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Archive for January, 2012

Streetcars

January 31st, 2012
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There are certain cities in America that have more than rudimentary tram networks (Boston springs to mind as an example), but in most places if you come across a tram line, it is primarily a curiosity rather than a major mode of transportation. Conversely, many major cities in Europe retain trams as either the principal type of public transport or as the extensive supplement to the subway system, with every address in the city center sitting within a short distance of a tram stop.

When we were in Cracow, we took a number of shots of the passing streetcars. Here is a small selection.
 

Cracow streetcar Cracow streetcar Cracow streetcar Cracow streetcar
Cracow streetcar Bikes, trams and automobiles, Cracow Cracow streetcar

Photography, Travel

Misadventures in consumer energy markets

January 28th, 2012

Consumer energy markets have been deregulated for a few years now. A household in New Jersey has a choice of buying their electricity and/or gas from a range of suppliers. In theory, that gives the consumer the opportunity to shop around for the best rates and save a bundle on utility bills. In practice, my first experiment with that turned out to be less than positive.

The main reason for that is that while you can make a decision to switch to another energy provider “in seconds”, the switch does not occur for at least a month and a half after you place an order, which largely negates your ability to vote with your feet when you do not like the price. Furthermore, while there are plenty of easy ways to find deals on gas and electricity, you will be hard-pressed to accurately ascertain what the regular cost of energy is going to be like once the teaser rate expires.

Mid-way through last year, I decide to shop around for an alternative electricity supplier. There are quite a few of them keen to have me as a customer. They provide handy favorable comparisons of their introductory rates with that of my public utility (JCP&L – Jersey Central Power and Light), they include various bonuses for my signing up, and many do not demand any contractual obligations on my end. The fine print always says something along the lines of “After your introductory discount rate expires, we will charge you our market rate, which is currently X cents per KWh”. That last number is still somewhat lower than the current rate charged by JCP&L. Sounds like a reasonable deal.

I pick one of the companies that promise me 15% savings every month for an introductory period. It is called Energy Plus. They tell me they can switch me to their supply only several weeks down the line. When I ask why the wait, the incomprehensible explanation boils down to “such are the regulations”. That does not register with me as a potential future problem. I place the order nonetheless.

Over the next few months, electricity rate stays as advertized, which means I am saving those 15% or so every month. But when I get my first electricity bill after the introductory period, in late December, I am in for a nasty surprise. The rate skyrocketed to the point where I am now paying over 30% above what JCP&L would charge.

I call the supplier and get the “we are sorry you are unhappy, but there is nothing we can do” treatment. “These are our current rates”, I am being told. When I attempt to point out the fine print of the introductory offer and the reasonable market rate mentioned there, I hear that “true, those were the rates then, but energy rates are variable and the current rate is what it is today”.

Ok, I say, I am not going to remain your customer then. And that’s when I get knocked out: “If that is what you want to do, JCP&L will become your supplier again two weeks after your next billing cycle“. What!? I am supposed to keep paying your ridiculous rates for another month-plus?!?! “Yes, that’s the earliest we can switch you back”.

I call the public utility, and the person on the other end is understanding and all too willing to humor a sad idiot who wanted to get better rates elsewhere and now is coming back with his tail between his legs. But, no, she cannot do anything to expedite the switch either. She cannot give me a comprehensible explanation of why it is not possible to switch my supply quickly given that delivery remains through the same exact channels managed by none other than JCP&L. “This is how it works”, she says, “You should always expect the switch to take up to 45 days”.

So I end up paying another month of exorbitant rates. Electricity bill being naturally smaller in winter, I calculate that I still come out with some savings over the course of the entire experiment, but a serious chunk of my gains has gone down the drain in the last two and a half months before Energy Plus is no longer my supplier after mid-February.

I am afraid that puts me off further experimenting. I don’t know why I should have trust in the public utility being more conscientious about their rates, but I definitely have no trust in those alternative providers now.

Customerography

My favorite sights of Cracow

January 24th, 2012

Cracow is big enough to offer more than a few points of interest, it is full of wonderful architecture, and it leaves an overwhelmingly positive impression on a traveler of my inclinations.

It all starts with the focal point of the Old Quarter, the vast expanse of the Market Square. I have a weakness for grand public spaces, especially when they are surrounded by magnificent buildings, and Cracow’s Market Square gives me a perfect excuse to linger, sit in a cafe or just on a bench, and enjoy.
 

Market Square and St Mary, Cracow

 
The above is the westward view from the center of the square, featuring the main parish church of the city, the resplendent St Mary, and the monument to one of the most famous Poles of all times, the poet Adam Mickiewicz.

And this is the southward view from the top of the square, with the same monument seen from a different angle, and the small picturesque Church of St Adalbert guarding the passage towards the castle hill.
 

Market Square, Cracow

 

St Andrew on Grodzka, CracowCracow is the city of churches – it has over 130 active places of worship – and, for a secular person, I am always fascinated with religious architecture. There are at least half a dozen churches in the city center that I count as top sights, among them one of the oldest but also one of the most remodelled through the ages Church of St Andrew on Grodzka Street (on the right). If you have been following my blogging revelations, you should know by now that I cannot resist admiring tall spires reaching to the sky.

I also like this next shot below, taken from a slightly different angle on Grodzka, which mixes Baroque opulence of Church of Sts Peter and Paul’s façade, seen on the left behind the row of statues of the Apostles, with the Romanesque dignified beauty of St Andrew’s.
 

St Andrew and Sts Peter and Paul on Grodzka, Cracow

 
Another interesting combination of different architectural styles is the exterior of Cracow’s Cathedral. Its many chapels date from different periods which is very clearly seen in this view from the main inner yard on Wawel Hill. The pink building with an archway to the Royal Castle adds even more color.
 

Cracow Cathedral

 
The sole remnants of the old town wall are found at the northern edge of the Old Quarter, at the St Florian’s Gate. Here is another juxtaposition of architecture, between the wall, the gate tower and the building at the end of the street.
 

St Florian Gate, Cracow

 
Finally, on our visit to Cracow we had several fantastic culinary experiences, so I’d be remiss if I did not include this sight.
 

Soup in bread

 
Traditional Polish żur w chlebie. Yum!

Photography, Travel

A pavement art picture

January 20th, 2012
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The bonus side effect of my recently started new series is that perusing our photo archives I come across an occasional cool picture that I never posted anywhere.

For instance, here is a shot of a pavement artist at work. It was taken in Florence, but could have been taken in any number of locales, as pavement chalk art is a frequent phenomenon in major European cities.
 

Pavement Art on the streets of Florence, Italy

 
Of course, I suspect that this shot was taken specifically because of the words of gratitude for donations appearing below the drawing. The artist had used Latin alphabet to write thank-yous in a number of languages. Then a Russian-speaking passerby must have taken offense of seeing spasibo spelled with Latin letters and provided the correct Cyrillic spelling.

Photography, Travel

Introduction to “favorite sights” series

January 19th, 2012

My regular readers – however few of you are out there – likely could notice that I started a new series of posts in the last month, “My favorite sights of…”. Unpredictable person that I am, I now decided to pen a brief introduction to the series after posting a few entries.

Those same few readers might recall how more than a year ago I lamented my failure to start a blog series with the working title of “My perfect day in…”. Since then, I became more and more convinced that the only way for me to keep blogging with any regularity is to focus on something travel-related. But I still couldn’t summon enough willpower to work on proper literary efforts.

Then, one day, looking through some old pictures, I thought to myself, why not make a series of picture-centric travel-related posts. After all, we have a sizable archive of travel photos. Instead of coming up with a polished narrative about some destination, I could pick my favorite shots taken there and limit the verbiage to no more than extended captions. Isn’t a picture worth a thousand words?

And that’s the task I am pursuing. Samples of our favorite travel pictures have always been on display in the Travelscapes widget on the menu bar and many of those photos will undoubtedly be reused. But there will be many others too, although I specifically aim to keep the number of pictures in each post to under a dozen. I will only use our own photographic efforts and I intend to stick to landmark-focused shots rather than “we’ve-been-here” person-focused shots with somebody posing in front of a building or a monument (that, as has already been proven in one of the first entries, is not always possible to accomplish depending on how we approached photographing a particular destination).

There will be no specific order or hierarchy in these posts. In fact, I will try to randomize the pick of the next destination as much as I can. Since most of our travel photography is of Europe, I will stay with European destinations until I run out of them. The grandest cities are likely to feature in the earlier posts, but I have nearly fifty locales already lined up, so eventually we will move on to places other than familiar capitals.

I hope you’ll enjoy these brief excursions.

Blogging, Travel

Tax returns unavoidable

January 14th, 2012
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Turns out that even after not having lived in the UK for two and a half years and not having a single penny of UK-taxable income to my name, I still owe it to Her Majesty Revenue and Customs to fill out the tax return for the most recent fiscal year. Failure to do so by January 31st would result in a £100 penalty.

Apparently, the letter they sent me when the fiscal year had ended last April acts as a directive. I have received those letters for several years now, but I always assumed that they were simply form documents sent to all taxpayers. Not so. They are actually targeted to those who are required to submit a return. As I am being told, if the next year, based on my non-residency and zero-income status as recorded in this year’s return, HMRC will decide that I no longer need to file a tax return, they will not send me the letter and I will be off the hook. Of course, it is at their complete discretion: They may decide to ask me to file theoretically every year for the rest of my life (the phone representative swore that that would never happen).

The problem is, official mail from the UK takes inordinate amount of time to reach me and, while I have no specific examples of mail being lost, I can never be sure that everything reaches me properly. So, next year, I will probably be on the phone to HMRC again, trying to find out if I have to fill out the return for yet another year where I was not a UK resident and did not earn a penny of UK-taxable income.

And the funny thing is, remember how I kept saying how easy it is to complete a self-assessment return? The perspective changed greatly when I had no numbers to plug in. It still only took me less than 10 minutes, but flipping through multiple screens and waiting for “calculation” to confirm that zero income means zero owed in taxes felt rather annoying.

Expat Topic

My favorite sights of Florence

January 13th, 2012
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Boy, this is not a simple task, picking just a few shots of Florence. I’ve been to the city several times and I can never get enough of it, so it is no surprise that we accumulated quite a lot of photographic memories over time.

The funny thing is, my very first exposure to Florence left me rather underwhelmed. I put it down to absence of grand fountains on major squares, which was quite a change from Rome, which we had visited right before coming to Florence for the first time. No new fountains were erected by the time we returned to the city, but it gradually grew on me to the point that I now count it among my most loved destinations.

The first shot in this brief tour around Florence is a clear contender for the title of the most magnificent panoramic urban vistas in the world.
 

View over Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo

 
It is the view of Florence Old Town from Piazzale Michelangelo (also spelled Michelangiolo sometimes), which sits high on the hill in the Oltrarno district. To my chagrin, we inexplicably failed to take panoramic shots from this spot in our several visits, but even a straight view over town is quite impressive, with the Cathedral dome, the Campanile and the tower of Palazzo Vecchio dominating the view. Ponte Vecchio is seen on the left as well. We will look at all of these sights more closely as we continue.

Cathedral complex, which as pretty much everywhere in Italy consists of three structures, the Duomo itself, the Baptistery and the belltower, is a feast for eyes. The exquisite Giotto Campanile and the magnificent façade of the Cathedral cannot be described in words. Here are two perspectives, from northwest and southwest sides of the Baptistery.
 

Baptistery and Cathedral, Florence  Baptistery, Cathedral and Giotto Belltower, Florence

 
The dome of the Cathedral, seen in the background in both shots, remains the largest masonry dome in the world. It is possible to climb to the top of the Cathedral for breathtaking views of the surroundings, but I prefer climbing to the top of the Campanile from where I can see the dome in all of its magnificence.

Another iconic landmark of Florence is Ponte Vecchio.
 

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

 
The first time I stepped on it, I did not realize that I was on the bridge crossing the river. I thought it was simply another street, since the buildings on each side conceal the river pretty well. Only upon reaching its middle, where open arches provide the view of Arno, I figured out that I was standing on the famous bridge.

Here is a curious section of the bridge.
 

A closed shop on Ponte Vecchio, Florence

 
This chest is actually a little shop that is closed for business. The top and the walls would “unfold” when the business hours resume, most likely than not showcasing jewelry that is the main goods sold along the length of the bridge.

Palazzo Vecchio on Piazza della Signoria, FlorenceThe focal point of the Old Town is Piazza della Signoria, which is dominated by Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall that is now primarily a civic museum. At its foot stands the copy of Michelangelo’s David, probably the most famous statue in the world. It is not a bad copy (another copy that you can find at Piazzale Michelangelo is much worse), but if you want to see the original, you will have to pay for entrance to the Galleria dell’Accademia, which is located some distance away from the core area. Perseus by Cellini at Loggia dei Lanzi on Piazza della Signoria, FlorenceI once did just that – paid for the entrance, went straight to David, admired it for close to half-hour, and then left. Galleria d’Uffizi, which is right next to Piazza della Signoria, holds one of the top painting collections in the world, and my advice is to spend extra time there, instead of Accademia, although a true art lover will undoubtedly find something of interest in either gallery.

Opposite from Palazzo Vecchio is Loggia dei Lanzi, the lovely three-arches-wide open-air statuary. Those who do not want to pay entrance fees to any museums can easily satisfy their hunger for fine Renaissance art here.

And on the corner of Palazzo Vecchio that juts into Piazza stands the only significant fountain in all of the city, Fontana di Neptuno.Neptune Fountain with Badia Fiorentina in the background, Florence The water never more than trickles from it, and the giant figure of the Sea God is somewhat disproportionate to the rest of the fountain. Neptune adorns quite a number of fountains across Italy, and in my personal opinion, this is not one of the best of them. Palazzo Vecchio as seen from Via Vacchereccia, FlorenceNonetheless, it attracts its portion of tourists. You will probably linger too. The tower in the background of the shot of the fountain is the campanile of Badia Fiorentina, an ancient abbey.

You can approach Piazza della Signoria from different directions, and Palazzo Vecchio will announce its presence long before you reach the busy square. In the shot at left, for instance, it is waiting for us at the end of Via Vacchereccia.

Or you can glimpse it from various side streets. When the palazzo tower serves as the background for Florentine vernacular architecture, the views are just magical.

Palazzo Vecchio glimpsed from a Florentine streetBut it is not only famous sights that attract me to Florence. Just walk the streets in the historic parts of town, and you will come across many fine buildings that satisfy my hunger for architectural beauty. A palazzo in FlorenceThe intricacy of outward decorations and window openings suggest exuberant resplendence inside. Of course, not all of these erstwhile palaces remain truly palatial today, but quite a few are open to the public as museums of the golden era of the city.

So much more that I love in Florence cannot fit into a short overview. Basilica di Santa Croce, which could have been a part of the Cathedral complex; Piazza della Reppublica, another grand public place surrounded by impressive buildings; Piazzale degli Uffizi, with a statue of a Renaissance titan in each of its arches; the Great Synagogue; Palazzo Pitti and its sloping Boboli Gardens; Santa Maria Novella. I could continue for a long time.

Florence is just an endless amazing treasure trove.

Photography, Travel

New York imagery: Madison Square Park

January 10th, 2012
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Finding myself for the first time in ages in a place that I used to walk through daily, I could not restrain myself from taking a couple of shots of things reaching for the sky. (Despite less than optimal lighting due to overall weather.)

These are couple of perspectives from Madison Square Park (not to be confused with the sports arena called Madison Square Garden). The first one is what I think is an erstwhile fountain, with the Empire State Building providing the background.
 

Madison Square Park, New York

 
The second is a curious combination of disparate architectural solutions.
 

Madison Square Park, New York

 
Clickable for larger versions, as always.

New York City & Environs, Photography

Maiden name mishap

January 4th, 2012
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Among the recent junk in our mailbox, Natasha received a cruise offer. Straight to the recycling bin, normally. Except! This one was addressed to her maiden name, correctly spelled in all its 13-character glory. And yet, it had our current address.

How would a marketing company be able to tie a long-unused maiden name with a relatively new place of residence of its owner? The only plausible explanation is via a credit-card application. Those often have a maiden name line item on them, and Natasha did obtain a new airline-affiliated card a year or so ago.

I hold moderate views when it comes to privacy concerns and I rarely extend any effort to opt out of information sharing policies that various corporations that we are doing business with have. But it is somewhat disconcerting when information you don’t expect to be shared is not only shared but is then blatantly misused. I suspect I might become a bit more militant about it from now on.

Customerography

My favorite sights of Munich

January 3rd, 2012
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Munich does not break into my top tier of favorite cities. I’ve only been there once for a few days, I liked it well enough, it is lively and welcoming, but I do not find it exceptionally beautiful or uncommonly impressive. Perusing my photo archives, I am struck by the realization that we did not take many “grand view” pictures while we were in Munich, instead snapping a lot of “been there” ones with our own selves in the foreground. That signifies to me that for all of the abundance of interesting edifices around the city, we rated very few of them as worth photographing on their own.

Nonetheless, one of my all-time favorite architectural compositions in our archives comes from Munich. Taken on Odeonsplatz, it contrasts the grey color of Feldherrnhalle with the exuberance of Theatinerkirche (aka St Cajetan), reaching up to the clouds in the blue sky.
 

Odeonsplatz, Feldherrnhalle and Theatinerkirche

 
Munich’s main square, Marienplatz, is probably worth a detailed photo exploration, but as much as I enjoyed lingering there, it has been commemorated in our photo galleries only as the background. The building behind Natasha and to the right is called the New Town Hall, even though its late 19th-century façade looks remarkably older than that of nearby Old Town Hall (which is situated in the opposite direction), which was built in the 15th century but rebuilt in early 20th. The twin copper onion domes way in the back belong to Frauenkirche, one of the most majestic buildings in Munich.
 

Marienplatz, with the New Town Hall and Frauenkirche domes in the background

 
Close by Marienplatz is Viktualenmarkt, the main city’s marketplace and a must to visit for any tourist. Not just for the browsing experience. Come in the morning, find yourselves a table at one of the local eateries, and enjoy a true Bavarian breakfast of weisswurst and beer. As the sausages are very perishable, they are made fresh each morning and never served later than noon; therefore, you can only enjoy them for breakfast or brunch. Our friend and erstwhile Munich resident Emil insisted that it was an experience not to miss, and he was right.
 

Beer at Viktualenmarkt

 
Going to a biergarten is another one of those quintessential Bavarian experiences. Here I am, at Hirschgarten, with quite possibly more beer than I would ever normally have.
 

At Hirschgarten

 
Good times!

Photography, Travel

Happy New Year!

January 1st, 2012
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To all my friends, occasional readers, and their families I wish the happiest and most prosperous New Year! May it bring you joy, success and only the pleasant surprises!

Celebrations