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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A true Halloween story...

A true story as relayed by a friend of mine at ATK:

For the last two months Matthew has been asking us if we are going to attend his music program October 25th at 7pm? And, if we are excited to see him perform? When I say that Matthew has asked us this everyday for the last two months I mean THE LAST TWO MONTHS - EVERY DAY.

It's important to note that he has called it his "Music Program" for 2 months also.

Of course costumes are involved and lucky us right around halloween. AND it has to be separate from his Halloween costume because he CAN'T be an animal for Halloween he's "8 Mom!"

So I asked him if he wanted to be a lion. "No" Adrian is a lion and then people wouldn't be able to tell us apart. So off we got to an actual costume shop an hour away 2 Saturdays before Halloween.

Once we arrived we had only 2 animal costumes to choose from -not a huge surprise. I mean really, how many kids want to be an animal in third or even second grade for Halloween? That's a whole other topic - but I thought there might at least be more than a penguin with a red bowtie and a Dalmation. The kid on the Dalamation package looked so nerdy I would have tripped him walking down the hall.

So, I said to Matthew "looks like your're going to be a penguin!"

"OK Mom" as he's trying to decapitate Rose with a sword and vise versa.

$40.00 and one foam Penguin costume later we're golden! WE'RE GONE!

Sunday evening when baths homework etc. needed to be wrapped up Matthew had to try the costume on one more time to make sure it fit AND that the dog was still freaked out when being chased by an 8 year old penguin.

This morning Matthew proudly brought his costume to school for dress rehersal.

When he got off the bus I asked him if his music teacher liked his costume and he said "yes" and that he is the only penguin in the program! Thank God! HOME RUN!

Then Matthew adds "You know why Mom? Because there are no penguins in the Rain Forest".


"Yes that's what our program is about!"

You never said anything about a Rain Forest! I didn't get a memo on the god damn Rain Forest! You just said you had to be a *&#@&^* ANIMAL!!!

"Oh, yea. It's about the Rain Forest. Can I have some Halloween candy?"

So, the Merkel family will sat proudly in the audience taking pictures of the only known penguin to EVER live in the Rain Forest of Franklin Elementary Colorado.

And Matthew? He didn't feel out out of place or odd. No, not our Matthew.

He is not a man amongst men, but a penguin amongst the Rain Forest!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lots of darkness...

While the States now turns the clocks back the first Sunday in November (this coming weekend) we did it last weekend. I now get up and it's dark, and it' already dark before I leave the office.

Officially, sunrise occurred at 6:48 this morning and sunset was at 4:43 this afternoon. It's 5:30 and pitch black outside my office window - and we are almost seven weeks from the shortest day of the year. On December 21st sunset will occur at 4:02, more than 30 minutes before sunset in Minneapolis.

Despite our much milder winters, Prague is at the same latitude as Winnipeg. At least we avoid the -20 degree temperatures.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A walk through Berchtesgaden...

On Friday afternoon, after getting settled into the hotel, we drove about a mile to Berchtesgaden and parked in a small lot near the historical old part of town. It is low season there now, after the end of summer but before the ski season, so crowds were not a problem at all the entire weekend. We always found a parking place quickly, and we were always seated immediately at restaurants. Except for the fact that the Eagle's Nest was closed, low season is a perfect time to go.

Here is one of the many pedestrian streets with cute shops and restaurants. On Saturday we stopped at the cafe you can see at the end of this street for an afternoon dessert and coffee.

One of the many churches in Berchtesgaden (and throughout Bavaria in general). All were in very good condition and appeared to be functioning churches (unlike churches in Prague).

There were many houses on the hillsides around Berchtesgaden. The picture doens't do justice to the colors of the homes and the very good condition they appeared to be in. Germans do know how to keep things orderly and in good condition.

Many of the buildings, many from the 1600s-1800s, had interesting things painted on them. I don't know what this style is called, but it was quite common in the town.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

We're back from Berchtesgaden...

We just got back to Prague about an hour ago from our weekend visit to Germany. We lucked out by gaining an hour this morning thanks to central Europe coming off daylight saving time. (I just looked in google and it appears that the US doesn't revert to standard time until next weekend. As of 2007 it is the first weekend in November).

I'll post several items over the coming days, so now I will just give an overview. There were two bad things that happened on the trip. First, while the hotel had wi-fi, the signal was so weak that it was not usable. So I couldn't post anything during the trip, and I couldn't check email, or news either (we had 18 TV channels in German).

The second thing was that the Eagle's Nest, Hitler's retreat, was closed for the season. I didn't realize it was a seasonal thing, and it looks like we missed it by just a week.

Still, we did lots of other things, and the town of Berchtesgaden is as quaint as a postcard. The whole area is. But more on that later.

Here is our hotel. I found it on the internet, and I chose it because it had a family apartment - a separate bedroom for Kathy and I, and a living room with a foldout couch for Noah. It also had a very small kitchenette with a fridge and stove. The cost was 100 Euros per night, which was considerably cheaper than the other hotels in the area. We had to pay in cash upon arrival - something that is more standard in Europe.

Here's Noah in front of the hotel. ("Here's the Spanish Inquisition on the side of the hotel." "Gee, I wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition").

Here's the view from a few yards away from the hotel. Like I said, the view was great just about everywhere. It had snowed the day before our arrival, so at elevation there was a lot of snow. In Berchtesgaden there was still snow on the roofs of buildings, but the temperature was about 50.

The Garmin performed very well. We actually disregarded it once because it directed us to leave the freeway about an hour southeast of Munich and we thought that it would be faster to stay on the freeway. 3 miles later traffic on the freeway was stopped due to construction. We apologized to Garmin and asked for a new alternate route. Garmin obliged and at the next exit took us on side roads around the construction. 15 minutes later we were back on the freeway at 150 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour - I just found the conversion on google and had no idea we were going that fast. I had figured we were at about 80 MPH).

More tomorrow.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Off to visit Berchtesgaden...

It's 6:30 a.m. and we're off to visit Germany for the weekend. Noah has been off school all week (the first of several week vacations throughout the year) and I took a vacation day. We are going to Berchtesgaden, in the alps along the Austrian border. Berchtesgaden is probably best known for the Eagle's Nest, Hitler's wartime retreat. It's about a 5 1/2 to 6 hour drive, but I have already loaded the route into the Garmin so I am confident that we will get there directly and without incident.

From Wikipedia:

The Kehlsteinhaus (or Eagle's Nest) was built as a 50th birthday present for Adolf Hitler. The Eagle's Nest was meant to be a retreat for Hitler and a place for him to entertain visiting dignitaries. It was commissioned by Martin Bormann, with construction proceeding over a 13-month period prior to its formal presentation to Hitler in 1939. It is situated on a ridge at the top of the Kehlstein mountain (1834 m), reached by a spectacular 6.5 km (3.9 mile) road which cost 30 million Reichsmark to build (~ 150 million euros). The last 124 metres up to the Kehlsteinhaus are served by an elevator bored inside the mountain, reached via a granite tunnel; the elevator itself is surfaced with polished brass. Construction of the mountain elevator system was had at the cost of the lives of 12 construction workers [1]. The main reception room is dominated by a fireplace of red Italian marble, presented by Mussolini. Much of the furniture was designed by Paul Laszlo.

Although the site is on the same mountain as the Berghof, Hitler rarely visited the property. It has been suggested he only visited the Kehlsteinhaus around 10 times, and most times for no more than 30 minutes. It was perhaps because of this lack of close association with Hitler, the property was saved from demolition at the end of the war. It was subsequently used by the Allies as a military command post until 1960, when it was handed back to the State of Bavaria.

We have an apartment in a family run resort called the Alpenhotel Weiherbach. It has an indoor pool and a scented hot tub (?). Noah loves the thought of playing in a pool, so we will use that as a bribe to first make him do some of the things we want. The resort also supposedly has free wi-fi (oh, what an age we live in) so I will bring the laptop and may do some blogging if the mood strikes me.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

New and Improved - Now with captions!...

OK, here are some of the captions offered by Debbie Schlussel at her blog (debbieschlussel.com):

Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil

Future Bush Family Photo. Those Are The Twins.

Future New York Runway During Fashion Week

Islamic Diversity: Eye-Slit, No Eye-Slit. "As I've Always Told George, Muslim Women Have a Lot of Choices."

"Honor Killings, Schmonor Killings. As We Say in Texas, Breast Cancer is Definitely the Biggest Crisis Facing Muslim Women in the Mid-East."

SEXY: Mrs. Bush Poses With the Muslim World's Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton

Woman on Our Right, Bush's Left: After the Photo, She Was Sentenced to Stoning for Immodest Decoration

All Three of These Women Can Ask for a Divorce From Their Husbands. Only One Can Get It.

New Al-Jazeera Comedy: "My Three Wives," Starring George Al-Bush.

Only One of These Women Can Drive in Saudi Arabia. Oh, Wait, None of These Women Can Drive in Saudi Arabia.

National Organization for Women, Jihad Caucus

So, Three Chicks Walk Into a Bar, er . . . Mosque. No Punchline. Just Beheading.

America's First Lady Moderates Debate of Our Time: "Niqab vs. Burqa"

Friday, October 19, 2007

Misty Prague morning...

Kathy and I were waiting at the bus stop across from the International school after dropping Noah off a few days ago. She was coming with me into the city to have a coffee with me at Coffee Heaven (the Czech equivalent of Caribou) before I went in to work. It was foggy and we noticed a nearby tall office building jutting up out of the mist. Luckily she had the camera and I snapped this picture.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Jeff Gedmin on CNN tomorrow...

An interview with our company president, Dr. Jeff Gedmin, will be broadcast on the CNN show "International Correspondents" tomorrow (Friday). It is on at 7:30 PM in Minnesota.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Birthday beers...

Well, today I turn 49 years old. Birthdays aren't a big deal to me, and I certainly don't get depressed by them. My saying is, "Any day on the green side of the grass is a good one." My recently departed in-laws [meaning they went back to the US after a visit here, not that they recently died], Bill, Gert, Nancy and Stuart, were kind enough to get me a little birthday present before they left. They visited a local beer store that has hundreds (well, at least scores) of different kinds of Czech beers by the bottle. They got me six bottles of beer. Here I am posing with them (the beers, not the in-laws).

One of the beers is particularly interesting as it has a naked woman on the label, with her hands strategically placed. I am enjoying that beer as we speak - both drinking it and looking at the label. Ah, being 49 isn't that bad.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Pigeon attack...

I was sitting at my desk last week when I heard a loud thud. I turned around but there was nothing unusual out my window, which if you recall looks onto a courtyard. I assumed that there were workers on the roof above my office and thought nothing more of it.

The next day I entered my office and as I walked around the desk to get to my chair I noticed something on the window. It looked like this. Look VERY closely.

Still can't tell what it is? Here is a view of my window from across the courtyard.

Yep, it was a pigeon strike. You can't tell from the picture, but the impression left on my window has the detail of an x-ray, showing individual feathers and details of the beak. It obviously wasn't even slowing down when it hit the window. I assume it has shuffled of the mortal coil, is not pining for the fjords and that it is an ex-pigeon.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The changing colors in Prague...

Autumn in the Czech Republic is very similar to fall in Minnesota. One of the big differences, though, is the relative lack of color in the changing leaves. Back home there is a pallette that includes reds, yellows and oranges of every hue. Here, there are various shades of tan and brown with just a smidgen of yellow thrown in.

One exception, though, is the ivy that grows on sum of the houses around here. That includes this house in our little village of Horomerice. Here is the house as it looked a few weeks ago.

Here is how it looks today. Pretty nice.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Anniversaries and Birthdays...

Today is my mom and dad's wedding anniversary. They were married 59 years ago today. Here is a picture from their wedding reception.

Tomorrow, October 10th, would have been my dad's 79th birthday. This will be the first of these milestones without him around, and it is difficult.
October has always been the biggest month for birthday and other celebrations. Other birthdays in October include mine, my youngest sister's and my mom's mom (deceased). The anniversary of my oldest sister and her husband is also in October.

It was always easy for me to remember my dad's age, since our birthdays are only a few days apart and he is thirty years older than me (so you can figure out that I will be 49 next week).

It's still hard to believe that he is gone, and of course, we all miss him greatly.

Monday, October 8, 2007

More YouTube Radio Free Europe video...

I found another video on YouTube that talks about RFE/RL. It says that it's a movie trailer but when I googled it I didn't find anything, so I'm not sure if this video is a piece of something bigger or not. Stoll, there's some good stuff here, including video of the effects of the bombing of the RFE building in Munich in 1981.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Train strike in Germany. D'oh! (Updated)...

Update: The in-laws didn't end up leave Dresden until about 10:30 PM on Friday night, meaning an arrival in Prague just before 1 AM. I had found a limo service on-line and arranged to meet them on the platform at the main train station. I did this because I wasn't sure if there was a taxi stand there. The guy I talked to spoke passable English, and I gave him the details of their arrival - train number, number in the group, cell phone number (our current spare phone) and which train station they would be arriving into (there are several in Prague). Fortunately, the driver called the their cell phone just before the arrival time, because they had gotten off at a different train station. Not to worry, said the driver, since the main station where he was is just a 5 minute drive - especially at 1:00 AM.

Anyway, they got to our little village about 1:20 and were tired but otherwise in good spirits. It seems that on the way they met some kind people who spoke English. And despite a very crowded train (due to the many cancelled trains) Bill and Gert were offered seats by polite younger folks. There will be many more stories from the return trip from Berlin as a result of the strike. So, as Bill Murray wold say, they got that goin' for them.

The in-laws went to Germany on on Wednesday to complete the Prague-Vienna-Berlin trifecta. The trip to Vienna by train had been uneventful, even pleasant, and the same was expected on the trip to Berlin. Well, while the trip TO Berlin went fine, the trip BACK was another matter.

Unknown to us, the train drivers in Germany had planned a 3-hour strike for today. They are in the midst of contract negotiations as they attempt to secure 31% pay raises, and one of the clubs they have is to conduct nuisance strikes in an effort to motivate the public to press for a settlement so they stop being inconvenienced. The strike had the intended impact, throwing the system into chaos. The four in-laws were supposed to get on the train about 12:30 this afternoon, arriving in Prague about 5:15.

Well, as I write this it is 7:30 and we aren't sure where they are or if they are on Czech soil yet. After their initial train was cancelled they boarded a later train that got them as far as Liepzig, just northwest of Dresden. They boarded a train for Dresden about 5:00 that was to connect them to the train to Prague, but the train left Liepzig about 40 minutes late, so we don't know if they made the train connection in Dresden.

More later.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Funniest. Movie. Bit. Ever...

It's Friday and I needed a bit of the old Inspector Clouseau humor.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The falling dollar (Help!!)...

The US dollar continues to fall against other currencies, to the point where it takes more than one US dollar to buy one Canadian dollar. Since I can remember the Canadian dollar has always been worth about $.75.

For those of you in the US, the falling dollar is likely fairly invisible to you. An exception is if you take a trip somewhere outside of the US. If you go to London you will find that it takes $2 to buy a single British pound, making an already expensive city horrendously expensive for Americans.

You may also notice that the price of some items made overseas is increasing. Take a hypothetical widget that is made by a German company that was 10 Euros a year ago. At an exchange rate of .8 Euro to a dollar, the price when converted to US dollars is $12.50. Today that same 10 Euro price, using the current exchange rate of .705 Euro to a dollar, is $14.18. Nothing has changed except the exchange rate, but the cost to an American for the same item is now over 13% higher than last year.

Conversely, there is a pretty significant benefit from the falling dollar for US companies. Since the same amount of Euros buys more dollars than last year, US goods and services are cheaper for foreigners to buy. This allows US manufacturing to continue to do well, keeping unemployment low. Also, there will be a flood of European tourists visiting places like Disney World and the Mall of America.

For American expats the negative impact can be pretty severe. I am paid in US dollars so when the dollar falls it basically translates into a salary cut. There is no change for things that we buy in the US. For example, I buy term life insurance from an American company and pay (obviously) in US dollars, so the falling dollar does not effect my payment. However, the lease for my house here in Prague is in Euros, 1,500 Euros per month, to be exact. When we moved here last year that 1,500 Euros translated into $1,875. Because of the continuing slide of the dollar that same 1,500 Euros now costs me $2,128. The graph in this post shows the fall of the dollar just since last October.

The fall of the dollar in relation to the Czech koruna (crown) is nearly identical to the Euro. So every time we go to the grocery store, or out to dinner or to the movies we are paying significantly more than a year ago. One interesting note - when I lived in Saudi Arabia I was insulated from currency fluctuations since the Saudi Riyal is fixed to the dollar at 3.75 Riyal per dollar (and still is as far as I know).

Working for a cash-strapped non-profit doesn't help since there is no money in the budget to pay us more to make up the difference.

On the flip side of the coin, a stronger dollar is like getting a pay raise since local goods and services take fewer dollars to buy. Unfortunately, no one is talking about the dollar getting stronger any time soon, and it would have to get much stronger before it back to where it was when we moved here.

Anyway, I just wanted to vent about how it sucks to be me right now.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Family visit (updated)...

Sorry, I have been remiss by failing to post more about the current visit by Kathy's parents, Bill and Gert, and her sister Nancy and brother-in-law Stuart. They arrived just over a week ago and have just under a week left. It has been a very full week that included a 3-day train trip to Vienna. Unfortunately, I was not able to go on that trip because I had to work last Friday even though it was a national Czech holiday and RFE/RL was closed (see "end of the fiscal year" post below).

Since I have to work Kathy has been going with them during the day to see the primary attractions here in Prague - Prague castle and St. Vitus cathedral, Old Town Square, the Charles bridge, Petrin hill, Wenceslas Square, etc. The weather has been very spotty which has slowed down the touring a little, but the slower pace has been good and keeps everyone from getting burned out and exhausted.

The four visitors are getting a train this morning bound for Berlin (a four hour ride, same as the train ride to Vienna). They have a hotel not far from where we stayed during our visit to Berlin earlier in the year, so they will be close to the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie. They are only in Berlin for two nights and will be back in Prague on Friday afternoon. Because of their visit we (by that I mean Kathy) had to figure out how to buy train tickets here in Prague. Now that we (and by we I mean Kathy) know how to do that I am sure that we will start taking train trips for long weekend holidays.

I will post some more pictures later.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Happy New (Fiscal) Year...

Well, today is October 1st, the first day of RFE/RL's new fiscal year. Our fiscal year is in synch with the FY of the US government, which makes sense since we get 100% of the money we spend from Congress. I started work in mid-August last year, so the end of that fiscal year was pretty much a blur. I hadn't been there to prepare for it, and I was so involved in just figuring out what my job was that I don't think I did much good (or bad) as it ended.

Like the government and other entities that it funds, money from a current fiscal year has to be spent by the end of that fiscal year or you lose it. I won't get into the nuts and bolts too much, but by "spent" I don't mean that things have to be paid for, but there has to be either an order placed by September 30th or you have to have received the goods or services by September 30th. There is absolutely no incentive to spend a penny less than your budget, even if you spend money on things you don't really need. If you don't spend your full budget this year, the perception (and maybe the reality) is that you don't need as much money as last year (and we can't have that).

Congress being as efficient as they are (do I need to use the //sarcassm// warning?) we won't actually get a new budget passed and signed by the President until January or February. What do we do until then? There is something called a continuing resolution. Congress basically allows the US government (and grantees like RFE/RL) to continue to operate at last year's funding level until they get around to passing a real budget. But if the real budget comes in lower than last year, you are in a pickle because you have been spending as if you would get the same amount as the previous year.

There is a huge difference between the end of the fiscal year at RFE/RL (a non-profit grantee of the US government) and a company like ATK (my last employer). On the private side there are so many more factors in play that the complexity and work involved can be enormous. Take how much you spend in the year. At RFE/RL what we spend is equal to the budget that Congress gives us. When the budget is passed we get the full amount dropped on us at one time (albeit a little later than the actual start of the fiscal year). A private company has to actually 1) sell things, 2) deliver things, 3) invoice for the things that it delivered, and then 4) get paid. If you sell less than you projected you will take in less cash than you projected. Even if you are right about how much you sell, if you deliver later than planned it means that some of the money you thought you would get paid this year will actually be paid next year. Then there's the whole profit thing. The price of steel (or aluminum or tungsten) goes up unexpectedly and all of the sudden you are selling items at a loss. Of course, the price of steel could go down, except that isn't likely. Prices rarely go down.

The other big difference between a non-profit, government funded company like RFE/RL and a company like ATK is stockholders. How much cash, sales and profit you estimate to generate this year is noted by the Wall Street analysts and these figures are then used to gauge how well you are running your company. If you come in at or very close to expectations the company management proves that it knows what it is doing. Coming in with better than expected numbers is good too. But come in under expectations and Wall Street will assume you don't know what you are doing and the result is that the stock will get pounded.

I'm not complaining about this system since it has worked very well over these many years. But these additional influences make for a busier end of the fiscal year, with greater pressures and frustrations, but also greater rewards. A stock price is a solid way to gauge how well you are (collectively) doing your job. There is no similar way to gauge effectiveness when you work for a government funded non-profit.