Thursday, December 18, 2014

Visa-Free Armenia

From the US Embassy in Armenia's Website:
"U.S. and Armenia reach reciprocal visa arrangement"

Effective January 1, 2015, the United States will begin issuing visas in accordance with a new reciprocal arrangement with the Republic of Armenia. Armenian applicants who qualify for a B-category nonimmigrant visa (NIV) may be issued multiple-entry visas for up to 10 years for business and tourist travel to the U.S. Qualified Armenian students and exchange visitors and their dependents who qualify for F, M, or J-category visas will be eligible for multiple-entry visas valid for up to five years. Also effective January 1, 2015, U.S. citizens will be able to travel to Armenia visa-free and stay in Armenia for up to 180 days per calendar year. The implementation of a liberalized visa regime promoting people to people contacts was one of the goals identified in last year’s bilateral meeting of the U.S.– Armenia Task Force (USATF) in Washington D.C.  The USATF is an annual bilateral meeting that provides a forum to discuss trade and investment issues, advance financial and market reforms in Armenia, and identify opportunities for the U.S. and Armenia to work together to foster long-term economic development.   As a result of these agreements, businesses in both countries, including the tourism industry, benefit from increased travel, investment, and business development opportunities between the two countries.  Longer visa validity will allow students and exchange visitors to more easily return to their home countries during school and work holidays.
^ It's always a good thing when two countries liberalize their visa agreements. The best thing is for a country to completely get rid of visa requirements for another country. The next best is for a country to allow another country to get a visa on arrival and the third best is to require visas but to make them have a long validity. ^

States Worst

From Yahoo:
"What Every State in the U.S. Is Worst at"

One thing that makes the U.S. great: no two states are the same. That diversity leads to distinct strengths and weaknesses, but how can you know what makes North Dakota different from South Dakota, besides a made-up line separating them? Well, in the interest of showing that every state sucks in some way, we picked out one key area where each is most deficient. This is what every state is the worst at

.Alabama: Most child smokers
Alaska: Highest chlamydia rate
Arizona: Worst at going to the dentist
Arkansas: Fewest advanced degrees per capita
California: Most polluted cities
Colorado: Greatest cocaine use
Connecticut: Most unequal incomes
Delaware: Least regular exercise
Florida: Most recreational boat accidents
Georgia: Least integrity
Hawaii: Highest homelessness rate
Idaho: Worst drivers
Illinois: Most rail accidents
Indiana: Most meth incidents
Kansas: Ugliest scenery
Louisiana: Highest murder rate
Massachusetts: Worst at happy hour
Michigan: Worst roads
Minnesota: Most tornadoes
Missouri: Worst puppy mills
New Hampshire: Fewest inland waterways
North Carolina: Worst state for education
North Dakota: Least visited
Ohio: Worst water
Pennsylvania: Worst bridges
South Carolina: Most violent crime
South Dakota: Lowest-paid teachers
Tennessee: Most dangerous
Vermont: Most illicit drug use
^ This is  pretty interesting. The article goes into a little more detail for each state, but it got to be too long so you can check it out yourself if you want. NC didn't surprise me because when I met my friends at the Charlotte Airport last week they mentioned how bad their education system in the state was (especially Common Core Math.) ^

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

CLT Self

From the Charlotte Airport Website:
"Self-Service Kiosks Expedite Screening at CLT "

Charlotte Douglas is one of seven U.S. airports using Automated Passport Control (APC) kiosks to offer expedited screening of arriving international passengers.  CLT installed 24 APC BorderXpress kiosks, which were originally developed by the Vancouver Airport Authority, in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with the goal of reducing lines and wait times of incoming passengers on international flights. Travelers do not pre-register to use the kiosks, which can cut border clearance wait times by as much as 50 percent. The kiosks can be translated into 13 languages and have been available for use by passengers since Wednesday, April 30. International travel at CLT has been on the rise throughout the decade. Last year, more than 2.8 million international passengers traveled through Charlotte.   Upon arrival passengers are directed to the kiosks, follow on-screen instructions to scan their passport, answer declaration questions and verify passenger information before receiving a confirmation receipt. With receipt in hand, passengers proceed to a CBP officer for final processing.
^ I recently used this self-kiosk when I arrived in Charlotte from Germany and it did not make things easier or faster. In fact it did the opposite. You don't have a choice when you land. If you were American you were told to use the kiosks. I went to it and it was just like using a self-checkout at a grocery store - confusing and doesn't work the first time. They didn't have anyone nearby to help if you had an issue. I had to scan my passport, then answer some Customs questions (which I had already down on the Customs form on the plane) and then had to bend down to take a picture that was then printed onto a receipt. I had to then show my receipt to a woman and then stand in the regular Immigration line to wait for the immigration official to go through everything all over again. As I already wrote I got a real prick. After that I had to go to the first Customs woman and then Secondary Screening because of what the prick Immigration guy wrote on the back of my receipt. So rather than making things easier and faster so I could catch my connecting flight it made things longer and more difficult. I do not understand why I have to go see the immigration official if I already used the self-kiosk. It is just as stupid as saying you have to take your shoes and belts off when you go through a full body scanner than can see through clothing. The TSA and US Immigration and Customs need to learn what faster and easier mean because as of now they are doing a very poor job. ^ 

Fast Airports

From G & M:
"‘Fast-lane’ security lines open at four Canadian airports "

The federal government is expediting security screening at four of Canada's busiest airports for those U.S.-bound air passengers that it considers low risk. It’s also expanding the group of “trusted travellers” able to use these queues to include members of Canadian and U.S. military as well as air crews. Previously this was limited to Canadians who have joined the NEXUS program, which conducts extensive pre-screening on applicants, and passengers who’ve enrolled in the similar U.S. Global entry program.   Participating airports include Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto's Pearson Terminals 1 and 3 as well as Montreal. Currently, at 16 Canadian airports, NEXUS and Global Entry members receive expedited screening by proceeding directly to the front of the queue at the pre-board security screening checkpoint, resulting in shorter wait times.  Under the expanded program at the four major airports, military personnel and air crews can use these dedicated screening lines.
 At these lines, trusted travellers have access to faster security screening, for instance, not having to remove shoes, belts, hats, light jackets; and keeping permitted liquids, aerosols and gels in carry-on bags," the federal government said in a statement. The NEXUS program has more than 1.1 million enrolled travelers. Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, who made the announcement with Roxanne James, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, is also urging travelers to use a new website,‎, to help plan their trip. It offers links to the Current Border Wait Times table as well as Ottawa's Travel Smart app for consular information and assistance abroad. 

^ Anything that can reduce times in the security or immigration lines is a plus. ^

Holiday Post

I did this last year and so thought I would do it again. I searched the different websites of post offices from around the world to find any Christmas, Hanukkah and general holiday symbols or even mention of them.

These are the countries  that had something on their websites:

-Albania, Argentina, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Colombia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ghana, Honduras, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, United States and the Vatican.

The Christmas/holiday season is one of the busiest times (and when they get most of the money) for any post office and so it's interesting to see which countries embrace that and those that do not.

Peter Pan Live

I know this aired on December 4th,but I was in Germany then and have just gotten around to watching it on my DVR. Before I left I did see the Making Of... special. I have to say that I did not like this program at all. From start to finish it was just off-putting. I will never understand why they never cast a male to play Peter Pan. They can find 30 year olds to play high school students and yet can't find a man to play a boy.
Allison Williams had a decent voice, but still looked and sang like a woman. Christopher Walken, while pretty creepy looking in real life, didn't have that when he played Captain Hook.
While I did like the sets and scenery I didn't care for the songs.
I did watch "The Sound of Music Live" last year and the only issue I had with that was with Carrie Underwood's acting. The rest was pretty good. I can  not say the same with "Peter Pan Live." It was just one bad thing after the other. I like the story of Peter Pan too. I even dressed up as him for Halloween when I was younger. My brother was Captain Hook and my sister was Tinker Bell. Watching this Live version just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I hope that if NBC does this again next year they will A) pick a good musical and B) put more time into the casting and songs.

Berlin Exhibit

From Yahoo:
"Berlin exhibition evokes final months of WWII"

The tense expression on Ilse Grassmann's face belies the festive occasion. It's Christmas 1944 and she is sitting at home with her three youngest children, the table bare of food or gifts. Her husband is due to be called up soon to join Nazi Germany's hopeless attempt to win the war. Their 18-year-old son is already stationed in Denmark awaiting the Allied advance. The scene captures the mood most Germans felt during the final months of World War II. Few believed the claim by Adolf Hitler and his loyal followers that Germany could still achieve an "Endsieg," or final victory. But many feared the consequences of defeat, as the conflict threatened to consume the country that had unleashed it upon the rest of the world. The picture is part of an exhibition in Berlin marking next year's 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Its subjects are ordinary people caught between the encroaching enemy and their own murderous leadership, which launched a futile offensive in Belgium — known as the Battle of the Bulge — just before Christmas 1944. "A responsible government would have seen the country was doomed and negotiated for peace," said Claudia Steur, a historian who curated the exhibition. "But Hitler didn't give a damn. He felt that if Germans couldn't win they should die." From October 1944, young boys and men up to the age of 60 were called up to fight for the Fatherland. Later the maximum age for men was extended to 70, and women were armed too. Meanwhile, anyone found listening to enemy radio risked a death sentence as the dictatorship tried desperately to hide what was happening from its own people, even as many German cities lay in ruins.  The Nazis' propaganda machine went into overdrive, stoking fear of what their enemies — particularly the Soviets — would do to German civilians they captured. Reports of mass rapes and other atrocities by the Red Army in East Prussia sent many fleeing westward. Effective methods of suicide became an everyday topic of conversation and German authorities handed out cyanide capsules to thousands in Berlin alone in spring 1945. By that time a once-proud country had been reduced to rubble, in part by German troops themselves acting on Hitler's orders to leave nothing but scorched earth behind them. "It's very hard to imagine the level of destruction of 1945 when looking at Germany today," said Randall Hansen, a historian at the University of Toronto.
A failed coup in July 1944 resulted in a purge of officers. Those who remained felt the need to demonstrate their loyalty to Hitler until the end, resulting in complete destruction of entire cities, such as Breslau, now Wroclaw, said Hansen. In some cases civilians did manage to convince local commanders to surrender, such as in Freiburg or the Baltic port of Greifswald. Retreating German troops also sought to destroy evidence of their own atrocities, especially the concentration camps where 6 million Jews died along with political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals and others. Civilians, meanwhile, threw away swastika flags and copies of "Mein Kampf" to avoid being identified as Nazi sympathizers.  Germany signed an unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945. One day later a court-martial sentenced a young German sailor, Alfred Gail, and two others to death for desertion.
"Now we will be the last victims of this war, and all for nothing, like so many who died in action," he wrote in a last letter to his parents, which is part of the exhibition. They were executed on May 10 — two days after the war had formally ended.

^ I'm sorry, but I don't feel any pity for what the German people went through during World War 2 (whether is was in the beginning or  at the end.) No one should forget that it was the Germans who started the war. They also were the first to actively target and bomb civilians (ie Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, etc.) They were the ones who massacred innocent men, women and children throughout Europe in prisons, concentration camps, labor camps, death pits, on the battlefield and in death camps. They not only created the war, but also how it would be fought and who would suffer. The only thing I wish is that the Germans alive at the time had suffered more for what they did. They got away with murder (literally) because at the end of the war we were more worried about the Japanese - for a few more months - and then the Soviets. When I was in Germany last week the parents of a friend described some local place being bombed by the English during the war with a Dam Buster Bomb. They were horrified and yet I was glad our Allies had those weapons to try and end the war sooner and save innocent people's lives. The Germans continue to try and make excuses or play the victim themselves yet the only real victims were those persecuted and killed by the Nazis and most Germans don't fall into that category. It is clear now as it was back in the 1930s and 1940s that had the German people openly voiced their concern or dislike for what the Nazis and Hitler were doing things would have been a lot different. When the people found out about the secret killings of the disabled the Nazis stopped. When the people stood up for their Jewish family members during the Rosenstrasse Protests the Nazis backed down and released them. The fact is that had the Germans wanted something different they could have gotten it, but the majority of the German people were in love with Hitler and his Nazi Party that they supported him fully. It wasn't until we won the war and that the Germans started not remembering the things they did or saw during the war and tried to play the victim and the Allies, for the most part, allowed that act to be played. ^

Cuba Ties

From the BBC:
"US and Cuba 'seek to normalise ties'"

US and Cuba are to start talks to normalise diplomatic ties in a historic shift in relations between the two countries, media reports say. American officials have told US media the US is looking to open an embassy in Havana in the coming months.  The moves are part of a deal that saw the release of American Alan Gross by Cuba and includes the release of three Cubans jailed in Florida for spying.
US President Barack Obama is making a statement later. Mr Gross, 65, has spent five years behind bars after being accused of subversion, for trying to bring internet services to communities in Cuba.
He earlier left Cuba on a US government plane and was freed on humanitarian grounds. His arrest and imprisonment had undermined attempts to thaw diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The three Cubans released in the US are part of the so-called Cuban Five convicted of spying.
Prosecutors said the five had sought to infiltrate US military bases and spied on Cuban exiles in Florida. Two were recently allowed to return to Cuba after finishing their sentences.

^ This isn't surprising. Obama is now a lame-duck President and doesn't really care what he does (I don't think he ever really did.) His arrogance has led him to do many things that are now hurting ordinary people: ie  Obamacare, Immigration, the Governemtn Shutdown, his mishandling of Iraq - by first completely withdrawing US troops without making sure there were no more threats within the country to dealing with ISIS now, he has also dealt poorly with regards to Russia and the Ukraine. I see this push to normalize ties with Cuba as a way for him to try and salvage his reputation and legacy. It would be a lot better if he simply resigned early and let the country deal with his many mistakes now rather than having to wait until a new President is elected. Who knows how much more damage he can do between now and then.  ^

Ruble Falling

From MT:
"Russia's Ruble Crisis Could Shake Putin's Grip on Power"

Russia failed to halt the collapse of the ruble on Tuesday, leaving President Vladimir Putin facing a full-blown currency crisis that could weaken his iron grip on power.  A 6.5 percentage point interest rate rise to 17 percent overnight failed to prevent the currency from hitting record lows in a "perfect storm" of low oil prices, looming recession and Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.
Putin has blamed the ruble's crash on speculators and the West, while a presidential spokesman on Tuesday attributed the market turbulence to "emotions and a speculative mood." The ruble lost 11 percent against the dollar on Tuesday, its steepest one-day fall since the Russian financial crisis in 1998. It has fallen 20 percent since the start of the week and more than 50 percent this year. As Moscow faced up to the brewing crisis, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said sanctions could be lifted swiftly if Putin takes more steps to ease tensions and lives up to commitments under cease-fire accords to end the Ukraine conflict.  "These sanctions could be lifted in a matter of weeks or days, depending on the choices that President Putin takes," Kerry told reporters in London.  Keeping the pressure on Moscow, U.S. President Barack Obama was expected to sign legislation this week authorizing new sanctions on Russia over its activities in Ukraine and providing weapons to the Kiev government, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.  But he has said he does not want to take new steps that are not synchronized with European partners.  For the Russian economy, the currency crisis means a deeper recession is more likely next year as high interest rates will crimp growth. For businesses, it means more uncertainty and less access to funding. For the Central Bank, it means a credibility crisis.  For Putin, it increases the risk of losing two of the main pillars on which his support is based — financial stability and prosperity — and brings an unwelcome policy headache at a time when relations with the West are also in crisis over Ukraine.  "Putin rode the wave of higher oil prices in the years after he came to power, but there is no question that the economics will start to adversely impact the politics," said Nicholas Spiro, managing director of Spiro Sovereign Strategy in London.  "The pieces are falling into place to start to affect the political sustainability of this regime," he told Reuters.  Putin, who rose to power at the end of 1999, has enjoyed popularity ratings above 80 percent since Russia reclaimed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in March. He has no obvious rivals, with critics accusing him of smothering dissent, and much of the state's big business is in his allies' hands.  There has been little or no sign of panic from a public that gets most of its news from state media that propagate Putin's view that Russia is under attack from speculators and the West.  But opinion pollsters say discontent with the ruble's fall and deepening economic gloom will gradually hit the emerging middle class in the big cities and then spread to his support base in the provinces.  "I think he has a store of support that can last 1-1/2 to two years," Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Center, an independent polling group, said by telephone. "We will see the first signs of discontent in the spring."  Putin is aware that his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, resigned early after a financial crisis and that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's grip on power slipped as the economy crumbled.

^ I don't know if Russia would be better or not without Putin. Historically, the Russian people have always needed and revered strong leaders who tell them what to do (ie the Czars, the Communists and now Putin.)What is clear is that Russia is in for a lot more pain - especially the Russian people. The USSR collapsed partly because of over-spending, the 1998 default wiped people's savings overnight and now the current economic crisis looks like it will be along the same lines if not worse (I guess 3 times isn't always a charm.) I feel bad for my Russian friends who have no real control over what happens yet have to suffer yet many continue to have their heads in the sand and refuse to see the writing on the wall. ^

EU And Hamas

From the Stars and Stripes:
"EU court takes Hamas off terrorist list"

A European Union court on Wednesday ordered the Palestinian group Hamas removed from the EU terrorist list for procedural reasons, but says the bloc can maintain asset freezes against Hamas members. Hamas has been on the EU terrorist list since 2001 as part of broader measures to fight terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The Islamic militant group, which won elections in 2006 and now runs Gaza, has long contested the classification. The EU court ruled Wednesday that the listing was based on press and Internet reports and not on "acts examined and confirmed in decisions of competent authorities." The court insisted that its ruling did not "imply any substantive assessment of the question of the classification of Hamas as a terrorist group." It therefore ruled that the asset freezes should stay in place for three months pending further EU actions. The EU is considering its next steps. It has two months to appeal. The terrorist list designation bars EU officials from dealing with the group, and requires that any of the group's funds in EU countries be frozen.
The decision comes amid growing pressure from European legislators to recognize a Palestinian state, after years of stalemate in peace talks. There was also growing frustration in Europe with Israel's government after the Gaza war earlier this year.

^ It seems the EU and many of their member states are living in a world of make-believe and has had too many lemon drops and moonbeams. How can they say Hamas isn't a terrorist group especially after they were bombing Israel this past Summer? I guess Anti-Semitism is alive and well in the EU - they probably hope Hamas will finish what Hitler started. ^

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A White US Christmas

 ^ This is from AccuWeather. Of course I live in the whitest part of the country. ^

Russian Attacks

From the BBC:
"Russia's gay community in fear as homophobic attacks increase"

This year's QueerFest in St Petersburg was the most controversial in the festival's history. At the opening show, a crowd turned up to intimidate and shout insults, spraying coloured antiseptic from syringes, in a kind of cleansing.  There were sudden bomb scares and protests, and venues cancelled events at the last minute. Anti-gay activists plastered places with stickers: "Say no to Sodom." "The atmosphere now is scary, we feel that it's dangerous," one of the organisers, Polina Andrianova, told the BBC, describing the harassment as the worst since the LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) festival began six years ago.  Her experience is one of those recorded in a new report by the US-based group Human Rights Watch, which documents a rise in homophobic rhetoric, actions and violence in Russia. It blames a law passed last year banning the promotion of "non-traditional lifestyles" among minors.  "All people understand from this law is that something is wrong with gay people. That they are dangerous for children, and information about them is harmful," Ms Andrianova argues.
Anti-gay provocateurs have infiltrated discussion sessions here in the past and disrupted them. Another group recorded over 300 homophobic attacks this year, a more than tenfold rise.  "We were just having coffee, harming no-one, when men in masks broke-in," Ivan Surok says of one incident, last November. At least one of the attackers was wielding a pellet gun and shot a man in the eye, blinding him; a girl was wounded in her back.  No-one has yet been prosecuted, part of what Human Rights Watch calls a culture of "widespread impunity". In the cases it documented between 2012 and 2014 only three were brought to court and two led to convictions.  Since the attack he witnessed, Ivan has carried a pepper spray for protection but no longer feels safe.  "Homophobes feel like they have a legal basis for their hatred now," Ivan says of the gay propaganda law. "They feel they can beat someone for being gay and they're protected."  The law - an amendment to child protection legislation - was introduced in several regions before being adopted nationwide.  Its chief sponsor in Russia's second city is Vitaly Milonov, a local deputy whose office at the palatial City Hall is filled with religious paraphernalia. Russian icons cover the walls and shelves beside a black flag bearing a skull and cross-bones. Another black banner proclaims "Orthodoxy or Death" in Greek. Mr Milonov justifies the law with reference to Russia's traditional, Christian values. He insists that homosexuality is a sin and homosexuals an enemy within, backed by a perverted West.  Homophobic attacks, he claims, are fabricated. But Vitaly Milonov is no political extremist - he represents the United Russia party of President Vladimir Putin.  "I want to protect my kids and my family from this dirt going from the homosexuals," the politician told the BBC. Human Rights Watch calls for an end to such hate-speech and for a new message of tolerance from Russia's authorities. It urges the government to repeal the anti-gay law. "It's like the law has ignited fear," says Alexey Zalensky, who's worried that LGBT people in Russia, already nervous about revealing their sexuality, are now retreating into the closet.

^ These homophobic attacks continue to get worse in Russia. It seems that Russia continues to move further and further into the Dark Ages. They have annexed the Crimea, support the ethnic Russian terrorists in eastern Ukraine, created a cult of personality over their leaders and promote anti-homosexual attacks within their country. They continue to self-isolate themselves. Rather than becoming part of the global community like most countries (even China) are doing they are moving backwards in time. I would like to see a Russia that actively pursues a policy of peace and living in the international community rather than one that creates violence and fear around the planet. ^

Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

I went to the movies yesterday and saw this. I tried to go see it before Thanksgiving, but then we had 26 inches of snow and then I was in Germany. I was the only one in the theater (my sister said it was a private showing.) The movie was good, but didn't seem to really flow like the first two did. I still think that Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson and the rest of the cast did a good job of portraying the characters. I guess I just expected something different. I have read all the books and know the storyline and the film basically followed them well. The movie did seem to end in an odd spot. I know the next film (Part 2) will continue where this one left off, but still.

Happy Chanukkah!

European Markets

From Yahoo Travel:
"You Can't Miss These Amazing Christmas Markets in Europe"

I’ve always loved traveling to Europe in November and December. While the days are shorter and the weather leaves a lot to be desired, the flights are cheaper, the crowds clear out, and there are incredible Christmas markets everywhere. Nobody does the holidays like Europe: the decorations are more sophisticated, the snow globes are snowier, and even the mulled wine tastes better. Plus, strolling around a market is a great way to soak in the local culture. One of my favorite memories was going to Saint-German-en-Laye, a suburb of Paris, in early December to see the city's famous royal castles. I stumbled upon a charming marché de Noël in the town, where I bought Christmas wooden ornaments for all my friends back home and wandered around sampling crepes and gingerbread. It was so lovely that I almost skipped seeing the historic sites.

 Vienna: the Oldest Christmas Market
This is where it all began. The Vienna “December market” dates to 1294. As it was when Albert I of Habsburg ruled the nation, going to a “Christkindlmarkt” is a social outing for the Viennese, who congregate for roast chestnuts and marzipan washed down with punsch and glühwein (mulled wine). Like many European cities, there are markets across the city, but the main one is on Rathausplatz. And the shopping can’t be beat: wooden toys, glass ornaments, and nary a Santa figurine to be seen.

Strasbourg: the Best Christmas Market
Recently voted the top Christmas market in Europe by the readers of the website European Best DestinationsStrasbourg is also one of the best known. The “Christkindelsmärik” (market of the Infant Jesus) first took place in 1570. These days, this Alsatian market on the border of France and Germany has an ice-skating rink and choirs serenading shoppers with caroles. Not to be missed: flammekeuche, a “pizza” with bacon, onions, and crème fraîche.

Nuremberg: the Most Famous Christmas Market
Germany is beloved for its quintessential markets selling wooden nutcrackers, hand-crafted ornaments, and bratwurst. The one not to miss is the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, which attracts over two million people between Nov. 28 and Dec. 24 to its striped stalls. The things to buy here include plum people, miniature dolls made from prunes, and “rauschgoldengel,” gold-foil angels. There’s also a dedicated children’s market, with a merry-go-round and Santa, of course.

Copenhagen: the Brightest Christmas Market
Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens is a spectacle throughout the year, but at Christmastime it really glows, thanks to over 120,000 lights strung across the urban amusement park. This is one of Europe’s newer markets, having only been around since 1994. But it has quickly made its mark, attracting over one million travelers every year (a fifth of the population of Copenhagen itself). The market mixes influences from Scandinavia and Russia.

Cologne: the Gayest Christmas Market
There are Christmas markets all across Cologne, but without a doubt the loudest and proudest is the city’s gay and lesbian Christmas market. This year the theme is pink and purple and stands will be hawking “pottery, XXL, and Christmas dog accessories.” Expect lots of personality.

Sligo, Ireland: the Kookiest Christmas Market
One of the most unusual settings is in an airport beside a surfing beach in the West of Ireland. Sligo Airport is only used for small planes, so Hangar 1 has been converted into the Strandhill People’s Market, selling hot food, local produce, and crafts. In the tiny terminal building, the arrivals hall has been transformed into Santa’s Grotto, where you can buy gifts at the car hire desk and have a drink in the airport bar.

^ Having just come back from Germany and going to 4 different Christmas markets I thought this was good to include. Of this list I have only been to: Nuremburg's and Cologne's Christmas markets. ^


^ I saw this on Facebook and thought it was spot-on. ^


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Digital License

From the BBC:
"Iowa developing driver's licence app"

The US state of Iowa is developing an application to put residents' driver's licences on mobile devices. The app would use a pin number for verification and biometric identification to control who can access it, officials said. "We are really moving forward on this," Governor Terry Branstand said, according to the Des Moines Register. An initial pilot programme will begin next year, Iowa's transportation department tells the BBC. The app could be used at traffic stops and security at Iowa airports. The state is already one of 30 that allows drivers to show their proof of vehicle insurance electronically. Residents will still be able to use a regular "hard" driver's licence, the transporation department says.

^ This is a big waste of time. I stood behind people when I was travelling that had digital boarding passes on their phones and had issues at security and passport control. Sometimes it is just better to use a piece a paper - and then recycle it later. Iowa (and every other US State) should instead focus on fixing the long wait-times and bad customer service at their DMVs and making it easier for more people to do things on their website. Once they fix all those problems millions of people have to deal with then they can focus on something not important like a digital copy of your license. ^

Hard Citizens

From Yahoo:
"5 Countries Where It's Hardest To Become A Citizen"

Obtaining permanent residency status or gaining citizenship in a foreign county may seem like a good idea for those who no longer want to live in the country where they were born or whose passport they hold. But some nations make that transition especially difficult unless you marry a citizen of that country or – in some cases – have ancestors who were citizens. In addition to marriage and ancestry,  countries with high barriers to attaining citizen status may have special residency or citizenship tracks for people who fit certain categories, such as being a highly skilled professional or investing substantially in a business enterprise. But these situations don't apply to the vast majority of prospective citizens. Below, in alphabetical order, are five nations that make it especially difficult for foreigners to establish permanent residency or obtain citizenship:

Many EU countries have tough immigration laws, but Austria seems to have one of the lengthiest processes to become a citizen. Anyone who is not a citizen of an EU country and staying longer than six months must have a resident permit before entering the country. People who plan to stay longer than 24 months must also sign an Integration Agreement, a process designed to enhance their German-language skills and ability "to participate in the social, economic and cultural life in Austria."  Permanent residents must live in the country continuously for a period of 15 to 30 years before being eligible to apply for citizenship. If approved, applicants must renounce any other citizenship.

Obtaining permanent residency in Germany is difficult unless you are a citizen of another EU country. Other foreign nationals must have lived in Germany for at least five years and demonstrate competency in language, the political system and society. Applicants must also demonstrate they have an ability to earn a living and that they’ve contributed to the national pension plan, as well as having proof of accommodation. To become a citizen, applicants must have lived in the country at least eight years (seven, if they’ve passed a competency test) and renounce citizenship in any other country.
It takes longer to be granted a Permanent Resident visa in Japan than to become a citizen. People who want to establish permanent residency must have lived in the country for a total of 10 continuous years or more.  Those who want to become a citizen of Japan must have lived in the country for five years, receive permission from the Justice Minister and complete a slew of paperwork (some have complained of unnecessary questions involving their personal lives). The process, according to the Japanese Ministry, can take six to 12 months, although those who have gone through it have reported that it can take years. If approved, applicants must be ready to renounce citizenship in other countries.

Any foreigner wanting to settle in the beauty of the Swiss Alps, or anywhere else in Switzerland, may do so for three months. To obtain a settlement, or permanent residence visa (unless you are an EU citizen), you must have lived in the country for 10 years. If you qualify for permanent residence by the length of time you have lived in the country, you also qualify to apply for citizenship, but that is not guaranteed; applicants for citizenship must also prove they are assimilated into Swiss society. What's more, all cantons and municipalities have their own rules about granting citizenship. Switzerland permits dual citizenship.

United States
While the United States was founded mostly by immigrants, the process for achieving permanent residency and citizenship has become even more complicated since the early 2000s and the war on terrorism. Unless a person is coming to the U.S. through family or an approved job, it is very difficult to establish permanent residency (sometimes known as receiving a green card). There are special categories for those seeking refugee or asylum status, and a lottery for others who wish to apply. Those who have had permanent residency status for five years can begin the process of applying for citizenship by filling out the application and taking a test, which includes knowledge of history/government and English. Before becoming a citizen, people must swear an oath to the Constitution. The United States permits dual citizenship. For more information, read Understand The Requirements For U.S. Citizenship.

The Bottom Line
Moving from a temporary visa to permanent resident status – or citizenship – is particularly difficult in some countries. But some do succeed in the end.

^ Becoming a citizen of a country is important (especially when you are not born or married into it.) Some countries allow you to become a citizen by just spending a lot of money while others make you prove you know about the country, it's language, customs and language. I think the countries that make you take the test are right. It shows you really want to become apart of that nation rather than just being a tourist who can live and work there. ^

Behaving Russian

From MT:
"Don't Shout, Don't Push, Eat Blini: Russian Orthodox Church's Manual for Migrants"

Don't speak too loudly in public. Don't wave your arms and hands on public transportation. And don't push. These are just a few of the helpful hints the Russian Orthodox Church is offering foreign migrant workers, according to media reports. The recommendations are included in a textbook that the Church published to help migrants — most of whom come from former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the South Caucasus — pass the Russian language, history and civics exam required under legislation that goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2015. Titled "Russian Language, History and the Foundations of Russian Law," the textbook contains material instructing migrants on "how to behave in public and how to resolve conflicts with the native population," the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia reports.  On public transportation, "the most important rules are: Don't talk loudly, don't wave your hands, and don't push," Izvestia writes, describing the textbook.  And in the event of a conflict, do not "threaten or use force." Instead, "resolve conflicts peacefully through the use of dialogue, or else people will come to see you as an enemy with whom it is necessary not to speak, but to fight."
And keep the music down! "Loud music and noisy groups are bad because they stop other people working and relaxing," the textbook advises, according to Izvestia. The book also warns migrants to be chivalrous toward women: "In Russia, there are many unhappy families and single women because many men die early or perish in wars and conflicts. But Russian women regard themselves highly and require respect. If someone offends them, then their male relatives and the state will defend them." The textbook was edited by Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin, who made headlines this week when he argued that an art installation of the "Eye of Sauron" advertising the upcoming film in "The Hobbit" series was a "demonic symbol."  Chaplin told Izvestia that the textbook was necessary because it is "important that foreigners understand Russians."
In addition to all the advice on etiquette, the textbook also offers a culinary crash course in which it recommends migrants sample pancakes with "meat, farmer's cheese, jam, caviar and salted fish" during their stay. It itemizes the ingredients that go into Russian dishes like the soups "okroshka" and "shchi." It lists borshch, kvas (a fermented beverage) and kasha (porridge) as national dishes.
The first 1,700 copies of the textbook have already been distributed to civic organizations working with migrants and to centers that are preparing them to pass the language, history and civics exam.
Migrants who pass the exam will be given a certificate necessary to obtain a work permit.
The Orthodox Church's attempts to teach etiquette to migrants is reminiscent of the "Muscovite Guide," a pamphlet Moscow authorities issued in 2010 informing foreigners how to behave in the Russian capital. Russia's Federal Migration Service estimates that about 12.4 million migrant laborers entered the country last year.

^ I thought this was a joke when I first read it. A Russian who doesn't push to get on public transportation?  I've never met one. In Yaroslavl the trolley-buses and trams were jammed packed (especially during the winter when they were always late. I had old women pushing and shoving to get on and off. Then there are the conductors on them (mostly women) who go from one side of the car to the other and they don't go gracefully. I also laughed at the part about Russian women. It's true that they act and dress like "traditional" women (ie dresses, skirts, high heels) but that's really because they never had the Women's Lib Movement that the rest of the world had in the 1960s. While American women were marching for their rights Soviet/Russian women were busy standing in lines for everything. I would really like to see a real copy of this pamphlet so I could see more on how to "act" like a Russian. I do have a book I bought in Russia  (in Russian) called "Those Strange Russians" (they have one for Americans, Germans, etc.) and it was pretty accurate about the stereotypes and why Russians originally did those things. ^

Friday, December 12, 2014

Heading Home

On Thursday morning at 3 am I checked out of my hotel (with the same Indian guy that didn’t speak German or English earlier) and took a taxi to the airport. Even though I was told to get there 2 hours before my flight, Germanwings didn’t open their check-in until about an hour before the flight.  As with most things on my trip I had to wait. Then to get into security you had to scan your boarding card for the door to open – but there were no signs to tell you that. I had to watch some random person do it. Unlike the TSA (which makes you take off your shoes, belt and basically stripe down) the only thing German security made me take off was my belt. The flight to Munich was fine – I wasn’t made to stand-apart from everyone else like I was before.  The real drama started when I got to Munich.
I knew from when I arrived the week before that I had to change terminals by bus (this time from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2.) I got on the bus with several other people and when we got to Terminal 2 the bus driver let some people off but wouldn’t let us out. He didn’t even say a word to us and just started driving away. We were banging on the windows for him to let us out.  He finally pulled over and let us out where me and several other people gave him a piece of our mind (I started remembering all the “choice” German words that you first learn in any language.) The guy was a real jerk, but seemed to fit the profile of the other Germans in Munich that I dealt with.
I had breakfast and then had to find a Lufthansa person to ask where my flight was leaving from (again the signage was awful.) I went through German exit immigration. The man didn’t look at my picture and just stamped my passport and waved me through. Then in the 25 minutes it took to walk to my gate I had to go through 5 other Passport Controls (and not one single security checkpoint – the only one was in Dortmund.) It was weird. The officials just kept looking at my passport, but didn’t stamp or say anything.  I’ve never seen anything like that before.
There was more waiting only this time I had 4 and a half hours (and not 9.) This time I was flying Lufthansa – luckily they weren’t striking this time. When we boarded the gate, officials got mad whenever someone would show then their passport with their boarding pass – even though every time you take an international flight you are supposed to show your passport when boarding.  There were around 200 people boarding and we had to take a bus to our plane and then board it either in the front or the back – but no one told  you where your seat was  so they had people going up and down the aisles from front to back and vice versa to find their seat. It was complete chaos. Maybe the employees of Lufthansa should stop worrying about themselves and always going on strike (it was their 10th this year) and focus more on customer service and the passenger.
I had a window seat and was sitting next to a very smelly man from India. Luckily the flight wasn’t full and he moved before we took off. Unlike, the United entertainment system (which was easy to use) Lufthansa’s was very difficult  - it was touchscreen but didn’t always work. It seemed that everyone was hitting the call button for the flight attendant to come and fix their screens. I guess their screens were on strike that day. I was eventually able to watch 5 movies during the 10 hour flight and the flight attendants and food were good.
When we landed in Charlotte it was a mad rush to get off. I have been to Charlotte Airport before but only connecting through and never had to go through their Immigration before (the other flights had US Pre-clearance so when you landed you just went to your next flight.) I did not care for Charlotte Airport or the people there. They made all the Americans use immigration self-kiosks. You had to scan your passport, answer some questions, get your picture taken and then get a printed receipt. Next you had to take that receipt with your passport and stand in the regular Immigration line – of course there was only one lane open for all the Americans while the few foreigners had 3. It was an extra step that was both time-consuming and useless.
The Immigration guy I had (the only one) was a real prick. He was one of those welfare-to-work people who probably has never been outside of the country. He was asking me all sorts of very personal questions that had nothing to do with my travels and got mad at me when I asked him what they had to do with my entering the country. He started yelling at me that he had the authority to ask me anything he wanted to. It was "funny"  because he had the worse grammar when he was trying to act tough. I was laughing on the inside the whole time. Once he handed my passport back – he didn’t stamp it though – and the receipt. I asked for his name and badge number and let him know I planned to file a complaint about him – which  I just did. I hate those people who try and abuse what little power they have and be arrogant pricks about it. I have travelled so many times and dealt with many US and foreign immigration officials and so know what to expect. You can be nice to people (like say "Welcome back home", etc) and still do your job in a professional way at the same time - it's called multi-tasking. I picked up my bag and then was told I had to go to secondary Customs screening because the earlier prick had marked my receipt. The new Customs guy was pretty stupid as well. He asked me what was in my bag and I told him a bottle of wine, candy and clothes. He then x-rayed the bag along with my carry-on and then opened them both up. He kept going on and on about the candy and the wine (I was below the allowed limit and told him so.) He then told me to repack my bags and I said that he had opened them and that he could repack them. We had a mini-Mexican stand-off, but eventually he did repack it  and I left. I know many foreigners "fall" for this tough-guy routine and I'm sure I have when I am overseas and dealing with a foreign immigration guy, but I know my rights here in the States and will not be treated like a criminal (aren't you innocent until proven guilty here?) I then went to the US Airways connection area to check-in for my last flight and that guy couldn’t find my ticket. I told him over and over again my destination and my name and even gave him my confirmation number but he apparently put my name in the confirmation number section and vice versa so it wasn’t showing. Eventually he figured out his job and I was able to leave – like I said – the people at the Charlotte Airport were not the brightest.
I was meeting a friend I hadn’t seen in several years –who lives near Charlotte with her family. I had 4 hours in Charlotte but in the end we only got to catch-up for about 45 minutes before I had to go through security and my gate. It was fun. Then there was a long line at security as there were 6 flights leaving and only one lane open.
Luckily, my flight was on time as so  many others were delayed or cancelled. On the plane a guy sat next to me and he was acting very weird. He kept shouting random things and had to constantly go to the restroom – even when the fasten seatbelt sign was on. Then when they gave out the drinks I found the reason for his odd behavior – he got several cups of Coke and kept putting his own stash of alcohol in them. He was completely wasted. When we landed he left his bag on the plane and didn’t realize it until we were already at baggage claim.
I got my bag and then headed for my car. It was a long drive home in a blizzard and the pitch-black.. It was very hard to see. When I finally made it home I say that my garage had collapsed from all the snow and ice we got while I was gone – I had been told about it by e-mail, but seeing it different.  After 26 hours I was finally home. It was so good to see my dogs – they were over-joyed to see me too. Now I have to get over my jet lag and things organized again.
Despite the long travel times and all the waiting and dealing with unintelligent people and not finding many Germans that spoke English – even at the airports – I had a a good time. It was nice to see my old friends and to meet some new people. The Christmas Markets and Harbio were icing on the cake.