Thursday, December 27, 2012

Cue the last-minute scramble

I just knew the house-buying was going too smoothly! Even though I checked at least twice to be sure everything was set, I've had to jump through three hoops so far this week. Thank goodness life is online - I'm visiting the east coast and simply couldn't provide this information if my physical files were required! The hoops:

1) Rental history
Yesterday my mortgage officer told me there's some new requirement and they need to have all of my rental history - presumably to contact the landlords and see if I've been a problem. Well, my friends, I've been renting for 19 years, the vast majority of my units from private people whose names/contact information I can't remotely recall. I gave them the information for my last six years (all in the same apartment) and my current landlord (my friend) and am hoping that is sufficient. I didn't ask if they wanted the other 13 years' information and hope they don't come back for it. If they do I can give them addresses, but they're on their own for finding out the owners at that time.

2) Personal loan
Today they FINALLY noticed & asked about the loan from my parents. It hit my bank in October, and they did get that statement ages ago (word to the wise, get a loan like that in your bank at least 3 months before you make an offer if you don't want it coming to light), but only now, ONE WEEK before closing, are they asking about it. So I told them it's a loan and forwarded the paperwork. The repayment is $100.80/month so hopefully they won't freak out. But, so far I've had to send them:
 - a scanned copy of the loan agreement

And then, because I transferred it from my checking account into a money market account at Vanguard, which doesn't generate monthly statements, I also sent:
 - a date-specific statement from that account showing the balance as of October 20 (before the transfer hit)
 - a date-specific statement from that account showing the balance as of October 25 (after the transfer hit)

3) Closing costs questions
Most interestingly (/panic-inducingly) the processor says I'm almost $7,000 short for the closing costs and wants to know how I'm going to get it. This is news to me, as I've got more than $10k MORE than what I think I will need for my down payment and closing costs. I replied mostly-politely saying that I had a lot of money in the bank and if the closing was going to be even more than that, something was seriously amiss. They still haven't deigned tell me what the closing costs are, but are now looking more closely at the Vanguard account (see point 2 above).

Sheesh. So much for my relaxing vacation!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Things I still don't know

Well, I'm closing on the house in 2 weeks and one day. It seems safe to assume it's really happening! It's weird to me that I can be this close to the deadline and not know some super basic things like:
  • I close on the 4th, but when do I sign the papers?
  • How much will my total closing costs be? 
One person told me that "closing" on the 4th means everything gets signed 24 or more hours before that, but I haven't gotten that confirmed. The title company will come to me and I'm around that week, so I guess I'll just be ready when they tell me to jump.

My mortgage lender says that the escrow people are the ones who come up with the final closing costs so I have to wait to hear it from them.

The majority of my down payment & closing costs is at Vanguard, not at my bank. I guess I'll transfer it all over to my bank sometime next week, so it's ready and waiting to wire whenever I find out where to send it.

I've also started looking at refrigerators, washers, dryers, curtain rods, shower curtains... it's weird to me that I haven't spent enough time in the house to know what color metal (if any) is in the decorative elements of the bathroom, so I don't know what color shower curtain rod to buy. Ditto on any curtains, actually. I guess I just have to spend time there before I can make those decisions - but some will be done sooner than others as I DO want to shower there sooner rather than later!

Aside from two mattresses and a desk chair (and a lot of terrific restaurant meals), I haven't been buying stuff for myself for months. It's going to be really weird to open the floodgates starting in January, though I do intend to do it all mindfully. I don't need that much stuff to get started. What I WANT may be another matter altogether! 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Still sitting tight

So, where are we on home buying? It's still looking good.

The inspection was good, and the seller addressed all the minor things we found and asked to have repaired. I say "minor" but I'm glad he opted to do them all, as they are outside my skill set. They were things like: remove the moss from the roof, caulk the nails on the roof, make the garage door open/close more smoothly, caulk the area where the gas line enters the house, make the pocket doors move smoothly... basic for a handyperson but beyond my skills at the moment.

The appraisal came back fine, they agree the house is worth what it's listed for, which is a relief.

I do think it's down to my lender. I've given them everything they asked for, I think, and am SO grateful we live in the day of online banking and pdf files. The only physical things I had to send them were my W-2s from last year and this year, two very recent pay stubs, and a copy of a letter from my employer verifying that I'm allowed to work remotely (they issued it this fall, so I guess it's a standard thing to give remote workers, probably for this very situation).

I close the first week in January and the title company has agreed to come to me for the signing, and they will accept a wire transfer. I was worried about that because I don't have a local branch for my bank, and didn't know how I'd get the closing funds in a certified check. I'm sure it would be possible, but this way I don't have to go down that path.

The final thing to do is plan the move-in, and I've just booked a truck and sent an email to a bunch of locals. Here's hoping I get a good turnout!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Calendar:November and December

Hey friends, you get a two-fer this month. I completely neglected to write about my November calendar image (though only a few of my readers actually RECEIVE said calendar).

Yosemite is a magical place, and I went with some friends to celebrate my 40th birthday. Because I'm an August person and because I prefer my time in Yosemite to be un-crowded, I made our reservation for the upper part of the park - at the White Wolf Lodge, to be precise, and which is a wild misnomer as the guests sleep in platform tent cabins. Thanks to one of my intrepid traveling companions we got up well before dawn and drove to the eastern side of the park, in order to catch sunrise at Mono Lake. I blew my battery out before the actual sunrise, but fortunately my friend got a great shot.

Last shot of the year - a statue in Greece. Is she looking to the past, or dreaming about the future?

Friday, November 30, 2012

All set for the moment

I think I've done everything I have to do in this house-buying carnival. I completed all the to-dos from yesterday's post. I heard from my agent that the seller's agent says our to-do list was "reasonable" (his word) so hopefully the seller will do all the items. I can already think of something I left off and wish I'd asked for, but it's minor - and hey, maybe it'll be my first fix-it job.

So I think I'm in wait state. I also think I've paid for everything I need to pay for at the moment (credit check, earnest money, inspection, appraisal). So now I sit, at the ready to react when acted upon, but my to-do list is clear.

I think.

Oh crap: Christmas.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

More to-dos

Boy, I know people buy houses without agents but I am SO glad I'm using one. I wouldn't have visited this house, and I wouldn't have made an offer, for two things. True, that's not the end of the world - as one friend accurately told me after my first bid failed, there will always be more houses. However this house meets my criteria in many ways and I will be happy if I get to be done with the house-hunting stage for a good decade or so.

Back to my agent: She also went over my inspection report in detail and worked with me to write up the addendum we sent to the seller last night. She reviewed the title packet from my title company to assure me there wasn't anything too unexpected there. She let me know I need to get on getting house insurance like today.  Yesterday, if I can swing it.

That bit surprised me - really? I need it now? But it's true both my lender and now my title company have requested that information. So I guess yeah I need it now.

So today's to-do list:
- Get house insurance
- Contact inspector to have him write up something certifying the house is pest-free (my lender insists, weirdly)
- Send in title information once I have insurance
- Contact my lender to give HER the insurance info
- See if my lender needs an image of the processed earnest money check.

Phew. Glad I don't do this on a regular basis.

Monday, November 26, 2012

As promised...

Well, the house inspection went well. He pointed out lots of little things but nothing that seems to be nightmare-worthy. My agent and I will ask the seller to fix a bunch of little things and then it seems like the sale will proceed!

Things that could still go wrong:
- seller could refuse to fix anything
- bank could disagree with valuation of house
- bank could decide I'm a sketchy proposition
- bank could decide the flip isn't kosher enough for them (though they've checked on it twice; since it wasn't a foreclosure they say they are not concerned)

In short, it's looking pretty good. So, a few pics, even though I don't think they do a good job of showing the place. It'll be easier with furniture, I think, and when I have all the time in the world to stage it.
exterior - the family room that was half the garage, and the living room. also - yard that needs plants!

looking from the living room past the front door and into the dining/kitchen area. I think that space needs an awesome work island/seating area sort of thing.

in the family/tv/party room looking into the kitchen area. to the left is the remaining single-car garage.
The kitchen: where the magic happens! I know a big 'ol fridge is going to make the place seem a lot smaller but it can't be helped. I'll try not to go TOO epically big. Also to the right of this pic is the hall to the 3 bedrooms and the 1 bathroom.

I dunno. This thing might happen. We'll see!

Sunday, November 25, 2012


I've compared my two banks' mortgage paperwork. Bank A (the one that has lower closing costs but charges PMI) may not work anyway: the paperwork says that part of their title work is making sure the seller has held the title on the property for 180 days. This seller hasn't, and I know it - it's a flip. I'd called that bank and asked if it would be a problem and they said no, but maybe that person was wrong.

Anyway Bank B (higher closing costs, no PMI) has twice told me that won't be a problem. We'll see.

I took the mortgage packets to the coffee shop in the neighborhood belonging to this house, and afterward I walked past the house and through the park. I could be really satisfied there.

Still, I've felt strangely reluctant to delve into signing my name and assembling all the documents I need. I think I'm just afraid to get my hopes up.

Inspection is tomorrow - if it goes well I will schedule the appraisal. If it does not go well... well. No need to go there just yet I guess! But I will say: if it goes well, I will post pictures.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Crunching numbers

I'm deciding between two lenders for the mortgage on this house. It's interesting; I'm putting down 10% and getting a 3.375 interest rate from both banks, but their closing costs and monthly payments differ a bit.

Bank A will charge me PMI (since I won't have 20% equity) and slightly lower closing costs.
Bank B will not charge me PMI but they have higher closing costs.

After 1 year/12 payments, Bank B is 7% more expensive

After 3 years/36 payments, Bank B is 1.2% more expensive

After 5 years/60 payments, Bank B is .36% less expensive

After 7 years/84 payments, Bank B is 1.47% less expensive

I can't go a lot further than that though - because somewhere around year 7 or 8 the house would probably have 21% equity and PMI would be dropped. I did run some numbers assuming that PMI would drop after year 7, but Bank B still comes out a bit ahead (after 30 years it would be 1.3% less expensive), and goodness knows the house has plenty of room for me to grow into.

So as long as I stay in the house more than 5 years, Bank B seems like the ever-so-slightly better bet. I do have the cash, though it would be nice to have lower closing costs since I will have a lot of start-up costs... but I think I will keep my eye on the big picture.

Am I missing anything? Is it vitally important to keep closing as costs low as possible?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


I've made an offer and it's been accepted. It's a lot more house than I was looking for - 3 bedroom, living room AND family room; one-car garage. Only one bathroom, which is fine by me as I'm not a fan of cleaning those anyway. The kitchen is smaller than I'd like and the house was built in the 70s and isn't particularly cute.

But. It gets great light, with several skylights. It was recently remodeled and they did a solid job - even the closet doors are sturdy, real-wood affairs. There's room for my dining room table (heck, there's room for a MEGA dinner in the family room). There's a small outside patio off the kitchen, perfect for grilling. The front yard is ordinary now and will be a great place for a garden, and perhaps a patio or stone path or something to get rid of all the grass.

Also, it's in a great location - about a mile from a few of my friends, and under two miles from several really great neighborhoods. The neighborhood this house is in ("my" house? really?) has a small but great little business district - a garden shop, a brewpub type place, a slightly higher-end restaurant, and a great coffee shop. It also has an amazing and lovely park only a block or so away.

Also, the taxes are low and it looks like the principal & interest will cost about what my former rent was. I will have more expenses in terms of insurance, utilities, taxes, but I think it's going to be okay. 

So now we see what other roadblocks I run into. I'm oh-so-cautiously optimistic! Even though it's going to be nearly-empty for ages and ages! The inspection is Saturday. I'll take pictures.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

omg house hunting

So, the owners of the last house now aren't sure they want to sell. They haven't given me the courtesy of telling me for certain, and the house is still listed, but it's more than 24 hours past when they were going to decide so... I guess the hunt is still on.

I appreciate that I'm getting a lot of sympathy from friends and acquaintances, and at the same time I find it irksome to hear that the market is crazy right now. I guess I can't think of a good way to offer sympathy, and the bottom line is I just have to deal with the market that I'm in, or get out of the market. Phooey. No wonder people went a little crazy during the boom time.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The value of a second visit

I revisited both houses dissected in my last post. If my house hunt continues, I will now require myself to visit every house twice before I make an offer, because the second look was very illuminating!

On second visit WOW was the small house small beyond reason. There is no way I could live there long-term, and in fact I probably would have had a panic attack after unloading my possessions into it. The living room could hold my dining room table OR my small couch, and it would have been hard to have guests stay longer than a night or two. That's just now how I see myself living.

On the other hand, the bigger/newer house continued to impress me. I had a friend along who talked about these new-construction homes with a contractor friend of his, and was assured they're built solidly because of all the codes. It's true this house was finished with mid-grade stuff like cheaper doors and lighting fixtures, but those aren't fatal flaws. The light inside is nice, it feels really spacious, it's got nice views of trees, and I think it would be plenty of house for me without being overwhelming. Of course I can't furnish it fully but that's okay - no rush on that front. And major bonus - the small front and back yards. I have been clear from the start I don't want to have a lot of yard to deal with. But the  yards are still big enough to each have a few raised beds, and I think I'll get a friend to design a pretty fence/seating area for the front to make it more welcoming to the neighborhood.

Another bonus is I already know people in the neighborhood - it's 2 blocks from where I'm staying now, and is around the corner from my real estate agents, who I really like. They're talking about throwing a party so I can meet the other neighbors they know. Exciting! 

In short, if it's not obvious, I'm putting in an offer on the bigger/newer house. I probably won't know til tomorrow since it's a bank holiday today; if the seller insists on seeing my pre-approval before accepting the offer, that will have to wait. So, we'll see.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Speaking of price/location

Today I saw five houses.
1) was nice and in a good location, but it's a big higher than I really want to pay, and we both think it'll go for even more than list. So I'm not going to invest any energy in it.

2) was surprisingly nice for the boxy boring house it looks like from the front, but it's not really in an interesting location, nor is it near friends, and then we realized it's near a not-so-nice housing complex (probably as bad as it gets in Portland, i.e. not so very bad) and my agent said we should forget it. I wasn't sold on it anyway so that was helpful.

3) a poorly laid-out newish construction home with just really weird layout and features... like a garage behind the house that you access from an alley, and there's a door to exit the garage by the sliding glass door of the house..which you can't unlock from the outside. So it would be useless as a come-home-with-the-groceries thing.

I did however see two houses that have me interested. They are about as different from each other as it is possible to be. Both are under my mental price cap.

House 1 is newish-construction, only three years old. I have a possibly irrational dislike of these houses, and my agent said she did too, but being inside is an eye-opening experience. It was built with quality ingredients like real hardwood, decent tile, granite in the kitchen, etc. It's got a small but nice backyard. The living room has a gas fireplace in it, and the main floor has a nice flow of kitchen/dining area/living area, and a half-bath. Upstairs are three bedrooms and 2 more bathrooms. In short it is way more house than I need.

Good things about it: it's walking distance to 3 friends' houses, it's walking distance to light rail, and it's got a nice garage (good for my car and bike; I don't really care that much about it otherwise). It's nicely set up for me to have guests visit. It has really good light inside it.

Downsides: you can hear the highway from it. It's not that pretty and it won't appreciate as fast as other houses do. Its taxes are a bit on the high side compared to other (older) houses. It's not near much in terms of a cute neighborhood/restaurants, but it's a half-mile from a grocery store, and has easy highway access.

House 2 - I mean come on - just looking at it, it's SO much cuter! It's also a lot smaller - only 700 sf in the main floor, and another 700 sf in a dry basement, accessed via an outside door. It's also been completely gutted and rebuilt and looks amazing inside. It has a main living area that flows into the kitchen, and two bedrooms that are connected by a bathroom.

Upsides: it's walking distance to a booming/up and coming part of town. It will appreciate much faster. It's cute. Much lower taxes - in all this house will cost $250 less per month than the other.

Downsides: huge yard. on-street parking only. much further-flung so it'll be a bit of a trip to visit friends (a 15-minute drive to the closest ones).

On paper, the bigger one makes sense. In reality I'm leaning toward the smaller one. I'm revisiting both tomorrow.

Further adventures in house hunting

I saw a few more houses earlier this week - four or five, I guess. They tend to blur together, mostly because I can tell right away I'm not interested in them, so I don't spend a lot of energy committing them to memory. Also, my memory is crap.

I'm seeing more today. I really like my agent - she knows that my price point is on the very low/competitive end of the market, so she's being creative. She is going to get in touch with real estate investors she knows to see if they're planning to sell any of their rental houses, and she's also talking to a contractor she knows who buys really sad old houses, refurbishes them from the beams out, and does a quality flip job. He's working on a house that is in a good-for-me location (and boy was it SAD when he bought it - I found the listing) but we both think he'll probably sell it out of my price range. But she'll ask and see!

Today we're looking at a house next door to the one I most recently didn't get, and then we'll look at a few houses that are in a much more far-flung part of town.

I have to admit I resent the fact that most of the areas and houses are too expensive for me. It's not anyone's fault, so it's an undirected resentment, but it just doesn't seem FAIR. Ah well, them's the breaks, and I guess I'll try to focus most of my energy on the price/expense/location questions.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

House hunting: Strike two!

Someone offered 200k cash for the house. That's 25% over asking and was 28k more than my upper offer. Good gravy, how is a person supposed to compete in that kind of situation? I guess the answer is, they don't. Back to the drawing board.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

House hunting: possibilities

I'm a decisive person and I find being in the deciding stage very uncomfortable. I like to make a decision and move on, thank you, and have no problem revisiting and changing the decision later if necessary. But right now I'm in the middle of a decision that is NOT easy to revisit, and it's painful!

I've put a fair amount of thought into what I want and why I want to buy. I've been saving 27% of my take-home salary (and now that I'm renting a room from a friend, I'm saving 42%) towards the down payment. I have been watching the market and have already made (and lost!) my first attempt to buy.

In the three-plus weeks I've been back I've done lots of driving, biking, and walking around looking at neighborhoods and absorbing being back in Portland.

I even visited the condo group I've been stalking eying for the past year or so, and got super close to making an offer before realizing they are facing a lot of complex problems AND I can save myself several hundred dollars a month by buying elsewhere. I do have hopes of joining that community, perhaps ten years from now, but maybe I'm kidding myself.

Anyway, Sunday night I came home from the condo association's open meeting just feeling so disappointed and not at all sure I should take the plunge and make an offer. I saw a little house online that was in a great location (not as great as the condos), four miles from downtown Portland, 0.9 miles due east from three of my friends' households, 1.3 miles from one of my favorite breakfast spots, and 2 miles or less from several other really great locations. The price was even lower than the condo I'd been so set on, with a quarter the taxes and no built-in HOAs.

I was a little concerned I was acting in a rebound mode, and wondered if it would be indecorous to buy so soon after spending time with the condo people, but I arranged to see the house midday Monday. As far as I can tell it would cost about what I was paying in rent for all my fixed expenses (mortgage, interest, utilities, taxes, insurance), and I would be able to continue to allocate about a third of my take-home pay toward an emergency fund and home maintenance/projects/mortgage paydown.

The house is small (I actually laughed when I got inside and saw what an amazing job the photographer had done to make it look bigger than it is), but it's big enough for me. It's not perfect but I can see living there for the foreseeable future, and would likely be able to resell or rent it out without a lot of problems. The neighborhood has some really interesting businesses in it and is still being discovered by the city residents. 

So to sum up: I'm making an offer today.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Settling in: Free time!

It's already two weeks (and a bit!) since I returned to Portland. I'm working 8-5 and my commute takes no time at all. So what am I doing with my free time? It's a bit haphazard so far, but it's actually been rather busy. Among the highlights:
  • Rejoined my old book group
  • Went to a couple wine tastings - at Friday night's I was invited to find out more about some food/wine group, at Saturday's I was invited to drop in on a regular Thursday tasting. I am not convinced either will pan out, but it was nice in any case. 
  • Went to a couple different yarn shops - I think I've been inside two different shops a total of 5 times in the last couple of weeks...but did NOT purchase every time, thank goodness. 
  • Had brunch at a friend's.
  • Gave blood.
  • Went to a movie (and nearly wept with joy to pay 12.50 for the movie, a slice of pizza, a pint of beer AND a tip).
  • Went to a pub to see some music (it was a total Portland experience, including the sidewalk chit chat that covered camping, biking, and global warming).
  • Helped a friend paint a rental property.
  • Helped another friend with some yard work
  • Went out for Ethiopian food while watching the debates
On the to-do list:
  • I just joined another book group, coordinated by a former coworker. We will meet for the first time next month. I belonged to two book groups about a decade ago, and frankly it's probably unwise, but I'm doing it in the name of expanding my social circle!
  • I'd like to find a good knitters group to join
  • I'd also like to find some bluegrass music venues to check out 
I've also walked and biked around my part of Portland quite a bit, looking at cute little houses, wishing I thought I could afford one, wondering if I'm REALLY willing to commit to yard work and the maintenance of a dwelling...

One weird thing is that shopping is a non-starter. I'm not really cooking much, I don't have any nesting to do so long as I'm renting a room, and I'm avoiding the one shopping trip I really need to do - getting an office chair from IKEA. Maybe tomorrow....

Finally, my roommate turned me on to the existence of a panaderia - a Mexican (or at least Latin American) bakery in my neighborhood. Oh. My. Goodness. They make everything themselves from the puff pastry (hard!) to the pastry cream (not so hard) and it was gooood and inexpensive. So far I've only visited once but the writing is on the wall there.

I have some upcoming social plans to reconnect with more people. We'll see how this all settles down after I've been here a while. So far, so good. Fingers crossed. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Working from home: Food

So I already mentioned I'm not really settled in and am not doing much cooking yet. So what am I eating? I've been pretty healthy, actually, due at least partly to my housemate who is both crazy-frugal and very health-conscious. Dave wastes absolutely nothing - it's daunting, honestly. On the plus side, though, I can easily pawn anything off on him by hinting I might just throw it out!

My first week here I ate yogurt & knock-off brand cheerios for breakfast. Lunch was usually a piece of flat bread, with spinach leaves and eggplant hummus (recommended by my housemate because it's got the best fat-to-protein ratio...). A couple of days I ate cottage cheese and tomatoes, and also got some boxed soup I could nuke by the cup.

Now that it's *much* chillier here in the mornings, I've been microwaving oatmeal: a half cup of rolled (not instant!) oats, one cup of water, a sprinkle of salt - I put that in for one minute, then I add half of a chopped-up apple and put it back in for another minute. Tasty AND warming!

For lunch or dinner I've been doing more boxed soup by the mugful, and I also got a bag of washed & chopped kale. I've been putting a bowlful in the microwave for a minute, then stirring in tahini, soy sauce, hot sauce, and a bit of olive oil - yum!

Yesterday I made some cous cous and started eating through the food that had been in my earthquake kit - yesterday and today I had half a tuna/green curry packet from Trader Joe's, and I still have a couple of packets of spiced chickpeas.

Yes, technically I still live in earthquake country (in fact many scientists expect a truly big one here at some point) but trust me - my housemate's stores would support us a LOT longer than the recommended three days.

So even though I'm not truly cooking, I'm doing fairly well on the nutrition front. I noticed my jeans felt a bit loose but then I remembered I'd been wearing them every day for ... a while. That's the benefit of working from home!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Settling in-ish

So, I'm here and settling in. I got a new mattress (omg rock hard..but I think we'll be happy together) and I'm being pretty productive working from home. I've started doing my new job duties and they're going to be engaging and challenging, so fingers crossed on the work front.

Socially I've been able to meet up with some friends, which has been lovely. Until today autumn has been amazingly gorgeous and I've enjoyed walking or biking around my current neighborhood just soaking it in.

I'm a bit discombobulated, for sure. Saturday night I had no plans, and if I were home in my own space I would have cooked or baked or watched a dvd and knitted; here I'm not really set up for those activities. So I played a bunch of online scrabble with a friend and read a bit. I've requested several more titles from the library so I'll have more options on my quiet evenings.

I definitely miss my coworkers - online interaction is not nearly the same - and I didn't expect that I'd miss having people to actually talk about my day to day work with. My housemate asks, and I can tell him a bit, but it's not the same. I just spent 6 years with people who live and breathe the same job I do, so of course I feel a bit adrift from that common experience!

None of this feels real yet, and I think it won't until I'm in my own digs. I'm still watching the market but have done some math and think I'll be better off if I can stay put in my rental until after the holidays. So unless the absolute perfect thing hits the market, I don't think I'll be making any abrupt moves just yet. Given the whirlwind of the last few months that is definitely for the best!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

So, that happened

Well, look at that! In some sort of bizarre folding of space and time, I now live in Portland instead of the Bay Area.

The move went pretty well, but yeah .. I had a lot of stuff. I ordered a 12-foot truck but was given a 16-footer instead. The movers said I probably wouldn't have fit in a smaller truck, though I DID wind up just tossing in some furniture I'd intended to get rid of, so there was some leeway they didn't know about. On the other end of the trip I'd booked a 5x10 storage unit, and man is that thing stuffed to the gills!

The actual trip was reasonably painless. A friend was driving my car, and I drove the truck (aren't I brave? well no, not really - the truck's cab was air conditioned, so I kinda screwed my friend! ...I did offer to trade later on but he declined). I'd estimated we'd be pulling out of my driveway at 3pm on move day (Thursday), and we would have been perfect except for when I obeyed my building manager's instructions and locked my keys in my apartment...but I forgot to free my car from the locked garage first! And we didn't realize it until we'd exited the building! Fortunately my friend got the mail carrier to let him into the building and I was able to track down one of the few people home on a weekday afternoon, and he opened the garage for me. Whew! So that only delayed our start by about 15 minutes.

The first day we drove as far as Redding (about four hours north), arriving around 8pm. Friday we had a leisurely morning, first in Redding hanging out with our host, and then about an hour north in the scenic town Dunsmuir. Our goal was Corvallis, and we arrived around 8:30pm. On Saturday we had another slow start to the day,  having breakfast with our host, and headed north around 11. We rolled into my storage unit just south of town at 12:45, and two friends met us there at 1.

Unloading the truck took just over an hour - I'm SO grateful to have had help! - and the unit is literally full to the ceiling. I could possibly extract things if I must, but hopefully I can just let it sit there until I am ready to move.

Then my friends came to my new digs and helped unload the last of my stuff, and we got beer.

I'm renting a room from a friend and it's taking a little time to get it organized - my clothes are unpacked, and the ingredients for a delicious drink a friend taught me, but otherwise I have boxes and last night I slept on a bedroll on the floor, since my host's air mattress was killing my back. Tomorrow, my new mattress arrives and I may never get up again!

Working from home is going pretty well, though I have to work out a better ergonomic situation. Settling into Portland doesn't feel at all real yet... I will write more about that later.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Time is collapsing in on itself

Is it a black hole when time magically compresses itself? There must be one nearby, then .. and I wish it would visit my apartment and save me the work of packing!

  • In April a job was posted at my company that I knew I could do and thought I wouldn't hate.
  • In May I applied and told my company that much of my motivation was that I'd be moving to Portland by the end of the year and couldn't do my current job remotely. While I'd been hoping to return to Portland from the moment I left, this was my first real step in making it happen.
  • In June I learned an external candidate got the job but was assured they'd figure something out for me.
  • In July I learned a slot had been added for me on the team to which I had applied. I also let them know that I was changing my move date from the rather vague "end of year" to end of September. Suddenly time was of the essence; my current job got posted while I was on vacation.
  • In August I learned who was applying for my current job.
  • In September my boss interviewed and selected and should be announcing my replacement next week.
Suddenly I realize that the next time I'm at work, I'll have seven days left in the office. Two weeks from now the move will be behind me and my stuff should be in storage.

Honestly, my head is a bit spinny now!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Someone bought "my" house!

Dangit. Remember how I was playing it cool and not REALLY stalking any specific house? Well, I lied. There was one I was pretty interested in, with a 95 walk score and 1.5 miles from my three friends. It was listed in my price range and had been on the market just over 100 days - and as of last night, it's pending!!!

Ah well. That means I have time and don't have to spring into action the second I arrive in Portland. It gives me more time to save money - renting from my friend for a few months is going to help a lot in that department! It looks like I'll be able to save as much as half of my take-home pay every month I'm with my friend, if I'm pretty stringent. I suppose I might tour a few houses when I get up there, but I haven't seen any other house quite as interesting as that one. One of my friends assured me there will always be more houses - I am sure he's right.

In other news I've been a packing fiend (or at least I was over the weekend). I think I'm doing a good job - I winnowed my games and actually threw out some photo albums. I also recycled all my papers from grad school, and a pile of really not-very-good college poetry. In the unlikely event I have a biographer..well, he or she will have to work a bit harder now!

It's really weird to pack all my stuff with no idea when or where I'll see it again. I'm going to rent a storage unit and can visit it to retrieve things, but that's not likely to happen much. I'm going to have my clothes, work files, and a few kitchen things at my new space (namely my food processor and KitchenAid mixer). Everything else: see ya eventually!

I feel pretty sure I'll be doing even more weeding on that fine fine day I unpack.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What I'm using for house shopping

Since I haven't yet moved (and don't get me started on the process of packing...), I'm doing some long-distance online house shopping, mostly to get a feel for the market*.

I've got three different apps loaded on my iPod touch: redfin,, and zillow. I'm using the favorites feature in both redfin and, which helps me keep track of different houses. I also like that I can tell it to NOT show certain houses, so I'm not revisiting listings for houses I've discounted (because they need too much work, usually).

Once I've found a house I'm curious about, I use Google maps to zoom in closely to check out the neighborhood, yards, and surrounding houses. Then I use street view to "walk" up and down the street a little (and as a bonus, I think I found a sour cherry tree near one house! I'm definitely planning to do some walkbys in the spring/early summer to see about harvesting some cherries). Anyway, cruising through the neighborhoods is kind of fun and gives me a small feel for the area.

Finally, I use to assess the general area. I currently live in an apartment that gets a 91 (walker's paradise) and I really love that I can spend an indefinite period of time in my 'hood without having to drive. Right now I can walk to the grocery store and library, and there are at least 20 restaurants and four coffee shops nearby - and a yarn store, post office, and movie theater! I can't hope to afford to buy something in such a great neighborhood in Portland, but I DO want to have at least a couple coffee shops and restaurants nearby, and would prefer to have a grocery store within a half-mile if possible.

A personal factor is that I have three friends who live quite near each other in one part of town: two houses within a block of each other, and a third person less than a half-mile from the first two. I currently live walking distance from four friends and would like to have something like that in my new life too. I really do want it all!

So, my criteria are: price, location, and condition - like every other buyer in the world, I know!

* Oh, fine, I'm not really "getting a feel for the market" I'm totally torturing myself by stalking certain houses...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Calendar: September

My September calendar shot is another one from last summer's trip to Greece, and it's not the last time pictures from that trip will be featured this year! What can I say, but that Greece is extremely photogenic.

I took this picture on the Acropolis, but I can't say for certain which building it's attached to! I can picture where I was standing when I took the picture, and I think that this is a column on the Erechtheion, more famous for its Porch of the Caryatids. You can see that the part below the curve has been better protected from the elements, but it's mind-boggling to think that this was created over two thousand four hundred years ago.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

House hunting: first offer - check!

Now that I've established that I'm looking to buy a house, let me tell you all about my first foray into the market.

First of all: as soon as I knew I'd be moving back to Portland, I applied with my credit union to be approved for a mortgage. Then I did some emailing with a friend and he recommended his mortgage lender so I also applied with that bank. In both cases I was approved for up to 250k. So, yay.

Of course personal finance 101 tells us not to max ourselves out on housing costs, and I don't intend to borrow that much, but it at least gives me a framework. No surprise: my frame is the very bottom of the real estate market in Portland.

I did start poking at the market a little bit: I loaded the redfin and apps on my ipod touch and started doing searches... all the time. As I feared, my price constraints limit me to a ring well outside the close-in parts of Portland, but one of the approachable areas is near houses owned by three different friends, so that's kind of awesome.

The real estate searches I've been running are helpful, even if they make me feel silly. Last Wednesday I saw a listing that really made me sit up and take notice. It was an adorable beautifully-finished house just over a half-mile from my friends' houses. The location was otherwise crappy - extremely close to the highway and a freight train line. However it was just so amazingly cute I couldn't stop looking at it.

Long agonizing story short, I used miles to book a flight to Portland and arranged to see four houses with a randomly-chosen agent. I liked the agent quite well. One of the houses was a nightmare pit that is going to be on the market a LONG time; one had a fussy yard and an icky inside; one had good bones but was going to be a pretty big project. The fourth house, the cute one, was every bit as amazing as I thought.

My agent said they were reviewing offers that night (after a whopping 3 days on the market) and that it didn't hurt anything to offer if I wanted to. It costs nothing and takes ten minutes. She said if I thought I'd regret not making an offer, then I might want to do it. She also said it was going to go higher than the list price.

So after futzing with a calculator a bit, I decided to make an offer for 10k more than the list, with a 10% down payment. We offered 45 days to close and free week to get out of the house after that. The agent and I parted ways, and I went to my friend's house to sit by my emailbox.

About 15 minutes later an email came in; the link in it took me to an electronic version of the offer letter. I had to click to initial 11 times and that was it! (Yes, I did skim it before sending it in.) By 3pm I'd made an offer; by 9:40pm I knew I was their second choice, and by 8:30am I knew I didn't get the house. The winner(s?) had a bigger down payment and had offered the same price as I had, so it's nice to know my guess was decent.

It was disappointing but I'm mostly glad. I've decided it was an A+ house in a D+ location. I think I'll shoot for a B location and a B house and hope I can make that work. But I should probably stop monitoring the real estate sites because I can't fly up for another weekend jaunt! I can do this in earnest starting in five weeks.

Monday, August 27, 2012

House hunting: why I am considering buying

I'm starting what may become a saga of house hunting, so I thought I'd begin by stating why I'm pretty sure I want to get into the market. I may need this for moral support in the future!

Financial picture: 
I'm moving back to Portland in about a month. Since I left six years ago I've paid off all my debt (car + credit + moving + grad school all came to approximately 25k; it was never at scary levels but it certainly took a long time to become and stay fully debt-free), have continued saving aggressively-ish for retirement (18% + 4% match, fully vested now that I've passed my six-year anniversary), and have started saving for a house down payment. I've also managed to do quite a bit of travel and a lot of local exploring as well. In short, life's been good.

Why I didn't buy already:
When I lived in Portland before I didn't think I could afford to buy. With retrospect...maybe I could have, if I'd gotten in before things got crazy. But my head wasn't there and it's just as well I didn't buy, given how my life has been more mobile than I expected!

I've known that as long as I was in the Bay Area, I wasn't interested in buying: anything I can afford would be in a pretty rough neighborhood, would be pretty icky, or would be very far from work. All that and it would cost a lot more than my apartment! The final factor was that I never had any intention of staying in California permanently. So that's been a non-starter (though I have looked, and despaired, occasionally).

Buying for retirement stability:
A few years ago I had a conversation with a friend that was pretty illuminating. She was looking at her retirement plans a few years down the road and was despairing. As long as she keeps working she can live a great life, but once she retires, she can't afford anything like her current life. Her rent alone will take most of her social security check, she doesn't have a pension, and I inferred that her retirement savings aren't that robust. So that was certainly food for thought. If I didn't have to pay rent, my retirement might be smoother.

On the flip side, property taxes and maintenance are no joke. It's impossible to know if the monthly outlay post-mortgage would be equivalent to or even more than rent would be. There's also the responsibility involved in owning a home. That tilts me toward a condo, but then you run into HOAs and the possibility of special assessments in the future if problems crop up. So in short, it's certainly not a given to me that buying is the right and only choice.

What I'm looking for:
I had my eye on a particular condo development for a long time, but their HOAs and taxes are so high - nearly $800/month!! - that the sales price is going to have to come down a lot before I can be tempted into it. Honestly I think they're going to go into foreclosure soon for the 40% unsold units, and then they'll likely be cash sales, and therefore not for me. That's all a guess though.

At any rate, I definitely want 2 bedrooms. I would prefer low- to no-maintenance requirements for the yard. I very much want to be near friends and would also like to be near a neighborhood center: library branch, coffee shop, perhaps a small grocery store. I want my mortgage/interest/taxes/insurance to be about what I'm paying for rent now, since I know that leaves me breathing room. I want the place to be move-in ready - I do NOT want to have to manage and finance projects in the first few years of ownership. Finally, I view this as a potentially lifelong commitment - it's not an investment but a home.

Why I may not be ready: 
I do have concerns about being the responsible party if anything goes wrong. I have currently saved enough to cover a 10% down payment and closing costs, if I pillage my savings accounts. My parents have offered to lend me some money, which is great, but I wonder if I should buy if I need to borrow to make it happen. At this point I'm thinking I will try hard to buy without assistance, and will keep their offer in my back pocket in case something goes awry before I've rebuilt my savings. And of course being the lone earner is scary. I'd want to keep the mortgage low enough that I could recoup it in rent if I lost my job or took a big pay cut at some point. But life just keeps happening, and if I'm going to retire with a paid-off mortgage, I've got to get started.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Calendar: August

Last year I visited a good friend in LA  - and it's a good thing, too, since he's now moved on to Tucson. Hey, just one more place to visit!

Anyway, we visited Venice Beach and while we watched the skateboarders, I practiced using the burst mode on my camera. Confession: no clue if it's called that. But you know, you set it a certain way and it takes multiple shots. And it did, and I caught this kid in flight.

Monday, July 30, 2012

All manner of lists

So in my last post I mentioned that life and career stuff had been sucking up my brain - well, let your sleepless nights of pondering my life come to a middle. I'm moving back to Portland, but I'm going to keep working for my current employer. My new job is a little vague, and we don't know who will take over my current one, and it's all a little bit crazy-making to a big-time Decider like me. (In Myers-Briggs speak, I'm hugely weighted on the Judging end of the Judging/Perceiving scale.)

At one level, this has been in the works for six years, ever since I left Portland. It's been my favorite place since I first visited in 1995, and I felt proud and happy to live there for ten years. Leaving was totally unexpected but I decided it was the right move for me at the time (and still feel that it was a good move). I always hoped to return and was careful to keep a lot of roots alive there, visiting at least once a year to participate in traditions such as a cookie party, participating in annual book group planning meetings and enjoying brunches and other celebrations.

Last year when my friend's husband died so suddenly I felt ready to quit my job and couch surf up there until I found something else.. fortunately my siblings talked me out of that particular flavor of madness. This spring when a job came open in my company that could be worked remotely, I applied for it, explaining a pending move as one of the factors for my application. Well, I didn't get the job, but the VP took as a fact that I was moving away and said they'd work something out for me; lo and behold they created a position and stuck my name on it.

So, I don't know exactly what I'll do or when it will start; I'll rent from a friend until I decide what type of real estate I want to get into (house that is stumbling distance from a few friends would be great; a condo might be a more realistic selection given how much I do NOT care for home maintenance projects). Right now I feel some low-level stress at all times but I'm trying not to let it get to me. Wish me every manner of luck!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Vacation brain again

I've been super occupied with work and career and life stuff, but guess what? Vacation awaits! In a few short days I'm heading back to Germany - this time to see my sister receive her master's degree, and to spend some time touring with my parents (and sister, part of the time).

I'm revisiting my packing list from the spring - it will be warmer, but it doesn't look like it's going to be hot, so I think I'm going to pack:

- 2 pairs pants: jeans and khakis (both can turn into capris if necessary)
- 1 skirt (will work for the graduation event and if it gets hot on the trip)
 - 2 pairs shoes: probably some version of walking shoes and some summery sort-of sandals
- weather protection: a rain jacket and scarf/wrappy thing; 1 lightweight long-sleeve sweater (blue); 1 lightweight 3/4-sleeve cardigan (black)
- 5 tops: 2 short-sleeve tops; 2 3/4-sleeve tops; 1 dressy tank top. (I bet I'll crack and add something here)

for both parts of the trip: 
- pajamas: t-shirt & shorts
- miscellaneous toiletries, socks, etc.
- camera; ipod touch; cell phone (to be stored away until I return to the states); chargers & a plug adapter; guidebook; passport; perhaps a knitting project.

On this trip I won't be using a rail pass, since with three of us it's more sensible to rent a car. Since I'll be driving I won't have so many knitting opportunities, but it's a great thing to have on a flight. Even though I'll be traveling in business and first class (thanks to miles and my clever booking-savvy friend!!), it's a long long time to stay awake and occupied. I can't sleep for all of it (and don't want to miss out on the fun of the high-class travel) so knitting is a good thing to have on hand. Perhaps I'll make another set of socks to complement the ones I did for much of my last trip:

I'll have something like 22 hours in London, then 12 nights in Germany before returning. I'll be able to do laundry once in the middle of the trip, so I think that will work. I may panic and add something to the pile - we'll see!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Calendar: July

This month's picture is another from my trip to Honduras last May (more than a year ago already!).
I've already forgotten most of the feeling from that vacation - I know with my head I walked barefoot on the beach wearing a summery dress, but it's hard to really recapture that!

It was my first full-on tropical resort vacation, and it was amazing. I intend to spend time visiting Hawaii over the next few years, and can't wait to get back into that warm sun/swimming and snorkeling and diving/fruity drinks space.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


This is the third and, I think, last calendar shot from my trip to New Mexico last year. You can read my February post if you want a little more about that trip!

Sorry for the radio silence. I know it's the way in blog land. I've had a LOT going on behind the scenes with a large possibility of major life uprooting (in a good way, but it's scary too) so my brain has been churning but I haven't been sharing. I hope everything's settled in a few more weeks.

If not, well, I'm off to Germany again for a chunk of time in the middle of July, so I'll be sure to drink plenty of beer!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Beers of Germany - part two

In my last post I showed the glassware associated with the various beers I ordered in Germany, Belgium, and Amsterdam.When I got back to Germany, I got a bit braver at striking out in new directions when I ordered beer. Germans put STUFF in their beer!

For example, you can get lemonade in your beer. This was super yummy and felt really refreshing on a warm spring day. It's a lot of liquid to drink, but it didn't feel at all boozy.

There's also a thing called "Berliner Weiss mit Schuss" that I was on the lookout for. My great-aunt and -uncle lived in Germany in the 1950s, as part of his military tour of duty. My great-aunt is still extremely active and sharp, and when I saw her this spring she told me about living in Berlin, and recommended I look for that particular item on the beer menu. It turns out that "Berliner" is a brand of beer. They are known for making a rather bitter form of weiss, the wheat beer common in the area. The "mit Schuss" bit is where it gets odd - Germans will put in a shot of brightly colored sweet syrup, either red or green. This takes the bitter edge off the beer, and adds either raspberry or woodruff flavor. Yeah... I don't know what woodruff flavor is, and I preferred the raspberry version. I tried both, though, like the adventurous traveler I want to be!

Here is the red. I was so proud to order "Berliner Weiss mit Schuss" and was confused when that wasn't enough information - until I remembered the red/green bit. I randomly chose red.

When I next got the chance to get this, I went with green. I also randomly pointed at something on the all-German menu and accidentally got scrambled eggs for lunch. oops.

Mary got in on the Berliner action. On the right, another verson of the red. On the left, something that was not very nice at all - I thought it was going to be another lemonade-in-beer, but it was SOUR. Perhaps it was lemon JUICE in beer. It was the only drink I didn't finish:

And last, and weirdest, and most oddly tasty: banana juice in beer. Yes. And look - more of that yummy Franziskaner! In this case we got a good-sized bottle of beer, and a glass with about 5 inches of banana juice in it. Then you pour in the beer at will. The beer & banana juice foamed a lot, but didn't stay fully mixed, so there was plenty of juice at the bottom of the glass to mix with the leftover beer.
If there's any other beer-juice mixtures, I don't know about them, but I'll keep an eye out on my next trip in July. Otherwise I'll stick with what I tried!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Beers of Germany, Belgium, and Amsterdam - part one

The region I was traveling in (Germany, Belgium, Amsterdam) offered beer, a LOT of beer. Every beer comes in unique glassware, so you can tell at a glance what everyone is drinking. Observe:

Krombacher, in a schnitzelhaus in Hannover, Germany. We got the same brand of beer but different styles - if you look closely you can see our glassware is different.

The beer menu at this pub in Bruges was literally at least 20 pages long. I ordered an Ezel completely at random and was disappointed to get a bottle of beer (I am probably wrong to be snobbish like this but my perception is that draft beer is better) - but it also came with its own distinct glass!

Also in Bruges - this is Kasteel brand beer.

In case there's any doubt that Kasteel = castle, check out the base of the glass:

I enjoyed poking around Ghent, and I wandered pretty aimlessly after my sister took off to return to Germany and her homework (responsibility is so boring!). I wound up stepping into a pub, where I incredibly awkwardly ordered a beer from the bartender. His English was probably fine but I find that MINE fails me when I get embarrassed about language barriers. I wanted to convey that I like dubbels (one of two main styles of Belgian beer) but he thought I said I wanted a Duvel. That worked, too.

I was traveling solo in Amsterdam and only went to a couple of pubs. I forgot to get a picture of the Jupiler I tried. Well, I probably thought of it but it was awkward since I was sitting at the bar. Anyway, at the second pub I visited (on another day!) I had some privacy to get this shot of the Texels - the bartender recommended it as a local special beer.

Back in Germany, my sister and I traveled to follow the good weather. Here is her Franziskaner, I think the only beer we had in more than one place. She orders the dunkelweizen - it's a weissbier/wheat beer, as the glass indicates, but dunkelweizen means dark wheat, and it's a little more robust than a regular weiss. We both liked that style a lot.

In Lubeck we both ordered pretty randomly, I think. I can't remember whose is whose, but the Duckstein on the right looks like a dunkelweizen, so it's probable that was Mary's since she knows that's what she likes. I probably had the Erdinger weissbrau on the left. I'm certain I drank it all!

To be continued, with more on the German beer front.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Summer salad

Early-summer produce has hit the markets big-time here in the Bay Area, and I was inspired to try a strawberry-basil salad dressing.

I got the strawberries at the market, and the basil and lemons from my building's garden:
My life changed for the better when I realized my immersion blender works PERFECTLY in a mason jar:
Does this look like summer, or what?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Fresh strawberry scones

It's late spring and/or early summer, and the produce is amazing! I have already purchased two batches of strawberries (bigger than a pint, smaller than a flat.. what IS that size?), without a plan for either of them. For some reason I decided I needed to make some of them into scones.

I searched the interwebs for strawberry scone recipes, and wound up going with Orangette's recipe for strawberry Scottish Scones. I liked this recipe the best of the ones I found because it had the least amount of sugar. Let the strawberries shine!

As is my way, I didn't measure the berries and probably had way more than a cup in there. The dough was mega-sticky and I had to add nearly a quarter-cup of flour to get them manageable.

But manage I did, and stuck them in the oven with anticipation.

I had to cook them almost twice as long as the recipe dictated. Perhaps I should have separated the wedges when I put them in the oven: near the end of the baking cycle I pulled them apart to help the centers cook.

They were really amazing.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Calendar: May

It was never high on my list of Places To Go, but last summer I wound up going to Greece - hey, if your older brother is invited to be in the International Special Olympics, you GO. So I got to spend a couple of weeks traveling with my parents and two other siblings in Greece.

We started in Athens (and just barely missed some of the riots they were having to protest some of the austerity measures their government was implementing), in a hotel with a rooftop bar with a view of the buildings on the Acropolis. Then we rented a car and drove to Nafplio, where I'd found us an apartment. From there we did day trips and an overnighter.

One of our day trips was to Mycenae, which was the home of an ancient civilization from more than 3500 years ago. Not much is known about the civilization, which collapsed in 1200 BC. (!!!).

We also went to Epidavros, home to an ancient healing site, and a 15,000-seat theater, built in the 4th century BC, still famed for its amazing acoustics.

No Greek trip is complete without an island visit (we decided) so we did an overnight on Hydra. It was fortunate we chose an island so close to the mainland, as there was a strike and the ferry was cancelled. Fortunately we were able to drive to a tiny outpost that ran water taxis to the island, and we still got our adventure.

After our explorations in and around Nafplio, we drove on to Delphi. By showing up at the ruins around 5pm, we were able to explore them with very little company.

Finally we returned to Athens and got rid of our car. We had an epic subway/walk/bus/walk/cab/walk adventure in order to get to see my brother sail near Marathon, and returned to Athens for a few more days of exploring.

Lessons learned: Greece is full of friendly people ready to help you out if you pull out a map and look lost. Driving isn't nearly as bad as I feared (though we avoided city driving), once you understand that what looks like a one-lane-each-direction highway actually has TWO lanes each direction: everyone drives on the shoulder, so others can pass at their leisure.
Greek food is pretty much the same from restaurant to restaurant, and after a solid-plus week of it, it was a joy to find Asian and Indian restaurants in Athens.
You should not wander into a rug store unless you are prepared to purchase a rather expensive (but lovely) souvenir.
The traditional coffee is really strong but really delicious. You do NOT get to ask to have it with milk, but if you do, they'll teasingly oblige.
Street food gyros are really really delicious.

It's a bit odd to recap my GREEK trip from a year ago when I'm freshly back from another, but such is the magic of the calendar photo post - it gives me a reason to revisit my copious pictures from the past year!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

What I did on my spring vacation...

Well friends I'm back from my break!

Where I went: 

My home base was Hanover, Germany. I took a day trip to Berlin, a 2-day trip with my sister to Bruges & Ghent (in Belgium) and I went on my own to Amsterdam for 3 days. The rest of the trips were in Germany, and selected in hopes of finding good weather. My sister and I went to Goslar (gorgeous day!) and Lubeck (not so much) and I did a trip on my own to Schwerin.

Traveling by train:
I used all 8 days on my Eurail pass and loved the convenience of just showing up and hopping on a train. It's possible to pay a bit extra to book a reserved seat, but not at all required. Once my train was so full I had to sit on the floor for a couple of hours, and once a kind woman let me have her seat while she visited friends elsewhere on the train, but the vast majority of the time there was no trouble with seating at all. Those trains are crazy punctual, and as my sister said, you just have to trust the timetable. If you are expecting a train to Brussels on platform 5 at 11:03, don't get on the one that is there at 10:50 or you might wind up going someplace unexpected! And don't wait around for an invitation to board when your train shows up - they often stay in the station for under 5 minutes. 

Clothes and Gear: 
I made some last-minute packing list changes (I ditched one cool-weather shirt and added two warmer-weather shirts) and my packing was nearly perfect. I could have skipped one of the short-sleeve shirts and the 3/4 sleeve sweater, but only because I got to do laundry twice. After all the agonizing I did over whether to bring my rain jacket, I guess I should be happy the first half of my trip *fully* justified its inclusion!

I managed to try several local specialties.
In Germany: In Hanover I had schnitzel, and in Berlin I got currywurst. In Lubeck (since it's near the Baltic sea) I tried fried herring - big mistake, crazy bony - and my sister got smoked herring, which was quite nice. Lubeck is also the home of a famed marzipan company, so I bought a little marzipan from them. We also tried salted licorice from a vending machine at the train station - YUK.
In Belgium: I had the famed waffles twice, but sadly concluded they're too sweet for me. In Ghent we found a local candy called "Noses of Ghent" that were cone-shaped things about the size of a nose. They're purple and a bit jellied inside and were kind of good but kind of gross. I also had some Belgian chocolate, of course! We had mussels for dinner, including fries with mayo. For breakfast our hotel included speculoos, a sweet spread made from cookies that is pretty yummy (Trader Joe now sells it labeled as Cookie Butter).
In Amsterdam: Fresh springtime asparagus is a big deal in that part of the world, and I had perhaps one of the best salads of my life at a randomly-selected cafe. It was made of mixed greens, walnuts, mushrooms, aged Dutch cheese, and asparagus. YUM. Speaking of cheese, I stumbled on a place that buys high-quality fresh cheese, ages it carefully, and wins awards for the results. I attended a wine/cheese seminar there and had a delicious time. The next morning I got to try a traditional breakfast offering in the Netherlands: chocolate sprinkles for your bread. They were quite good!

Beer, beer and more beer. I took pictures and will post about that separately, but: Germany does some weird but tasty things to their beer! I had beer with lemonade in it while sitting in the sun in Goslar. In Lubeck I got to try "Berliner Weiss mit Schuss" which is a specific brand of wheat beer, with a shot of colorful sweet syrup poured in - that's the Schuss. You have to indicate if you want red or green syrup; red is raspberry and I really liked it. Green... is called woodruff flavor, but I don't know what that is. Suffice to say I wasn't a big fan, but it wasn't terrible. Finally, I tried banana juice in my beer - also delicious!

Oh yeah, the TOURING thing. My sister and I usually found a Tall Thing (belfry) in whatever town we were in and paid to go up inside it. I did two free walking tours, one in Berlin, the other in Amsterdam (you tip the guide according to how well you liked it) - both tours lasted at least 3 hours! I took two canal boat rides, one in Amsterdam, the other in Lubeck. In Amsterdam I also went to the Van Gogh museum, the Anne Frank house (highly recommend it if you're headed that way), and caught the World Press photo exhibit.

And I walked and walked and walked and walked and walked. It was great. to follow!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Vacation brain

You guys, I'm thisclose to being out of the office for 2 1/2 weeks!!! It's true that the first half-week is a work-related conference where I'm going to do a lot of standing, acting on my best behavior, and tons and tons of small-talking. But then on Wednesday evening I will be FREE.

I head to Germany on Thursday night, and have a rail pass for Germany and the Benelux countries. Belgium is going to HAPPEN! I've had a fair amount of Belgian beer exposure thanks to a local specialty pub, but I'm still excited to drink a dubbel in Bruges! I also hope to visit Amsterdam - I'll be there for the bicycles and canals, thanks - and of course want to poke around Germany a bit. It would be cool to set foot in Luxembourg since I have the pass and am unlikely to be there again... but we'll see if it fits.

The real fun has been packing for the trip: I'm getting four days of work-clothes (which I'll send home with a coworker) + 14 days of travel clothes into a backpack-style carry-on. I admit it's fairly bursting right now, but I'll cut the volume in half when I can send home the work gear, leaving me a bag that will be not-hard to haul. It's coming in under 20 pounds right now, I think, and that includes my day bag with travel books.

What I'm bringing for work
- 1 pair pants, 1 skirt, 1 suit jacket
- 2 pairs shoes, neither of which are particularly comfortable or wonderful for standing around in.
- 1 3/4-sleeve ribbed top (black); 1 lightweight long-sleeve shirt (purple). Both of these will continue on the trip.
- 1 cowl-neck top
- 1 sparkly wrap thing for the evening reception
- 1 scoop-neck tank top to go with wrap & skirt
- a small duffel bag to send all that home in when I'm done (except the two shirts that are continuing on with me)

What I'm bringing to Europe (including what I'll wear on the plane):
- 2 pairs pants: jeans and khakis
- 2 pairs shoes:  Keens, and Merrells
- warmth: a rain jacket and a zip-up lightweight wool sweater, hat and fingerless mitts, scarf/wrappy thing
- 4 tops: 2 long-sleeve lightweight wool shirts (dark purple and turquoise); 1 3/4-sleeve ribbed top (black); 1 lightweight long-sleeve shirt (purple).

for both parts of the trip: 
- pajamas: t-shirt & shorts
- miscellaneous toiletries, socks, etc.
- camera; ipod touch; cell phone (to be stored away until I return to the states); chargers & a plug adapter; two guidebooks; passport & rail pass; knitting project.

I am not sure how much knitting I'll do, but after having to make an emergency run from a bluegrass fest so I had some knitting on hand, I'd rather not travel empty-handed again! I have music, podcasts, and several books on my ipod touch, so I don't need to bring other entertainment. If it were to get lost or broken I'd be really upset but I could deal... I guess. 

If I get heartily sick of my belongings, I can jettison the pajama top (on the last day of the trip, that is!) since it's an ancient ratty t-shirt; my Keens are also nearing the end of their life and they can go too. They're not at the point of being uncomfortable or I wouldn't bring them, but the Merrells I bought were intended to replace them anyway. I think it's important to have a change of shoes, which is why I'm bringing the Keens at all. There's not much else that I would get rid of! I could MAYBE pare my packing by another shirt, but I'm okay with wearing one and packing three. I'll have access to laundry at least once, possibly twice, and could probably get by without doing it (absent any horrible spills).

You can possibly guess how productive my last day in the office is.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sweater: finished!

I should've gotten a standing shot. It fits great!
Pattern: Aidez
Yarn: Cascade Yarns Ecological Wool, bulky on size 10 needles. It took EXACTLY 3 hanks, I had like a gram or so left (and an entire bonus hank I don't know what to do with but can't return).