Saturday, February 25, 2012

Customer Service FAIL!

When you travel you have to be prepared to come across things you like, and things you don't. Whether it's in your own country or abroad, people have different ways of behaving that might not always be quite up to par with your own thoughts on how things should be. It's something you just have to accept, right? Go with the flow and all of that.

In some cases this is definitely true. When I was first training to teach English in the Czech Republic the leaders constantly harped at us about how important it was to be flexible. It got old, but it was true. It's good to embrace new traditions and ways of looking at the world. Doing so has helped me to improve who I am as a person.

The other day I went shopping and in front of the mall I experienced my first ever pig killing feast. While I obviously don't want to watch a pig being slaughtered every day, this is an age old custom in the Czech Republic, and I can appreciate it as that. The reason pigs are considered good luck is because if you had enough money for a pig, then you were doing very well for yourself. The whole village would come together to celebrate by killing a pig and using every part of it. This was not about cruelty to animals, or being unsanitary. (Note: the EU is trying to ban, or at the very least control, this practice due to "health concerns.") It was about providing food for the people. It is represented in cultural art, and is especially important in the smaller villages. I am flexible enough to handle this, even if it isn't something I want to make a part of my daily (or even yearly) life.

While we watched them clean out the pig, my Mom-in-law, who happens to be a nurse, was describing to me what all the internal organs were. Shockingly enough, I actually understood most of the terms. I do know some Czech! The second two pictures are of our anniversary cake.

So whether you agree with certain cultural practices or not, it is important to at least try to understand them. I'm sure by this point people are starting to wonder about the title to this post, and I promise I'm about to get to it. See, the thing is, there are some things that I have a really hard time accepting. Bad customer service is one of those things. I don't care what country you live in, when you are in a position where you were with customers, being polite should always be at the top of your list.

I could name plenty of instances where this has very much NOT been the case. I'll stick with two for now. Keep in mind, I have had plenty of good experiences with service people as well, and these are extreme cases, so please don't see this as a reason not to visit this incredible country.

The first example took place during the summer of 2010. I think I wrote about it back then, but it's long enough ago that people might not remember ;) It was a hot summer day and I was in desperate need of a drink. In the center of town, prices are always higher because there are a lot of tourists, so I decided to pop into a little potraviny (food store) thinking I could get a decent price. I found a bottle of water for less than a dollar US and I went to pay. The only bill I had was 200KC, which is roughly $10. Not a big deal, right? Wrong. The cashier refused to take the bill. Even when I showed her that I honestly did not have anything smaller, she refused and pulled the bottle of water off the counter. Ridiculous much? I was angry enough to tell her in English that she was terrible, and then walked out never to purchase anything else there again.

Today example number two took place. My husband and I went to buy some nice chocolate for his dad's birthday. We went to the little local store and picked out some expensive chocolate. Keep in mind, we are a married couple. I was dressed in high quality clothes. He was wearing a black coat. One of the nice things in Czech is that people always greet each other in stores. It's all very polite. This was a small store in our local community, but the cashier did not greet us. I paid for the chocolate and she looks at my husband and tells him to empty his pockets. Um, come again? That's right. She treated him like a thief for no reason at all. Goodness, it's a junky grocery store, and we paid for expensive chocolate. What is wrong with people sometimes? The worst bit was that she didn't even seem to feel the least bit sorry for asking him to do that, even though he quickly proved that he didn't steal anything, and pointed out how ridiculous it would be for him to steal a 50 cent candy bar when he was already paying for something much more expensive.

All this to say, there are things that you just have to expect when you travel, but that doesn't mean they will all be pleasant or necessary.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

If I Wrote A Guide Book

If I:

wrote a guide book it would be different than what you typically see. There are countless books highlighting the biggest cities and the most international locations. I love going to these places and experiencing that fast paced life, but there is always something unreal about it. It is even easy to live in such a place and never get a feel for what the culture and real life of the people is like.

So if I wrote a guide book I would focus on the gems that the common tourist misses. If my guide book was about the Czech Republic I would be certain to highlight the magical city of Marianske Lazne. My goal would be aimed at opening up people to the idea of really digging in and finding the hidden beauty in a country. So here are a few pages that I would definitely have to put into my guide book.

Walking through parks is definitely worth the time. You can watch the train pass, enjoy the sunlight through the trees, maybe even see a random old guy walking around carrying a tree, then climb a viewing tower. Of course, once you climb that tower you'll discover that it was built in an older era when the trees were not nearly so tall. At this point there's not a whole lot to view, so people use this place for other activities.

At least that is what we discovered on our walk through the slushy late February snow.

Then I would focus on looking at the famous sights from different angles, focusing on the details.

I'd take a different look during a different season, then get up close and personal with the details.

I would look for little bits of art that tell a story. The first is clearly on a quest. The second is a pair that demonstrates a common practice in art. Note how the woman is exposed while the man is concealed. Interesting, no?

If I wrote a guide book I would want to really live in the place first. I would want to be able to understand the world I was sharing, so the people reading my book would feel like they could feel the heartbeat of the city. It would also be great to point out cultural things like this. A dumpling shop:

I might not ever write a guide book. I do, however, have a story idea based on the life lead by a transient drifter. I hope, one day, to write in such a way that I can bring the travelers soul to the life of a tourist, enhancing their experiences as they walk wide eyed with wonder through this scarred but beautiful world.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Winding Down

It never fails to amaze me how quickly life slips by. With a three month trip to the Czech Republic, I thought I would really feel like time had passed, but that wasn't the case this trip. True, I wrote most of a novel, did a ton of reasearch on publishing, and got more into social networking, including adding lots of photos to my repertoire. I also read about ten books (the lengths varied, but most were on the long side.) Then there were the trips to see friends around Czech and in Germany, as well as shopping trips with my Mom-in-law. Not to mention the bit about learning how to cook some traditional Czech meals. (Naturally, I still wouldn't say that I've reached any sort of proficiency in that area, but at least if I have a decent recipe I should be able to make an actual attmept.)

When I write it all out like that it looks like quite a lot. But the truth is, it has all flown by and we're down to one week. I find myself gearing up for the panic of packing and stressing over flight time management. I've decided to leave a list of things I leave behind on this trip, so that the next time we come over I won't overpack. It's so easy to forget, over the course of the year, exactly which outfits I frantically pulled out of my bag in order to meet the regulation weight.

In other news, I celebrated my first wedding anniversary yesterday. Any sort of first is always a big deal. While it is true that each day and event is a gift, firsts generate a different sort of sensation. They remind us both of the passing of time, as well as the importance of remembering. Throughout the day I was thinking of little bits of my wedding day. I remembered the muffins we had for breakfast that I could hardly get myself to eat. Every time I have them now, I will be pulled back to that moment. I thought about going through a coffee shop in Philomath and buying drinks for a few of my girls who were in the car with me. It was such an incredible feeling to tell the barista that I was about to get married. Then, that night, I pulled into Dutch Bros. as a wife, and when I shared the fact the girl gave us our coffee for free.

I first started journaling seriously because I realized that every day we live will be both a first and a last. We mark the big events in life (birthdays, weddings, life changes, etc.) but often forget that this day (2-20-12) will never happen again. Regardless of your beliefs about the possibility of time travel, you will never be able to experience this moment in exactly the same way. This is the one shot you've got.

So as I come to the end of this post today I'm left thinking of the three months that have just gone by, as well as the year that I have spent as a married woman, and I have to ask myself if I have really remembered that each of those days was a gift. It's so easy to focus on the irritations in life, or the things that stress us out, but it's far more important to remember a lovely moment sitting on the snow with the sun in your face like I experienced this afternoon with Mark. I'm not generally one to moralize on my blog (though I can't always hold myself back when a soap box suddenly presents itself) but I think this is really worth considering. Life flashes by in an instant. Isn't it better to enjoy the time we have to live and grow and share together, than to stress and worry and make the people around us miserable? Here's to hope that the days to come will bring more moments to cherish and more chances to take ahold of joy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

From Mixed Up To Utterly Confused...

I'm not even going to try to fix my last post. This might seem silly, but I get frustrated when it looks like there is some inconsistency, so I'm going to explain it all here, and then you can read the next post and hopefully it will make sense.

1) I wrote a blog post called "All Time Is Unredeemable"

2) The label section got messed up so I went to fix it

3) The labels were fixed, but, althouth the blog had already posted properly once, the text disappeared.

4) I got irritated.

5) I rewrote the post with the same title, but different text. I left a question hanging at the end about how we'll never know whether it was better or worse than the first post unless time does decide to exist all together in a physical way as well as in an incoherent possible way.

6) I published the new post.

7) I went back to delete the old post, only to discover that the text had somehow returned.

8) I reposted the original post, and added to the second post a little note about how they are both there to compare now.

9) I looked at the original post and realized that it was now identical to the new post. So the first content really was gone, and for some reason completely unfathomable to me, it had doubled itself into both posts.

10) I went back to delete the redundant original post, and found it to be empty.

11) I got worried that if this post was empty, trying to reedit the second post might drive it into oblivion as well.

12) I decided to write this post to explain all the weirdness in the post that has been saved.

13) So after all the time I spent looking for a cool title by T.S. Eliot to add to my list, I changed it and am too afraid to swap it back because then that blog might disappear as well.

Hopefully this sorts out whatever confusion might take place when reading the next note. Ugh.

Or is it possible after all...

Before I get into this post, I must quickly vent. I just wrote this post. I published this post. I pulled it all together and it was decent enough. Then I noticed that the "labels" section had gone all wonky. Suddenly it said it was about the fair and English Grammar, although I know for a fact that nothing like that was mentioned in the post. So I went to delete those two little errors and republish it, only somehow the text disappeared. Very very odd indeed.

Anyhow, perhaps if the quote exists then it still exists. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I can't claim credit for the title. It is from a poem by T.S.Eliot called "The Four Quartets. This bit can be found at the beginning of the first Quartet in "Burnt Norton."

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
- T.S.Eliot

It goes along with my thoughts in the moment of how time is just evaporating before my very eyes. Three months sounds like an awfully long time to be out of the country, but the truth is, it's nothing but a breath, held in and then exhaled slowly. It goes so quickly, and there is no way to press pause. The idea that time exists all at once, that it is, in fact, a fourth dimension that we have yet to master and understand, is a fascinating one. I read "The Time Machine," by H.G.Wells last month, and he posed some interesting theories not just about time travel but about the destination of humanity and all of life. Interesting. Not very useful to me at the moment, however.

In about two weeks we'll be back in the US. It's hard to believe, and comes with a mixed bag of emotions. It's been good to be with family here, and to visit with old friends. For my husband, it has been life giving in so many ways. Naturally, it is hard to leave this place, especially when we are uncertain when we'll be able to come back. At the same time, it's exciting to think about where life is taking us. We will be starting fresh. We will be able to really unpack and settle in. I can't begin to express how exciting that is. It has been over two years since I've lived a life without my clothes in sacks or suitcases, and even longer since I've had a place that felt like a home I could call my own. I can't deny, that desire to "nest," to put pictures on the walls, to create a design and spread out, is HUGE! I'm also ready to reach out and be a part of a community again. In some senses, I haven't really experienced that since Hong Kong, which is now almost 7 years in the past.

But the return also comes with plenty of nervousness. Neither one of us has jobs, or any prospects of jobs. We're starting at the beginning. Again. While this always provides a million options, it doesn't always mean success. There is plenty of worry seeking to sabotage my brains ability to properly function. I have an overabundance of plans, from a book I'd like to publish, to craft projects, and an odd desire to learn how to sew so I can keep up with all those other ladies who know how to be grown ups out there. Let's not even talk about my paranoia about up coming kitchen tasks. It's one of those things I know I'm just going to have to deal with, but I dread it the way a lot of people dread going to the dentist.

I find myself, for about the millionth time, on the crux of life change. There is so much to look forward to and woner about and even to fear. I want to do things right, but have no idea how to go about most of the things I'm about to step into. It's exciting and terrifying at the same time.

The question now is: was this post better than the post that drifted away into infinity? Apparently you can see for yourself, for after appearing vacant several times, including in my life feed, the post miraculously has now reappeared. And so it exists in both versions. I'm just going to leave it this way, because I find it interesting to see how my thoughts progressed. If you are afraid it will be to redundant to read twice, no matter.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Czech Republic is Getting Foxy

I always heard that there was a tradition of fox hunting in the Czech Republic, but during the three years that I lived here, I only sighted one fox while traveling on a train. In the past two and a half months, I've seen four foxes running across open fields. Perhaps they're fans of the frigid weather we've been having recently, but it's been a real surprise to me. I've always enjoyed staring out of train or car windows trying to spot wild life. Typically, there are lots of deer to be seen, and a wide variety of birds, but the wilder sorts are few and far between, so I've greatly enjoyed my little glimpses into the animal underworld so to speak. Now I just need to spot a wild boar, and I'll really feel like I'm behind the scenes. Thus ends the portion of my post about the foxy-ness of the Czech Republic.

I will now proceed to the part of the show where I come out and share some photos or where I've been traipsing lately. On Wednesday, I had the chance to go to Cheb and visit with an former colleague and a couple former students. I had great times during these meetings, and laughed harder than I have in a long time. It was really great to reconnect and to feel like the time I spent here mattered to people.

I arrived in Cheb early so I would have a chance to do a little shopping, as well as wandering around with my camera in hand. There are plenty of times when I wish that I had taken photography classes, or was well enough off to purchase some sort of fancy pants camera, but my little old Olympus fits so nicely in my pocket, and ultimately it gets the job done. I'm trying to focus more on details this time around. I have countless photos documenting my years living in this city, and now I'm coming back and examining things on a closer level. It's amazing what you can find.

I headed down to the magnificent cathedral, Sv. Mikolas, and did a study on steeples and doors. This is just a small sampling.

Next I made my way over to Chebsky Hrad (Cheb Castle) where I focused on the big picture, angles, and shadows.

Walking by the river has always been one of my favorite things to do in Cheb. The cold weather has provided a number of new views thanks to the interplay of water and freezing temperatures. The result: ice in a of styles and designs.

I love this house and have taken pictures of it from various angles, and in multiple seasons, so it only seemed appropriate to add it here.

I headed back into town and enjoyed the buildings and walkways along the way.

That concludes the Cheb tour for today. It's time to watch the new singing talent show on TV Nova :)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Weekend Wanderings

I've been saving up some photos from weekend trips, and thought I'd just lay them out here now and be done with them :) Yesterday I was privileged enough to go to Cheb and visit with some old friends. I came early and took a bunch of new photos, so I wanted to get these older ones taken care of so I could move on and put up the next section. I really feel like one of those college students who can't chose a major. Should I be a writer? Should I be a photographer? Should I be a tour guide? Clearly my brain was designed for drifting.

Since my husband is quite disinterested in the art of shopping, my mom-in-law has enjoyed having a girl to travel around with. A couple weeks ago she and I took a trip to Plzen on our own. She told me it was the first time she had been on a train in ten years! Craziness! She didn't seem to think they had improved much in the time she had been boycotting them :) Despite large gaps in language ability, we had a great time, and were able to communicate. Even I brought up topics for "conversation," and she seemed able to follow along for the most part.

One of the great things is when she just talks whether I understand or not. It helps me to pick up on more, and to feel like my attention is valued even if my vocabulary is limited. I still love picturing my parents and my in laws sitting around a table with maps, each set talking on and on in their own separate unidentifiable languages. Priceless :)

Anyhow, as a result of a couple shopping trips I contribute pictures of Plzen as well as the "haul."

Also in that weekend I went to Germany again and had another shot at ice skating. My mom-in-law was along this time, and showed me how easy it is to go fast and to skate backwards. She has had great fun since telling people how she held my hand for a couple rounds and I kept saying how we were going so fast and how there were so many people. Always good to know I can supply entertainment.

Let it be known that on that trip I skated for about two hours and didn't fall down at all. The wall is still my neighbor, but it's getting more distant.

Last weekend we took a trip to visit Marek's grandmother. It was so nice to see her again. She's just precious, and she loved our wedding photo book. I need to make more copies when I get back home and send them over for the family. Why didn't I think of that before? Not always the brightest.

Going both directions we saw all sorts of beautiful countryside, quaint villages, and fabulous castles. Many of them were places we visited when Julie came for a visit. This time we had more important things to do than sight seeing, but we did take one little break along the way and I took some back side photos of Horsovsky Tyn.

Be sure to come back soon for more of my attempts at adding travel photography to my resume of accolades ;)