Sunday, March 31, 2013

Update from Cluj

We just got back Friday evening from a trip through Hungary to Germany. (Freiberg, Saxony, to be specific.) It was fun! We got a great deal on train tickets from Budapest to Dresden--56 euros each round trip, purchased 60 days in advance. In contrast, the round trip tickets from Cluj to Budapest are 37 euros each. The sad thing about the Schengel zone is that I only got passport stamps at the border between Romania and Hungary, even though I crossed three borders on my way to Germany.

During the trip, we got to spend a couple days at the temple with one of the Hungarian groups, and we also went to church Sunday at Alex's old branch--now a ward--in Budapest. I liked being at the temple with the Hungarians, and I liked going to church in Hungarian again, but the whole experience was surprisingly underwhelming. It's the first time I've been to church in Hungary since the stake was organized, and I guess I set my expectations too high. Case in point: our little branch (~30 people) in Cluj sings twice as loud as the Budapest ward (100+) we visited. Also, there was nothing spiritual about the meeting, and next to no mention of Christ. The first talk was random nonsense (e.g. "it's still worth it to give PH blessings even if the recipient only feels better for one second"), and the second, though interesting (valuing and protecting the environment), had minimal spiritual relevance. I'm sure this isn't the norm for that ward, and I probably just picked a bad day to visit, but the overwhelming feeling I had from this underwhelming experience was that I live where I'm supposed to be living, which is not in Budapest. With the large group at Hungarian week in Freiberg, I had the same feeling. When I decided to move to Europe, Budapest was actually my first choice, but I eventually chose Romania. Today, in sacrament meeting in Cluj, I thought, "It is very nice to be home. This is where I belong."

Last week I ran into lots of people I hadn't seen for several years, and for the first time in a while, I had to explain to lots of people why I made the choice to move out of the USA to Romania, of all places. In case anyone thinks it was an accident--it wasn't! As I've been telling people recently, Cluj is my favorite place I've ever lived. That is not because I think it's the best place in the world for anybody; it's just because it's the best place in the world for me right now.

It is very good to be home. :-)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Traveling in Germany

Alex, Tibi, and I went to Freiberg, Germany the week before last (Oct 21-28) with the Oradea district temple trip. This was my fourth trip to Germany in my life (2002 Stuttgart with Grandma, 2005 Frankfurt/Stuttgart for Andrea Jung's wedding, 2005 Freiberg for Sari Kriszti's wedding).

This time around, my German was even more pathetically nonexistent than before! I did have some opportunities to have short conversations in German, and by the end of the week I had warmed up enough to have a 20-min conversation with a man staying in the room across the hall. I forget where he was from, but we discussed the weather (freak snow storm), his family (children in Switzerland) and where the other temples are in Europe. (I had forgotten there were several in western Europe, like in the Netherlands and Denmark, etc.) He also told me how much he enjoyed seeing foreigners (non-Germans) at the temple.

A couple other observations about Germany: the Schengel treaty means I didn't get any new stamps in my passport. :-( Once I cross into Hungary or Germany, I can essentially go wherever I want without having my passport checked at all.

One thing that really, really bothered me was that NOBODY CHECKED MY IDENTIFICATION AT THE AIRPORT. Not a single person! We left the secure area in the Dusseldorf airport on the way there, then had to go back through security and get chewed out for not speaking German by the woman who searched us. In retrospect, I should have pointed out that if they had asked for our ID like real security guards, they would have realized we weren't German.

The point is, anyone could have taken my boarding pass and gotten on the plane. After I passed security, if a man had stolen my boarding pass, he could have taken my place without a hitch, since the airport staff just has everyone scan their own pass as they get on board--no one even looks at the data as it's passing through. It was very disturbing to me. It was true in Dusseldorf, Dresden, and Munchen--all three German airports we passed through.

One last note: even though I was in Germany, and even though I didn't ever get around to opening my Romanian language book, I seem to have broken through to a new level in Romanian. Having to communicate so much in Romanian with our fellow travelers helped me make a breakthrough, and it's suddenly easy to express myself. I'm really pleased! Now if only I could figure out the rest of the possessive pronouns...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

My favorite day of the week

I love Tuesdays. Tuesday is the day when I make peace with the fact that the workweek has actually started and it's time to get down to business. At the same time, I know I still have several days to complete the tasks that need to get done this week, so there's little frustration or hurry in how I work. On Tuesdays, I feel competent, smart, and productive.

Tuesday is not only about work, either, because rest and the weekend is already in sight. It's only a convenient day or two away from Wednesday or Thursday evening, when new movies usually have pre-release showings at the Polus Center for $3 a ticket. Also, Tuesday is the day Alex and I usually do planning for the business, upcoming projects, and future travel. So I always feel optimistic and hopeful.

Every Tuesday morning around 10 am, Tanti Lucretia* knocks on our door and starts cleaning our apartment. So I usually start the day with tidying up, making space for her to work, getting errands done, and generally getting the "little stuff" out of the way--always extremely satisfying--and by early afternoon, the entire apartment is fresh and gleamingly clean. After Lucretia finished today, I sat down and chatted with her while we both ate a light lunch. A few years ago she bought herself a little one-room apartment to live in. She is already in retirement, so her options for earning extra income are limited, but she is trying to pay off her bank loan in the next year. She is so grateful for the extra income we give her (I'm guessing at least 2-3x what she makes per hour at her other jobs). Four dollars an hour is a laughable wage by our standards, but it makes such a huge difference in her life, and it's such a little thing for us. This is one expense I'm glad to have the opportunity to pay. Today I feel lighthearted, blessed, and grateful beyond measure.

*When Rick was here a couple months ago, he mentioned how nice it was having someone come to cook and clean a couple times a week in Tbilisi. The idea grew on me--at least the cleaning part--and before long, Lucretia was coming over to our apartment weekly. We already knew Lucretia because she comes several times a week to take care of Tanti Anna, the old woman (80+ yrs old) who lives above us. Lucretia herself is probably in her sixties. Anna recently had to cut Lucretia's salary because of changes in her financial situation, and Lucretia was working upstairs less often, so we knew that she (Lucretia) would have the time and be grateful for the money. So now she comes once a week on Tuesdays and cleans our whole apartment. It's not so much that Alex and I couldn't do it ourselves; we just didn't have enough time or energy to do a very good job of it. Now, we just concentrate our efforts on being extremely tidy, and keeping the kitchen and bathroom moderately clean throughout the week, and when Lucretia comes, she does everything else, and very thoroughly. Like mop the entire wood floor and carefully remove all the dog hair from the furniture once a week. It's fabulous. We pay her the equivalent of  $15 each time she comes (she usually finishes in 3-4 hours). It's absolutely worth the expense, and we've increased our work productivity by at least that much as a direct result of worrying less about housekeeping. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Momentous Decision

(I should note that I made this decision and started implementing it several hours before I heard Elder Uchtdorf's talk in the Saturday morning session.)

I am not going to be on FaceBook anymore. I'm not going to delete my profile, because I want my contact information to be available and because deleting the profile would have consequences for the business' FaceBook page, but I won't be visiting the site anymore to check up on friends and family, nor will I be posting anything. I changed my password to a randomly-generated code (which I have saved in a safe, but inconvenient, place), and I deleted all my shortcuts to it and the app on my iPad. I can post to our FB page through a third-party app that also manages our Twitter posts.

Why? Because it's an enormous time suck. And in spite of tax season take 2 winding to a close, I find myself with more work than ever, and when I sit down in front of the computer, it's just too easy to get distracted, and the FB news feed never ends. Literally. As soon as you get to the bottom, more appears.

It's not the only thing I waste time on, so I've made other changes, too: I cut my blogroll down from about 30 to only 5 blogs, and I deleted a bunch of my shortcuts, like to Amazon. I have deliberately avoided StumbleUpon since I heard about it, so at least that never became a bad habit. (Sorry, Alex.)

I do reserve the right to not leave FB permanently. But for the foreseeable future, email or call me if you want to get in touch.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Back to the real world

In more ways than one. The past couple months have been really brutal--in fact, March and April were arguably the hardest few weeks Backyard Bookkeeper has ever had. Alex and I ended up handling almost ALL the additional workload that came in because of tax season, and for various reasons we were not able to share that workload with our other bookkeepers. (Our workload has just about doubled since January.) And as soon as we got all the eleventh hour clients taken care of by the tax deadline, we had to turn around and get all the regular monthly work done, in addition to the payroll/sales tax work that is due by the end of April, and the few clients who are on quarterly bookkeeping schedules. Part of the problem was that I had planned this week off, so I had the additional stress of trying to get everything done not by April 30th, but by April 21st. It was... quite a challenge.

In the end, it all comes done to triage: what you can reasonably manage to do, what absolutely has to be done, which client can't survive without you, which client will need things while you're gone, and so on. This part of my work is really hard for me. For some reason, I always think that there's a way to get EVERYTHING done, and I plan accordingly. This never works, and I am surprised by my failure every darn time.

So now back to the real world, with more reasonable expectations, a more reasonable distribution of labor among our staff, and a more reasonable work schedule for me. Hopefully.

We are also just back from our mini-vacation, where I imposed a social media and email ban for the duration of the week. It was great. I was actually awake during the day and asleep during the night, and I spent a lot of time outside and as little time as possible thinking about work. This is where we were all week. It was beautiful! I love mountains, and I love green, and I love it even more when I get both in the same landscape. Check out Alex's pictures on Facebook.

So here we are, back in the real world. This week we'll still be busy catching up, getting back in touch with clients, and starting a major new work project. We are also waiting to hear back from Grow America about whether we made it past Round 2 of the contest. If we do, our chances of winning will be at least 12% (4 in 33 or less)--no small feat!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas Package

Today we received our "Christmas" package from my mom. I put Christmas in quotes because it was really just a bunch of stuff we asked her to send, but since it's almost Christmas, it came with a few goodies. Here's a partial list of the contents:

  • SOS pads. I didn't know these came in flavors! The lavender scent is kind of weird, but my glass casserole dish has never looked better. 
  • New shoes for me--size 12 Clark's. The looks of incredulity I got every time I asked for women's size 43 (European equivalent of US 12) were getting old. I bought these off of eBay a few weeks ago--nice red leather, perfect for fall/winter. Until now, all I had were sandals, a thin pair of tennis shoes, and some too-nice black leather heels. 
  • A monster bottle of fish oil. Vitamins, supplements, and OTC medication is really expensive here. For example, a little box of 10 Advil is about $4.00. Generic brands are not priced much better.
  • A bottle of chewable vitamin C, 500 mg per tablet. When I had a bad cold last month, I sent Alex to the pharmacy to get me some 500 mg vitamin C, since most vitamin C I've seen here is about 40 mg per pill. She came back with a small box of 500 mg capsules, but reported that the pharmacist had made her swear to not give me more than one a day. Apparently European vitamin C must be dangerous?
  • Vitamin D, 5000 IU per capsule. I wonder what the local pharmacist would say about these?
  • A new set of scriptures! This was a very nice surprise. A few months ago I was traveling by train, and left my scriptures on board. We went back several times to see if the cleaning lady had found them, with no luck. My theory is that the cleaning lady runs a profitable little side business selling lost and found items; she was a little too vehement about shooing us out of her "territory." Maybe someone will read them and end up being converted to the Church--it would make up for the disappointment of losing the set I've been reading and making notes in for the last eight years. In the meantime, my new set is so nice and shiny and pretty I'm having a hard time deciding what to read next. I recently finished the NT and the Book of Mormon. Maybe I'll just start back in Genesis this time and read all the way through, to break in the new set. It's the only way you can ever be certain you have separated ALL the pages.
  • Mapeleine. You can get real Canadian grade A maple syrup here, but it costs about $8/100 mL, and the bottle always runs out far too quickly. Mapeleine is a great compromise. I think I will have to make pancakes tonight!
  • Adhesive picture hangers. The walls of our apartment all appear to be made of concrete. We have not yet found a way to put a nail or screw in the wall. It's a good thing Mom sent us something that we can use to put pictures up, because we now have a few holes to cover. Alex and I put her mother's childhood portrait back into its original frame and put it on the wall tonight. The picture and frame weighs 1.3 kg--the hangers we used should bear up to 2.6 kg. Now we just wait and see if it sticks all through the night.
  • Twisty tabs! This might be my favorite thing in the box. I've already used three! I think Mom sent me a year's supply.
  • A nice big Ziploc bag. These come in very handy, and they are durable enough that you can reuse them many times if you wash and dry them thoroughly.
  • A nice surprise--Mom used a bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing to fill up some of the empty space in the Ziploc bag. This is Alex's favorite, and the only way you will ever be able to get her to eat salad.
  • Milk-Bone chewy dog treats. Pocak doesn't like most dog treats, and certainly not anything that's hard or tough or meant to be gnawed on. I'm not sure why. We haven't found any acceptable local substitutes for his favorite American brand, so we will make these last for several months.
Thank you, Mom!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Language learning goals

I'm feeling a lot better today; except for the post-nasal drip, I think the flu/head cold/whatever that was is over. However, now Alex is coming down with it. (I tried not to give it to you--sorry!)

So I expect to the next couple of days to be quiet, and therefore, I'm spending some time today thinking about goals and plans I've been neglecting, like working on our company website and studying Romanian.

My language goals are, by mid-September, to be able to
  • understand and participate in Church
  • read with basic comprehension
  • shop and use public transportation competently and confidently
  • discuss business, management, and basic accounting topics
I certainly have a lot of work to do!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Comparative economics

Alex and I are in the middle of a consulting project for a Romanian nonprofit. We are preparing a report on a number of topics relating to their operations, but a large part of my responsibilities have to do with the financial data. (This won't be as interesting to my readers as it is to me, so you are forgiven if you skip this post!) I have learned a lot of very interesting things in the past few weeks about local economics and household finances. Here is a simple comparison.

Two months in Romania

I'm coming up on two months in my new home. It's strange--I feel completely comfortable in my new life, as if I've been here for years, not weeks. I have absolutely no transition anxiety. When you consider that I once went from an LDS mission to student housing and college classes far from home in only five days with no problems, I guess it shouldn't be that unexpected.

So how is my life different? Now, I wake up in the morning with the comforting feeling that I have several hours to get things done before anyone else is up, because of the time difference between the US and Europe. It's like I'm getting all the perks of getting up at 4 am to get work done, but without actually having to get up until 10 am.

I'm also enjoying a much simpler life, with less multitasking. Here's a simple example: we no longer have a doggie door, so we have to take Pocak out every four hours or so. And since I no longer have an iPhone, I can't check my email or do other stuff online when I'm out of wifi range. And there's no one expecting me to call, even if I had the international minutes to do so. So now, when I walk the dog, that's all I'm doing--walking the dog!

Learning Romanian is going okay, but slower than I had hoped. Most of the time, I have people around who speak English or Hungarian, so I'm not forced to communicate the way I was in Hungary. Also, my comprehension is way ahead of my actual speaking vocabulary, because of all the Latin-based words and borrowed Hungarian, so it's too easy to nod my head and just say yes or no, rather than fight my way through a real conversation. I'm aware that these are just excuses for being lazy, but they are also real obstacles right now.

And my immigration status? Won't be a problem. It turns out the easiest way to establish residence is by opening an LLC and getting a permanent visa as a business owner. No proof of income required, just the LLC documentation. We're almost halfway there already--our business will be "up and running" within a week or two, and I have until August to submit my visa paperwork. Piece of cake, especially now that we have a decent lawyer on our side who needs English lessons and website help!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Julie's Adventure in South America

It was still dark, and I was groggy from sleep, but the sign that had just flashed past the train window was absolutely clear: Rio de Janeiro.

I confess, I panicked. I yelled to Alex to get out of bed—we were expected in Bucharest by noon, what on earth were we going to do? And how on earth did we end up on a train going to Brazil? Alex quickly left the cabin to look for someone, and within a few minutes, the train stopped and reversed itself to back up to the last station. More time passed as we waited, and I worked to get all our stuff gathered together. Now that I was thinking more clearly, it made sense that we had ended up on the wrong train. I could vaguely remember the conductor asking me to move into a different car of the train, and it was strange that there were so many Americans around us—that hadn’t been the case when we’d got on in Cluj. Eventually, an elderly couple arrived to help us get to the airport and figure out how to get back to Romania.

I was just on the verge of texting Sister Lundberg something to the effect of “Change in plans. Ended up on wrong train, will try to buy plane ticket from Brazil” when I sat up in bed and realized that I was back in the sleeping car I’d originally gone to bed in last night. The dream had been so real I was seriously disoriented, and it took me ten minutes or so to shake it off completely. I had to spend a few moments reconstructing a map of the world in my head to reassure myself that you can't get from Romania to Brazil by train!

Next time I’ll think twice when a conductor dressed as a mummy asks me to move to a new seat.