Saturday, December 12, 2009

Prison Break: Tickets Purchased

I fly to New York City on the 12th of January. The next day I board a flight to Kiev. I arrive in Kiev around 2 in the afternoon local time on the 14th.

It will be a grueling flight over; two connections involved. But that made the price much cheaper. Worst case is I miss a connection; I've lived through that before at Charles de Gaulle when I missed my flight to Slovenia due to a late trans-Atlantic arrival. But since I'm flying into Germany things should be more efficient. Really. Their airports are much more sensibly designed than Paris's CDG.

Lately, Kiev looks like this.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Prison Break: Nothing Will Ever Be the Same Again

The plan was to visit Eastern and Central Europe for at least a few months to write and to DJ. The biggest question regarded how to disentangle myself from my office here in the states. Ultimately, the best case scenario would have been one that would have allowed me to hold all my cards for as long as possible.

The best case scenario came true yesterday.

I had two aces up my sleeve that, until this week, I had been completely unaware of. The first was the vehement support of my co-workers, who demanded that I be able to continue working for the organization even while overseas. Their sincere testimony to my importance—instanteous and unprompted—showed that I had a bedrock of support hitherto unknown to me. This support made the thought that I be allowed to work remotely from Eastern Europe more palatable to upper management, and strengthened the case for granting me a leave of absence instead of pursuing termination.

Lessons learned: it pays not to suck at your job, and it pays to have people like you.

The second ace was a bit more comical; until Monday I had been unaware that I had accrued 9 weeks of vacation time. This, according to my supervisor, made everything much easier to arrange.

After many hours spent mentally running in the hamster wheel Monday and Tuesday (coupled with physically running around campus and, on a cold and rainy Tuesday, the fifth level of the parking deck), my supervisor and I concluded that there were two ways things could have gone:

1) Termination from my job in January, me becoming a contractor to the organization, and my vacation time being dolled out to me in one lump sum in the form of a physical check mailed two months after departure.

This was an undesirable scenario. Since I won't have a permanent address in two months, the check would have to go to somebody else to cash. That introduces too many variables for my comfort. And, of course, having no guarantee of employment upon returning means I've lost a card in my hand.

2) A three month vacation/leave of absence combination, padded by hours spent working for the organization remotely as needed, allowing me to continue to receive regular monthly direct deposit payments for the first 2 to 3 months with the guarantee of a job to come back to afterward.

Things went the second way.

The journey will be stressful, my world will be a very different place in a few months, and there will be plenty of questions I will need to answer soon (3 months will go by in the blink of an eye). But it is better to depart this way than any other way.

As I walked home from work yesterday I turned my eyes upward to the Biltmore Hotel. It shined in the golden glow of the late afternoon sun against a crisp blue sky. I walk past the Biltmore every single day, but yesterday, and for the first time, it looked gorgeous to me.

Last night at Apres Diem, Seth remembered how it felt when he left his job. "I realized for the first time that I had been living in a bubble."

This hits the nail on the head. Today I see the world crisply. I see it with all its possibilities wide-open to me. Atlanta looks beautiful for the first time in years because it is no longer my prison.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Prison Break: Field in Motion

I ordered the cell phone from Telestial today. I have canceled all utilities (31 December end date). All but the top of the ladder at my organization know of my imminent departure.

I have the full support of my team. If it were up to them, they unanimously and passionately agree that they want me working 51% time remotely from Eastern Europe, which was my best case scenario. It's doubtful that will become a granted reality, but the worst case scenario (aside from utter termination) would enable me to tap into 10 weeks of earned vacation time.

During our team meeting today, when all this was revealed, I was shocked by how strongly my co-workers supported my working remotely (as opposed to leaving the organization). In fact, at one point, as they described how irreplaceable I was, tears sprung up in my eyes. I was extremely surprised by how valued I was. In fact, this is the first time in over a decade of working at my organization that I felt truly valued.

For the first time during all my planning, this is actually looking like a good idea. In fact, if I have access to about three months of funds, or long-term steady (albeit half-salary) work, I might have to actually rethink the amount of "roughing it" I should do. It might be right to consider renting apartments in some locations. Just thinking out loud.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Prison Break: Ball in Play

"Start now. Today. Tomorrow is always too late"
--Bill Drummond

At 8 AM today I sat down with my supervisor and informed him of my plan to go to Europe for at least a few months. Whatever happens, I feel the same sort of relief anyone who has unloaded a burdensome secret feels afterward. The ball is in play. At last, something can happen.

The perfect scenario is one where I work 51% time for my organization remotely, logging in for 4 hours a day, 3 PM to 7 PM Eastern European Time, which is 8 AM to 12 PM Eastern Standard Time in the United States. Thus, I continue to draw a salary while I travel. It could be the difference between a short, anticlimactic adventure which concludes with me being flat broke versus many months spent exploring Eastern and Central Europe.

But my supervisor strongly suspects that the director will not approve of this. Although many people work remotely a majority of the time here at our offices, he thinks that if the powers that be were aware even of this basic fact they would be unhappy. Justifying my working from Europe would be a tougher sell still.

The alternative scenario is a leave of absence. This could even be cleverly engineered so that I hold onto my benefits. The way this would work is that I would alternate between two weeks of vacation time and two weeks of absence, resulting in the 51% threshold I need to continue my benefits.

Of course, the real risk here is that there might be a strong incentive to simply let me go. After all, what if, after all that, I wind up not returning to my job at all? Of what benefit is that to the organization? On the other hand, I should be entitled to take my vacation time, so it seems like nothing is lost, there.

So the hamster wheel goes round and round.

My supervisor asked if I would consider waiting until July, after the end of the fiscal year. I said no. The time is now. Tomorrow is always too late.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Prison Break: Cell Phones and Hamster Wheels

Cell Phone

If you go overseas you're probably going to want a cell phone, since cell phones provide comfort. My friend Seth found a good company online called Telestial which offers cell phone packages for under $150. In such a package they send you an unlocked cell phone (yours to keep) and a pre-paid international SIM card (the card you put in the back of the phone that allows you to hook up to the local wireless network). The SIM card offers you both a U.S. and U.K. phone number. If you are a U.S. Sprint customer who has talked with that company about "renting" their cell phones while abroad, you will see immediately why this is a significant bargain.

For travelers, this is the 21st century version of phone cards in public phone booths. The SIM card connects the cell phone to any local wireless network. Your call is directed to a computer which then acts like an old-fashioned operator and makes the connection to the other phone. This somehow reduces the rate of the call. And since you always pre-pay on a SIM card, there's no contract or monthly fees. You can "reload" your SIM card by simply dialing 1-9-1 on your phone, then go through an automated system which results in the instantaneous adding of minutes.

In some European countries Telestial's international SIM card will get you a better rate than even the local SIM cards would. But Ukraine is outside the EU, so the international SIM card, while handy for that first phone call when you get off the plane, is better saved for a rainy day. The rate from the international SIM card to a mobile phone in Ukraine is an astonishing $1.84 a minute. So, there you should buy a local Ukrainian SIM card (I believe these are sold in various mobile phone stores). This would bring the price down to a more manageable 36 cents per minute. And incoming local calls are free.

I will be ordering a phone next week. I will let you know how it goes once I'm overseas.

Running in the Hamster Wheel

A Romanian friend wanted some American Christmas music, and the only person who knows more about old pop music than I do is my sister. So I called her for guidance. She opened up her personal music database (we are definitely related) and then provided a long list of classic and off-beat holiday classics. After getting a good list (including Gene Autry's "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" and Burl Ives's "A Holly Jolly Christmas," which will be blended with such tasteless Eurotrash as Crazy Frog's interpretation of "Last Christmas"), my sister and I discussed my impending adventure and my sanity.

Her objections to my adventure were well (and kindly) argued. She spoke of our father, who died in 2002, and the hole that his passing left in our family. Mom lives alone, my sister lives a few hours away from her, and I am currently in Atlanta. My going to Europe for an extended time effectively destroys a large percentage of our cohesion as a family. I think of the world as a small place, but I am in the habit of dropping into Romania whereas many other people are not regular travelers. It is true that if a family emergency demanded my return home, leaving Atlanta is easier to do at the spur of the moment than leaving Ukraine.

Some families are sprawling and busy; others are like a losing "Survivor" tribe, its members picked off one by one until either there's a merge or extinction. My family is on the extinction course. This becomes another reason to take my chances and go on this adventure. I will not find the confidence I need in life sticking to the same routine. I need to find my true identity. Only then can I look another person in the eye and say, you know, I'm one hell of a dude.

Planning Stage: Ukraine (Part 3: Lviv)

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There is an urban legend about a prisoner of war who, in order to preserve his sanity while in captivity, retreated to a "warm, safe place" in his imagination: his favorite golf course. Every day he pictured himself playing a round of golf. When at last he was free and back in the United States he picked up his golf clubs, strolled out onto the course, and played the best round of golf in his life.

While the story is probably fiction, the value of visualization in sports is well-known. I read an excellent book on gymnastics from the Sport Psychology Library which discussed this concept. I think people who read fake or removed-from-context "inspiring stories" in motivational books would be better off studying how real athletes deal with real pressure when they compete (objective biographies are also instructional).

Nowadays, as I unwrap and assemble Office Depot boxes, pack up books, and plug holes in my walls, I frequently imagine myself in Ukraine. What will I look like over there? How will I carry myself? For that matter, how will I carry two CD turntables and a mixer without breaking my back? My disadvantage in visualizing Ukraine is that I am not already personally familiar with that "golf course," so I cannot expect to play the best game of my life there. But like a gymnast who has seen competition elsewhere, I have been to other places with overlapping elements. I am familiar with the "overcharge the American tourist" taxi scam; it's the same in Romania as it is in Ukraine. I find that city metro systems are all fairly similar and all pretty navigable, whether it's the sprawling one in Paris or the simpler "cross and ring" of Bucharest's. So, while Ukraine intimidates me because it is an unfamiliar destination, I am betting that many situations I encounter over there will overlap with past travel experiences.


Lviv was recently deemed the best city in Ukraine to live in. It seems to have a progressive vibe to it (just the sort of place where one might expect to find the excellent DJ Tonika spinning drum and bass).

It looks a million miles away from Kiev. The streets are lined by old buildings very similar in appearance to those you'd find in just-over-the-border Poland. It looks like a less manic place than Kiev, so it might be a nice way to wind down from the energy of that city. All is not perfectly idyllic; somebody writes that the city has corruption problems in the business sector. I'm not sure if my sort of business as a DJ would be impacted by that or not.

It's a sprawling city of under a million people, most of whom probably live in the drab, communist-era apartment buildings surrounding the city (I imagine it's a lot like Lublin, Poland in that regard). However, the historic center is said to be very charming, and there are affordable hostels located in it.

Advertised apartment rentals are as expensive as budget hotels in Kiev, so the hostel route once again seems to be the best way to go. Hostels cost between $7 and $15 a night (and $15 guarantees you a single room, which may well be worth paying for for at least a couple days after the high pressure cooker I expect to encounter in Kiev). Traveling in the dead of winter means I might be able to get a double room all to myself.

(An aside on the subject of the dead of winter: the Bradt travel guide notes that in winter Ukraine daylight hours amount to a total of seven.)

The Nightclubs and Discos

I am quite intrigued by the whole disco/casino/strip club combo concept, which I had not encountered before elsewhere in Europe. This seems to be the norm in Ukraine.

Millennium might be the most progressive of these entertainment complexes, since every Thursday they invite "all women to get pleasure from watching a bright show of Kiev strip dancers." The men get their show on Friday. By the way, the female DJ in the photo off the preceeding link is, I think, the aforementioned DJ Tonika. However, some describe it as a place for "high rollers," which might make it off limits for the trashy street pigeon. Then again, as the name of my blog suggests, one club's trash may be another club's treasure.

Disco Mi100 is another big entertainment center with the usual mix of strip club and disco, and in this case also bowling. This place actually looks like a lot of fun when reviewing pictures. The DJ talent seems to be bigger names, but the intimacy of the dancefloor makes it look like just a cool little disco. It smells like a possibility.

Picasso is described as being popular with the student crowd. It looks like a fun joint.

Pirate-themed Tortuga has a very strong student vibe, and reminds me somewhat of Slovenia's Metelkova. This could be an excellent choice for DJ'ing.

San Remo is said to be a popular student venue, but I cannot find a web page on it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Prison Break: How to Leave a Country Pt. 1

At the very least, I hope that one day this blog will prove a useful resource to other Americans who might want to hit the road for a while. To that end, anyone reading this who wishes to add comments offering advice and recommendations is strongly encouraged to do so below. My own advice will be spread out inefficiently for a while, since I'm learning as I'm going, but at some point I will compile everything into a single place for easy reference.

Visited State Farm Insurance Company today and learned the following:

1) Car. Best-case scenario is to find a friend who is willing to take over paying your insurance policy. That means you don't pay for what you're not driving, and friend can enjoy driving your car in your absence (this also should help keep your car's engine happier).

Note that the name on the insurance must be the same as the one on the car's title (presumably that name is yours). So, add your friend to your own insurance policy and then have your friend take over paying that policy.

Your insurance company will need your friend's name, address, date of birth, and a copy of their driver's license in order to be added. If your friend is over 30, so much the better; then it should not add extra cost to your insurance plan (this surprised me). In such an arrangement it seems monthly payments would be best, because then your friend pays only for the months s/he drives the vehicle, and you can simply take over the payments again when you return.

Another option is to find a good place to park your car during the entirety of your trip, then get the minimum insurance. Finding that "good place" is the challenge, though. You'll probably either pay for parking someplace or wind up storing the car at a friend's or family member's. I think having a friend store your car while denying him/her the pleasure of driving it is a pretty big favor to ask, but maybe your friend does not wish to assume the responsibility and cost, and would rather have the car sit.

A sticky issue could be the titling, depending on the time of year you must renew your title versus when you plan to return. I am fortunate because my car's title arrived in November, so for 11 months there is no issue. I am unaware of how best to handle this situation if, say, your titling comes up two months after you leave. Comments/advice would be appreciated, here. Can you renew your title from abroad? Can you renew it far in advance?

2) Renter's insurance. That's easy; just cancel the policy for everything after your last day at the apartment. Make sure you have an address for them to mail the refund check to (it sounded from my discussion this morning that they won't send one until after policy ends). You don't want to miss out on that reimbursement check.

On to other matters.

I get especially nervous about these plans at night. That's when I am most alone, both physically and psychologically. I have not been sleeping well. I got hooked on "Glee" because it's a feel-good mental vacation from the treadmill. But when I turn out the lights I am back in the hamster wheel again. When I dream I dream of the impending trip. When I awake the first thing I think about is what I have to do to make this thing work. Hamster wheel goes round and round, round and round...

Top concern is running out of money, and it's hard for me to budget when I do not know what circumstances I may find myself in.

Been trying to figure out if I can get an affordable phone that would work oversees, but Skype still seems to be the cheapest and best answer. "Best" is relative; my laptop will basically be my Swiss Army Knife, and if it gets stolen I will be fairly fucked.

On the other hand, I can always log onto Skype from any other computer and make that emergency call then.

I am currently burning about a hundred CDs to take with me. As I see the growing size of the stack, I wish I'd had a better experience with my MP3 mixer. My MP3 mixer, an M-Audio Torq Xponent, was too unreliable in a live setting; the "regular" CD turntables are much better. But they are also much heavier, and I will be lugging them around until they get stolen.

Music is being stored in three places: laptop, on CDs, and soon an external hard drive, which I will pick up closer to departure time. In theory, whatever mp3s I don't get around to burning on "regular" music CDs I could burn anytime, including right in the middle of a DJ gig.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Planning Stage: Ukraine (Part 2: Kiev Nightlife)

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Well, my sister, who is sensible, is not on board with my doing this, so I regret I mentioned it to her. It's a shame some people cannot be told things; they force us to become liars.

Packing of belongings is moving along. I am patching holes in my apartment walls and boxing up my library. I hope to be more than halfway moved out this week and completely moved out by end of next (save my mattress, computer, DJ equipment, and some other essentials).

More Kiev

Ukraine's brutal presidential campaign will culminate on 17 January, provided swine flu paranoia doesn't delay the vote. I want to be there for that.

Hotels in Kiev are expensive. Renting an apartment will not get you a good value either (prices online suggest a nightly rate that is about the same as what you'd pay for the Holiday Inn Express here in the states, which is to say around $60 a night). As Bradt's travel guide notes, Kiev has yet to discover the budget hotel. One can take a gamble and rent an apartment for possibly much cheaper from any number of entrepreneurs, but Bradt's discourages this (too many ways to get scammed).

The only other options are hostels or a personal connection with a couch to sleep on. I would prefer the latter, as the hostels look like the usual 4 to 8 bunks per room, and it takes just one snorer to spoil everything. (If it should come to that, I will certainly be bringing my noise cancellation headphones and earplugs with me.)

Regarding Ukraine night life, it seems a large number of dance clubs also double as strip clubs and casinos. Some of these are described as "entertainment centers," and their website splash pages begin at that broader level, with a menu to narrow the scope for the different specific offerings.

Heaven looks like a potentially fun place (I love their advertising), though again I fear it may be too trendy for me. Clips on YouTube show the usual gyrating, scantily-clad professional club dancers on the bar counter. But in studying so many clubs in Eastern Europe lately I'm beginning to recognize that such may simply be the norm for club culture in that region, so sexy girl dancers perhaps does not equal pretentious in that part of the world. Indie bands play live at Heaven also, which is a positive sign.

Arena Night Club looks primarily to be a big-name place, for the likes of Antoine Clamaran, David Guetta, and Inna.

Disco Radio Hall, formerly Modabar, looks like an especially promising venue. The pop is clearly right up front (they put Katy Perry on one flier). I will definitely aim for this one.

Cocktail Bar 111 is situated in a posh hotel. Reviews are mixed, but it sounds as if it could be appealingly trashy.

Pa Ti Pa had Hungarian ex-porn star turned DJ Niki Belucci perform; she removed her clothing while DJ'ing as well. As it turns out, there are other Kiev venues where topless girls DJ. Which makes for some formidable competition.

Tiësto has played Decadence. Fave Ukrainian house group Gorchitza has also. Described as "ultra exclusive," one site says the door policy can be "harsh." It does look lavish, and therefore is probably not my kind of place.

Azhur is described as an "unpretentious" disco. Decor and music are based on the 60s-80s. That would be a fun and interesting DJ challenge. Crowd looks older, unsurprising considering the retro atmosphere. The venue looks quite beautiful and the door policy is relaxed.

Random Observations

Friend Darko from Croatia on the subject of whether or not I can play turbofolk in the Balkans: "Turbofolk? Do not go there!"

Renting an apartment in Tallinn, Estonia for a month is far more reasonable and affordable than renting an apartment in Kiev.

If a cop asks for your passport on the streets of Kiev, you give it to him to look at. If a cop asks for your passport on the streets of Bucharest, you don't. That's because in Romania real cops don't ask to see your passport; only cop impersonators do this.