Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Oh là là – we are in France again and some awesome money advice for foreign travelers

We just spent three blissful and freezing days in Paris, along with very good friends from New York – it was a passionate rendezvous after a year of separation. To make the most of it, we dove into endless eating, drinking and shopping in the overpriced shops of Le Marais. We even managed to see some of the sights that eluded me the last time I visited the great city of romance 5 years ago when I was pregnant and moved around like an asthmatic camel. On the last night, after walking for eternity in search of the elusive “non-commercial, non-touristy” restaurant in St. Germain, we ended up in possibly THE most touristy one of them. Completely nonplussed, we immediately ordered copious amounts of wine and food. Soon, the goods began arriving, carried by a spritely young lad. As is his habit and to confirm some suspicions, the Diplomat asked him where he was from and (would you know it) the server turned out be from Bangladesh! To his utter amazement, both the Diplomat and I became unnaturally delighted about his origin for no apparent reason. And then his amazement turned into complete stupefaction when I asked him in crystal clear Bengali how long he has been there, whether he is married, where he lives and what is his visa status in the country – you know, the usual questions for a South Asian man. Bursting with joy, he told us his life story in about 4 minutes and promised to come to the American Embassy once he comes back to marry his first cousin in January to get an American visa. I am not sure why.

After we bid a tearful adieu to our good friends Mr. and Mrs. V, we promptly rented a car (using points accumulated on our credit card within less than a month) and immediately set out to explore the beauty and alcohol traditions of the Loire Valley. Which reminds me to write about something I have been meaning to for a long time, namely – using American issued credit and debit cards overseas without paying exorbitant foreign transaction fees. There are 2 cards the frequent foreign traveler needs – (1) a credit card that does NOT charge you foreign transaction fees, and (2) a debit card which you will use for cash and will NOT charge bank fees.

Credit cards with no foreign transaction fees

1. CapitalOne: The best one on the market is CapitalOne’s Venture card, or the notorious “What’s In YOUR Wallet??” card. It’s VISA, so it is welcomed everywhere (Visa charges much less in merchant fees than, say, AMEX). It converts the foreign currency using a decent exchange rate. And it does not charge any fees. There are no minimums, no maximums, no need for certain balances, no swearing your life, $60 annual fee. It also accumulates you points that you can cash for just about anything travel related (they work with Expedia and divide the price of travel goods by 10 to get the amount of points necessary). We used our points to book a rental car for 2 weeks in France now. It’s that awesome. That’s it. Now go get the card. No, they are not paying me for this. I wish.

2. Citibank: Citi offers the Citi ThankYou Premier Card and the ThankYou Prestige Card with no foreign transaction fees. We used to use the Premier Card a lot before we got the Venture card. The cool thing about that card is that you get reward points both when you buy things, as well as miles from flights booked using the card. For example – say, you bought a plane ticket to fly from NYC to Paris, which cost you $1,000. The miles you get on your frequent flyer program are, say 3,000. So, on your Citi card you will get both 1,000 points from the money you spent, as well as 3,000 from the flight itself. It doesn’t have to be tickets just for you – you can be buying tickets for your grandma to come see you and cook your favorite pie since you are so awesome and too lazy to make your own pie. You still get her miles. The thing about that card was that the annual fee is a whopping $125. So, we switched. Not until we went to India on the accumulated points, though…

Debits cards for cash overseas

1. USAA: Their debit card reimburses you 100% for all foreign ATM fees. It is awesome. It has one tiiiiiiiiny little problem though – it is not available to the general public. Only to the military and certain governmental employees, like the Foreign Service folks (yey!). Sorry rest of the world. But if you can get it, GET IT!

2. Charles Schwab: if you open a High Yield Investor Checking Account (it only sounds fancy, it has no minimum balances or fees), they offer unlimited fee rebates from any ATM worldwide. Which is awesome.

3. HSBC: they are a global bank as they love to tell you in humongous posters all over every single airport I have ever been to. They don’t charge ATM fees at any of their ATM machines worldwide, and they have branches everywhere. Even in Dhaka. Whoa! So, that is another option to get fee-less cash abroad.

Further Awesome money travel advice: (a) use your no-fee credit card as much as possible. Credit card companies get the best foreign exchange rates (no matter how enticing the exchange rate looks like at the exchange bureau manned by 2 burly locals next to your hostel in Burkina Faso); (b) when you get cash from an ATM (if not without fees), get a bunch – the fees are not a percentage, but a set amount, like $5 and it doesn’t matter whether you will be getting $100 or $1000. So, there is no need to pay ATM fees every day for small withdrawals.

Final Awesome Foreign Travel money advice: get yourself a credit card with DIVERSE travel rewards. The above mentioned Venture and Citi cards are a good example – you can use their points for any airline, a myriad of hotels and car rental companies. Do not get a card that ties you to just ONE airline – those days of exclusivity with American Airlines or Southwest Air are over, my friends. Another GREAT option is a credit card linked to a particular world hotel chain like Hilton, Starwood or Marriot – you can use that card for your domestic purchases and then cash your points to stay anywhere within the chain for free. We do it all the time. Not to mention that a higher balance makes you a higher level member and you get perks at the hotel, like free bottled water, internet in your room (usually, the price of gold) or even fruit baskets!

I hope this was helpful. As we move slowly through the Loire Valley, overdosing on châteaux and local wine, I will try to recount for you some of the highlights (which include elderly British ladies in microscopic biking outfits, baguette sandwiches with ham and cheese and endless wine tastings). But since I have just gulped yet another half a bottle of Vouvray with my sumptuous dinner of locally produced organic something or the other difficult to pronounce French foods, I must head to bed at this point.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Iftars, Lebanese Tzatziki in Australia and Naked Catholics

The childless madness continues – while Son gallivants in Europe with Grandma, the Diplomat and I overdose on Iftars, tennis and sunlight. Last 10 days saw us attend 8 Iftar parties, whether for work or pleasure. While I certainly appreciate the cuisine and the concept of the Iftar party, I have to admit it took a toll on me. As faithful diplomats, we Americans host and attend a slew of formal representational Iftar dinners. In and of itself, that is all very nice. But often the dinner unfolds something like this:
Me: So, you are from the Bangladeshi foreign ministry, in the consular section, how exciting!
(Very serious) BGD diplomat: Yes. (Pregnant silence)
Me: (beginning to eat) That must be very interesting.
BGD diplomat (gently drinking a glass of lemonade, frowning): Yes.
Me (filling mouth hastily with tasty breads): So, do you have kids?
BGD diplomat (suddenly and intensely): How do you think the U.S. recent policy change in Iran will affect the status quo in the region???? What are the real issues for the presidential elections?? Who will be the running mate for the Republicans?? WHO WILL WIN THE ELECTIONS??
Me (mouth full of bread and goat biryani, rather startled, stupefied): Wha’? (muffled by the bread)
So, yeah, while the food is great and company highly engaging, it is not all that easy to be the consummate diplomat that I fancy I am during an Iftar dinner.
The night Ramadan ended, on the eve of Eid-Ul-Fitr, the Diplomat and I, and what seemed like ¾ of the American Embassy and the remaining expat community in Dhaka, climbed a Bangkok Air flight and ran to Phuket. For us, it marked the beginning of our annual R&R vacation. Now, this is how great of an employer the State Department is. Depending on where you serve in the world, it understands the need for some well-deserved R&R by its weary employees and so it generously provides them with a free ticket to a chosen destination (that depends on where you serve) to relax and forget about visas and demarches. Thank you, State Department, thank you very much!
We spent 5 blissful, tennis and sun-drenched days in Phuket where we slept until 10.30 am, ate, jumped like maniacal mongooses in the silky ocean, slept some more on the beach, ate late lunches, read deep literature, played tennis for hours and then gazed intently into each other’s eyes every night over copious and unhealthy dinners.  
Among all of these delights, however, our favorite remains the Thai massages – whether it is just a humble foot massage, a protracted aromatherapy something or a traditional Thai (something of a gymnastics fete), every time we are in Thailand, the Diplomat and I make sure to overindulge. Unfortunately, when you go to traditional tourist destinations like Phuket, you are more than certain to get more than you have bargained for. For me, getting a massage is an entire experience – from the smell of oils, to the darkened lights, to the fragrant towels, to the quiet lull of the parlous to the ultimate excellence of the massage itself. In most massage places on the main streets, people tend to get foot massages. To serve that need, parlors are in essence long wide corridors with many large comfy lazy-boy chairs lined next to each other. Maintaining silence is common sense and courtesy provided by most sensible clients. So, you can imagine my chagrin when, after a day of intense eating and ocean jumping, the Diplomat and I sat down in a nice looking, fragrant massage place, and within seconds of having my feet washed and expertly mauled by a freakishly strong woman, I realized that I was sitting to a massage aficionado’s worst fear – a rather gregarious lady. In the next ten minutes, I learned all about her tzatziki business in Sydney (third largest in Australia, mind you!) and the large amounts of Lebanese in Australia, info which she shared eagerly and rather loudly in the most uncanny New Jersey accent with the hapless Greek gentleman who had the misfortune to be sitting next to her. When I could not take it anymore, I turned politely to her and in most sugary annoyed voice asked her to perhaps, please, tone it down a bit, she turned to me and in the utmost earnest manner passionately said to me, “I don’t blame ya!” and did not utter a single word for the remainder of the massage. It was indeed, one of the best I have had so far.
I am happy to say that among the other useless activities, the Diplomat and I also went to a dance club! Yeah, we are WAY cool. We even remained there for like 30 minutes. Cool. COOL!!
Yesterday, we packed our bags and rushed back to Dhaka where we spent the day laundering and repacking, and ready to fly to Paris tomorrow morning. YEAAAAAAAAAAAH! See you in Europe, everyone!
PS - As I am typing this, I am also watching National Geographic’s Taboo show, featuring Catholic churches in which everyone is butt naked. A-hum. Naked. Not, like, attractive naked. More like rather large, all-in-your face kind of naked. One with God. Amen! 

Monday, August 6, 2012

“And Please, Do Not Panic!”

I know it has been over 2 weeks since my last post. Blame the slow, humorless life we live and the summer dearth of parties. On the other hand, we have now entered Ramadan and in the next two weeks I am not sure we need to cook anything because every single night is taken by one Iftar party or another, some formal and some by friends. Iftar, if you will recall, is the cornucopia dinner following a day of fasting started at dawn by faithful Muslims. The problem is that none of us Americans are fasting and yet we eat just as much as our fellow Muslim fasting guests, as a result of which they get energized and talkative and we – sluggish and entering slow, undiplomatic stupor while trying to maintain clever, engaging conversation. Perhaps I should be skipping lunch this week? I am sure my thighs will have something to say about that.

Now I will share with you my experience at one of the most wonderful albeit somewhat phantasmagorical event commemorating the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence two weeks ago - I was handed an invitation to the fest by our protocol office. The event was organized by the Bangladesh American Society, which clearly knows how to throw a good party. I want their event planner for Son’s birthday! It had more than 500 guests, among which ladies with resplendent sarees and gentlemen with tight suits and most baffling ties. My driver dropped me off at the entrance of a huge convention hall, where I was met and greeted by a somewhat startling gaggle of youngsters dressed in suits, who yelled at me in one voice, “Welcome and happy anniversary!!!” Still dazed from their enthusiasm and smiles that could put the Cheshire cat to shame, I went inside in the cavernous hall where I was immediately handed a bunch of flowers by no less enthusiastic young ladies dressed in sarees in the colors and shapes of the American flag – a most daring combination if I should say so. I was then led by a few excited young men to a large table right at the front of the stage where I was asked politely but firmly to please, sit down. Every time I got up and tried to move around someone would come and practically push me back into my chair. It was at that point that I realized that I was the sole American in the entire humongous hall filled with people. To make things worse, I was also wearing a blinding white dress and mile high white heels. Never have I felt more like the white elephant in the room than at that moment.
Mercifully, soon a couple of colleagues joined in and soon the lengthy programming began – according to the leaflet in front of me, we were scheduled to go from 4.30 pm until 8, when dinner would be served. The planning was elaborate – there were supposed to be a bunch of speeches by a number of incredibly distinguished speakers, mixed artfully with a myriad of cultural programming, acknowledgments and what have you event stuff. After our Ambassador arrived, and the few initial speeches were out of the way, the MC suddenly appeared and announced the beginning of the cultural program. And then he cryptically added, “and please, do NOT panic!” at which point he swiftly disappeared. I must admit, I did somewhat panic. Soon, 6 semi-naked men appeared on the stage and began an elaborate dance with a bunch of lit torches. The dance included robot-man motions and climbing on top of each other as a form of a ladder. And then suddenly, from several pipes right at the front of the stage, huge flames began erupting and stopping, erupting and stopping, for at least a minute or so. Once that stopped, the pipes emitted massive amounts of glitter in the air followed promptly by the good old smoke machine. The dancers continued their dancing unfazed. I liked the fire – the A/C in the hall was monstrous and I was freezing – since I was so close to the stage, the eruptions helped warm me up a bit. I think the show was a massive success. I would go again and try not to panic this time.
This past week, my Mom took Son to Bulgaria to indoctrinate him in Bulgarian, take him to the mountains to spend his seemingly inexhaustible energy, enjoy his antics and spoil him rotten for a month. After they left on Friday, I did not know what to do with myself – after dropping them off at the airport, I did not feel like sleeping, so I played computer games for 3 hours, watched inane TV, got a hot oil hair massage, played tennis, slept in the afternoon, did my hair and attended a rowdy jam session party at a friends’ house. My God, whatever do people without children do with all this free time?!
On Sunday, we hosted a welcome party for a newly arrived family participating in a wonderful tradition of engaging current officers at post to “sponsor” new arrivals. So, if you are old guns at post and CLO asks you to volunteer to sponsor newcomers – please, do! It is so nice to have someone buy some groceries for you before you come, walk through your apartment to make sure everything is OK, pick up your cell phone (and even program some numbers in it!), meet you at the airport and show you the ropes the next day at work. And then throw a gathering of some sorts to introduce them to the rest of the community. I’d like to think we made our sponsorees’ transition here just a tad easier.