday’s. Wouldn’t eat at a Benningan’s if lunch were free. Think the Cheescake Factory is over-hyped. And, I have an utter hatred for Applebee’s that is difficult to put into words (it goes back to some frozen vegetables in a pasta many moons ago that I can never and will never forget).

But, one of the only exceptions to the rule is Chili’s. I freakin’ love that place. Any time I am driving in suburban America I go out of my way to find a Chili’s restaurant. They don’t have a franchise in Manhattan, nor is there on in Prague, so I consider it a real treat when I get to go to one. As luck would have it, the Atlanta airport has a Chili’s in one of the terminals. If we miss our flight and are delayed by a few hours, you’ll know where to find me.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I am also fond of Outback Steakhouse. Apparently, my rating of the franchised restaurants is directly correlated to how good their jingle is. I haven’t seen these commercials in two years yet I still occasionally hum I want my baby back, baby back, baby back, etc. or Let’s go outback tonight…)

So now that I am on a plane I thought I would share with you, oh loyal blog readers, my three greatest fears in life. They are:

  • Peak Oil Theory

  • That I’ll die before the Browns win a Super Bowl

  • That I’ll be stuck on an airplane without something interesting to read

Honestly, those are pretty much the only things I worry about in life. And it’s not in that order. It’s not even close. I spend an ungodly amount of time making sure that I have adequate amount of reading material for my plane ride.

It’s not such a simple problem as making sure I have a book in hand before I leave the house for a flight. My narcosis runs much deeper than that. Here are all of the things I have to consider:

  • I never like to start a new book on a plane. There is too much risk involved. What if the book sucks or starts off too slowly? Ideally, I want to be in 2-3 chapters into a book before getting on the plane.

  • Just as I don’t like to start a new book on a plane, I can’t risk being too far along in my current book. Nothing worse than misjudging the number of pages that you have left and finishing the book with two hours remaining in the flight.

  • You could say that I could just bring another book, but that doesn’t work either. First, I don’t like having to bring extra books in my carry on. Unnecessary weight to lug around. Secondly, I don’t like finishing Book A and the immediately picking up Book B and starting to read it. It just becomes a big mush of words in your head. My rule of thumb is that you need a 24 hour break before finishing an old book and starting a new one.

  • The topic of the book is also critical and is directly tied to the destination. I’d say I read about 70% non-fiction (mostly business, strategy, technology and biographies/memoirs) and 30% fiction. But if I’m going on a vacation for a week in, say the Greek islands, I don’t want to think. I’m either going to pick a fiction book or an entertaining non-fiction entry. On the other hand, if I’m headed to a conference, I may pick one of the more “serious” non-fiction entries.

  • Finally, I don’t like to read two books at once. I’m completely monogamous with my current book. If I’m knee deep into a non-fiction book and pick up a quick, easy read for a weekend vacation- I consider it to be cheating. Is it really any different than taking a young, hot mistress to Vegas for the weekend while your wife stays home with the kids? I would argue no. (I’m fully aware that equating these two acts says more negative things about my moral character than positive things about my love of reading)

With all of these rules in place, going on vacation can be rather stressful. I have to plan my reading schedule weeks in advance. Every time I pick a new book off the shelf I basically have to have my calendar in hand so I know how it will affect any and all upcoming plane rides.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel. If my fear about Peak Oil theory holds true, then gas prices will probably skyrocket so high in future years that I won’t be able to afford many plane rides. So, ironically enough, if one of my fears does come to fruition, it will actually remove one of the primary problems in my life. Very weird. Now, if we can just do something about the Browns, I’ll be all set.

******* SPOILER ALERT ********

In case you are interested, I actually got around to posting this blog early Monday morning at my Dad's house.

We didn't make our flight to Celveland. Not by a long shot. We arrived 90 minutes late due to a strong head wind and had to sit on the runaway for an additional 40 minutes before pulling to the gate.

The good news is that we were easily booked on another flight to Cleveland just a few hours later. The bad news is that the terminal we were booked at did not have a Chili's in it. I briefly contemplated going from Terminal to Terminal looking for the elusive Chili's - but the big Ohio State - Penn State game was just about to start. I sat down at a Sports Bar and watched the first half while eating one of the worst chicken sandwhiches I have ever tasted in my life.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Confessions of a (Pathetic) Football Junkie

Everyone knows that I am a football fanatic. I've always loved everything football. This includes
  • Watching
  • Playing
  • Reading about
  • Blogging about
  • Podcasting
  • Making, ummm, "friendly" wagers on
  • Spending countless hours managing my fantasy team
  • Forcing my wife to call me "Bernie", or "Mr. Kosar" when she's nasty

Everything. While the above list may sound pathetic enough, I think I may have even topped myself this past week. Here's how.

Watching football in Prague has been surprisingly easy. I actually have better access than I ever did in New York. Consider my options:
  • Watching the game of the week on local TV via NASN - North American Sports Network
  • Using Slingbox to connect to my dad's TV (via my computer) and watch the games shown in Cleveland
  • Logging in to Yahoo! and - for a mere $200 per season - I have live streaming and on-demand access to every game in the NFL. (Only available to people outside the US)

For the past few weeks, I would just choose one of the above options. But this created some problems. My wife doesn't share my love of football (except for Mr. Kosar of course) - so she would spend Sunday nights on our home computer. Since my laptop was basically being used as a 2nd TV - I had no available Internet access. I had no way of checking my fantasy team scores and the status of my, ummm, friendly wagers. I could conceivably access my fantasy team via my laptop, but that means the web site would show up on the projector. And, if I did that, my wife's virgin eyes would be exposed to some of the team names in my fantasy football league. Some of these names aren't just offensive, they are criminal. Even I blush. Of the 14 teams, only two have names that I would feel comfortable publishing on a public web site. And four of the team names should result in immediate counseling for all parties involved.

She also doesn't like the fact that I make friendly wages on games. She thinks my prognasticating skills are so good that I should bet real money and buy her shoes with my winnings. I keep telling her that gambling money on football is illegal, but she doesn't seem to care. She tells me to go big or go home. Women!

So, like I said, big problems. But that all changed this week. Here is the set up:

  • My laptop is hooked up to Yahoo!. I have the it plugged into my projector - which is the equivalent of a 120" TV screen on my white wall. I have the audio hooked into my 5.1 surround stereo. This is the official "Game of the Week" at the Tasca Sports Bar.

    For the early games, we're featuring the Saints - Panthers game on the big screen. I have three fantasy RBs (Reggie Bush, DeAngelo Williams & Jonathon Stewart) in this game and two "friendly" wagers (Saints +3, and the Over at 44.5). If I don't have a rooting interest, I always try to make a friendly wager on the Over for the Game of the week. After all, who doesn't like rooting for points to be scored.

    The late game we will be featuring is the Browns - Redskins. My beloved, disappointing, ulcer-inducing, steadily-improving Browns always get the featured treatment at the Tasca Sports Bar. No friendly wagers ever take place on the Browns games. Unlike Pete Rose, that's a line I don't cross. But I do have the Redskins QB on my fantasy team. (Keep in mind, it's a 14 team league before you judge my team's quality. I'm 4-2)

  • The local TV has the NASN game of the week on. This is displayed in the corner with no sound on. But, if something interesting happens in the game, I can switch the audio on to my 5.1 surround stereo with one click of the remote. If something really interesting happens, I can also throw this onto the projector in place of the "Game of the Week" with two clicks of the remote.

    The early game today has the Chargers - Bills. Another rule of thumb, always make a friendly wager against a West coast team when they have to go East and play an early game. I have no Fantasy players in this game.

    The late game is Colts - Packers. No fantasy players here either. But, I made a friendly wager on the Colts -1. They are healthy again and looked great last week. The Packers are banged up and looked shaky beating a very bad Seattle team (with Charlie Frye at QB - who you should always make a friendly wager against) last week

  • Finally, I brought home my work laptop to, ummm, work, while I'm watching all the games. During the few minutes when I'm not working, I'm also using this to check fantasy scores, browse random articles, twitter, etc. If I wanted to, I could easily use this to log into Slingbox and watch the game that is being displayed in Cleveland - which is currently the Dallas - St. Louis game.

    I don't have Slingbox on right now, but may do it later if the game gets close. My only fantasy player in that game is Steven Jackson - but I despise him right now and am close to paying a witch doctor to put a voodoo curse on him. I have no desire to watch him. Also, no friendly wagers were placed on this game. I came close to doing a handshake agreement on the Rams +6.5 - but thought better of it. (They are currently up 21-7 in the 2nd quarter. Good thing the theoretical bet that I didn't make would have only been a friendly bet, so I'm not too mad at myself)

One final interesting note about watching football in Prague. As you are well aware, there is a 6 hour time difference between Prague and US East Coast time. That means the 1:00 games don't start until 7:00 PM here. This has advantages and disadvantages.

The great part of this time difference is that it totally frees up my Sundays. I woke up early, went to a Yoga class with my wife (more on that later), had a great brunch at Cafe Savoy, took my dog on a 3 hour hike and enjoyed a 90 minute nap. It's been a great day. Now I'm enjoying football on a Sunday evening. I just had a great dinner (thanks R!) and am chilling on the couch with my dog surrounded by football games.

The bad news is that the late games totally throw off my sleep schedule. The Browns don't start playing until 10:15 Prague time tonight. That means I'm not going to sleep until 2:00 AM - and I still have to get up at a regular time for work tomorrow.

I don't get to watch the Sunday or Monday night games unless it's a very big or the Browns are involved. And, the Browns are inexplicably involved in 5 night games this year. When this happens - like it did last week when the Browns destroyed the World Champion Giants - I make no attempt to watch the game live. Instead, I get up at 6:00 AM the next morning and watch the game before going to work. My mood at work that day will be highly dependant on the outcome of that game. There is no worse feeling that getting up at a ridiculously early time to watch a crappy game.

So, that's my football life in Prague. Many people will find this set up incredibly awesome. Many more people will find this set up incredibly pathetic. I honestly don't even know which side of the fence I am on. I can be convinced either way. But, I'll tell you what, I do enjoy my Sunday nights.

****** START OF MY ANTI-YOGA RANT ***************

OK, as I mentioned above I went to Yoga with my wife today. I am not a huge fan of Yoga and have actually only been to 1-2 other classes in my life. I have no idea what the moves and positions are. I could not tell you the difference between a downward dog, a half lord of the fishes or a Cleveland steamer and a lemon party pose.

Regardless, I decided to go today because I'm feeling a little less flexible with my old age. I knew the class would be in Czech but I thought I could just follow along and look at people around me.

First off, I don't know how people find Yoga relaxing. I spent 55 minutes intensely concentrating on trying to keep myself from farting in the middle of a room filled with girls. Do you have any ideas how difficult this is? My body is being contorted into positions that put all kind of unnatural stress on the digestive system. My stomach was in physical pain after the class and I consider this to be my most stressful hour of the week. Any one that gets through a full class without fouling the air should be given a free personal training lesson as an award.

Secondly, I expected the instructor to say a few words in Czech and then do a pose for a few minutes. I didn't expect my lack of Czech to be a big deal. Not with this instructor. She talked through the whole entire class. In fact, I've never heard a person say more words in a single hour than she did. Who talks this much! I have no idea what the hell she was saying - but I'm sure it was something about a Cleveland steamer. So the whole class I'm looking up at the instructor trying to figure out what she's jabbering about while I'm watching the people around me to see what they are doing and - don't forget - this is all being done while I desperately trying to prevent my anal accoustics. This is supposed to be fun and relaxing?!?!

No thank you.

******* END OF MY ANTI-YOGA RANT *******************

Monday, October 06, 2008

Budapest, Hungary

R and I went to Budapest this weekend. Barely. I use the word barely because we had quite a big mixup at the airport.

The trip to Budapest was planned about a month ago. R and I originally looked for flights but every ticket we found cost close to $500 per person. In my opinion, that's a little too pricey for a 400 mile trip, so we agreed to take a 7 hour train ride instead. Not an ideal scenario - but much cheaper. When I told this to a co-worker, she told me about the web site Click4Sky - where I could get round trip tickets for about $150 each. Great News. We bought the tickets that day.(I'm intentionally not linking to Click4Sky because I don't want to give them any PR. You'll see why soon)

Fast forward to Friday night. My wife - who is the most organized person I have ever met - presents the airline counter with our confirmation email. All the dates and times are perfect and the confirmation code looks valid. But, when we hand this to the lady behind the check-in counter, she looks around for a few minutes and says, "Sorry, you aren't in the system."

Actually, that's a lie. I'm sure the word "sorry" was never used. I'm sure she just said something like "You aren't in the system. NEXT!" We tried to point out that we had a valid confirmation print out and everything was correct, but she just shrugged her shoulders. We were stuck. Czech Airlines have some of the worst customer service I have ever seen or experienced. It's miserable.

After a few phone calls and running around the airport, we found a ticket office for Hungarian Airlines. They had tickets on a flight leaving in 45 minutes... but the tickets were $500 each. The same price we thought was too much when we started this whole journey. But now we were at the airport, our bags were packed, we were singing songs about traveling to Budapest and, most importantly, we had already pre-paid for 3 nights in a Budapest hotel room. To all economics students out there that want to tell me this last factor should not affect my decision making process since it is a "sunk cost".... well, you can sunk my cost. (Say those last three words real fast and hopefully you'll laugh as hard as I did when I wrote that phrase).

After a 0.5 second debate, I handed over my credit card and we were on our way to Budapest. Or as they say in Italian, Andiamo a Budapest! (I'm studying Italian still and am excited whenever I can form a complete sentence)

I didn't know much about Budapest going into this trip. Sure, I looked at all of the "Top Ten Things to Do in Budapest" guides, but I always get bored with those things around #4. So, I closed my eyes and pretended that Budapest would be just like Prague I don't know why I thought this. But I figured they were both Eastern European cities and they would share common traits. The larger question is why I would just drop a grand on two tickets to go to a place that is exactly like the place I currently live.

Fortunately, Budapest is nothing like Prague at all. And I use the word fortunately not because there is anything wrong with Prague but - again - I just wanted to get good value for my tickets. It's like the time I had a perfectly good pair of pants that somehow formed a hole in the crotch after years of wear & tear (and, I'm sure, a whole lot of unnecessary scratching). I had to go back to the exact same store and buy the exact same pair of pants again for $80. I really liked the pants. They were great. I didn't want a different color. I just wanted my pants to not have a hole in the crotch. So I was $80 poorer, but had nothing new to show for it except for the same pair of pants that I always had.

But, ANYWAY, I digress. So Budapest is nothing like Prague. The architecture and the vibe of the city are completely different. There is really no relation between the two cities at all. Budapest is like a combination of Paris and Istanbul with a little Peoria, Illinois thrown in for good measure (they have a lot Burger King franchises thrown around town).

We had some great food and wine on Friday night once we got into town (not Burger King, thank you very much). Then, on Saturday, we hit some of the local tourist attractions. One of the things I was excited to see was St. Stephens Church in Budapest. This is rather surprising because - after living in Europe for nearly two years - I think I've seen enough churches to last me a life time. After going to the Vatican, everything else fails in comparison. It's like looking at all other girls once I met my wife (yeah! I'm getting a good dinner tomorrow night for that statement!) Unless the church is made of human bones or Jesus climbs off of the cross and gives me a high five, I'm not going to be too excited.

So why did I want to go to St. Stephens? Well, St. Stephen's 1000 year old right hand is still embalmed in a glass box in the back of the church. And if you throw a coin in the slot, the glass case lights up. I don't know why, but I think this is very cool. So we get to St. Stephens church and immediately begin my quest to find the 1000 year old hand. I snake my way around the church and I come to the room were the hand resides. Only, the door is closed and there is a sign that says "We're sorry, but this room is temporarily closed for a private party."

You may think I was disappointed by this sign. Well, you couldn't be more wrong. I just started giggling uncontrollably in the middle of the quiet church and couldn't stop. I had this picture in my mind That I couldn't shake. Imagine if there was a big party going on in the back room and it was like a scene from Weekend at Bernie's where this 1000 year old hand was holding the punch bowl. The more I thought about this, the louder I laughed. For the same reasons that I can't explain why a 1000 year hand that lights up is cool, I can't explain why the same hand holding a punch bowl is hilarious. But it is. To me. It was officially time for me to leave the church before Jesus crawled off the cross and slapped me in the back of the head. I never got to see the 1000 year old hand. Nor do I want to. The actual hand itself will never be as cool - or funny - as I imagined it to be.

The other thing that Budapest is known for are the public paths. I had positive memories of my trip to a Turkish bath house earlier this year, so I was eager to try one out in Budapest. They are not the same. The bath house we went to is in the city center and is probably the most famous in town. They have 15 different baths - each with water of varying degrees. Some hot, some cold and some in the middle. They also had a few baths indoors and a few outside. Now, keep in mind, I am using he word "bath" just because that's what everyone calls them. But they are really just swimming pools. Don't let anyone tell you different. Except, no one swims. They just sort of sitting around waiting for the "medicinal" powers of the bath to take over.

Judging by the popularity of the baths, people really tend to enjoy these things. I don't think I'll be returning. First off, the "bath" we spent most of our time was listed as 34 degrees C. Or, as it also known, the official temperature of a kiddie pool half filled with pee. So the whole time I am in the bath, it brings back memories of being in a kiddie pool where everyone is peeing. Only, instead of being with half a dozen 3 year olds, I'm surrounded by a couple hundred Europeans.

The second thing that turned me off is that we just happened to be in Budapest the same weekend that the town held it's annual marathon. And the bath house we went to just happened to be close to the end of the marathon path. We also just happened to be there at the same time people were finishing their marathon run and coming to relax in the bath. So not only was I sitting in a big pool that felt like several hundred Europeans were peeing on me, I also witnessed dozens of marathon runners coming into the pool after sweating for 42 straight kilometers. I'm sure they rinsed off before coming in the pool - but still - the stank of a marathon takes several showers to wipe off.

In short, what was supposed to be a relaxing day at the bath house turned out to be a mildy annoying hour sitting in a pool of filth. But, other than that, it was great.

Before I end this post, I just want to emphasize that I had an absolutely great time in Budapest. I really liked the city. I realize that I focused on the negatives above simply because negative events tend to be more humorous than positive ones. And the only reason I waste so much time writing this blog is clearly because I want people to think I am funny. That being said, here are some of the other (less funny) highlights from our trip

  • The food in Budapest is better than Prague. They have more international options and I find the "traditional" meals slightly more appealing. Especially the goulash soup.

  • R was a big fan of the fisherman's bastillion. She thought it was one of the more interesting structures she has seen in Europe

  • JayWay Travel rocks! We followed his advice for the entire weekend and he didn't let us down once

  • I loved the statues in Budapest. Absolutely loved them. They had some of the most interesting statues I have ever seen scattered throughout the city. Pictures are below....

I thought this statue looked just like - ironically enough - Burger King

So that was a trip to Budapest. It was nothing like Prague - but reminds me why I like living in Prague so much... because it gives me the opportunity to take weekend trips like this.