30 September 2007

Wandering the Berkeley Hills

It's been a busy week at home and at work (which is also technically at home). Yesterday, though, I managed to get outside for some fresh air.

A friend told me about a walk through Berkeley and we decided to check it out. It was a 7 mile walk through the Berkeley hills and the guide told us about the geology of the various rocky out-croppings and pointed out flora and fauna. He also talked about the architecture and some of the history of the city. Did you know that in 1908 or thereabouts, there was a campaign to move the state capital to Berkeley? (It didn't pass.) There also used to be a streetcar that ran through Berkeley. We learned how land developers would sponsor outings for people to get out of the city for the day and picnic in Berkeley parks, and oh, wouldn't this be a lovely place to live? If you're a well-to-do white person?

We climbed up some steep hills. Carved into the rocky hillsides are steps and paths that run perpendicular to the roads. They encourage people to walk into commercial districts for their morning coffee and paper rather than drive. They are great shortcuts on the way down. Walking back up, well, maybe that's why so many people seem so fit in Berkeley. At the tops of the hills, though, are wonderful views of San Francisco and the Bay Area. It was an unusually clear day and we could see everything. We had wonderful sunny weather. A smidge too warm after working it up a hill, but pleasant at all other times.

The walk was sponsored by Greenbelt Alliance. They do guided walks and hikes throughout the Bay Area. Our guide said they do some farm tours, too, which sounds like fun.

20 September 2007

"It's just his stubbornity."

"It's just his stubbornity."

I heard someone say that on the train last night. I didn't hear the rest of the conversation and it took me a few minutes to process, "Wait... did he really say that?" If I had been quicker I could have replied, "No, actually, it's your stupidity."

Some new words should be created. I love truthiness. But what goes through the head of someone who says "stubbornity"? Is it laziness, the brain not coming up with "stubbornness"? I hope it's not ignorance. If you know enough to make the noun form of a word, you should already know what the correct noun form is. (I double-checked Webster's; there's no stubbornity.)

Back in college I took a History of English Language course. It was an elective for me, an English major, but required for all education majors. Everyone else in the class was an education major, so I was the only person who actually wanted to be there. On the first day of class the teacher thought it would be fun to give us a grammar quiz. Not only did I get a perfect score, I was the only person who passed. I'm not saying that to brag. I'm saying it to ask, "What business to these people have teaching children?" As a result of the poor grammer quiz grades, the professor instituted a weekly grammar lesson, where each student in the class had to prepare a grammar lesson and teach the class. It was a sad waste of time that took away from the better parts of class. I'm certain people only remembered grammar because they had to for that class, and commas went misplaced and suffixes were tacked on where they shouldn't be for every other paper those students wrote.

There are plenty of rants out there about the loss of the English language and I don't want to be one more ranter. Language is fluid and if it never changed over time we might be speaking Old Norse or High German right now. But there are rules to language. If you flaunt them too much, no one will know what you're saying. It starts with a "stubbornity" here and an incorrect object of the preposition there. And don't even get me started on texting and emailing and other forms of typing communications.

19 September 2007

"Oh Sh*t, there's a fair!"

That's a line from one of my favorite Tenacious D songs, which was playing on my ipod during my run this morning just moments before I got to the park and saw... carnival rides! The fair is coming to town! Right now, it's just trailers of Zippers and Tea Cups and popcorn booths yet-to-be-assembled but by this weekend it will be the Walnut Festival.

I have a love-hate relationship with carnivals, or fairs, or festivals, or whatever you want to call them. It always seems like a fun idea, and whenever we see one lit up at night from the road I'm tempted to want to stop in. But then I get there and it's dirty and crowded and the rides give me a headache. I can no longer eat most of the food served, so doughboys (or funnel cakes as they're called out here) are now a cruel joke.

But I've always enjoyed early morning walks and runs through quiet, empty fairgrounds. It's a little creepy, but in a safe-thrilling sort of way, like when you watched "It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown" as a kid.

And this brings me to the subject of autumn. It's almost time to pull out the Great Pumpkin DVD. I forgot that we have a nice fall here (we move around a lot; I lose track of seasons). It's no New England fall, but it will do. The weather's been pleasantly cool and sunny, but chilly at night. It's perfect running weather. Leaves are falling off trees, making a pleasing "crunch" when you run over them.

Maybe I'll stop by the festival this weekend and see if I can get my hands on a caramel apple. A small dose of festival and fall.

16 September 2007

I like a bargain but I don't like to work too hard for it

Sometimes the hunt for the good deal takes up so much time and energy that it's not really worth it to me. I like to find a happy medium between a good deal and instant gratification. When I saw a jacket at REI yesterday that I really loved, I wasn't quite ready to buy it. We often go to REI to try on clothes and see the colors in person, then come home and order stuff with all the discounts Mike gets from outdoor-adventure retailers. This jacket is from one of my favorite companies but unfortunately one Mike doesn't get a discount from, Marmot. From all of Mike's outdoor gear purchasing I knew there were zillions of places online I could look. I hate sifting through all those websites though, so if I didn't find exactly what I wanted on the first Google page I was going to give up.

The jacket was $150 at REI. Every price that popped up online was also $150. At the very bottom of the page though I noticed one for $125 at Steep Planet. What was the catch? I think it might be last year's style. It appears to be a slightly different shade of blue and they had very limited stock. (Only 2 colors and 2 sizes, whereas I know the jacket comes in 5 colors and 5 sizes.) The site gives free shipping, so for all those savings I could live with a slightly different shade of blue. We'll see when it gets here though. Maybe the catch is they won't have an easy return policy if I end up hating the color.

Bargain shopping, you win this time. For all the time I spend online, I'm still not a skilled online bargain hunter.

Krakow, Poland

Krakow was the first city of our European adventure, and we only had a few hours there before catching a train to Zakopane.

We left San Francisco on a Monday night and it was late Tuesday night by the time we arrived in Krakow. So I really didn't feel like I was on vacation, or have that magical "I'm in Europe" feeling until Wednesday morning when we woke up early to see the town. To get to the old town from our hotel we walked through part of a university campus that looked like it had been around for over a hundred years. I got the "I'm in Europe!" feeling and it didn't let go. Everything is just so old and so different.

It was so early that the markets and restaurants hadn't opened yet and the old town was a ghost town. It was great to walk around and take some pictures before the area got crowded. We were just in awe of everything. It was the first time in Poland for both of us, and we decided right away that we love it and wish we could spend several days in Krakow instead of just a few hours.

IMG_4009.JPG
IMG_4012.JPG
IMG_4016.JPG
Empty Old Town

We walked down to Wawel Castle. You can walk around the grounds before the buildings open for tours, so we spent some time just walking and looking. There was mass going on at the cathedral so we didn't go in but we listened to the hymns from outside.

IMG_4064.JPG
Cathedral at Wawel Castle

We didn't feel the need to do one of the organized tours of the castle. We did decide to do one of the touristy kids' attractions, though, the Dragon's Den. It's a deep spiral staircase into the center of the earth where it's said the dragon of Krakow resides. It was fun! When you get out on the other side you're at the bank of the river and there's a metal dragon sculpture that breathes fire.

We walked along the river for a few minutes. It was getting hot and humid so we decided to head back into town for lunch. The town square was packed with people! We couldn't have stopped for a photo if we wanted to, there were so many people around. We found a place for lunch, where Mike had pierogi, then went back to the hotel to pick up our bags and head to the train station.

IMG_4060.JPG
Arch at Wawel Castle

At the train station we had an hour or so to wait for our train, but we noticed on the board that an earlier train to Zakopane was running late and just getting ready to leave. So we ran to the platform and hopped on, and we were on our way to another adventure!

Adventure may be an understatement. At the next stop, some drunk young men sat in our compartment and really started to bug us. They didn't have tickets, and the conductor didn't seem to care. They kept asking us for just 5 zloty or offering to trade books with them. We were unable to relax and enjoy the ride. Eventually we got up and left, finding a compartment to ourselves in another car and hoped they wouldn't look for us.

IMG_4103.JPG
View from the train

They didn't find us, but the train trip only slightly improved. Taking the train from Krakow to Zakopane is a local joke. The trip takes over 4 hours, when the bus only takes 2. The train system hasn't been updated in a loooooong time. And neither have the trains themselves. It was hot and the windows only cracked open a few inches. And we were expecting more scenery, and occassionally a farm or small town would whiz by, but nothing really cool until the last hour of the trip when we could finally see the mountains. I got excited when I noticed all the trees had become pine trees.

Despite leaving over an hour earlier than we had planned, we arrived in Zakopane exactly an hour earlier than we were scheduled to. My cousin was picking us up at the station. We tried to call him, but couldn't find a pay phone that took coins; they were all calling cards only. So we sat and waited.

But Zakopane has to be its own post.

(Clicking on any photo will take you to the full size on flickr.)

13 September 2007

Sweeney Todd

Last night I treated Mike to an early birthday present. I got us tickets to Sweeney Todd at A.C.T. It was awesome. We loved it. (Who knew we were such Sondheim fans? Between this and Assassins we are racking up his plays this year.) This is a revival of the version that has all the actors playing their instruments onstage instead of having a separate orchestra. It was amazing. The cast is so talented, to segue between their lines and their songs and their instruments. It's playing here in San Francisco through mid-October then going on a national tour. If it comes to your neighborhood, check it out.

But before you buy your tickets, maybe you should read a brief synopsis. This isn't one of those family-friendly lovey-dovey musicals. This is a musical about a murderous London barber. Sweeney Todd comes back into town after having been banished for trumped-up charges. He vows revenge upon the judge that sent him away, and the killing spree begins. And what to do with all those dead bodies? Well he happens to live above a failing pie shop that suddenly becomes very successful when some fresh meat is newly available. Revenge! Murder! Cannibalism! And of course young lovers! What could make a better musical than that?

Coincidentally, a few days ago we noticed a movie poster for Sweeney Todd. It's a Tim Burton-Johnny Depp-Helena Bonham Carter production opening this winter. It's a perfect Tim Burton story.

12 September 2007

argh

I've been tagged by Vicky.

1) You have to post the rules before you give the facts.
2) Players must list one fact that is relevant to your life for each letter in your middle name. If you don’t have a middle name then use a name that you like.
3) When you are tagged, you must write a post containing your own middle name game facts.
4) At the end of your post, you must tag one person for each letter in your middle name. Don’t forget to comment them telling that they are tagged and to read your post to get the rules.

I recently acquired a middle name. Thankfully it's short. Smith.

S. Sewing. That's an easy one. I like to do it. Although, I haven't done any recently.
M. Moving. We moved from San Diego to D.C. to San Francisco in one year, including two cross-country drives. And we'll most likely be moving again within the next few months. It's exhausting, but I enjoy the change of scenery.
I. Ice cream. It's my favorite food group.
T. Tchotchkies. I bet you thought I was going to say I like to travel here. Well I do, and travel and tchotchkies go hand-in-hand for me. I buy them for myself and Mike buys them for me when he's traveling alone. I have them from South Korea, Jordan, Iraq, all over Europe and the U.S. And I love them all.
H. I grew up in a Haunted House. Seriously.

I'm not going to tag anyone. But if you decide to do the meme, give me a shout-out.

(I can't believe I just said "shout-out".)

11 September 2007

Fuessen and Schloss Neuschwanstein

IMG_4589.JPG
Fuessen is one of the few places where our trip overlapped with Helen's. (See previous posts of Helen's bicycle trip.) We only spent one night there, really just one afternoon when you figure that we spent the whole morning on trains, the night in the hotel room, and left early the next morning. Helen only spent one night there, too. The big difference between our 24 hours in tourist-ville is that Mike and I slogged up to Schloss Neuschwanstein and it appears Helen and crew did not.

We were exhausted by the time we got to Fuessen. But we had specifically requested a night there so we could see the castle and we were going to see the castle, dammit. The bus schedule was confusing and it appeared that busses only leave hourly from town to the castle. (But they leave the castle and go back to town every 15 minutes or so.) So we got a taxi, and the driver's advising us not to eat at any of the sushi restaurants in town made the price worth it. (We were ready for some non-Bavarian cuisine for dinner and he overheard us talking about sushi.) He let us off in a dirty, crowded, touristy ticket booth area. We had pre-purchased tickets so didn't have to stand in that line. We decided to walk the rest of the way up the mountain. We couldn't find the right path. We were getting bickery. Then I looked up and saw the castle peeking out from behind some trees, and all I could say was "Wow." It really is a fairy tale castle.

Schloss Neuschwanstein is the castle that was the inspiration for Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle. I don't know which came first, Disney using the castle's image, or the Disney-fication of the castle grounds. It's all tourists in khaki shorts and fanny packs standing in line, then taking busses up to the castle, then standing in a holding area, then going through turnstyles, then another holding area. And then you get about 20 minutes of a tour you can't hear because so many other tour groups are walking through the castle making noise.

But there's something about an insane king and a beautiful view that made the whole experience very satisfying. (I won't regurgitate the history; it's all here at Wikipedia.)

Helen's postcards from Fuessen:
Postcards of Fuessen

(Clicking on images will take you to the full sizes on flickr.)

10 September 2007

Superhilarious

If you've read even just one review of Superbad, then you're probably sick of all the "super" adjectives. So I'm going to stop after just the one, superhilarious.

This move was 10 times funnier than we expected it to be. I love the series Freaks and Geeks, but I haven't been very impressed with the Judd Apatow-Seth Rogan movie-making machine. I find them to be mildly amusing with some funny highlights but some boring low points. Not so with Superbad. My face hurt from smiling and my abs hurt from laughing for two straight hours. And raunch has not been this funny since Animal House.

08 September 2007

Want a great way to lose a few pounds?

Visit London!

(Ha ha ha, get it? Pounds?)

IMG_5016.JPG

London was the last stop on our trip and we knew it would be pricey, but we're used to paying San Francisco area prices so didn't think it would be too bad comparatively. You think at first, "Okay the 3 pound cappuccino, same as the 3 dollar cappuccino at home." Nope. Everything was actually double. The exchange rate was such that 1 pound equaled 2 dollars. So that 3 pound cappuccino was a 6 dollar cappuccino.

What really killed us was going to the movies one night. If the movie had been better, we might not have minded so much that the tickets were 9 pounds, i.e. 18 dollars, each. No popcorn and sodas for us! We were well above our entertainment budget for the day. And the movie was terrible. It was Eagle vs. Shark, a New Zealand film that I don't think has opened in the U.S. yet. It's gotten rave reviews from some pretty credible sources and won awards at festivals and all. And it started out sort of funny and charming. But then it got grating and annoying and I wanted to rip my eyes out by the end. Then you're sitting there thinking "When will this movie be over?" and your mind wanders to the fact that you just paid $18 each to see this, so you don't want to walk out on it. After the movie, back at the Tube station near our hotel, we ran into one of the Lebowski Fest organizers, Will, and his special lady. They had been in the same movie! And he had liked it! (And they were staying at a hotel near ours. We ran into them several times in the Tube station and around the city.)

IMG_4929.JPG
Going to Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross to catch the Hogwarts Express

We're not really ones to harp on the prices of things too much. We weren't on a strict budget but couldn't exactly just throw money around. When the 5 pound lunch special is really costing you 10 dollars though, you have to reign in the spending a bit. By the last day we were so tired in general that even going to a restaurant seemed exhausting. We bought fruit and cheese and snacked all day long.

We took a tour on one of those double-decker open-air busses, which was really fun. If you're on the top you can see a lot and we had a hilarious tour guide. It was a great way to rack up the sights without spending too much time and energy. Our guide also included the spots where various members of the Royal Family had their stag parties and many celebrity apartments. And of course the "Parliament, Big Ben" roundabout from National Lampoon's European Vacation.

IMG_4941.JPG
Our tour guide pointed out this restaurant, The Texas Embassy, saying that many confused Americans who've lost their passports end up there.

We definitely plan to go back because there's so much to see and we just scratched the surface. And next time it should be at the begining of our trip rather than the end, because we were just too tired to appreciate everything. Oh look, another castle, another old church, another pub... yawn.

(Clicking on any photo will take you to the full size on flickr.)

06 September 2007

A hazy shade of... September

There's a wildfire out near the Nevada state line that's sending smoke into the East Bay, particularly as far east as we live. It finally cooled down enough to have open windows instead of the air conditioner, and now I'm torn between opening the windows for cool air and closing them for smoke. Right now we can't actually smell the smoke, but you can see it's there, and we can feel it in our throats. The cats aren't sneezing yet, so I'm not too concerned.

This is the closest we've been to a wildfire since the 2003 San Diego fire. Adjusting to earthquakes had been bad enough in moving to Southern California from the East Coast. But waking up one morning wondering why it smelled like a campfire and why it looked like it had snowed (inches of ash covered everything) is probably something I'll never forget. We weren't ever in any danger, but what a bizarre few days, as we breathed the smoke and felt the heat of a huge fire burning just 10 miles from us. The smoke and haze today is just a tiny portion of how bad it was those few days. For us, anyway. Once again we seem to be the ones who just happen to be in the right place. But I spent all last summer and fall glancing up at the dry grass covering Mt. Diablo, and I'm doing it again this fire season.

(Image from EON.)

03 September 2007

Lebowski Fest Edinburgh

When planning our trip, we decided on two absolute musts: Zakopane, Poland, and Leboski Fest in Edinburgh.
IMG_4677.JPG
Lebwoski Fest UK

Lebowski Fest pays tribute to the brilliance that is The Big Lebowski. If you have to ask, you probably won't understand. Several years ago a couple fans decided to honor the film with a bowling party and screening in their home town of Louisville, Kentucky. Eventually these parties hit the road to Los Angeles, New York, Austin, and other U.S. cities. Hundreds of like-minded fans gather for bowling, white russians, costumes, and what have you. This summer, Lebowski Fest crossed the pond for events in Edinburgh and London.
IMG_4700.JPG
Dudes in costume

When I first heard of the Edinburgh party it crossed my mind, "We've been wanting to visit Edinburgh for awhile now. Wouldn't that be a hoot?" And Mike made it happen. The night before our wedding he was online buying tickets. Then when planning our European trip the only hard date we gave the travel agent was for this day in Edinburgh.
IMG_4721.JPG
Mike bowls

And we had a blast! We bowled and drank white russians. We made new friends. We both qualified for round 2 of the trivia contest, but neither of us qualified for the final round. We brought a marmot that everyone took pictures of. We wore our In & Out t-shirts and people proclaimed, "It's a real place?!" We won the trophy for furthest traveled.
IMG_4723.JPG
Rikki, Deb, and me

Later, in London, we kept bumping into one of the organizers and his special lady. They were at a hotel near ours, we ended up at the same movie one night, and at Buckingham Palace one day. Weird. But hopefully we'll run into him at another Lebowski Fest some day.

(Clicking on any photo will take you to the full size on flickr, where you can also access the full album.)

01 September 2007

Back in the land of good showers

I don't know where to begin blogging about the trip. I can't type every word of every adventure we had. Since I'm still relishing our modern American conveniences that are a stark contrast to our final hotel of the trip, maybe a few words about our accomodations.

Aquarius Hotel, London. They do say right at the top of the website that it's "budget price." But I have to tell you, the community bathroom at our hostel in Edinburgh was better than the private bathroom we had in this hotel. The shower curtan smelled like BO and it stuck to you because the shower stall was so small. Also, hot water ran through the toilet tank and both the hot and cold taps in the sink, but not in the shower.

Our room was a cupboard under the stairs, but the sound of people walking up and down all night didn't bother us at all. We couldn't even hear the footsteps, due to the train tracks that ran right outside our window. We slept from about midnight to 5:30 a.m., when the trains weren't running. Except for one night when they were working on the tracks during that time. The room had a tv with 5 English-speaking channels, which seemed downright luxurious.

The complementary breakfast was coffee, tea, Tang, and stacks of toast (freshly toasted when they saw you enter the dining room!) with an oddly large assortment of jams. Everything about this hotel was so cheap, but they had, like, 7 different jam choices for the toast. Between my hot cereal and rice cakes, my breakfasts there were on par with the rest of the trip. Mike's were disappointing after all the meat and cheese platters placed before him in Poland and Austria.

The best thing about this hotel is that it's walking distance from an Underground station and along two of the lines that take you straight into the center of London, and one of those lines also takes you directly to Heathrow airport and Kings Cross train station.

Budget Backpackers, Edinburgh. It's a hostel, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. The ratio of working bathrooms to beds was quite low, at least in our building. We were in a building of private suites, with 3 bedrooms around one bathroom. But that bathroom had the sink, toilet, and shower all in one room, so if someone was using one thing there, no one could use the others.

Also, there were very few working washers and dryers, and the dryers sucked. We really, really needed to do laundry by the time we got to Edinburgh and just resigned ourselves to waiting for the dryers all night long. We still ended up with damp clothes, but thankfully sunny weather the next day so we could hang the clothes in the room and everything dried out nicely, eventually.

The building itself was surprisingly quiet, but due to festival season there was a lot of street noise. Also, due to the terrible U.S.-sterling conversion rate right now, it wasn't as "budget" as we would have liked it to be. But it was centrally located in the heart of the old city, so you couldn't beat the ease of getting around to the sights.

They supply linens for the beds, but no towels! We ended up using our pillowcases to pat ourselves dry, then supplement with my hair dryer. Not terrible, once you get the hang of it. At least the showers were hot. And we had a private room with a lock on the door so we could keep our stuff strewn about with no worries.

There's a bus that runs between the airport and Waverly train station. You can walk from the train station to the hostel.

EuroPark, Fuessen, Germany. We only stayed one night here and it was a clean room with a decent shower. We were tired, though, and wanted a quiet night in of drinking wine and watching tv, but there was no tv. So we decided to enjoy the view for a bit. But the view of the river and forests couldn't be seen very well over the tall concrete balcony wall. Mike dragged the coffee table out onto the balcony and put a chair on top of it so he could enjoy the view.

We only got a few bites of breakfast. We were very politely trampled by a huge group of Japanese tourists, and the food started to disappear before we could reach it, then all these hotel people started asking our room number, and we decided to high-tail it out of there before we were told the breakfast wouldn't be free because we were very obviously not with the tour group. We checked out and rushed to the train station before they could catch us.

It's close to the train station but hard to find at first, so it's a good idea to take a taxi there and get your bearings straight, then easy to walk to the town center.

Hofwirt Hotel, Salzburg. Our guidebook and a few websites gave the decor at this hotel a bad review, but they've recently renovated. So the dark, heavy, wooden, 70s style has been replaced by uber-modern white, clean, cold, almost sterile decor. The room was neat and clean and had a good bathroom.

There was a computer with free internet in the lobby. The continental breakfast was pretty extensive. We watched The Simpsons dubbed in German every night before bed.

A bit of a walk from the train station, so a taxi is recommended. But so close to everything you want to see in Salzburg, you can walk everywhere.

Chopin Hotel, Krakow. This another where we stayed for only one night. We checked in around 10 pm, had a kind of gross dinner in the restaurant, then woke up early to a decent continental breakfast and checked out.

It's not quite as close to the old town as they'd like you to think it is, and there's some construction going on which made the walk a smidge longer, but it's still a pleasant walk. It's walking distance from the train station, but you need a bus or taxi from the airport.

I've saved the best for last! Kois Pension, Zakopane, Poland. Of course we're a smidge partial to this place because it's owned by my cousins, but take a look at the picture! There's no denying this was the most charming and most comfortable place we stayed. You can see by the comments page that they treat all their guests like family.

It's a bed and breakfast just outside the city center. A bus or taxi is necessary for transportation to and from the city center, where the train station is. Once you're in the city center, there's a lot to walk around and see. Some hiking trails in the Tatra Mountains are a short walk away from the house.

Beautiful mountain views from the rooms. We can't wait to go back!

IMG_4210.JPG

All the photos...

are now up. Here on flickr. Now I feel nearly as sick as Mike did yesterday. Between jetlag and germs, we're both struggling to stay awake until it's dark enough to go to bed.

IMG_4636.JPG
Overlooking Edinburgh
(Clicking on the photo will take you to flickr.)

Chapter Six: The Shoemaker: A Tale of Two Cities with Women

For background on the project and to see all the chapters at once, go to the tag A Tale of Two Cities Project . Chapter Six: The Shoemak...