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10 May, 2016

Do not read this blog

Do not read this blog.

Seriously.

I am in the sky. I can only guess I am at 39,000 feet. Somewhere between a god that doesn't exist, and an earth that someday won't.

I am euphoric. I am insane. Yes. They gave me the MVP Gold double dose of wine, to placate me and make me a "good passenger." I am. It worked.

The flight attendant who "did this to me" happens to be named Romeo. He is at the front of the plane. I can see him now. He has his glasses on his forehead. They look like sunglasses, but they are not. That would be absurd. But he has a strap for his non-sunglasses, and he is standing in the aisle in front of first class. He did this to me. But I cannot really complain because I am flying.

Don't read this.

You will be damned to hell, and sent to live with the dogs in the spare apartment if you do.

Don't read this.

Don't.

Don't.

(thanks for reading)

19 April, 2016

Monsters

You're a monster!!
No I'm not!
Yes you are!!!
Who said that?!
I did!
What gives you the right?!
I have every right.
Why, exactly?
Because I am you...
So you say...
Yes. Yes, I do say...
Well... if I am... and I'm not saying I am...
Yes?
Wouldn't that mean you're a monster too?
No!
What?!?!
Never!!
I'm confused...
Why, exactly?
Isn't it obvious?
Not really, no...
Well, you just said you are me...
Yes.
So, then, I am you.
Yes.
So, then how does it follow?
Simple...
Pray tell...
The double standard.

21 March, 2016

Why I decided to move all of my investments and banking out of Charles Schwab

I've been a Schwab customer for a very long time. I didn't put a whole lot of thought into the original choice, and am not even sure why I made it. But they were fine for a while. Then I added my banking to my investments, because they offered the convenience of free ATM usage anywhere in the world, at a time where that was not a common offering from a bank. For many years, this was fine.

But over the last few years, I have become increasingly disillusioned with the company, both in terms of their reliability, their services, and their commitment to delivering state-of-the-art online services. Finally, I decided recently that I would make the effort to extricate myself from them completely.

Here are some of the reasons that I am not satisfied with Charles Schwab as a banking and investment institution:

  1. There are almost no branch offices, and even if you go to one, they do not have all of the normal services you would find in a regular bank.
  2. I allowed them to "manage" my investments for a period of about one year, during a time where the market was doing extremely well. Schwab significantly underperformed the market. I could have done nearly twice as well by putting all of my investments in a single index fund.
  3. Their mobile app for Android has been unreliable for almost 2 years. The app crashes when you try to open it, and the problem has persisted across 2 Android operating systems, on 3 devices made by 3 different manufacturers. I can completely understand temporary crash issues, related to limited devices. But these were popular, new devices, and the problem has never been fixed.
  4. The usability of their website has become worse. The online bill payment used to be very straightforward, and the changes they've made in recent times have rendered it very difficult to use.
  5. The do not allow paperless transactions for some of their investment products, and I was receiving a flood of unwanted spam junk mail from them about one of my accounts. All attempts that I made to cease the paper statements were met with "I'm sorry sir, but there is no way we can stop sending you physical mail." This is the 21st century, so that is both ludicrous as well as incredibly wasteful.
  6. Their customer support has become less and less knowledgeable. It used to be that you'd contact Schwab and be speaking with a financial professional. Now, I feel like half the time, the support I receive is no different than when I call my cell phone company.
  7. It is difficult to view investment information combined across multiple accounts, which is another example of Schwab not measuring up to what their competition provides.
It wasn't until I took a look at some of the other companies out there that I realized just how far behind the times Schwab has fallen. A bank is a bank. Yes. The important thing is they don't lose your money. But beyond that, the next most important thing is the services they provide. At this point, unfortunately, I can no longer speak favorably about the services at Charles Schwab.

06 November, 2015

Gogo "inflight" is a price-gouging racket on Alaska Airlines and others

Gogoinflight, the service that enables you to have shitty shitty internet connectivity, part of the time, while trapped on airplanes, has increased their rates again. I guess their marketing department did some conjoint analyses that showed that they'd come out more profitable if they enraged 95% of their user base and lost 30% of their user base, which is about what I would guess. Because, see, if you double your prices, and lose only a third of your users... guess what? You are making more money. And you'd think that a company does not want to enrage its user base, because of brand reputation, and all that. But the fact is, they're in an unregulated market with no competition. In fact, there's really no foreseeable possibility of competition in the near term. So they have truly, absolutely, nothing to lose. And their enraged user base will still pay (well, 70% of them) because most of the users are expensing the cost of this for business.

It's shitty shitty corporate politics, bad corporate citizenship, and all that jazz.

I have to lay a little bit of blame on the airlines that use the service, because a) they allow this to happen rather than provide internet to their users as a courtesy, b) they probably make a cut of the revenue, and c) it's one more way in which we are treated like 8th class citizens while in the sky.

That's all I've got to say. Shame on you Gogo, or whatever your actual company name is. I at least want to shame you on here in case anyone's looking.

22 November, 2014

1209 North 46th Street, Seattle, WA 98103 (and why this house apparently just won't sell!)

Well, perhaps you already saw my blog a few weeks ago after we'd had to back out of our offer on this home (1209 N 46th St, Seattle, WA 98103), upon discovering that there is going to be a gigantic apartment building built right behind the house, with its concrete wall forming the back boundary of the house's property line, and the four stories of residential structure blocking all sunlight for a substantial portion of the year.

We were lucky to get out of that purchase before it was too late.

Shortly after we backed out, the house sold again. It couldn't have taken more than three or four days, before it was back to "Pending" again. This time there had been an open house, which probably meant there were multiple offers, and escalation clauses, and the like. And it probably involved waiving inspection, since that seems to be what everyone does (and it's so crazy risky on such a big decision, but that's a different story altogether). Weeks had passed, and the house was still Pending, so we figured some poor buyer had either not known about this development project, or they found out too late.

This morning, I did my usual obsessive peek to see if it had flipped from "Pending" to "Sold" and was surprised to see that it was back to being "Open House" again, relisted because the buyer's financing (supposedly) fell through. I would imagine that this meant the buyer found out about the construction, and then found whatever means they could to get out of the purchase. I could be wrong. I recognize that. But something tells me I'm not wrong.

So now it's a "Third Chance" for some (unlucky) buyer to end up owning this lemon of a house (feel free to ping me if you want to know the other things that we learned on the inspection, and save yourself a little trouble).

If I were the current owner, I would seriously consider firing my realtor (who happens to be Paul Isenburg of Windermere), because this cannot have been the wisest strategy for dealing with a property that has these issues. It was located in a highly desirable neighborhood, but now it's been on the market for 38 days with 2 offers having imploded. It gets harder and harder to sell a house the longer it's on the market.

It might have benefited the seller to just disclose the construction project and position it as a great rental investment, or a great place for young couples interested in a bustling neighborhood, instead of continuing to try to pretend that there's not a giant shadow (literally and figuratively) looming over this property.

Chances are that the property will once again be "Pending" after this weekend's open house, because there are lots of people in this town, and there's really not any way of knowing about this construction unless you do your research. That's why it's so important not to waive the inspection period.

And chances also are that, given the 3-6 weeks time that typically elapse between making an offer and closing a deal, whoever is next to purchase this home will also have ample opportunity to eventually stumble upon the information that a scrupulous seller would disclose on the Form 17 in that little checkbox next to:

G. Is there any study, survey project, or notice that would adversely affect the property?

They could at least have the decency to say "Don't Know" instead of "No."

Wouldn't you think?

28 October, 2014

1209 North 46th Street, Seattle, WA 98103 (and the giant apartment building that will soon be behind it)

This would have been our new address, in the coveted Wallingford neighborhood.

1209 N. 46th St.
Seattle, WA 98103

Listing Agent: Paul Isenburg from Windermere.

That would have been the address on all our mail. If we hadn't backed out of our offer to purchase the home. Instead, it will be someone else's new home, receiving someone else's mail.

Let me tell you how that happened just a few weeks ago.

The opportunity was better than we'd expected to find. We were looking in Phinney and Ballard, and then this one popped up, and the price looked good, so we figured we'd take a look. It had just come on the market October 15th, and there couldn't have been many people to see it. From the curb it was not the most attractive place, because it had a flat roof, which didn't really fit in with the rest of the neighborhood, but the inside was quite charming. We'd been looking at homes for a few weeks, and probably seen 15-20 places. I have some experience from past searches, too, and we'd looked online a lot. So we knew this was somewhere high on the optimization curve for price versus quality and location.

The inside of the home was really nice, and I almost immediately found myself looking for reasons to get to "yes." Long story short, we decided to make an offer on the home that night. We started the paperwork with our realtor for a full-price (actually a little bit over) offer. Our offer was $475,000 and the asking price was $469,500. We figured that if there were no other offers then it would look appealing enough that perhaps they wouldn't wait to accept it. That was an unusual thing about this home. The sellers didn't do the usual Seattle procedure of waiting 5-7 days to review offers, which results in craziness like escalator clauses, waived inspections, etc. There was a chance we might have it easy.

It was almost that easy. There was one more offer, which meant we did need to add an escalator clause. We didn't waive the inspection, because there was no time to pre-inspect. After a brief review period, our offer was accepted. That was on a Thursday. The accepted price was $494,600 because that was $3,500 above the other offer's maximum price on escalation.

We weren't able to get an inspection scheduled until Monday morning, but we decided to stop by the house over the weekend with the realtor and take another look. I managed to talk to two of the neighbors. One, a Japanese woman, to the right of the house, told us she'd owned it since the late 1980s and was about to sell her home because she didn't feel like commuting from Redmond to keep up the property, which she'd been renting. The other woman had purchased her home less than a year ago and was living two doors down on the corner. She also wasn't in her house because she was having remodeling done. They both seemed nice, and were apparently friendly with the current owner of the house we were buying.

The neighbors were nice, and they had nothing but good things to say about the neighborhood. I learned from the Japanese woman that there had been a problem with a portion of the sewer line that was shared between what would be our two homes. She and the current owner had repairs done on this in recent years. Interestingly, this was not disclosed on the disclosure forms. I should mention that the only thing that was disclosed on the Form 17 was that there was a sump pump in the garage to deal with a problem from before the previous owner had bought the house. Otherwise, the Form 17 looked squeaky clean.

Oh yeah, I should also mention that the seller's agent was named Paul Isenburg. He's an agent with Windermere on the other side of Lake Washington.

I took a walk around the block, and noticed that the small business, a medical office, which was located directly behind the house had signs in the window about "No Cash. No Drugs." Presumably that meant they were either the victim of break-ins, or were worried about them. I wanted to ask about this, but it was the weekend and the offices were closed. The signs looked quite old, so it probably was ancient news. We'll come back to that in a moment.

On Monday, we had the inspection, and it turned out there were a number of major issues with the house. Roof problems, needing replacement. Water problems. Venting problems. Settling problems. Sewer problems. The sewer problems varied in severity from a couple of small cracks on the property, to a large offset in the sewer, located almost all the way to the sewer main, which would require digging up Midvale to repair. This was identified by the guy who did our sewer inspection and, interestingly, there was already a marker on Midvale Place in the exact location he identified, made by some previous sewer inspector, perhaps done when someone else in the neighborhood had the sewer inspected in past years.

There were other issues with the house, which I won't bore you with. All told, we probably were looking at needing to ask for somewhere in the ballpark of $15,000-$20,000 in concessions from the seller to address the problems. We learned this over the coming 2 days of extended inspection period, which we'd requested to allow time to get some bids from contractors. It felt a bit daunting, and we also had doubts as to whether the seller would be willing to compensate for these problems.

But it never came to that.

On one of the mornings where we were getting bids for the repairs, I decided to take another stroll over to the medical offices to see if I could chat with anyone there. The offices were open, and I introduced myself, and said "So what's the neighborhood like? Have you ever had any problems with crime or anything?" They told me about some break-ins in the past, which didn't sound too worrisome. But the next thing they said was "You know this building's being demolished and they're building a 33-unit, 4-story apartment building, don't you?"

Stop the press.

"Um... no... can you tell me more?"

So it turned out that the medical offices were sold (after the building had been owned by same family for 3 generations). They sold because of a water leak in the building that they couldn't figure out. They sold to a developer, and the deal had already closed, and the permits had already been approved (as in "Proposed Land Use Actions"). There had been signs posted in the neighborhood for months about the project. And those signs had been removed just a few days earlier. Just before the house went on the market (coincidentally?).

So I didn't know about this when I made the offer. And the seller didn't disclose it. And the neighbors didn't disclose it. And, of course, Paul Isenburg, the realtor from Windermere, didn't disclose it (not sure it's his responsibility to do so, and it's also not out of the realm of possibilities that he didn't know, although given the timing between the notices and the start of the listing, it's unlikely).

We tried to get our heads around what it meant. How bad would it be? There would be construction. There would be a big building. There would be more people. Would there be a privacy problem? Would it block the light from our house or our yard? How long would construction last? What would happen to the parking in the area?

We called the architect's office. They were very nice, and told me some info regarding the project and the proposed dates. They gave me the developer's number, so I called them too. The developer gave me more info. I found out that everyone in the neighborhood knew about the project, and that the people on the neighboring properties had all corresponded or met with the developer. So this was not a case of "We didn't know." In fact, I learned from the developer that one of the neighboring land owners (whom I had met) had tried to sell her house to the developers! (they weren't interested)

We learned in the development plans that this would amount to 1 year of construction starting next summer that would yield a building that will block 100% of the light from the house for a portion of the year, and 100% of the light from the back yard for the majority of the year. Not so great for gardening. Not so great in a city that already has a sunlight shortage. We also learned that the building would have no parking, so any cars associated with these 33 units would be spread throughout the neighborhood.

We decided not to buy the house. Thus, we lost $700 for the inspections we did, and we wasted a bunch of contractors' time giving bids, our own time dealing with the offer and inspections, and our agent's time. Worst, we got our hopes so high for something that we never would have even considered if the facts about the project had been disclosed (which, technically, they should be on the Form 17 under the topic of "Notices or permits affecting the property"). But sadly, it's apparently a well-known fact now that the Form 17 isn't worth squat as a legal document, and there is basically no recourse for people who get screwed, even in far more explicit fashion.

I wrote a polite letter to the seller after we rescinded our offer, explaining to her why we decided not to purchase, and imploring her to disclose this so that the next buyers don't blindly end up walking into the nightmare that we almost walked into. She never replied to my message. I am not surprised. Doing so would admit culpability, and addressing it would cost them potentially lots of money (though, in fairness, I do not know what they will decide to do... maybe they've disclosed it now... if so, then I will at least offer them kudos for the change of heart). My realtor contacted Paul Isenburg from Windermere to explain the reason we backed out of the offer. Paul Isenburg never responded after that. Again, this doesn't align with the "benefit of the doubt" that they didn't know since, had it been completely news to them, we might have heard a reply indicating their surprise as well.

The house was back on the market the day we rejected the purchase. And the house was back to "Sale Pending" status by the end of the weekend. I don't know if the people who bought it were given the facts about this construction project that will be occurring at 1240 N Midvale Place, Seattle, WA 98103. But I really feel for them if they made the purchase unaware, or if they find out too late, and end up trapped in a decision that they don't want to be in.

This is my disappointing story about real estate. Caveat Emptor is in full effect. And you can never be too careful when making such a huge investment. I seriously recommend that you don't waive your inspection period if you can avoid it. Or if you must, to compete with other offers, make sure you walk the neighborhood and ask these questions before submitting your offer. And ask lots of people. The first two people I spoke with told me nothing of the project, perhaps because they didn't want to ruin the sale for their neighbor (or for the sake of their own future sale plans).

Furthermore, a friend of mine who happens to be an attorney pointed out that, although Seattle is a city that tends to do all its real estate transactions between agents and escrow companies, sans attorney, it is highly recommended that you have your attorney look over your documents, just to make sure everything looks legitimate.

We got lucky to escape what would have been a major headache. It cost us $700 that I really wish we hadn't lost. But the most painful part was losing the opportunity to have a great home in a great location... because the location wasn't as great as one would think.

17 August, 2014

The Facts about the Michael Brown Shooting

There are many media sources disseminating "facts" and "news" about the shooting that happened in Ferguson, Missouri last week (which wasn't even the only shooting in Ferguson last week, but the most publicized). The thing that strikes me as terribly frustrating is that we really have no way of knowing what the facts are, other than the bare minimum: a kid got shot and killed by a police officer. That is the only thing that is indisputable.

For most of the first week of this story, all focus has been on it having been unjustified, an execution, an innocent teen. As the week wore on, we learned that the innocent teen wasn't as squeaky clean as the original interviews and news reports had implied. But still, with the facts as we perceived them to be, there was no doubt that the shooting was unjustified. The only story that was "at odds" with the other witnesses had been the snippets of the policeman's version of the events (which, you have to admit, were only given to us in tiny bits and pieces).

As we come to the end of that first week, now we're starting to hear other info that suggests that the kid may have attacked the officer, as the officer claimed. This evidence comes via some odd and rough video clips of the aftermath, where background conversations potentially imply that the story was exactly as the officer had claimed, and that, perhaps, the officer shot because he had no alternative. But how can we know the authenticity of that "evidence" at this point? It came via some sort of conservative website that just happened to come upon the videos. That doesn't mean it's not legitimate. Only that we should be very cautious before jumping to any conclusions. The bigger picture is that we should have been, and should continue to be very cautious in passing judgments on what happened. Just like the majority of people who heard the story, I immediately cried "Unnecessary Force!!" and began bad-mouthing the police, based on my own experiences where I have witnessed them escalating situations, and the countless stories I have read of that sort. But the truth is, we don't know what happened. We may never know, unless additional incontrovertible evidence comes to light. There will most likely be two diametrically opposing sides to this story, and it will be left to a judge, a jury, and two panels of lawyers trying to persuade these people (and the world, since it will no doubt be televised) that their side was right.

We are all inclined to believe that which resonates with our experiences or our view of a particular type of situation. And we are very adept at rejecting anything that's incongruent with our world view. How can we possibly be objective? The media is doing everything in its power to sway us into strong opinion, because that drives ratings. One could even conjecture that the severity of the riots may have been fueled by the media's broad reporting and characterization (though maybe that's a stretch).

19 July, 2014

Day 16: Last day and humidity

We slept pretty late today. It was a late night, and we'd also been getting progressively more worn out from all of the activity each day. There was also surely the pending emotional letdown of knowing that this trip will end, and we will return to regular life.

We had breakfast at our go-to place around the corner. It seems lame to keep going to the same place every morning. I know. But coffee is a bodily function. You don't want to mess around with that. It's like when you're in the wilderness and setting up camp. The first thing one must do is identify a source of fresh water.

There is a part of the city that is supposed to have some artsy stuff and shops that Allie was excited to visit. It is called Rue St. Paul. We went there. It was humid. It was hot. We were tired. We walked there through some indirect route, along Rue Dauphine, across the river, and eventually found ourselves there. There were many shops. It was like a farmer's market atmosphere on the street, with many options. Everything looked interesting. Actually, maybe it wasn't like a farmer's market. Maybe I am confusing that with another city. Another time. I looked at some Google images. Maybe it was this trip, this town. Maybe it was this street. Maybe it was like a farmer's market. Nobody can say for sure. Except anyone who has been there and has a better memory that I do.

Okay. This is a shitty blog.

We bought berries. Did I say that already?

Wait. It gets better. I remember this part.

We were wandering. This day was mostly wandering. And we came across a 15-piece string ensemble playing beautiful music near the archway between a couple of old buildings. There was a small crowd gathered. We were just passing by, but there was not really any way to resist standing and listening for a few minutes, because it was good. You wouldn't encounter this in Seattle. Or Kansas. Definitely not in Kansas.

We wandered more.

To Villages St. Paul, because Allie wanted to find fabric. She did find fabric. She bought some. I was hot, but trying to be patient since she loves fabric.

We had lunch at Au Bouquet St. Paul. My notes claim that we had a burger and a mozzarella salad. This is completely beyond my recollection. I wonder if Allie remembers that. Even looking at a Google image of this restaurant only jogs the vaguest of memories.

We were dragging this day. I remember that. We were tired and maybe a bit down. I remember that. And I remember what happened next. We decided it was too far to walk home, so we went into the Metro to take the train. The train in Paris has two doors. There's the door to the train itself. Then there's the glass wall that borders the tracks, with a glass sliding door that opens when the train arrives. This is to keep you from falling or jumping on the tracks, I guess? So, I grew up in Boston. It was not uncommon to be almost missing the train, and try to board as the doors were closing, and if the doors hit you, they either spring back open, or you push them open. Either case, no problem.

DO NOT TRY THIS IN THE METRO IN PARIS.

The glass doors do not stop. They do not bounce. They cannot be pried, reasoned with, or otherwise. If the bell rings, and you are not on the train, only extend those limbs that you are willing to lose, because the glass door will close, pin you, and you will be destroyed.

This is what happened, except for the destruction part. The Metro terminal was very crowded. As we were boarding the train, Allie was just a few paces ahead of me. She got on the train. The bell rang. I attempted to continue getting on the train. The glass door slammed on me, and pinned me. The train door started to close, and all I could do in this panic was think, "I have 2 options: separate from Allie, or die." So I desperately attempted to pull myself free of the glass door, in the "not toward the train" direction. I figured, if the glass door is willing to pin me, I am sure the train is willing to kill me.

So now we were separated. Oh yeah. I forgot. And one of us had a dead phone. I can't remember which of is it was. Probably me. And I don't think she knew my phone was dead. So now it's a battle of wits. What will she do? What should I do? What does she think I will do? What do I think she will do? To be honest with you, I don't even remember what we did. I was hoping that she would not get off at the next stop and come back. Because that could be confusing. I also didn't know if she would go all the way back to the apartment and meet me there, which I think involved more than one train line, but maybe not. I believe she exited one stop later and waited for me at the next stop. Somehow we made reasonable choices, and reconnected. I felt like an idiot, which I really shouldn't have, but did. The heat. The fatigue.

We went to the apartment and rested.

Then we decided we would go to Sacre Couer, because we both had nice memories of it from before. To get there, we needed to take some strange train route because the regular train one would want to take was not running, or something. And we needed to go through what might have been a bad neighborhood? I don't know. It's also possible that I am just a xenophobic, paranoid freak, and we were in the hippest part of town. But I don't think so. It was definitely edgy. And when we got off the train we stood out like a sore thumb, and still had a reasonably long walk to get where we wanted to be. But we were fine, and it was all worrying for nothing. to get to the viewpoint at Sacre Couer was up many steep slopes and steps. And when we arrived, what we found shocked us both. It was a huge party scene of drunken idiots with litter everywhere, and general unpleasantness. Basically, I think it's the difference between visiting on a weeknight in March (my previous visit) versus a weekend in midsummer. The latter is a bad idea. We stuck around only long enough to gawk at the scene. Then we walked down the many stairs on the front of Sacre Couer (having ascended from the side), to the streets below (others were taking a tram). We were in a limbo state between hungry and not, and settled on Gelato.

I don't know how we got back to the apartment. It must have involved a train. And it must not have been eventful enough to have a line item in my notes.

This was our last day in Paris. The last day of our trip. I am sure I will visit Paris again, one day, barring a premature death. Even in spite of the recent terrorism in the world, which definitely makes me apprehensive at this moment, I am sure that my attitude will shift, and my passion for these places will prevail.

I write this entry almost 19 months after our trip ended. I am not sure why it has taken me this long to write these entries. At the bottom of this post, I leave behind the remnant of the notes that were used as my reference from each day. Without these tiny little reminders, I would never have been able to write this after the fact.

-----------

We slept pretty late today after the late night, following afternoon naps and coffee.
Breakfast around the corner again
Walk to Rue St. Paul via long indirect path along Rue Dauphine, across river, etc.
Explore many small shops
Buy some berries
See 15-piece string ensemble
Wander more
Wander to Villages St. Paul and look at goods for sale (Allie buys fabric)
Find lunch at Au Bouquet St. Paul (Burger / Mozzarella Salad)
Train back from there (get separated at station)
Rest from the heat and humidity.
Weird train ride
Sacre Couer?
Gelato

Day 15: Queues and crowds

Today the plan was to go to the Catacombs. This is apparently one of the biggest tourist attractions in Paris, and it would seem to be the one with the longest queue associated with it, owing to the fact that there's a rough limitation of about 200 persons allowed in the catacombs at a time. This is a good thing, preventing it from being a horrible experience, as well as helping to preserve the integrity of the site. We didn't get up quite as early as we should have, but not too bad. The catacombs open at 10am and we managed to get there by around 10:15am, after stopping briefly for takeout coffee and a sandwich (both of which were good), around the corner from our place. The walk to the catacombs was about 30 minutes, and we passed through the edge of Luxembourg Garden. The morning air was relatively comfortable. A constant factor throughout our time in Paris has been the oppressive heat and humidity. It's truly unpleasant, in exactly the same way that I remember Boston being unpleasant in the summertime. It makes it difficult to remain enthusiastic about a long series of outdoor activities, or transiting between places.

Anyway, we got to the catacombs, shortly after opening, to find that the line wrapped all the way around the entire square where the entrance is located. The line was long. If I were to venture a guess? I would say there were about 300 people in front of us in line. I could be off by over a hundred though. Our initial reaction was "Oh, shit!" The catacombs were one of the few things that were at the top of our list of things we wanted to do, but Allie's first reaction to the line was "Forget it. We don't need to see the catacombs." And that's where serendipity comes into play. Right as we arrive in the line, and we're debating exiting the line, a man in front of us, of perhaps 50 years old, turns to us and says something funny about waiting in line. He says something like "Allow me the opportunity to entice you with the following introduction: I was born in Beverly, and..." The basic idea being, we have enough time to learn each others' entire life story while waiting in this line. And, of course, when he says "Beverly," I said "Beverly, Massachusetts?!" And that's the story of how we ended up waiting 2.5 hours in the blistering sun, talking with Scott and Tracy, as we waited to enter the catacombs. They were both software engineers. She was from Hawaii, and he was from the Boston area, but they now both work in Oregon. So our stories were similar in the move to the West Coast. They had their two kids, ages, 15 and 12, with them, and this was the middle of an 8 week sabbatical for them. I guess he has the opportunity to do this every 7 years at his company. The last time they did it, they went on a Roman-themed exploration of Europe. This time, the theme was Medieval. And they like to plan their days, stays, activities one day at a time, often changing plans, and following their whim. Letting chance take them to exciting new places. We talked the entire time, about work, about France and Italy, about philosophy on life. If we hadn't been in line behind them, I seriously doubt we would have endured the line for even 10 minutes. Especially considering that the worst of the heat and sun in that line occurred after moving around a corner out of the shade, a little less than an hour into the wait. But they were funny, friendly, honest, engaging, and the conversation will stand out as one of the memories from the trip that we hold onto forever.

The good news, on top of that good news, was that the catacombs were actually pretty amazing, and refreshingly cool, being a few hundred feet underground. It's a sight worth seeing. And because of this slow-moving line, with the strict limit on admission, it means that one can be virtually alone during the majority of their walk through the expansive space. We spent quite a long time down there. The bones go on endlessly, and it is obvious that we don't even have access to the full area. You can see mostly femurs and skulls, because of how they've arranged things. I guess the other bones must be piled behind these front rows. We hypothesized about why. Perhaps the femurs stack well, and form a good "wall" for the storage, and then the odd-shaped bones are more haphazardly packed in behind.

After the catacombs, we came out and wandered a bit. We found a street that was interesting, Rue Daguerre. It had many markets and food shops, all of which looked interesting. We were both completely out of cash, and had to pass by some of them. But when we found a cash machine, we actually went back to that section again, and bought some fruit. We also had a sandwich and some bruschetta-like bread thing from a bakery.

I could be mistaken, but after that, I think we made our way slowly back to the apartment to rest. That rest consisted of a 4 hour nap, which was perhaps not a fantastic idea, in the afternoon, but that's what happened. The heat takes so much out of us, it's hard to avoid being tired. For what it's worth, I recommend visiting Paris at some other time of year than this. Yuck.

After the nap, we decided to look for dinner. It was about 7pm, perhaps 8pm. There are many good options on our street and neighborhood. After briefly surveying them, we went with our first choice, which was a Greek restaurant called Evi Evane, on Rue Guisarde. The atmosphere was great, they had air conditioning, and the service was very friendly. We tried some resin wine (which we didn't like), and then had some wine from Crete, which was good. Very vanilla-butter-caramel kind of flavor to it. We had dolmades, moussaka, and some vegetable and feta casserole. The food was very good. We made friends with our server, who was a 26-year old from Cypress (which, incidentally, is not part of Greece, in case you were not sure about that). The funny thing was that he looks exactly like one of Allie's Facebook friends. We showed him the picture, and he was startled because, at first, he thought we somehow had a picture of him! That's how remarkable the similarity was! Anyway, it made for a good laugh, and he called his coworkers over to show them. Then he told us a little about where he was from and how long he'd been here. We saw him again the next morning, and he greeted us happily. It doesn't take much in this world for people to build connections. It's like we're programmed to make connections. I commented about this to Allie, saying that's probably why con-artists are so effective, is because they play on our natural tendencies to want to connect. Scary, actually. We made, perhaps, the mistake of having coffee after dinner. Combined with a 4-hour nap, this would mean we didn't actually feel sleepy until ridiculous wee hours of the morning.

After dinner, we came back to the room briefly, before grabbing one of our Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines (the 2004 La Nerthe), to hop on the train and ride to the Eiffel Tower. It was already dark outside, and there were thousands of people having picnics and celebrations on the grass of the park. We walked all the way to the tower, stood under it, walked back a ways, took lots of photos, sat in the grass, drank all the wine, watched people. By the time we left, it was almost 1am, and we walked all the way back, close to the Seine, on Rue de l'Universite, which is one street south of the river. It was a nice walk, and the streets were fairly deserted, right until we got back to Rue Guisarde, our street, where the streets were absolutely packed from the clubs.

A long day. It was a touristy kind of day, but we still did our own version of it. Sitting in the dark, on the grass, with thousands of people from all over the world, in front of the Eiffel Tower, which is possibly one of the most beautiful structures in the world, really makes me think about how lucky we are to be able to do that. We're lucky because of the freedoms we have. We're lucky because of the technology that enables us to get from point A to point B easily. We're lucky to personally have the resources to make such a trip, because not everyone can do it.

17 July, 2014

Day 14: Van Gogh, Skeletons, and More!

We woke up late today. I would venture a guess that it has something to do with the 750mL of Chateauneuf-du-Pape that we consumed the night before. 

We had leftover bread and cheese (cantal) from the previous day, and this is what we ate to start the day. Then we headed back to cafe around the corner and had our grand cappuccinos and some pastry. The plan for the day was a fairly ambitious one. Thinking about my attitude toward travel now (18 months later), I believe we violated one of my new "codes," that being "Don't try to do two major things on the same day." But that we did, as I shall tell you.

Plan #1 on the agenda was the Museum of Natural History. This was one of the main highlights of the trip that Allie wanted to see, and I was enthusiastic about it as well. The reason that we wanted to go here is because they have a lot of skeletons from various species. To say that, without having been there, it sounds interesting enough. But when you actually arrive, and realize the insanely comprehensive collection of comparative anatomy, it is mind-blowing. 

We walked there via the Seine river. I do not remember much of the walk there, other than that it was already getting hot before we even arrived. This museum is located in complex that has many buildings, each housing different museums. We walked around the area a bit, before entering the museum. We saw a horticulture museum that could maybe have been interesting as well, but decided that we needed to stay focused, and that there were plenty of plants in Seattle, such that looking at plants inside a building in Paris was not necessary (Il n'est pas necessaire).

We entered the museum, and it was a building of much old wood, and many windows. And it was hot. It was hot inside, because it was hot outside, and the sun was beaming in through the windows, unabated, and there was no air conditioning. But there was no way around it. Too much to see. Too interesting to miss. There were skeletons of every imaginable animal, and more of animals you'd not yet imagined. The specimen cards, written in French, looked like they were many decades (or a century?) old. For many animals, there was only a single skeleton. But some of the "important" ones had multiple specimens at different ages, in different poses. Allie was taking hundreds of photos. I was trying to Google the names of all the skeletons to figure out what species it was in non-Latin terms. Honey Badger. We would not have known that it was a honey badger if I had not Googled Mellivora capensis. This is why I am needed. For the subtle context.

After looking at literally every specimen on the main floor, which included preserved icky things in formaldehyde, we took a peek at the prehistoric exhibit on the second floor. But it paled in comparison to the comparative anatomy. And, if I recall correctly, my low back hurt so badly from the standing, that I thought I was going to die. My back pain is fairly random. Sometimes I am fine. Sometimes it hurts. Standing tends to be worse than walking or sitting. That is not interesting to you. So I will move forward.

After probably 2-3 hours at the museum, we departed, and wandered around the gardens in front a little bit. They are nice gardens with many flowers.

Here's where we set ourselves up for being overwhelmed (though, somehow, we were not). Next stop was Musee d'Orsay. This is the museum of Impressionist art. My favorite museum in Paris, and probably one of the most famous museums in the world (according to Wikipedia it is the 11th most visited in the world, and according to Reuters, it's the 5th most important art museum). The reason I love this museum so much, and it's the second time I have been there, is the art of Vincent van Gogh. Though I like most of the Impressionist art, and am a pretty big fan of pointilism too. I guess it's just such a pleasant diversion from seeing thousands of pieces of dull religious art. 

It was a pretty long walk to the next stop. According to Google Maps, it's about 2 miles. And we realized on the way there that we were starving, and there was no way we would make it through another museum. If I recall correctly, and it's coming back to me now, our moods were both eroding because of the heat, fatigue from first museum, and hunger. I think we weren't even really sure where we were going, because (also, if I recall correctly) GPS location is really poor on mobile devices when you're in another country. At least with AT&T that's the case. I assume that it may be cellular data only, not GPS, so it's less accurate, and probably lower-priority data when you're on a borrowed network. Long story short, we stopped at a grocery store and stopped the emotional bleeding, buying some bread, fruit, cheese, and yogurt. We found a place to sit in the shade on a bench near Notre Dame and we ate. The mood slowly returned to normal. 

So we went to Orsay. And there's not much I could say that hasn't been said before, so I won't belabor this part. But just standing in front of a painting and knowing who did it, when it was from, and thinking about the importance of it, and being right there in front of it... it's no small thing.

After that, we went back toward our apartment, and had a pretty good dinner at an Italian restaurant that was on our street, called Positano. On Rue Guisarde. One of us had bolognese. The other had Cream Tomato Penne. I don't remember which was which. That's not French food, but it's close enough to Italy that it was good Italian.

After dinner we vegetated, because that seems like the only sensible thing to do after all that standing and walking. Then we did yoga together. That was the one and only time, if I am not mistaken, that we have done yoga together. I don't remember why she wanted to do it with me that day. And I also don't remember why I was so dead-set on doing it, because it certainly sounds like we'd had enough activity for one day. And I remember that I wanted to finish the yoga because we couldn't start having wine until after the yoga. But we couldn't do the yoga until after the dinner had been sufficiently digested.

That all seems like silliness now. And if I had it to do over, perhaps I would have drank wine with dinner, skipped the yoga, and drank more wine after dinner.

Hindsight is 20/20.