Saturday, May 15, 2010

Foot Fetish? Thailand, not for you

Before coming to Thailand, my wife and I were given several guide books, which we quickly skimmed. Well, at least I skimmed them. Certainly Allison read them. When I research a destination, or, for that matter, when I research --sometimes randomly and inexplicably-- any country in the world, I usually scan, looking for the most important information to categorize and file within the clutter of my brain. I'm not interested in political, religious, or economic history. (sidenote: Knowing the current exchange rate can be helpful.) Nor do I ogle over landmarks, heritage sights, or natural phenomena. Those are things I’ll see when I touch down; I’d rather have a fresh memory of something new than one pre-formed from a picture or a story. So, when I read a guide book, what do I look for? What do I think are the most important facts? Here is how I read a guidebook:

First, I find the maps. Maps are essential, unless you don’t know which way is north, then they become handy scrap paper. Second, I locate information describing cultural norms, taboos, and generalized habits of my destination’s inhabitants. Third, I look at laws and government. When traveling, I’m concerned about me, because I’m the one going overseas, not some travel writer who looks at everything as a story. I want to understand how my personality might need to change when making contact with a new culture. Essentially, more than anything, I want to learn what not to do, how not to behave, and what I shouldn’t be talking about.

(On another sidenote, I'm also concerned about my wife when traveling. But, out of the two of us, Allison is much less likely to perform some type of taboo performance in front of an undercover policeman. She is the sturdy base to my capricious and wobly foundation. The polite and graceful wife shining in the shadows of her burly, scraggly husband. The ketchup to my spicy mustard. Besides, would you ever believe a story where Allison was playing cards after midnight in a basement bar of Chiang Mai when she had a gun pulled on her? Think not. If this story were about me, the probability rate would jump drastically.)

So, before traveling to Thailand I learned several things not to talk about, which have since been confirmed. You don’t talk about The King or The Queen, or any member of the royal family. You don’t talk about The Buddha, unless you are paying merit to a monk. Even then you need to “walk on egg shells." Being a westerner, I might be confused with a Jehovah's Witness or a missionary, and missionaries are not respected in Thailand. There’s a sign hanging in a local pub that states, “No pedophiles, No druggies, and NO missionaries.” Thailand is 97% Buddhist for a reason, and they want to keep it that way. You don’t mess with the police. Not one word about them, and you don't need to look in their general direction either. The police here are a much more powerful repressive apparatus than what we have in America. Also, many Thai people think it is rude to discuss politics. Many of my English students are at university, and they jump on any opportunity I grant them to talk about the current turmoil in Bangkok. But older people, the people of previous generations, liken talking politics with His Majesty, and no one talks about The King.

In any guide book about Thailand, the no-no’s above are blatantly obvious. But the guide books skip over some of the other important cultural norms. For instance, most people in Thailand prize white, pale skin. They will wear coats and masks in 100 degree heat just to keep their skin white. Even deodorant here has “skin whitening” additives. Another is always expect Thais to charge westerners double or triple for a product or service. Many vendors think that because you are white, you have money. (This may be racism, but if you ask me, it's smart business, especially if you're Thai.) Always haggle. If the result isn’t to your liking, then wait for another opportunity. There will be many. Don’t point, at anyone or anything, with one finger; point with your whole hand, palm facing the ceiling. For some reason, pointing with one finger is rude. I haven’t yet learned why.

And don’t mess around with feet. Take your shoes off when you enter a home or business or a temple. When you pray to the Buddha, make sure your feet never face the direction of any Buddha effigy. When kneeling in prayer, your feet always face the door and the dirty outside world you just came from. And don’t touch anything with your feet, except the ground. This norm is particularly hard to adjust to. When I get to work, I take my shoes off. Sometimes I get comfortable and cross my legs at my desk, but it’s rude to touch the desk, or the chair, or the wall with my foot. Once I turned off a surge protector on the ground with my big toe. One of my students saw me and told me that was rude. “Don’t use feet,” I think he said. “Feet are dirty.”

Within the first month of my stay, I asked a friend of mine, “What’s the deal with feet in Thailand?” He laughed, and proceeded to tell me his story of shutting a file cabinet drawer with his foot at work. His receptionist got very upset and left early for lunch. He asked another employee what the problem was. All he got for a response was, “No feet. Use hands.” He then proceeded to tell me the history of feet in Thailand. Upwards of thirty years ago, most people in Thailand did not wear shoes, and most roads were still dirt. So, thirty years ago, out of respect, you did not touch anything with your feet; they were by far the dirtiest part of your body. The same norm was present upwards of a thousand years ago, maybe even two thousand years ago. Today, the norm persists, even among the invasion of concrete, asphalt, rubber-soled shoes, showers, and socks.

So I had confirmation that feet are gross and rude in Thailand. But part of me wanted to test my findings and study the reactions of people when an ignorant westerner performs a taboo act going against the cultural norm. The feet issue seemed like the safest test subject. But how was I going to expose this taboo? How was I going to study people’s reactions to my ignorant behavior? All I decided was I needed a venue, and I needed to wait patiently for one to present itself.

Back in February and March I was interviewing heavily for teaching work. My friend, the same friend who enlightened me on the feet issue of Thailand, offered to drive me around Chiang Mai to apply at as many schools as possible. One school we stopped at was an all-girl Catholic school named Sacred Heart. I walked into the language department and asked to speak with someone. I was introduced to the head of the department who looked at my credentials and asked me questions, which I answered with the verve of an experienced professional, even though my experience, at the time, ran awfully thin. She said she had a job starting in May, fulltime, 30,000Baht/month, and would I be interested in giving a demo lesson the next morning? I agreed to the demo straight-away, and then we discussed the student’s needs, abilities, ages, etc., so I could prepare a bang-up lesson that when executed to a T, would provide me with a job, money, and a work permit. I was pumped.

So that night I sat down and prepared a lesson for 17-20, 13-15 year-old girls, who were all “beginner students.” The lesson was about comparatives and superlatives and was planned for 45 minutes, with extra activities in case any of the information provided by the head of the department was inaccurate. The next morning, I touched up the lesson plan, did some more research on the topic (I didn’t want to chance looking like a complete idiot), cleaned up, and rode my bike across town to the Sacred Heart Campus.

I greeted the head of the department, and she, along with 4 other teachers, led me to a class room filled with 17 rambunctious, uniformed, teenage girls. I was calm and confident. I was going to have these girls engrossed with my lesson. This was my day. I was going to have a job, money, and a work permit. My wife was going to be so proud of me. Then the lesson began.

The head of the department stayed to watch my lesson, along with three other teachers. But I wasn’t nervous. I never looked in their direction. I was focused on my students. The first five minutes were allotted for small talk and introductions: I needed to gauge the level of these students. I thought I was prepared for anything. But when 10 of the girls responded to my questions with flawless English, panic started to boil in my stomach. After five minutes, it was obvious that most of the girls had been studying English since they were very young. They were intermediate-level students, not beginners. The department head had provided a flawed estimation of these students. I checked my notes, and went through with my back-up plan.

But the back-up plan was still way too simple, and I started to improvise. By now, the panic had reached my throat, nearly boiling over. Then I started to lose the attention of half the class. Then I lost the attention of the whole class. Then I ran out of things to do. The lesson was a complete disaster. The first forty minutes had been a complete failure. I failed to hold authority over my students, I failed to engage or engross them, I failed to humor them, and I failed to impress the head of the department. With five minutes of class left, I knew I would not be offered a job at Sacred Heart, but at least the panic subsided.

But sometimes when doors close, others open. With five minutes left in class, the most well-spoken student asked if we could play a game. I had not prepared a game, but a good teacher thinks on his feet. What did I have with me? What could I use to play a game? Did I have a ball to play a ball game, where you ask a question and throw the ball to another student and they have to answer the question, and then throw the ball to another student, and so on, answering and asking questions? I checked my bag…no ball. But I did have a pair of clean socks.

This was my chance, my venue to test a cultural norm. I had an opportunity to play the ignorant westerner for all it was worth. And I took it. I reached into my bag and pulled out the socks and asked, “Who wants to play the Sock Game?” There was an immediate reaction. Some girls stared blankly, but they were the ones who had been staring blankly the entire class. But some girls recoiled, turned their heads, curled their lips, and put their hands up in disgust. They were repulsed by my socks. The girl who had the biggest reaction to the Sock Game got the socks first. The only reason she caught the socks was because I lofted them towards her face; it was either catch the socks with her hands, or let them hit her in the face. She was annoyed, so annoyed she didn’t even answer my question, but merely threw the socks at her friend. She too wanted nothing to do with my socks. I kept saying, “Oh, come on; they’re clean! Go ahead smell them!” The idea of smelling my socks sent a few girls over board. They couldn’t look at me or the socks. When I would throw the socks in their direction, they would get out of the way and let the socks fall to the ground. The game was a failure. My class was a failure. And then the bell rang. Class was finished.
I met briefly with the head of the department after class. She said, politely, “I’m sorry, but we’ve decided to pursue other candidates for this position.” As I had entered, I exited as a professional, telling them I hope to hear from them in the future, and thanks for the amazing opportunity. As I left the school, I started wearing a huge smile that did not leave until I was home. I had tested the waters and failed, but failure tasted sweet.

With my little experiment at Sacred Heart, I was able to gather all the evidence I needed to prove that, indeed, feet are rude and gross in Thailand. Granted, I did fail as a teacher. But I shrugged it off. I had tested the system. I had scratched the surface of taboo. I had exposed a cultural norm. I had seen 17 girls flail with the fear of touching clean socks. I had rebelled, masked as an ignorant dunce bent on pleasing his students with a game, when all I wanted was to see their reaction to a pair of socks. It was a successful morning, and I reveled in that success.

Do I recommend challenging taboo? Do I suggest tackling a cultural norm with the vim of a confident dimwit? No, never…unless an opportunity arises. For instance, as seen above, if you’re in a position of failure. Why not push the limits of that failure? Why not be a memorable failure? As I failed, I was able to gather and record priceless empirical data on the habits of Thai teenage girls and their reaction toward feet. Someday, someone will pay for my data. Until then, I'm content with the pride of achievement.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The HOT season

I just wanted to take a few moments to share my new found appreciation of springtime in Minnesota. Although we are not there this year to experience the sweet feeling of shining our faces to the sun after the many dark months of a Minnesota winter, I am vicariously remembering the feeling from the many emails and Facebook posts that surround the awakening of all lifeforms taking place back home.

We are a bit ahead of you here in Chiang Mai, for we have recently entered into what is known as the "hot season." I have always bragged that I love the heat, perhaps to live up to my southern roots. I can't let my southern relatives think that I am a wimp, just because I was born and bred in the north! I am beginning to wonder about my claims, however, after a few weeks of this oppressive heat. According to the weather forecast, we will be seeing 100+ degree days from now 'til June. Apparently the next two days it will hit 107 degrees. 107?? Are you kidding me?

We have air conditioning, so really, we are fortunate. It is possible that Drew and I would be divorced by now if we had to live in these conditions without the ability to escape in our little studio apartment for some relief. (Prolonged exposure to heat can make me a bit crabby! :) A fellow expat friend of ours who has been living here for five years sent us an email detailing the precautions we'd need to take during these next few months. He explained that we'd need to increase our intake of salt to replace all that we will sweat out, that several showers a day are perfectly normal, and heat rashes are common. We also have the added bonus of extreme pollution during this period, because the farmers are burning their rice fields and the underbrush in the forests. Depending on the wind currents, the visibility is almost zero and the air can be so thick it looks like the biggest thunderstorm you've ever seen is about to unleash its wrath on the whole city. As if it were any consolation, he also mentioned that as farangs ("whiteys"), we have not been blessed with the evolutionary ability to cope with the heat the way that the Thais have. So, yes, this is a bit harder on us than it is on them.

While this genetic factor made me feel slightly better about the social faux pas of sweat dripping off my chin and onto the vegetables I'm holding out to the woman selling them to me at the market, I wonder if the natives are really just laughing at me as I walk away? I rarely see a Thai soaked in sweat as Drew and I are all day.

I would like to share a story that pretty much encapsulates how ridiculous this whole heat thing can be. The other day I wore a light gray skirt on my way to teach. I figured it would be a cooler ride in that, rather than my black teaching pants I would eventually change into. Smart, right? Not so much. In the fifteen minutes it took me to bike over the river and through the smog, I had sweat so much that the area of my skirt that I had been sitting on was completely drenched. When I peeled myself off of my seat, I knew it was bad. I looked at my backside and sure enough, it looked like I had peed my pants. And we're not just talking a little piddle here people. We're talking I must have fallen into the toilet kind of wet. Lovely. I love starting my work day by trying to sneak past the office workers and the students in the lobby as if I had actually wet my pants and should be ashamed of myself. Lesson learned. If you are going to be on your bike for more than five minutes during the daytime heat, only wear black to avoid embarrassment.

I have been very surprised to hear many Thais complaining about the heat, allowing it to be a topic of conversation amongst acquaintances, just as we Minnesotans detail every changing moment in our unpredictable climate. I guess I was under the impression that the heat was such a fact of life for this culture that no one would really waste their time actually complaining about it. Turns out once again that all humans are more alike than not. Weather woes are a favorite topic amongst all people!

I've become a regular at one of the local vegetarian cafes (go figure!), and I'm sure that I'm known for my affinity for kombucha tea and love of fresh juice. Anyway, as I was sipping away on my cold drinks one day last week, a 'wind storm' (don't know what else to call it,) blew through and suddenly huge sun umbrellas and potted plants were flying through the air. After a few other customers and I chased down the large objects that were hurling down the street at innocent travellers, I escaped into the cafe and out of the blinding dust. The "storm" lasted several minutes, and there I sat with the two lovely Thai women that run the cafe griping about the weather. One of them told me we will have these wind "storms" for a while. She called them monsoons, and while I don't think her interpretation was quite correct, she certainly got the severity of it right. She then admitted to me that when she can, she goes to Kad Suan Kaew, the local shopping mall, and spends the entire day there, just to be out of the heat. "You can do everything there!" she exclaimed. "Eat, shop, see movie. Never have to go." "Really?" I asked her. "You do that?" I was shocked that this woman who didn't even have a glistening of sweat on her would spend her entire day in our stinky and strange local shopping mall just to escape the heat. Perhaps I am not such a wimp after all!

As I sit here baking in my apartment right now (aircon is off), I am fondly remembering how I always feel like a brand new person when spring finally comes in Minnesota. With a mood as light as a feather and energy abounding, I am always so grateful that I "made it through the winter." This year however, I have to admit that thanks to the plethora of sunshine I've had the blessed opportunity to soak up this "winter," the blues were no where to be found and the feelings of spring awakening find me on more days than not. So yes, it is hot here. It is very hot here. But perhaps part of the reason that Thailand is known as the "Land of Smiles" is because these folks are getting more vitamin D than they know what to do with. Salt-rimmed margarita anyone?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Nice to meet you...I'm Chiang Mai. Now... get out of the way.

After repeated requests by family and friends to meet one of our good friends, we have finally been able to agree upon a date when we can all sit down and enjoy a coffee and light meal together, for acquaintance's sake. We have procured a caterer for the event, complete with dessert buffet and a cash-bar. To date, the effort to organize such a massive meet-and-greet has been laborious. But, for all the hours of toil and sweat, for all the late nights and rescheduling, things are finally materializing. And the event is on! Thanks everyone for coming! It's so nice to see all of you! And we could not be more excited! Without further commotion, without extended rambling, I would like to begin. Friends, family, random on-lookers, and eavesdroppers alike, please meet our dear friend, the delightful and unreasonable Chiang Mai! Isn't he a fascinating mix of beauty and modernity?

Before you all get acquainted and everyone hits the cash-bar, I'd like to recount our own introduction to Chiang Mai. Our first 24 hours together could be considered interesting, or maybe grotesque, or maybe idiotic. That is for you all to decide. Please be might even learn a thing or eight! If you must use the restroom, now would be the best time to do so. And don't worry! The staff will be around to refill your refreshments whenever necessary. All we ask is that you please tip your server. It is a good rule to always take care of the help. When someone else prepares and serves you food and beverage, it is best to give trust first in the form of cash reward, instead of expect it second. It's a smart investment. After all, we've never known a good tipper to succumb to food-poisoning. So, here goes:

Somewhere between January 7th and 14th, 2010, we arrived in Bangkok. Our memories of that time are foggy at best. Then, with the help of providence, we traveled to Chiang Mai in the dim recesses of jet-lag. (24 hours in Bangkok is all we recommend to travelers. Sprawl and smog are only so appealing.) After checking-in to our guesthouse, we needed some sustenance. Taking a map from the lobby of the guesthouse, we figured it would be easy enough to find a restaurant, even in the dark. Just a few blocks from our guesthouse, we met Chiang Mai for the first time, and dumb and naive, we made a bad first-impression.

(Sidenote: If someone is trying to learn the culture and laws of a new land, upon introduction the culture and laws act like bullies, hazing you to test your grit and loyalty. It is best to not act offended when you fail in their presence, and when they subsequently rub your face in that failure. Just bow, apologize, and try again. At first, we acted like ignorant tourists, because that's what we were. With time and experience, the hazing stopped, and we were respected as longterm guests. But, let's get back to that first night and our initial introduction to Chiang Mai. There are some lessons to teach.)

Instead of meandering through the events of our first excursion within Chiang Mai, we decided to divulge the outcomes in the form of some lessons-learned. To list:

Lesson 1: look right first when you cross a street in Chiang Mai, then left. Getting run down by a scooter looks bad on the resume. Lesson 2: wear proper walking shoes, if you decide to walk. (It is not recommended to walk. Sidewalks end abruptly and without reason. Then you are walking on the street. See: Lesson 1.) Sidewalks are more like advertising space than footpaths in Chiang Mai, so you must be prepared to get nimble and use your athleticism to climb around signs as wide as the sidewalk. Also, a thick sole is ideal to help combat the sporadic out-croppings of re-bar and metal shards stabbing through the concrete. It is also a safe-bet that you will encounter broken glass. Lesson 3: look down when you walk. Lesson 4: do not expect streets to be labeled, to run straight, or to take you anywhere. And also do not expect a map to tell you where you are. Maps do no good unless you know where you are to begin with. It is also difficult to read a map in the dark.

So, our first night we were hungry, partial brain-dead form jet-lag, wearing flip-flops, and assuming we were close to the old city and to a vegetarian restaurant. Chiang Mai laughed at us that night. Eventually, we had to ask some Pharangs (Westerners) where we were. "Umm...excuse you know where we are?" The Pharangs were helpful, but Chiang Mai was facetious: "You are in Thailand," he giggled. Thank goodness we know how to wear smiles in the tough times, and to laugh away our anxiety. Chiang Mai responds very well to smiles, even if the smile covers poor intentions and/or idiocy. Lesson 5: smile and smile some more. Things will be alright.

We learned where we were and eventually found the old city, which houses a plethora of restaurants and food cultures. Chiang Mai's big brother is the old city. It is surrounded by a moat and brick wall that dates to the 13th century. "Chiang Mai" means "new city," and it became the "new" capital of the Lanna kingdom in 1296. The wall and moat were built to protect the city from Burmese invasions, but their success in so doing is disputed. Chiang Mai remained the capital for only a short time, and over the centuries has changed ownership many times. Today, Chiang Mai is the place where Thai people want to live. In America, people work all their lives to retire and buy a home in Florida or Arizona. In Thailand, people work and save to retire in Chiang Mai. It is the spiritual center of Thailand. And if you give Chiang Mai a piece of your heart, it will open its heart and spread its secrets without prejudice. Chiang Mai is a generous spirit, even though his sense of humor can be misleading.

Finding the old city was a victory, but we were defeated again quickly. After a solid hour of hoofing it in circles through old town, we finally found the vegetarian restaurant we were looking for. It was 8pm, and the garage door was closed. (Sidenote: businesses are generally housed in "stalls" on the street level with apartments on the second floor, and when a business closes for the day, it merely rolls down the stall door, like a garage door. Hence the comparison.) The restaurant was closed for the night. It was only 8pm...what gives? Lesson 6: businesses open and close when they want to and do not abide by set hours posted on the internet, so have a back-up plan, or three, prepared. Allison said, "Ugh...fine. Let's just go any where to eat." We found a place a few blocks back, had a beer, some spring rolls, and some curry, and regained our strength enough to walk home. Our first day in Chiang Mai was finished, and we were excited to confine ourselves to our guesthouse for the rest of the evening. Being human, we can only handle so many mistakes in one day. We had lost. Chiang Mai had won. So we sulked, slept, and prepared to do battle again the next day. Our reputations were at stake, and we did not like Chiang Mai laughing at us.

The next morning, we were introduced to our first street dog. Allie was the first to notice. She said, "Oh no!...look! A dead dog!" It was odd to see a dog in the middle of the street, so we approached with caution. A car swerved around the body, and Drew noticed a slight movement of the tail. Not sure, what to do, we stopped. Drew kept staring, searching for a sign of life, while Allie checked the map. After 3 minutes, give or take, Drew noticed life. The dog rolled over. Drew proclaimed, "Nope...not dead, just napping." The street dogs of Chiang Mai are a down-trodden and rotten crew, even if they appear playful. No wonder they are considered the lowliest of beasts in Thailand. It is routine to see dogs sleeping in the streets, or to have dogs bark and chase after you on your bicycle. If you get concerned, just stare them in the eyes and let them know who's boss. A good, hard, "Hey!" usually does the trick. Lesson 7: be wary of dirty street dogs, especially when they roam in packs after sunset.

Lesson 8: In Chiang Mai, rats are huge, houses have lizards instead of mice, and geckos bark. Tread with caution.

There. You all have become privy to our first 24 hours with our new friend. All told, there have been many ups and downs during our short relationship with Chiang Mai, and he hasn't always been helpful. But, for the most part, Chiang Mai has been kind to us. And we've only been here 9 weeks, so there is much else to learn. Thanks everyone for listening. And now, without further is Chiang Mai! He does not shake hands, so don't be offended. And don't be offended by his playful spirit. He means no harm! We hope you like our new friend. Don't be bashful...start a conversation! Now, go...and enjoy!

The first week flew by. We were taking our time building our new relationship with Chiang Mai, as is best when making new friends. After 5 days or so, we found a new apartment, where we have been ever since. It is small, but you shouldn't need much space when you live out of a suitcase. We have several plants, a balcony, and a desk. We also have internet and cable tv, complete with a couple English-language channels. We find little to complain about, except eachother :). And now that it is the hot season, we experience rolling "sun-outs." Thailand, instead of advertising power shortages and "rolling blackouts," instead blames the sun for power shortages during the hot season, hence the term "sun-out." Last Sunday, we were out to dinner when the power went out in the restaurant. At 8pm on a Sunday night, no less. We made due. It was nice to have a romantic, candle-lit dinner for a change, even though that also meant that the aircon was powerless and we were dripping wet with sweat. And we got some complimentary sushi out of the sun-out, too.

We are both working...finally. Allie is working at 2 different dance schools teaching ballet, jazz, and contemporary dance. She also choreographed a piece for one school's upcoming performance of "Sleeping Beauty" at the end of March. Drew works for a law firm and a language school teaching English. Besides that, we are hunkering down, saving money for our eventual travels before heading home. After all, neither of us has had a job since October. The vacation is over, for the moment at least. Thanks to everyone for your advice and support. We are truly blessed to have so many great friends and family members to help us through the tough times. As always, we have more to tell. Get ready...things are getting exciting.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

And the Honeymoon Begins...

Hello everyone!

I bet you were thinking that we'd given up on this whole blogging thing! Well, you may have been right for a few months. But after letting some of our experiences sink in, we are ready to write a few words about our life abroad. Well, where should we start? There has been so much movement, so much action since we married in August, 2009. Let's start with Prague.

We arrived in Prague in late October, 2009. The fairytale city was accommodating from the start. Prague is full of winding, granite cobblestone streets, beautiful baroque churches and castles and bridges, and pubs galore. Around every corner there is History waiting to be explored. And explore we did, even in the depths of jet-lag. We wandered and got lost and wandered some more. There were only 4 free days before Drew's TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) program began, so we tried not to waste any time. Walking through the city, we did everything we could not to get too excited. We had moved abroad! Indefinitely! The freedom we had granted ourselves was hypnotic, and entranced by that beautiful city on the Vlatava River, we began our acclimation to a new, and sometimes odd, society.

The first month flew by. Drew was busy with school and student teaching internships, while Allison studied Bikram Yoga, searched for dance opportunities, and took after the flat. During the first month, we shared a flat with 2 Brits, 1 Scotsman, 1 Russian, 1 Canadian (via London), and 1 other American (via Washington state). There were 8 of us in total. Can you imagine the possibilities for drama? Surprisingly, there were very few "episodes," and everyone became fast friends. But every morning before school, everyone made breakfast at the same time and left the kitchen in shambles. Poor Allison! She cleaned up after all of us and kept the apartment as tidy as possible, and that was no small job. She unwillingly became the flat mother to all of us (what a woman!). And even though it was sad to leave all of our new friends after only one month, we were both ready to have our own apartment again.

Our shared flat was in Dejvice, Prague 6, which was the last stop on the Green Line of the Metro. It was only a ten minute train ride into the heart of the city, but we wanted to be closer. Through the director of Drew's school, we were able to find an apartment near Namesti Miro, one of the many town squares within the city. We moved the third week of November and made ourselves at home in no time. It was like we were on another honeymoon, one that had no end in sight. With no TV and no internet, we made a happy little life together. We made dinners together, became masters of Gin Rummy, and read everything we could get our hands on. It was a wonderful month. But what about work? Hadn't we moved to Prague to find jobs, make a living, and become upstanding examples of the American workforce abroad?

During the second week of Drew's program, he began sending out CVs (the European resume) to a list of 200 schools within close proximity to Prague with no luck whatsoever. After meeting with the director of his program to seek advice on different teaching destinations around the world, he heavily recommended we look into Southeast Asia, where the demand for English teachers was very high and there were less restrictions for an American couple seeking a long-term work Visa. Now, let's get boring for a stint and discuss what we learned about obtaining a work Visa in Europe, and why we decided to leave Prague.

In Europe, if you're a citizen of the European Union, you can travel and work within any country that is a member of that union, except Britain (for reasons that we never cared, nor inquired towards; we just accepted that the EU's exception-to-the-rule was Britain and would always be so). So, if a Brit or a Scot wants to move to Prague and work as a teacher, they don't need a Visa to stay. If you're an American or a Russian, for example, you need to acquire a Schengen Visa. The Schengen area of the EU is every country except for Britain, and recently, due to the "worldwide recession," the union has tightened the restrictions for foreign workers within the Schengen area. For example, if Drew were able to find a company that would sponsor him for a Schengen Visa, and after several months of toil acquired one, Allison would still have to obtain her own, separate Visa. There is no longer a long-term spousal Visa available, so Allison would have to find a company to sponsor her separately for a Visa. And aside from teaching work, there is not much else available for foreigners. Needless to say, we were concerned over our prospects of spending significant time in Prague.

After seeing 3 of our flatmates interview for work before the program had ended, and with Drew getting no response, we deeply discussed our future. Not wanting to move home, not wanting the honeymoon to end, we decided first and foremost that we would go home to Minneapolis for the holidays, and to attend Allison's sister Emily's wedding on January 1st. (And what a wedding it was!) But then where would we go? After weighing every option, after many emails and advice from family and friends, we decided to move to Chiang Mai, Thailand. After all the strife surrounding our long-term stay in Prague, it seemed that our luck was changing, and that we were meant to spend 2010 in Chiang Mai.

One last, ironic note about Drew's search for teaching working in Prague. In the first week of December, Drew went to watch a footy match (soccer) with one of the Brits and the Scotsman from his TEFL program. The Scotsman's name is also Andrew, and he had recently interviewed for a teaching position. After 15 minutes or so of small talk, the company's hiring manager pulled out Drew Marquesen's resume, and started asking Andrew (the Scotsman) questions about Drew's work history. Sadly, neither Andrew nor Drew got the job. The only success Drew had in finding teaching work in Prague, the only interview opportunity he had, was given to the wrong Andrew! What luck!

By the third week of November, Drew had finished his TEFL program, and we had decided that we were going to move to Chiang Mai in January. We had 1 month of work-less, responsibility-less time to spend together in Europe. Our first priority was to visit as much of the Czech Republic as possible. Then what? Allie had always wanted to see Michelangelo's David, so we decided to hop over to Italy for a week where we visited all the wonders of Rome and Florence.

Then we got a recommendation from our friend Kat about a backpacker's hotel in the Austrian Alps. After confirming our reservation, we hopped on a train and headed to Grunau im Atmal, a tiny town at the base of the Austrian Alps. The lodge was empty: we were the only guests! It was the off-season, supposedly. There was a stream behind the lodge with water cleaner than the tap water. And every night, we ate dinner next to a fire. In-general, we decided, more dining rooms need to have fire places. What a luxury! It was here that we climbed to the top of a mountain and Allison got to fulfill a life long dream: to sing "The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music," while spinning around with outstretched arms, just as Julie Andrews did in The Sound of Music. The experience at the lodge was amazing. We will never forget the sounds and smells of that little town. Someday, with luck, we will return.

How were we going to afford all this gallivanting? Weren't we supposed to be saving money for our trip to Chiang Mai? Yes, we were. But we figured this might be our only shot to explore and travel through Europe before we are retired. :) We decided to paddle upstream, sail into the wind, and fly against the jet stream. We would travel and explore and eat and drink and do and see as much as possible before our trip home for the wedding. We would worry about money and responsibility only when absolutely necessary. It was well worth throwing caution to the wind. We were blessed to be able to enjoy such loose and reckless behavior. Everyday, still, we are thankful.

Without a care for responsibility or time, we spent 4 weeks traveling. And in-between, we spent as much time out and about in Prague. Christmas in Prague is fabulous. The whole city is decorated, and every town square in the city fills with stalls selling everything from sausages to Christmas ornaments to hot wine. It was a special time to be in Prague. Every day held the potential of seeing a free concert or performance in one of the squares. We were saturated with Christmas, and loved every minute of it!

And then our time in Prague, in Europe, ended, and so it seems our first blog entry has ended too. Thanks to everyone for supporting us. We've had to make some big decisions, and so many people helped us to make them. And there will be more decisions to come. So thanks in-advance for the support! As always, we have more stories to tell about our adventures in Europe and our experiences in Chiang Mai. Stay tuned!