Category Archives: Living

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Losing a passport and why travel insurance proved useless

This post is all about “what happens when you lose a passport” and my personal experience with ICICI Lombard Travel Insurance.

Yes. I did the “no 1” thing feared by most travellers. It features probably on the top of things NOT to do when on the road.

Lose a passport; your most precious travel document.

So how I lost it is not a very glamourous story. It has no masala or intrigue at all. I won’t get into the details. For the record, somewhere on the streets of Malaga (Spain), while on a sightseeing trip (on a cycle), I am quite sure the passport got lost (case of the open bag, carelessness of not closing it properly).

But more importantly, what happens when you do happen to lose a passport? While it’s not something you hope will ever happen to you, there’s always a possibility. Having gone through this experience, here’s what I did and I hope will help anyone who lands up in this quandary.

My second part details with travel insurance. In my case, I had signed up with ICICI Lombard Travel Insurance and I only read a line which said “upto USD 300” cover in case of passport loss, but as it turns out, there’s a lot that they don’t tell you and (as I realised in hindsight) is “between the lines”. The bottom line is that insurance is virtually useless and I’ll also write about that experience in the 2nd part of this post.

Coming to, the things you need to do when you lose your passport…

1) Keep calm (and drink wine, if you’re in Spain). But if you’re not, just keep calm.

Remember, it’s not worth losing your mind. Everything is replaceable. But one golden rule before you embark on any trip is “photocopy”!
– Passport
– Visa (also make sure all your other visas, which are documentation of your travels are also copied)
– Itinerary, local contacts, invite letter, addresses, phone number, hotel booking. Preferably 2 sets.
– Insurance (though it’s useless for passport loss as I’ll demonstrate)
– A few extra passport photos – this is important. I spent a few hours roaming around the streets of Madrid looking for someone who will print in the required “Indian” passport size.

And mail these documents to yourself. And then assess your situation. Calmly.

2) Find the address of your nearest Indian consulate

A web search revealed that I would need to get to Madrid, which was the closest to where I was located. Remember, that you need to go to a consulate which deals with passport loss so make sure you explain your problem clearly. I booked myself on a bus the same night and left from Malaga to Madrid.

3) Find the address of the nearest consulate of the country which issued your visa

In all probability you might be in the same country. In which case it’s slightly simpler. In my case, it was a bit complicated as my visa was issued out of Switzerland and I had travelled to Spain where I lost my passport. So I couldn’t fly or enter Switzerland either without a visa. I immediately emailed the Swiss embassy in Madrid and was assured that if I could get a “valid travel document” I should then present myself there at the earliest.

However, I had no idea how much time all this would take. Keeping in mind all of this, I had to forgo my flight from Malaga to Zurich, losing nearly € 150 in the process. I decided not to book a fresh ticket till I got my passport and visa in my hand.

4) Make sure you have all your documents, photographs and photocopies before you head to the Indian consulate

This will ensure your paperwork goes through smoothly and you don’t have to run out again for some mundane task like photocopy a document. I had to go to the Madrid consulate in an area called Avenida de Pío XII. I called them and found out the train stop nearest to them. And then I made sure that I had done all the rest of the work beforehand. I went to Principe de Vergara (which I found recommended for passport photos in an online search), and then went hunting for a photo shop. They only open after 10 am. Also, remember that “passport” photos there will not necessarily be the Indian “passport” size photos required so keep the size noted down. Thankfully, I was able to finally locate a place after around 30 minutes of roaming around. From there, I took a metro and then went to the consulate with all the documents. I was required to fill up the passport form with all the details (this is where the photocopies will help). And then by around noon, I was ready to submit everything. The passport fees was € 113.

I was told I could collect it the same day by evening. That was great news since I hadn’t even dreamed that I would get a duplicate passport in a day!

However, I did ask them as to how to go about the visa issue, and what happens if I have problems with it. Unfortunately, not much advise or help was forthcoming on the steps I could take. Also, remember that it also depends on how friendly the relations are between India and the country you’re visiting. I read online about someone having the same issue in France and the embassy playing a more helpful role in even advising the person about the visa. So, I think it all depends where you are.

Well, at least I had a passport.

5) With your fresh passport (and photocopy of it also!) and the rest of your documents, head to the concerned foreign embassy

In my case it was the Swiss embassy. Since I’d already emailed and explained my problem they were very helpful. On day 2, I made my trip to Calle de Núñez de Balboa, the location I found online. Again, it was close to a metro stop. I was asked to fill up a form, submit my documents (fresh passport), invite letter from my Swiss friend (which I’d used to get the Schengen), contact numbers in Switzerland and my return ticket (also from Geneva). I had to deposit € 60 and I was asked to come back by 3 pm the same day to collect the passport with the fresh visa stamped.

All this took me 2 days to complete.

On the 3rd day, I had both a fresh passport and the visa and then booked my return flight out of Spain into Switzerland.

In the meanwhile, I had also spent on accommodation in Madrid, and of course all the miscellaneous costs, including travelling to and fro etc.

I had already spent more than € 300 in total. Not counting my missed flight and my fresh booking. At this stage, I had still some faith in the insurance, thinking it would at least cover some part of my expenses.

Part 2: Why travel insurance proved useless for passport loss; my experience with ICICI Lombard Travel Insurance

Before leaving, I had opted for ICICI Lombard. They were quick, sent me a 4 page policy, which I went through. It had a section on passport loss (which I remembered). I had already emailed them ahead from Europe explaining my situation so I knew what to do on arrival. After I came back, I got in touch with them and this is what happened.

– I emailed around 3-4 times. I got responses by a different person every time. Which meant I had to actually explain and ask everything afresh. Couldn’t I have just been given one person to handle the case? Obviously, this is not how it works.

– I asked if someone could give me a call as I had clarifications. No one bothered. Each response sounded like whoever was responding wasn’t actually “reading” my mail.

– I sent a tweet, they said they would call back. Still no response.

– I then sent another email, asking for someone to call me. Please.

– Around 21 days after my request, I got a call from them. I asked them to escalate as I wasn’t getting anywhere. The emails also kept asking me to send the details within a “deadline”. But they had no deadline on their responses.

– Finally, got an email from customer service (service quality team) asking for scanned documents of everything related to my passport renewal saga (which I presumed included bus tickets, accommodation etc.). I also had to include boarding passes, tickets leaving Switzerland. They also asked for my exit stamp. Which was strange considering that it was obviously on the passport I’d lost! I documented all these expenses that I had made on account of the fresh passport application thinking that at least some of them would be covered.

– I was then asked to courier everything. The scans obviously were not enough.

After all this was done, while I was away travelling, my hubby called with the “good” news. The insurance company had sent me a cheque for a princely sum of Rs 8818.

It didn’t even cover my passport renewal fee, forget any other expenses.

All I got was a cryptic message saying that I had exceeded my limit towards incidentals by 147 USD. And of course, there is absolutely no explanation about what it means in simple English. All I know is that though I spent more than € 300 in the whole process, all that they are covering me for is Rs 8818.

Now, I’m wondering what I should do with the cheque. An idea is to frame it and put it up as a reminder to never lose my passport again. Because whether you have insurance or not, it’s pretty useless as I learnt the hard way.

I am of course going to read the fine print from now on and look at my insurance choice a bit more wisely. One) It made no sense. As a consumer, if I am eligible to a paltry 8k for something that set me back by so much more, I see no sense in it. Or I need to choose better. And two) the dismal customer service. I spent a lot of time and energy going back and forth – something I want to avoid if I ever get insurance again. Though, I have a sinking feeling that all insurance companies will probably have the same policies.

The moral of the story: Don’t lose your passport. Ever!

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Published: “Letter from Bangalore”

A piece I wrote for the magazine, “Vision – fresh perspectives from Dubai“, published by Touchline, October edition.

It’s published quarterly in the English language, and has a print run of 60,000. It features reporting on business, culture and life in the emirate, high profile interviews with influential thought leaders, In-depth special reports and notes from different parts of the world.

I did a piece on the cycling in Bangalore (my favourite topic!) and how, despite the lack of roads and infrastructure, enthusiastic Bangaloreans have sparked off a revolution on two wheels.

Read the piece here — LETTER FROM BANGALORE.

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Fun, curious and interesting facts about Kerala

Just some notes from the road as we meander through Kerala on a 15 day trip with Kerala Tourism on the Kerala Blog Express taking in lots of sights, sounds, history, monuments, beaches and backwaters. So while the rest of the troop are in the thick of action sightseeing somewhere in Wayanad, I am enjoying a “do nothing” day at the pictureque and peaceful Vythiri Resort. And while I’m trying to make friends with the monkey who keeps dropping by, these are some thoughts that cross my mind on a particularly lazy day.

Density and number of moustaches
More often than not, Malayali men will sport moustaches. Most heroes and famous people/ politicians (seen on hoardings – haven’t seen that many in real life) all sport large, abundant moustaches. “Why” is a question that befuddles me and I haven’t gotten an answer from anyone yet. It’s also a fact that it’s not in vogue in the North.

Coconut here, coconut there, coconut everywhere
Has anyone taken a census of how many coconut trees there are in Kerala? Because I would be curious to know if anyone ever counted. It might possibly be the highest density of these trees on earth. And how many people have died from coconut related injuries. Surely, someone walking down the village path would have a coconut fall on his head. At least once, I would imagine. There are actually no reported numbers on coconut related deaths, not just in Kerala, but in the world. Isn’t that strange?

But I am rather alarmed when I read this article about the decline of the coconut. And then I realise, it’s a dated article. A more recent one indicates the price is rising. Yay! “A steady increase in coconut prices has given a new twist to the coconut sector which had been marked by low profitability for long. The retail price of coconuts has gone up to Rs.17-20 per nut.” The widespread availability of coconut also means that you get to experience it in your food, your drink and your hair.

Gold’s own country?
How much gold is “really” there in Kerala is anybody’s guess. Combined with the Padmanabhaswamy temple and every Kerala household, I am thinking it might possibly be the richest state in the country, if not the world. And a NYT feature reports: “Kerala gobbles up 20 percent of the country’s gold every year, and the World Gold Council estimates that India, the largest consumer of gold in the world, consumes 30 percent of the global supply.”

Kerala brides apparently wear so much gold that on their wedding day, that they could potentially wipe off the debt of a small 3rd world country.

Land of heaviest drinkers?
Somewhere enroute, as a few of us were talking outside the bus, in the morning about to board, we noticed a seemingly inebriated guy who was just barely able to stand, hanging around our bus. Now, I’m not about to disapprove of drinking, and early in the day. But at 8 am? Fully drunk? What time would he have started? And seriously why do men in Kerala drink so much? (I have no idea about the women, since I never see them in those long serpentine queues outside wine shops).

Someone else has pondered on this heavy issue and this BBC article has facts and personal accounts that might give an insight. “Kerala is India’s tippler country. It has the highest per capita consumption – over eight litres (1.76 gallons) per person a year – in the nation, overtaking traditionally hard-drinking states like Punjab and Haryana. The curiously-named Kerala State Beverages Corporation (KSBC) runs 337 liquor shops, open seven days a week. Each shop caters on average to an astonishing 80,000 clients.”

And the heaviest readers too!
In case you thought drinking and reading don’t go together, you’re mistaken. Kerala also reportedly has the highest literacy rate among the states of India, followed by the state of Mizoram. It’s a common sight to see people read local language newspapers. People are generally very informed. Ernakulam became the first district to attain 100% literacy. And programs like Literacy Mission, Kerala and the state government’s education efforts help reach this figure.

However, I also read that recently the state from my part of the world, Tripura has actually beaten Kerala in 2013, but this is what I’d call healthy competition.

More interesting facts

Farm fresh!

Far from the madding crowd

An account of our day out with the Chefs of JW Marriott, Bangalore at the First Agro Farm, Talakad. This is a guest blog post by Mukta Chakravorty, while the pictures are mine.

What is the recipe for a perfect and memorable day? There may be many, but here is mine. Head someplace far from the city where you can reconnect with nature and appreciate the simpler things in life. Add to it some great company and fabulous food and voila! There you have it!

So on Saturday, February 22, a bunch of us foodies, along with a group of extremely talented chefs of the JW Marriott, Bangalore headed to the First Agro Farm for a ‘Chefs’ Cook off’ session involving a taste of farm fresh food and an opportunity for the chefs to interact outside of their work environment.

We had an early start and the crisp morning air helped drive away the remnants of sleep from the previous night. Chef Jolly, executive chef of JW Marriott greeted us and gave us an overview of what the day had in store for us. After a quick breakfast of hot croissants and tea/coffee at the Marriott Kitchen, we headed off to Talkad, near Mysore.

Rows of fresh veggies!
A view of the First Argo farm in Talakad

It was a fairly long drive, but the company was pleasant. After a mistaken detour, we reached the First Agro Farm where we were warmly welcomed by Nameet, the Director of the farm. We were handed glasses of very refreshing gazpacho (a Spanish cold soup) made from the fresh and organic tomatoes and peppers grown at the farm.

Delightfully orange
The very delicious gazpacho soup, refreshing after a long journey

Rejuvenated by the soup, we were ready for a tour. Not many among us had been on an organic farm before and the wide variety of fresh vegetables and herbs bowled us over. There were peppers of different hues, horseradish that was delightfully pungent, cabbages, cauliflowers, all lined up prettily. We took off on an interesting treasure hunt amongst the rows of vegetable patches stretching ahead of us. With Nameet giving us clues, we had to look for the particular vegetable or herb he was referring to. And what discoveries we made.

Chefs on field discussion!
The chefs have a discussion on the field!

We lost count of the varieties of tomatoes grown there. They came in all shapes, sizes and colours. There were the bright red and pulpy San Marino tomatoes that are used especially for pizzas; pear shaped yellow ones on the vine (it seems the ones on the vines keep ripening even after they are plucked); tomatoes with ridges on them; the pea-sized, fish-boned structured tomatoes and the midnight indigo tomatoes that were a royal, deep blue and purple in colour.

Colours in my hand
Different colours and varieties of tomatoes growing on the farm

Chefs day out!
Chefs posing for a picture – Daniel, Jolly, Bruno Ferrari and Susanto

The cherry tomatoes were simply divine. Red hued, almost grape-like in size, they were immensely sweet, juicy and flavorful. We could easily have polished off the entire lot, they way we kept on plucking and popping them into our mouths. As we explored, we found out purple basil, different kinds of chillies and a host of other herbs and plants. And all of it is organically produced, free of any pesticides. The tour finally came to an end and then came our favorite part – the food!

Fresh and delicious!

While we were involved in the ‘treasure hunt’, our talented team of chefs had been busy laying out a lavish spread of fresh salads and barbeque for us. To top it off, there was wine that had been generously provided by Raghavendra of the neighboring Vindiva vineyards. It was truly a sight to behold. And ravenous as we were, we wasted no time in queuing up and tucking in.

Salads to die for!
Fresh vegetables and ingredients made for the most delicious salads!

At the salad counter, the chefs tossed us made-to-order salads and the choices were staggering! Fresh rocket leaves and assorted greens, smoked chicken, fried peanuts, khus-khus, shrimps, carrots, beetroot, etc with imaginative dressings like pomegranate, mango, pesto and more. All the vegetables had been picked fresh from the farm itself. They also had an amazing green-peas hummus with pita. It was lip-smacking and we went back for second and third helpings.

The barbeque counter was buzzing as well with roast chicken, lamb, pork, baked potatoes and lots more. By the time we finished our main course, we were too full to even move. Just when we thought we could eat no more, Chef Daniel Koshy, the executive pastry chef brought out an array of decadent desserts which looked too good to pass up! So we tucked in all over again.

Over the grill!

Satiated, we sat around chatting and taking in the sights and sounds around us. Pretty soon, it was time to leave and head back to the city. But even as we got ready to face the daily grind, along with the hustle and bustle of traffic, it was comforting to know that there are always some places you can head back to when you need to get away far from the madding crowd.

Bruno creating his own hat
Chef Bruno promises an unforgettable experience at Alba,
the Italian dining place at JW Marriott, Bangalore

More pictures in this Flickr Album

(PS: On an invitation from the JW Marriott, Bangalore).

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Getting physical: Things I’ve tried over the years

So here’s a post about the kind of interesting physical activities I’ve tried over the years. I’ve left out what I consider more common activities like running, cycling and walking. And I must also admit, a bit sheepishly, that I haven’t really stuck to anything in the long run. And all this seemingly hard work, hasn’t exactly resulted in a super model figure. But the fun is in the trying, I have convinced myself.

Shiamak Davar Dance Classes: So, this was a long time ago. When I decided I should learn how to dance. I do have difficulty moving my hands and feet in any organised form (which is why I’ve stayed away from aerobics!). But I decided to give it a go. It was a fun class. I was horribly out of sync all the time. But the high point was performing as a part of an annual function. In front of people. I have no idea what I did and whether my feet moved at all. But at least I can say, “I did it”. Thankfully, there are no pictures of the event. At least as far as I’m aware.

Kickboxing: Amazing for legs, hands, muscles – builds up stamina and is also good fun. I went for classes with a gentleman called Ashwin Mohan for nearly a year and enjoyed it immensely. Before class, he would make us run out, onto the roads and even make us do some jumping over walls and high obstacles – not surprising since he is also a parkour expert. If you’re relatively young and like high energy activities, give this a shot (or kick, should I say?!).
Shootfighter

Power yoga: This had me addicted for a couple of years. I got to the stage when I was able to do 108 surya namaskars, once a week. A magic number in the world of yoga. Four days a week, religiously, I’d report for class and indulge in an hour long session where all the limbs opened up and one would have to contort to various positions. And of course, since this was the “power” version, we hoped we were burning more calories! Purists would probably frown on this form, but I enjoyed it for the few years I went for class.
Artistic yoga

Kalaripayattu: I then discovered this ancient art of defence from Kerala – quite an effective way to build physical fitness. So two hours of Kalari, two days a week was actually enough to push me to my physical limits. Because kalari is pretty intense. I also realised that doing kalari in one’s later years (which in my book is anything after 30) is not so easy. When your limbs are supple and young, it’s probably the best time to learn this art form. It’s beautiful to watch and extremely physical and demanding in practice, but after a bad knock to the knee, I realised that I had perhaps crossed the age where I could actually take it to the next level. So much as I enjoyed it, that’s where Kalari and I parted ways.
Kalaripayattu

Pilates: After my achilles tendon injury in 2012, I took some time to get back to any physical activity. Resuming running was still not comfortable so I decided to do something indoors. Pilates turned out to be interesting form of exercise. It helps build core fitness levels, I also found it beneficial for other activities like cycling. I found my ankle also getting better as a result of some of the exercises on the reformer. Possibly something I’d like to get back to in the near future.
Pilates at the Zone

Bikram yoga: While on my recent vacation in the US, I tried out this form of yoga, established by a much maligned gentleman of Indian origin called Bikram Choudhury. Not practiced in India (as far as I know) it’s gained a lot of popularity in the US and other parts of the world. What I surmised is that going into a hot room to exercise is quite an unattractive proposition for folks who already live in a hot country. We’re already sweating outside. Cold or ice yoga would probably be a big hit if it ever got “discovered” here! But getting back to Bikram yoga – it’s a series of 26 postures and breathing exercises in a sequence, performed in a room heated to 40-45 degrees celcius. Your limbs open up and become more supple. What I enjoyed was sweating buckets, and it sure felt like all the toxins were leaving my body. And there was weight loss (which is a big challenge for me) when I was doing it regularly. So I did find it pretty effective and I would have probably continued it, if I had the opportunity. But… that’s not to be, since we don’t have anyone who’s been brave enough to open a studio here yet.
Bikram Yoga Centreville

So besides running, cycling and badminton (which was responsible for my injury!), these are some interesting physical activities I’ve tried.

Next on my list: Spinning, Aqua aerobics, zumba (!), belly dancing (why not?) and TRX! At least when I’m 80 and need a walking stick, I’ll look back and say I’ve tried everything. And it will possibly be true.

What interesting activities have you tried and tested over the years?

Rules of engagement!

The 5 rules of engagement

Actually, I thought I’d call this post, “matters of the heart”. And then I changed my mind. Didn’t want to sound too cheesy, right?

Someone was telling me how I don’t write too many personal posts nowadays. And then I thought I should make some changes. I didn’t really intend this to become a food and travel blog. It just turned out that way. But that doesn’t mean I can’t talk about other stuff. Other interesting stuff. And vent.

Yes – I need to vent sometimes. Get things out of my mind. Sometimes, I have all these things to say. But I can’t really find someone to say it to. Well – you know how it is. No one wants to sit around you sipping coffee and be lectured :-) And then I realized, I do have a blog. A place I can actually talk about things that I think are important. And hopefully, that you’ll enjoy reading too.

So here you go. The 5 rules of engagement (in no particular order):

a) Laughing
We don’t laugh enough – this is a fact. And absolutely true. There’s research done to prove it (just don’t ask for the link). But the reality of the matter is that we don’t laugh enough. At the world, at each other, and at ourselves. So try humour – it’s really the best medicine for your relationship. And develop the ability to laugh at yourself (especially, if you don’t have it). You’re not the best, you have faults, you are not perfect. And it’s actually not a bad thing. So please – go ahead, laugh at yourself. No one is going to think less of you. I know someone who usually pales and develops this really constipated expression when his leg is being pulled. Like he’s actually in severe pain and someone is twisting his lower abdomen or other important organs. Get rid of that expression. Please! Have some fun, lighten up and you’ll be a much happier person. Rather than look like someone who is carrying the world’s burden. Seriously.
Link: Laughter is the best medicine

b) Tolerance and patience
So this is important – just remember that you live with the person. Let me rephrase – you have chosen to live with this person (for whatever reason made sense at that point of time). The least you can do is be tolerant and not lose your patience over everything – especially the small inconsequential stuff. Like they say – don’t sweat the small stuff! And I find this is always an issue with relationships. You can stand in the queue for hours, not honk at anyone on the road (even that motorbike driver who cut right in front of you), but with your partner, your patience is always on the edge. Like you’re a live bomb waiting to blow up. You need to ask yourself why. And do your goddamned best to develop some of it. It’s good for everyone all around. And especially your partner.
Link: Be patient!

c) Hygiene!
I can’t even stress how important this is. You might have been living and sleeping in the same clothes for days, you hate washing, you use the same towel for a month, you don’t mind sleeping with stale breath (after that dinner of onion rings and a steak). Or a full pack of cigarettes in your breath. But guess what? You’re not single anymore. You share your living space with another human being. Respect the fact. Canoodling with someone with stale breath or who hasn’t washed up for a few days, is not fun. I am not going to say more, except… Wear clean clothes, brush your teeth (yes, twice a day!), change your towels (not once in 15 days, but every 2nd day), have your daily bath and don’t ask too many questions about hygiene. It’s a basic need if you want to keep your partner near you. Unless, you really, really want to drive your partner a few miles away, of course. Then your strategy will work perfectly.
Hygiene is important, and it’s not just me saying it!

d) Where’s the affection?
You fell in love, took your vows, spent years trying to get everyone to accept you. Showered your partner with endless affection. And lots of lurrrve. And then a few years later. Kaboom! Everything’s forgotten? And I find this the case with more men than women (who don’t usually have any issues with words). If you’re verbally constipated, and can’t get a single word of endearment out of your mouth (like ever), show some affection in your actions. Do something nice, extend a complimentary gesture. Your partner didn’t sign up for the lifelong lease only to feel they’re in a desert alone. Without water. Or a camel.
Link: The importance of affection

5) Getting rid of the incredible sulk
I can’t even begin to tell you how unattractive a trait this is. And in adults it’s an absolute “no-no”. Maybe, if you were five years old. But hey, that was 20-30 years ago. So get rid of it. Pronto. This should be the ground rule. Just don’t do it! Say something. Vent. Get over it. Learn to face it like a man (or woman, as the case might be). But don’t… just don’t pull that face. Please. Your partner will be forever grateful, for the rest of his/her life. Really.

And I know I said 5, but I can’t even begin to stress how important it is to exchange ideas, discuss, even have debates and talk out things. I don’t think most of us talk enough and especially men (though I’ve seen exceptions too, which are rather heart-warming). I know sometimes it seems like a waste of energy and petty conversation. But I’ve also seen the other extreme happen. A lot of bitterness, angst and anger build up and one day it all hits you like a cyclone. It’s bound to happen. So talk – whether about your day, about what you like/don’t like, things that are important to you. I know a couple who keep up a banter about even the silliest things (and this is hard to do!) but finally it works out for them, because they always know what each other feels about things and are less likely to end up hurting each other.

And lastly, be nice! (Link: Are you being nice?) Do your stuff. Clean your mess. Get the household chores done (and don’t wait to get asked; no one like them; especially your partner, but they don’t go away!). And you’ll have a happier, more appreciative partner forever. Now wouldn’t that be a win-win situation for everyone?

So there you have it. Some advise ground in reality and experience. Please don’t take it to heart. Take action instead :-)