Friday, November 13, 2015

More Travel Tips: Money

Lately, I've been hearing from friends that they've had their ATM or credit cards hacked while on the road. When I called into my bank to advise that I was travelling, the coordinator told me that she'd been getting a lot of "hot card" alerts, i.e. stolen or hacked cards.

The challenge of getting money on the road today is, unless you're carrying all the cash you need, you're dependent upon cards.  Travelers cheques aren't worth taking (imho) as it's harder to find places who will cash them.  If they do cash them, the fees can be up to 40% of the face value.  Plus, the exchange rate is often better with cards.  Certain credit cards & banks will waive the foreign transaction fee (Capital One, Chase Sapphire, etc.) so it literally can pay to use cards.

In general, your cards could be compromised anywhere (Hello, Target!). However, it's a bit easier to deal with the issue when you're home vs. travelling.  So, here are some tips to help lessen the chances of being inconvenienced by "hot cards" on the road:

1. Bring 2 credit cards from separate banks - If one card gets compromised, then, you will have the other one.  Some exceptional cards will express you a new card but you'll still need something while you're waiting.

2. Bring 2 ATM cards - Some banks offer fee free checking - or you may have multiple checking accounts with your bank.  Use one of them as your "travel" account. Deposit enough money in this account to cover your travel expenses. If something does happen to that card/account on the road, it's not your main checking account.

3. Use an old hotel key card to get into bank ATMs after hours - The bank coordinator told me that she thought some of the hacking occured from inserting the card in the door slot to access the ATM. That may or may not be the case, but, if you're concerned, use the old hotel key to gain access. I recommend carrying a card with a magnetic strip in your suitcase anyway.  Many eco hotels require the key card to be in a slot to turn on the lights in your room.  I, personally, have left the room and the key card in the slot as I've departed.  While it's not a super pain to get a new a key card, why waste the time?

4. Use AMEX or Visa Gift cards in lieu of cards or cash for shopping - In some ways, you could consider these the new travelers' cheques as they're widely accepted and independent of your accounts.

If you do get hacked or lose your cards, I recommend calling the banks ASAP to report your accounts being compromised & to discuss your options.  If you lose your ATM card, you may have the option for the bank to run your credit card through their terminal.  They may be able to give you cash at a lower interest rate than if you used your credit card as a straight ATM card in the machine.

I hope these tips help and I wish you safe travels.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Deutschland 83

As I am emerging from a crazy period, my brain space is starting to clear.  Of course, I will attempt to blog more because I simply like blogging.  Sending that intention out to the universe...

One of the other things I enjoy doing is watching clever television which can be challenging to find. Over the summer, Phil was scrolling through the guide & came across a show that was "in German with English Subtitles".   Of course, we were totally intrigued & it ended up being the fourth episode of Deutschland 83.

Deutschland 83 was a joint project between Sundance & RTL, Germany's largest television network, and is the first German language show to be broadcast in the US. The premise is a young East German native, Martin, is recruited by the Stasi to spy on the West in 1983. Watching it was like falling into a black hole and landing square in 1983.  Everything from the sets to the music to the socio-political issues, they nailed it.  Creator Anna Winger said it wasn't that difficult to find backdrops for the scenes as much of what was East Berlin still looks like East Berlin.

As we jumped in halfway through the season, we had a hard time following along. So, we took the plunge & purchased the entire series from iTunes. It was a leap of faith but totally worth it.  I've started watching it again and I realize that I missed so many subtle details during the first run.  Oddly, I am forming a real attachment to the series - the kind of attachment that I only have with music. Aside from the intelligent writing, there were a handful things that struck me through the series:

1. The colors on the sets - When Martin wakes up in West Germany, everything is brightly colored.  It reminded me of the Radiohead video for "Fake Plastic Trees" - big, bold, & clean

2. Toblerone - Martin has a Toblerone for the first time and eats it like a Snickers. I rewound that scene multiple times because I could not get my mind around somebody eating a Toblerone like that.  You're supposed to break off each peak individually. Then, you slowly savor the smooth chocolate and lightly chew on the honey nougat to experience its full flavour.  It's a real sensual experience. I feel he was disrespectful to the Toblerone. Also, I feel weird that I have feelings about an imaginary person disrespecting a candy bar. Disclaimer: Toblerone is only chocolate bar I liked a child and it continues to be one of my favorite things to eat (MB + Toblerone = <3 forever).

3. Description of the American General's Taste In Women - At one point in the series, Martin tries to conjecture what sort of women the American General likes based on his taste in food. A long time ago, I read a study that showed food, sex, & music fired the same pleasure receptors in the brain.  As some of the US stuff can a bit on the conservative side, I appreciate a tv character publicly acknowledging this aspect of life.

4. Alexander Beyer - Excuse me, I am about to be rude...but he is the Salted Almond Toblerone of men.  He looks like Phil's cousin who is the second hottest man on earth.

Even if you don't have a thing for Toblerones, hot German men, or 80s music, I highly recommend Deutschland 83.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

One Must Have Goals

I had mentioned that I’d be posting more from Australia.  Well, we all know how that worked out.   If you’re up & close and personal with me on a regular basis, you’re probably not surprised at my lack of blogging.  My track record on returning calls & emails runs on the slow side. 

Anyway, Australia has always been one of my places – it’s an American West Coast lifestyle with European infrastructure.  As with any good adventure, the country left a couple of permanent physical marks on me including a new piercing and a new hair color.  Thank you, Southern Sun!

A lot has happened since my adventure Down Under, the biggest news being my new day job! Hooray! People are now calling me Peggy Olsen which I totally dig.  My new employers promised I wouldn’t be at work until 9p most nights.  So far, they’ve upheld their word which I really appreciate.  With all my newfound free time, I’ll probably be updating my blog a lot more.  One must have goals, right?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Are you coming to this school or what?

There's always been something about Australia for me...maybe it was the music? Maybe it was "Facts of Life Down Under"?  I am not sure when or where the seed was sowed but it's just one of the places I've always dreamt of seeing.  When I filled out my SAT application in high school, I realized that the University of Sydney would take the scores as part of their application.  After that, I always wondered, "What if...".  Although looking back, I am not sure I could've handled going away & not coming home for a long time.  Being 10,000 miles away from home doesn't lend itself to any quick visits. But, still...

In 2003, I was able to make here for the first time & it surpassed my expectations.  Melbourne reminded me of Boston & Sydney was more like Los Angeles.  At the time, the whole country really felt like it was at the end of the earth.  I can't articulate the feeling beyond you're in a country the size of the US with the population of New York spread out across it while being thousands of miles from any world hub.  While the internet was around, it still felt a little isolated.  However, that isolation (and some of the social/political events of the late 80s/early 90s) gave way to amazing art, music, food, & fashion.  I was in love.

In 2010, I was approached about working in a vineyard in Victoria...but I still wasn't ready to take the plunge.

Finally, last year, I earned a sabbatical at work.  So, here was another chance to find out what it would be like IF I did take that opportunity to come here.  This time, I jumped on it. I got a cheap flight, rented an apartment, & packed my bag.

Here I am...and I've never been so glad to be anywhere. First, it's 80 degrees & summer here. Second, it's changed SO much!  With globalization & their robust economy, Australia feels so much more connected to the world.  "Murial's Wedding" & "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" celebrated their 20th birthday last year.  Stephen Elliot, the director of "Priscilla" said you could never make those films again. They really spoke to the isolation people felt at the time & how they'd do anything to get out of wherever they were.  Sydney still has it's unique character but it's much more global.

I am on my 5th day took me 3 nights before I woke up feeling ok.  Waking up after the 4th night, I felt great.  This morning, after my fifth night, I feel like I've always been here.  In my fog, I've been able to basically walk the entire city & most of the inner suburbs.  Today, I was definitely "myself" inasmuch as I picked up some great interesting wines to prepare for my WSET.  I've made a list of music I'd like to pick up...most of the unique stuff is from New Zealand...which may still have that isolated feel Australia had 10+ years ago?

AND - most importantly, I closed the loop on my first opportunity to come here. I didn't realize my apartment is within walking distance from the University of Sydney campus.  So, I bought this ferocious lion t-shirt from the "Uni Store". If anybody asks me if I went to the University of Sydney, I can finally say, "Technically, yes...".

P.S. Doesn't the lion look like he's saying, "Are you coming to this school or what?"

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Pomme Frites

I love fried potatoes. There. I said it.

French fries seem to be a popular snack in a few European countries & in Quebec...but in the US?  Not so much - which is a total drag if you ask me.  I am guessing with the resurgence of whole food eating, having a treat of fresh potatoes cooked in real fat once in a while has become permissible, if not downright trendy.

A few months ago, I heard about the Walloons Food Truck & have been waiting for them to start rolling.   Today, I realized they were going to be out & about in an area where I may be finding myself.  Success!!! I was able to catch up with them before they closed up.

Phil ordered poutine & I had a regular cornet with maple mayo - which tasted like the maple cured bacon my mum used to get in the 70s.  Both were SOOOOOOO delicious.  The portions were just right.  The frites were crisp & tasty and not heavy at all.  The best part? They totally validated my existence on social media:

That's me on the Twitters!!! I am the Emperor of Japan!!!

Do yourself a favor & check out their fritekot.  It's a lot of happiness for $5!


Monday, September 15, 2014

Such is life for a animal lover

Until yesterday, the cats outnumbered the people at the Evil Lair.  Carl, the big fluffy tuxedo cat, hadn't been doing well for the better part of 2 months.  Looking back, he wasn't the healthiest pet I've ever owned.  After years of multiple procedures, medications, & additional care, Phil & I had a tough discussion last Sunday about how much more we should do.  We took him to the vet one last time on Tuesday & she was very compassionate about the whole thing.

Our vet is Dr. Palmer & she works at VCA City Cats in Arlington, MA.  VCA City Cats is great for us inasmuch as it's T accessible; has ample parking; is not terribly expensive; is linked up with the 24 hour vet hospital in Woburn (for late night emergencies); has convenient hours; & has a really cool/efficient/knowledgeable/dedicated staff.  Carl was one of those cats who often needed the chain gloves (:-|) but he liked Dr. Palmer & her staff. She is a bit of a cat whisperer.

Dr. Palmer recommended a vet who makes house calls - Dr. Johnson from Lincoln Veterinary Services. If Carl needed another consult or if we decided it was his time, she could help us.  As the week progressed, Carl was declining quickly.  Yesterday (Sunday), we decided not to wait any longer.    Our options were to wait until the vet office opened on Monday; go to the emergency vet; or call Dr. Johnson.   We decided to call Dr. Johnson & she was available within a few hours. She was AMAZING with the whole thing.

Side note: while we passing the afternoon waiting for Dr. Johnson, our dear friend, BGR, texted me, asking if we were up to anything devious.  Phil had been pretty upset all day - Carl is technically his cat & he made the decision.  As soon as he saw BGR's text, he started laughing, "I just hired a cat hit woman to take out my cat. Does that count as devious?".

I won't get into the details but I was unsure what to expect from the whole thing.  When I made the call, I didn't have the presence of mind to ask a lot of "operational" questions.  That's actually why I am writing this blog post - maybe somebody will stumble upon it & perhaps it will be helpful? Basically, she came to the house with her doctor bag & examined Carl.  She validated our decision & explained the procedure (3 shots). In the end, she was at our house for under an hour.  She wrapped him in one of my sweaters that he liked to sleep on & took him with her. The procedure cost $400 & she takes cash, checks, or credit cards.  Luckily, I've not had to price this out before but I *think* this was a fair rate - especially since it was a weekend & it made things a lot easier for both us & Carl one last time.

I love animals so much but this is the real downside - you rarely outlive your pets.  Oddly, while I am sad about Carl's passing, in some ways, it's a relief.  He had been sick for so long.  I can see the 2 other cats are definitely relieved...I was not expecting that.

Aside from the vet recommendations, I have a couple of other cat recommendations that have worked well for us:

Bench & Field Cat Treats - Our cats are somewhat picky & prefer to hover around the dinner table for scraps vs. eating their own food.  These are the only cat treats they like.

Target Brand Unscented Cat Litter - It's no worse - and quite frankly, no better - than any other cat litter on the market. We've tried ALL of them.   For $6, it's the best deal in town.

Cat Box Mat - I got a really cheap shower mat that looks like this; cut it in thirds; & placed a third in front of the cat box.  The webbing seems to trap any extra litter as the cats step out of the box.  It's been super helpful with keeping the area clean.

Hypno Mice - I have NO clue what's in these...but one cat carries this toy around in his mouth like it's an actual mouse he caught.  Ridiculous & hilarious.

As always, if you have any cat recommendations, I am all (pointy cat) ears in the comments.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Music Movies

Last night (Saturday), exciting person that I am, made myself a big salad & turned on tv.  JACKPOT!!! Never Tear Us Apart, the INXS miniseries was on Showtime.   INXS was band I've always loved. If "Kick" came out today, it would not sound out of place.  Aside from the music, they had a really charismatic lead singer who had a whole load of lady drama.  While the miniseries didn't get into the whole J.D. Fortune/Terence Trent D'Arby era of the band, their early history is more than enough fodder for 3 hours of engrossing entertainment.

One thing that strikes me about music movies - most of the time, the actors don't actually look like the musicians. However, all you really need is some strategically worn accessories and everybody knows who you are.  In this case, the guy who played Michael Hutchence had long curly black hair & a lot of flowy shirts.  The guy who played Bono appeared to be short with a goatee, military style hat, & red sunglasses.  In The Runaways, Kristen Stewart wore a pink blazer when she was "solo" Joan Jett.   Problem solved!

Anyway, watching the miniseries made me want to compile of list of my favorite music movies.  Here goes:

1. The Runaways - Based on Cherie Currie's book, "Neon Angel". Floria Sigismondi put a lot of thought into how she wanted the movie to look, i.e. very shiny for the Japan scenes, etc.. This is one of my favorite overall movies.

2. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life - This could also be put on my favorite movies made from graphic novels list. While it's based on a comic book (Hello, Brigitte Bardot!), it's a live action, irreverent take on Serge's life.  It did leave out his infamous appearance on the talk show with Whitney Houston but it was outstanding.

3. La Vie en Rose - Edith Piaf's music was very reflective of her life - very sad, lots of highs & lows, with the backdrop of Parisian cabaret.

4. 24 Hour Party People - Rise & fall of the Manchester scene in the 80s.  This is a movie where most of the actors didn't look like the musicians but they all had defining haircuts & accessories.  They did an especially good job giving the Ryder brothers bowl cuts & boxy sweaters.

5. Hillary & Jackie - File under: Family secrets are stranger than any fiction

1. Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon - In the early 2000s, I had multiple tickets to see this band & they never showed for any of the concerts.  After watching this, honestly, I am surprised they were even functional enough to form a band.  It was an accomplishment to transcend their upbringing & get it together.

2. Anvil: The Story of Anvil - This is what happens when you never stop chasing your dreams.

3. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart - Behind the scenes look at Wilco's recording process and a peek into how bizarro being signed to a major label can be.

4. Lemmy - He seems like such a nice, regular guy!

5. Dig - Comparative documentary of the Dandy Warhols & Brian Jonestown Massacre.  How do the fates decide who gets the buzz & the attention in the moment?

Matt Phipps, our afternoon DJ, recommended the Big Star documentary to me.  I need to put in my Netflix queue. If you have any recommendations, please post them in the comments!