Panoramic Pictures Around the World

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Moving to a new Country: Planning stage

I recently read that on a survey moving to a new place is one of the most stressful experiences in life. Well, we are crazy enough to do this every 2-3 years in our current lifestyle.

We are deep in the process now of making the arrangements for our big move to South Korea this summer. Despite the immense help we have with the underlying infrastructure from the State Department, it is still a process that takes a lot of planning and patience.

1) Out with the old: A mix blessing is that moving forces us every 2-3 years to reassess our "inventory" at home and see what is truly needed and what is not. We realize how much junk we collect in a short time. This is also a good time to evaluate what things are too old, outgrown, or just not used anymore.

This year the embassy had their first annual Spring sale, and it was a hit. We sold just about everything we wanted to sell including 3 bikes, a PS3, a Wii, innumerable kids books, book stands, etc.There were probably over 100 people waiting at the gates when they opened the sale. The kids made some money from their sales of toys that they do not use anymore.

2) Selling the car: this is not a necessary step, since we can have the car shipped. However, this was a good opportunity to "cycle" our cars. We wanted to sell our minivan which has been a great family car, and get a new one while in DC to have it shipped to Korea. So far, this is working out and we've found a buyer. We'll just do with our older second car until we move and we should be able to sell it before leaving.

3) The pets: This is by far the biggest headache in moving!!! One would never imagine but our little critters are more complicated to move than our kids. Each move is like reinventing the wheel with new requirements by airlines and countries. It really should not be that way when you think about it but the airlines have made it immensely difficult and expensive to move them. We've had to make multiple calls and even get a little feisty with ignorant airline attendants. Some know the rules, some don't care and just tell you that it can't be done. To make it doubly complicated, we have to arrange for the trip to USA for our Home Leave and then again for our trip from USA to Korea. So far, it looks like the trip from Serbia to USA is all arranged. We are still working hard on the second half.

4) Picking a school: although I did not put it as number one on this list, it was a very important reason in our choosing Korea as a top pick for our next post. Since our older kids are at crucial school ages, we wanted a post with good schools. We found Seoul Foreign School, which has excellent reputation from friends that have had their kids there in the past, and we started the admission process as soon as we found we got Korea for our next assignment. The kids needed reference letters, copies of their transcripts, standardized tests, and even had to take a test. We've now been notified that they are all admitted into the school and are thrilled about it.

5) Planning what to do while on Home Leave: We are blessed that as part of our transition to the next post, we are required to have a Home Leave time in USA. The reason for this requirement is for the families working with the Foreign Service to continue with strong ties to USA and to re-familiarize themselves with what has changed since our last move. If people just went straight from one assignment to the next and only see USA for their short vacations, USA would become for some a more distant entity. I think this is wise.
Anyway, we have some big plans this year of making a trip we've always dreamed on doing: taking an RV all the way to Yellowstone with multiple stops on various must-see places. I'm still working hard on arranging this trip. We are also planning to visit Julie's family for several days. We'll have fun.

The actual packing and moving will be done via the embassy which greatly diminishes this stressful part. Also we do not have to find a house, unlike many other expats with private entities, since the embassy at your new post arranges that.

So, yes moving is stressful but it is also cleansing and helps you stayed focused and what is important and what is not. We are getting better each time and so far this move is going as smooth as one would expect. Ask me again in a few months!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Szeged, Hungary

Spring is upon us in Serbia and the weather is just beautiful. This last winter was unusually mild compared to our others and we've had an early start to Spring already for a few weeks. Trees are getting their leaves and the air has a nice crisp sensation in the mornings.

To celebrate Julie and Tyler's birthdays we took a short weekend trip to the border with Hungary, to the town of Szeged just accross into Hungary. It is a small and charming town with a nice indoor Aquapark.  We stayed at a nearby hotel, so we could just walk everywhere. We noted many locals chose to bike around the town as it is very compact. It reminded us a little bit of Holland.

The Aquapolis was very nice, although not as big as anticipated. They have several slides and the kids had a blast in them all day long. Because of its location, we noted many license plates from Serbia and Romania too.

Hungarian cuisine is delicious, and we found a good local restaurant with typical food. Goulash, chicken paprikas were their specialties.

This maybe our last trip to Hungary before we leave Serbia. We have enjoyed this country multiple times and our kids often say Budapest is one of their favorite cities in the world.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Marathon End-of-Year Vacation

We celebrated the end of 2013 by taking a nice long vacation to visit Prague and Krakow. As this was a long drive, we divided the trip to various stops to make it fun and not as tiring. We took a drive to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Although initially this was just a stopover, we actually really enjoyed this city. It has a nice castle, overlooking the city.

Lo and behold, doing some walking downtown we stumbled into the "honorary" consulate of Costa Rica. We just had to take a picture of Silvia and I there.

We the drove to one of our primary targets: Prague. Julie and I had heard about how beautiful this city is, and we were happy to see that people were right. It reminds us a lot of Budapest in some ways. Personally, I find the riverfront to be prettier in Budapest, but the series of Palaces/Castles to be bigger and better preserved in Prague. They are both beautiful cities.

We took the kids also to this park that has an old "house of mirrors" which was really fun. 

This park also had a smaller replica of the Eiffel Tower, from which you get an awesome view of Prague. It is truly a beautiful scene.

After a couple of days in Prague, we then drove to our next destination: Krakow, Poland. Again, we had heard a lot about this city. It has a pretty old downtown with a castle.

While in Krakow, we had the great opportunity of taking a day drive to Auschwitz, the sad location of the infamous concentration camp. It is now a museum in which they've preserved the history very well. For a very good price, we had a guided tour which really gave us a background story. To make it even more haunting, the day was cold and foggy.

This part of the concentration camp is where the entrance from the train is located. Many movies have this location as an important scene.

We spent the New Year in Krakow and the city was full of festivities. They had a live concert and they had lots of food vendors. It was great fun for all of us.

Here are Julie and Silvia, enjoying a hot and tasty glass of Gluhwein, which is a mulled wine very typical of the whole region.

We drove down south to the town of Zakopane for a little skiing. It had not yet snowed enough for the season, so it was mostly with artificially-made snow. Nevertheless, we had fun and the kids cemented their skiing skills.

Finally, heading back south, we stopped in Budapest for one night to rest. We still had to go to our favorite restaurant there: The 100 Year Old Restaurant. It has delicious typical Hungarian food and they have live gipsy music in the evenings.

As we approach our final months in this region, we are starting to get a little nostalgic. It is a beautiful part of the world with intricate history and great people.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

And our next post is ....


It was that time again in which we put our bids for our next assignment. Each time we do this, we carefully weigh each potential new home given the information about the job, the schools and the general environment for our family. We felt that we got pretty lucky with Serbia for this last cycle and we've had a wonderful time here.

For this bidding cycle, we had a number of good choices in every continent (minus Antartica of course), so we felt that it was hard to go wrong. Nevertheless, we felt rather lucky and happy to see that we got Seoul, South Korea. From what we've read and hear from others that lived there with similar expat jobs, that they really enjoyed living in Seoul. In particular, this seems to be a cosmopolitan city, with excellent international schools and interesting potential sightseeing both in-country and in the region. Good food, safe city, and great infrastructure.

Now, we'll start the process of really homing-in the planning for our new post. Between now and the next summer, we'll need to arrange schooling for our three kids, move all of our stuff including selling two cars and buying a new one and somehow also get a dog and a cat first to USA and then to Seoul.  Thank goodness we have such a good infrastructure with our organization to do all of this. Every time I see how many other expats have such a hard time moving, I really appreciate how relatively easy our moves are.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Slovenia at its Best

We had traveled to beautiful Bled, Slovenia a while back for a skiing trip to Mount Vogel. During that time, we got the chance of seeing this town during winter. We had made a note to return to this town either during Spring or Fall, due to its beauty.

This time we got a great apartment we found via which turned out to be a great find. For a large family, places like this are excellent. The view from our apartment was great and it was a short 10 min walk to the lake.

Lake Bled turns into a beautiful mixture of colors this time of year, with trees ranging from bright red to yellow and green. It was great to stroll around the lake and try some of the delicious local pastries called kremsnita.

Julie and I hiked to a local hill from which you can view the whole lake, with the castle on one side and the island in the middle.

There are other places to visit while in Bled. Lake Bohinj, which is only about 20 min away nestled in the Triglav National Forest, offers a pristine view of its crystal-clear lake.

Other fun hikes were at the Savica Waterfall and at the Vintgar Gorge. The trails were well marked and offered great views.

Finally, we took a day trip to Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. We found this city to have a very nicely kept old-town and we even found a great restaurant with many typical Slovenian plates.

We had a nice, relaxing family time. We only wished we could stay longer.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hiking the trails of Kosutnjak Forest

Belgrade has been on a heat wave for the past few weeks. Finally, the temperature cooled overnight and this was a great opportunity to take a nice hike along Kosutnjak. This forest, which is near our neighborhood, is full of well-marked trails.

We found a map online that has an 11 km hiking map as below:

Obviously we were not about to do an 11 km hike, so I downloaded the map into our iphone and followed the coordinates. We did an abbreviated version that took us about 2 to 2 1/2 hours, including a stopover for a nice picnic.

Most of the path was either down hill or gentle slope except a smaller portion which was steeper.

It was a great way to burn some energy and enjoy this beautiful park near us.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

R&R: Costa Rica

After our first leg of our R&R in USA, we made the second half of our trip to Costa Rica. We always like combining seeing family in Costa Rica and seeing some new touristy area. Since I left Costa Rica in 1987 for my studies in USA, I have seen a steady improvement in the tourist infrastructure in this country in each of our visits. The last 5-10 years have been amazing in this matter for Costa Rica and the country has been smart in taking an important piece of the eco-tourism market. I remember the days when I would tell people I was from Costa Rica and they would say: "O yeah, I've heard of that island", which obviously meant they had no idea since Costa Rica is in Central America. Now, when I mention Costa Rica they often say: "Wow, I've always wanted to go there" or even better "I went there last year and had a great time".

Tyler, Celine and Austin had a great time seeing cousins, grandparents and uncles/aunts. The kids in both sides continue their natural growth and families seem amazed at how much they have changed. For our kids, Costa Rica is always a second home after Florida and they often say how much they identify with the culture.

We have traveled to most of the "popular" tourist places in Costa Rica. So this time I wanted to visit a lesser known place: Rincon de La Vieja National Park, which is in the province of Guanacaste, fairly close to Nicaragua. This was not a beach trip, but rather a rainforest adventure. After doing my usual research on multiple sites, including, I chose Blue River Resort. Boy, was I glad we went there. This place is fairly new and it was done with attention to details. The cabins are huge and with a beautiful rustic, yet comfortable look. It has five thermal pools at varying temperatures which are heated by waters from the nearby volcano. You can go from jacuzzi-type heat down to cool waters. They had mud baths, butterfly gardens and other fun things to see. All this nestled on beautiful vegetation that is full of natural colors.

The highlight of the trip in Blue River Resort were the two tours we took: The first one was a walk along the Blue River, which has light blue waters from minerals that deposit from the volcano. We splashed on waterfall with pristine water and saw lots of beautiful nature.

The second tour was the biggest hit: a one hour horseback ride culminating on a zip-line adventure over the tree canopies. Even our little one, Austin, was able to do these and we had a blast. The views were amazing as we zipped over rainforest and waterfalls.

The last bit on the zip line is a "Tarzan Swing" which literally is swinging on a line from one hill to another going over a creek.

Video of Celine on the "Tarzan Swing"

The rest of our visit in Costa Rica was still marked with other great places, such as the Peace Waterfalls near the Poas Volcano. This area had been nearly destroyed during an earthquake in 2009, and this private park has recovered fully from this tragedy. It is as beautiful (if not more so) than it was back then.

All great trips must come to an end. We made the long trip back (over 24 hours including layovers) to Belgrade where our lovely home was awaiting for us.