Monthly Archive: November 2014

My First Thanksgiving Friday

I usually work on Black Friday. It’s a trade-off I make so that I can take off the week between Christmas and New Year’s without looking like a holiday hog.

This year, I still will be working on Black Friday. I need to install OS X Yosemite on a computer stored in a closet at my parents’ house, so I can do some testing on it. But this form of working feels completely different.

I’m doing this voluntarily, because it works with my schedule. I have no desire to shop, because I am missing that gene and instead have the gene that commands me to wander around the world with three bags of stuff. So I’d rather be working while my family is at the mall.

I admit I enjoyed the empty-office feeling on Black Friday in past years. I felt productive in that space, surrounded by silence and equipment designed for ten times as many people.

But I enjoy the feeling of being near family more. It’s a nice change, and I value the time I’ll spend at breakfast with them this morning, sipping tea and feeling no urgency to rush back to New York City and occupy an office-building for the sake of occupying it.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, with no agenda other than food, family and friends. To extend it beyond a single day is a gift, and I’m grateful for it this year.

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New York Is Cheap – Here’s Why

New York is cheap.

I know that sounds insane. New York constantly races San Francisco for the title of Most Expensive City in the U.S.

But it’s not true if you don’t have kids.

The Contrarian View of NYC Costs

Apartment rents are out of control, it’s true. This is no surprise to anyone who lives here. Renting an apartment can mean paying a broker fee totaling 15% of the yearly rent.

But consider all of the expenses a New Yorker simply does not need to have (compared with commuting from, say, New Jersey):

1.) Car payment (let’s be kind and say $300 a month).

2.) Car insurance (about $100 a month).

3.) Gas for the car (about $200 a month).

4.) Daily train commute (about $300 a month).

5.) Parking at the train (about $250 a month).

6.) Car repairs and maintenance (about $100 a month).

We just saved approximately $1250 per month. Now what happens?

Well, if you live in Manhattan in a no-fee studio apartment that costs $2500 a month (feasible even in high-priced neighborhoods), you simply re-allocate that $1250 into your rent. So, you are living the same as someone who pays $1250 a month in rent and commutes to the city. New York is looking better than the suburbs already.

Now let’s say you live in Brooklyn, perhaps in Greenpoint or Boerum Hill or Red Hook, and you pay $1800 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Now you are living the same as someone who pays $550 a month in rent and commutes to the city.

Keeping the Price Down

Here are 7 major tips for making New York City more affordable:

1.) Rent a no-fee apartment. There are plenty of no-fee apartments, including luxury apartments in Manhattan. Don’t pay a broker fee unless your employer is reimbursing you — it’s 15% of your first year’s rent and is a completely unnecessary expense.

2.) Use StreetEasy. It’s an indispensable tool to research buildings and find real no-fee apartments. If you’re on a budget, check out the Listings Project.

3.) Consider less well-known Brooklyn neighborhoods. Greenpoint and Boerum Hill are much more affordable than Brooklyn Heights. The Upper East Side in Manhattan is also relatively affordable.

4.) Are you okay with roommates? If so, you can save money and probably get a much nicer apartment.

5.) Don’t bring a car. Don’t bring a car. Don’t bring a car.

6.) If at all possible, start your lease in late fall or winter (mid-November through mid-February). You’ll save hundreds of dollars per month on rent for the life of your lease, because rents tend to rise and fall seasonally in NYC. Occasionally there are crazy deals on apartments that become available over the December holidays, because nobody wants to move then.

7.) Conversely, avoid the late spring and summer months (mid-May through mid-September) for a lease start date.

Good luck and enjoy the city!

Re-Entry

Re-entry is hard.

I landed in New York on Thursday, back from Vienna, zero jet-lag and raring to go. Dropped back into my New York life with a swish like a basketball in a net from halfway across a stadium.

Spent a weekend in upstate, enjoying the woods and hills, then booted up the computer Monday and thought, now what?

Now everything. Now I do everything I think of, for the next few months, to see what sticks and what I enjoy and what I will discard and how Phase Two of my sabbatical/adventure will play out.

Phase One was exploratory and learning-focused. Phase Two will be doing-focused. Phase Three will be I-don’t-know-what. More traveling? More doing? More of both?

I was jet-lagged after all. I kept falling asleep at 7:30. I caught a cold too, which blurred my brain-waves and had me huddled in the office room in my aunt’s house earlier this week, cradling tea and listening to the rain. Learning HTML5, which is easy but easily overlooked so I decided to get it done. Catching up again on Sam Altman’s startup class. Finishing my Venture Deals class.

Finishing the initial-learning part of this journey is scary, because I love learning and at the same time I use it as a crutch to keep me from doing things. If I only knew more. But I’ve learned that I only need to know the minimum possible to get it done at a point in time. Then I can learn more, and improve, and iterate.

I can learn more later. I’ll always be learning more. But I need to start to do more, interspersed with learning, and pair the two like a gas pedal and a brake in a car. Using only one or the other leads to a fiery crash or to going nowhere. Using the two together leads to anywhere a road can go.

The Traveller’s Guide to Budapest in 3 Days

Statue near Buda CastleBudapest is a mass of old buildings, made new again stone by stone, step by step, address by address.

Modern boutiques share space with old, abandoned mansions, boarded-up windows next to sleek glass.

Two cities face each other across the river, united and unique. Buda is a quiet town of rolling hills, castles and green spaces; Pest is a vibrant district of restaurants, traffic and shops. Bridges strung in lights connect the two across the Danube River.

I spent three days in Budapest last week and wish I’d spent ten. Here are tips to make the most of your journey, no matter how much time you spend there.

Tips for Travellers

Watch out for traffic and bikes. Cars will not necessarily stop for you if you jaywalk, and some intersections are extremely busy. Bike path signs are clearly painted on the sidewalk — pay attention to them! Not that I learned this from experience or anything…

Visit the Museum of Terror. More similar to a war memorial than a simple museum, the Museum of Terror occupies the former Nazi and Soviet intelligence service headquarters on Andrassy Street in Pest. The aim is to remind people what happened here and how it ended. One of the most effective museums I’ve ever visited — emotional, horrifying and informative. Afterward, walk down the street to Heroes Square, where statues of ancient Hungarian rulers stand guard.

Statues in Heroes Square

Statues in Heroes Square

Check out the schedule at the Hungarian State Opera house. I saw a matinee production of Falstaff, which was enjoyable and far less expensive than the Vienna State Opera. Good single seats were available one day prior, although the ballet at night was sold out. The opera house is old, gorgeous and majestic — worth seeing.

Eat breakfast at Gerloczy’s. Just behind City Hall is a small restaurant at a triangular intersection serving some of the best food in Budapest. Breakfast isn’t a big meal here, so it’s a real find. I had simple food: muesli with yogurt and an almond roll, which was hot from the oven and full of sweet almond paste. So delicious I returned the next morning too.

Get Hungarian forints and don’t rely on euros. I used a money exchange at a tourist information point and paid just over 2 euros in commission to change 50 euros, but that commission stays steady up to about 200 euros. Many businesses take only forints or credit cards, and if you want to use public transportation, you may need forints to buy tickets or passes.

Visit a spa. Because I was only in Budapest for three nights, I didn’t get around to visiting a spa, but if I return I’d love to try the Gellert Bath or Szechenyi Bath.

Where to Stay

Fisherman's Bastion in Buda

Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda, overlooking Pest

This decision depends on your personality. I stayed at the St. George Hotel near Buda Castle because I got a great price on Booking.com. It was beautiful, near Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the entire city. All of the rooms are actually suites, with a living/dining room, kitchenette, bathroom and bedroom. Furnishings are antique-style and gorgeous. In the morning, the number 16 bus (not the 16A) took me directly to the center of Pest within 15 minutes.

If you’d rather stay in the center of nightlife and action, Pest is more suitable. To avoid ending up somewhere loud, check out the reviews and neighborhood online before booking. One promising option is the Gerloczy Rooms de Lux, above Gerloczy’s restaurant. I picked up a brochure while eating breakfast, and the rooms look beautiful. It also has 5 stars on TripAdvisor.

If you’re more inclined toward Airbnb, there are some fantastic, affordable places on offer. Because I was only staying for three nights, I went with a hotel, but I’d love to return for a longer stretch of time and rent an Airbnb.

Getting to Budapest

There’s an airport for travellers arriving from a distance, but getting to Budapest by rail is easy from Vienna, and that’s what I did. The Austrian OEBB train service runs every two hours from Vienna Wien Meidling station to Budapest Keleti station. The trip takes three hours, and the train travels through flat farmland (it’s not an alpine train).

Interestingly, I found a flexible fare that was cheaper than the restricted-schedule fare, so don’t assume the “SparSchiene” tickets are always cheaper.

If you want to reserve specific seats on the train, you’ll need a 6-euro reservation, sold alongside the basic train ticket, although these trains are rarely sold out.

Traveling within Budapest

Budapest has an excellent public transit system, and a map of the main tram and bus lines is available, although I couldn’t find a full bus map. The best option for me was to buy a 24-hour transit card that allowed unlimited trips on all trams and buses. It cost less than 2000 Hungarian forints (about 6 euros). If I’d known about this card’s existence sooner, I’d have gotten the 48-hour card instead of paying for some individual bus trips.

Taxis tend to be relatively expensive but are useful for late-night trips or for transport to and from the train station or airport.

The Vibe

I loved Budapest. It was beautiful, modern, evolving and dynamic, with great food and the sense of a city on the rise. Since leaving, I’ve been thinking about returning to continue sightseeing and settle into the rhythm of the city, as I did during my 10 days in Florence.

I’ve also read about the city’s nascent startup culture and would love to meet some of the entrepreneurs who are making Budapest their base. With its combination of affordability, things to do, beautiful scenery and good Internet (much better than in Florence or Tuscany), Budapest’s momentum is promising, and it’s simply a great place to visit and explore.