Thursday, December 10, 2009

Getting Married Small Town Texas Style

On November 14, my good friend Tiffany married her now-husband Robert in a ceremony in her hometown of Hallettsville, Texas. Never heard of the place? Well, I'm not surprised. The population of Hallettsville is 2,700, less than the undergrad population of Rice University, where I met Tiffany on our very first day of college.

Jeff and I made the trek to smalltown Texas, meeting up with our friend Cristina, to celebrate the special occasion. Our weekend started out with a welcome dinner at Tiffany's parent's house. If I'd been a good photographer, I would have photographed the food, because it was ridiculous. We had barbecued beef, ribs, shrimp wrapped with bacon and stuffed with jalapenos, and mashed potatoes with bacon and cheese. It was meat heaven, and it was all delicious. The next day at the wedding, the meat feast continued with grilled beef and chicken, green beans with bacon, and spinach salad with bacon. Good thing we were not vegetarians! I don't think that goes over so well in a town of cattle ranchers.

The next day we had all morning to explore Hallettsville before the 3 p.m. wedding. We began by driving past the water tower to the Wal-Mart. Though still in the old-school style, it is open 24 hours a day and is thus probably the most happening place in town.

From there, we stopped in for kolaches (a Czech pastry popular in these parts) at the locally famous Kountry Bakery. (Again, I failed at photographing food.) We then drove by the donut-deli-Chinese food shop with the liquor store next door (now that's multi-tasking!) and tried to figure out just what a "drive-in" grocery is.

With a bit of time left before the ceremony, we stopped to check out the reception hall. The people in Hallettsville are magic, ya'll, because they took this building

and turned it into this.

Beautiful, huh?

That's not where the beauty ended though. The bride was stunning, and Cristina and I managed to steal time from her busy schedule for a photo. I'm usually not a fan of strapless dresses, but this one was amazing. A perfect choice.

The reception, which was attended by nearly all of Hallettsville it seemed at times, along with many of their out-of-town friends and families, was fun. We started the evening with the Grand March. Apparently a local tradition, the Grand March involves everyone at the reception coupling up and marching around and around the reception hall. At some point, the lead couple (the bride and groom) stop and put their arms together making a bridge that everyone must pass under. The next couple follows suit and so and so forth until everyone makes their way under, including, at the end the bride and groom. They then end up in the middle of the floor where they do their first dance. It was pretty funny. Though also quite tiring. By the time we were done, Cristina and I were out the door to get our flats from the car. Our feet were done.

Later we got to march again. This time, in honor of the groom's New Orleans heritage, we did the Second Line, which involved us marking around waving white handkerchiefs (or Kleenex as the case may be) behind the bride carrying a white parasol all while the New Orlean's style big band played "When the Saints Go Marching In." They definitely did a good job of personalizing their wedding, and I think we all had a great time.

The personalization didn't end at the wedding though. The hotel did their part too, offering Texas-shaped waffles. What more could a person want?

Capping off our very Texas style adventure was the woman we saw set up right at the interstate on-ramp offering photos of her longhorns. I stole one from the car window, because seriously, what's more Texan than that?

Anyhow, congrats Tiffany and Robert! We had fun at our Hallettsville wedding adventure, and we wish you two a long life filled with happiness, adventure, and love.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Don't Move In Without...

In less than two weeks, barring any major disasters, Jeff and I will take ownership of our house. We'll be moving in with practically nothing, literally an air mattress, some clothes, and a bit of food. Our full-fledged move-in will be after Christmas, when we'll drive our belongings from Louisville to Durham with the help of family. We're moving from a one-bedroom apartment to a 1900 sq. foot house, so let's just say that there's going to be a lot of empty space. We're okay with that. We plan to gradually fill it all in as we find items that we really like and the money to buy them with.

But there are some things you just can't live without. Toilet paper for instance.

We want to be sure we have all that necessary type stuff on hand when we move in. I've been brainstorming and making lists, but I'm sure I'm overlooking plenty of things. So let me know, what was the one thing you ran out to get as soon as you moved into your house because you'd forgotten all about it but desperately needed it? Or what did you forget for months but then need and wish you had had it on standby all along? What will I need that I have no notion of? What can't I live without for even a few days? And what should I do or arrange to have done in the time span from when we close to when we actually move our furniture in?

All ideas appreciated.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

To Paint or Not to Paint

The house Jeff and I are planning to buy (inspection today went well, closing date set for 12/15) has two small rooms, both of which are in the very back of the first floor, that are wood paneled. As you may have heard me say before, nearly every single house we saw in our weeks of househunting in Durham had at least one wood paneled room. It's apparently rather in style in this part of the country. The paneling ranged from cheap to expensive, grody to not bad.

Considering there was practically no chance of getting a house without paneling, what we ended up with is pretty darn good. The rooms with the paneling are small, and the paneling itself is of the high-end variety and in good shape.

Here's room #1.

It's the family room, a 12 x 12 room off the back of the much larger living room. The two rooms are connected by a French door style opening in the middle of the wall connecting the two. This means that the rooms are pretty well open to each other, the yellow-painted living room giving way to the wood-paneled family room.

Here's room #2.

It's the study, a tiny 9 x 8 room off the back of the kitchen. A smaller than average doorway connects the two rooms, so you can't see much of the study unless you step all the way into it.

Upon first seeing the house, our plan was to paint the paneling. We're not really into wood paneling, and with hardwood floors, it seemed like total wood overload. Seeing it first on a gloomy, rainy day, the rooms also seemed really dark. At home in Louisville last week, I began the search for paint colors for the rooms while on a trip to Lowe's with my parents.

Today, when we went to the house for the inspection, I took the paint chips I had picked out with me to get an idea of how they'd look. We want to get the house painted before we go home for Christmas so that when we come back with all our junk, we're ready to move right in.

At the end of the day, I still like the colors I picked out. But at the end of the day, I'm also less certain I want to paint at all.

I don't know, but painting wood paneling just feels kind of wrong. Maybe it's the Zimmerman in me. My grandpa was a varnish man and thought painting wood was about the worst thing you could do to it. I'm also worried that painted paneling might just look cheap.

What do you think? I've got myself all confused, and I'm desperately in need of opinions. Would you paint the rooms? Would you leave them as is? Would you paint one and leave one?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Sneak Peek at Our House

Assuming all goes well with inspections, we'll be moving on December 15.

We're excited. We'd looked at about 20 different houses by the time we saw this one, many of those documented in an earlier post, but when we saw this one we knew it was the right one for us. I'd actually seen the house online before and liked it, but at the time it was a good $25,000 out of our price range, so I put it out of mind.

But then the sellers dropped their price significantly, putting it in the range in which we were looking, and it showed up in the set of new listings our agent sent us. We immediately made plans to see it. And as soon as we walked in, I was hooked. It was what we'd been looking for: an old house with character, in a neighborhood within walking/biking distance of Duke and downtown, two stories, three bedrooms, and in move-in condition.

The Kitchen

The Dining Room

The Living Room

So after seeing it for the first time on Tuesday morning, we returned Wednesday at lunch time for a second look. We received answers to a few questions Wednesday night, and then on Thursday at lunch time, we made an offer on the house.

The Durham market isn't much different than any market around the country at the moment, and there are a lot of houses sitting a long time on the market. We'd seen a lot of houses that had been listed for 200+ days. This wasn't the housing market of a few years ago when you had to make an offer the moment you saw a house and sometimes even offer more than the list price.

But I guess a good house is a good house, regardless of the market. As soon as the sellers dropped their price, the house started to see a lot of traffic, at least according to the listing agent. We had time to see it twice, but this wasn't a house for sitting on. In fact, as we were putting in our offer, we learned that another couple was seeing the house for a second time at that very moment. Hoping to beat them to the punch, we put a short expiration on our offer. But we still took a gamble, offering them $7,000 less than list price. We are in a buyer's market, after all.

All evening, whenever the phone rang, my heart seized up. But we didn't get any news except that one of the sellers was on the way home from out of town, and we wouldn't hear until the morning. The expiration on our offer was noon. At 6:10 am, we had to be on a plane heading to Texas for a wedding. We let our agent know when we'd be available while on layover in Houston, and when we'd finally land in San Antonio.

Through our entire layover, we held onto the phone and checked in for messages a few time, but it didn't ring and we were told over and over no new messages. Then we get on the plane and go to turn the phone off and are suddenly told we have two new messages. We dial up and listen.

The first message: They've countered with an offer $3,000 higher than ours.

We're thrilled. We expected a counter-offer, and this will work for us. We're ready to call our agent back and say accept. But first we check the second message.

The second message: As our agent was conveying their counter-offer to us, she got another call. Deal off. The sellers were getting a second offer. We now had to put in our best and final offer.

Elation to disappointment within a minute. Of course at this point the plane is about to take off and the stewardess is making us turn off our phone. There's nothing we can do but spend the entire flight thinking about the situation and what we want to do.

Once safely on the ground in San Antonio, we're on the phone. First to our agent to talk about our options. Then to our parents in search of some advice. We weren't really looking to get in a bidding war. Damn it, this is supposed to be a buyer's market! But we feel really strongly that this is the house for us. We think and ponder and debate. We pro and con. I try to rationalize my emotional response. In the end, we go for it. We put in an escalating bid, offering to pay $1,000 more than the other people placing a bid, but capping our offer at $1,000 over list price. We want the house, but we decide that if the other people are willing to pay well over list, then it just isn't meant to be. We also figure that if we do win, we'll be paying full price + $1,000. Knowing they're in competition and have to put in a best and final offer, we figure they'll put in full price. Why would you do anything else?

Well, I still don't know the answer to that question, but the other couple offered $3,000 less than list price. This means the house is ours, and we still don't have to pay full list price in the end. Woohoo!

When the call came, we were thrilled...and relieved.

I have to say that I hated the whole experience once we got into the offer phase. I am not a gambler and that's what this felt like to me. That kind of anxiety is not for me. I also don't like that kind of disappointment. So thank goodness we won. I love the house. I love the location. I love the neighborhood. It's an exciting new move for us.

But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I have some reservations. A house is so permanent, so tying. I can't just call up my leasing office and say I'm moving out in 6 weeks. I'm stuck with it. And the financial responsibility is pretty darn big too. I have to say that when we signed the contract, I felt thrilled, as well as completely sick to my stomach. Do you know how many times we could go around the world with that kind of money?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Silly Zoo, That's What Lions are Supposed to Do

Check out this article in the Washington Post: At the Zoo, No Escape for a Deer in the Lions' Den

Is it just me or does anyone else think they should have just left the deer in there? I, for one, am happy to see that the lions, probably zoo animals since birth, still retain their natural instinct to hunt and kill. I think it would have been awesome to witness this. I certainly wouldn't have run away screaming nor would I have cheered for the deer; I'd be cheering for the lions.

Also, didn't the zoo realize that this would be one less meal they'd have to provide if they just left the deer in the cage? It died anyways, so now it's just wasted meat. Plus, anyone who has lived in the area knows that Rock Creek Park has a serious deer overpopulation problem. It's not like they're endangered. And, finally, the deer jumped into the cage. Obviously, he's not the brightest of the bunch, so let's let survival of the fittest do it's job. What do you say?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Hunt for a House

Jeff and I decided that when we moved to North Carolina we would buy a house, so before we got here we spent a lot of time thinking about what we wanted. We had a few solid ideas. We wanted an older home with character in a lively neighborhood close to restaurants and shops (think Highlands if you're in Louisville; Ballard if you're in Seattle). We wanted to be close to Duke so that Jeff could continue to ride his bike to work. We wanted 3 bedrooms and 2 baths, something with room for guests and an office but not too much extra space that we'd just have to furnish and clean. We wanted it to be in live-in condition. Though the idea of renovating an old house has its appeal, we're realistic enough to know that right now we don't have the time...or the know-how.

So our first two days here, we just rode all over Durham trying to get a feel for it, figuring out which neighborhoods looked like good fits and which didn't. On our third day, we went out with a realtor and saw 11 houses. Two days later we went out and saw 2 additional houses. On Tuesday, we went and saw 1 more. So far, that's 14 houses that we've seen in person. How many we've looked at online I can't even begin to guess. Yet we're still at square one, without a house that we want to purchase.

We've seen some interesting houses though. We've seen two that must have had previous lives as boarding houses, as none of the rooms were connected, with each and every one opening up into a hallway that ran straight from the front door down the middle of the house. They had some cool old fireplaces and doors but weren't exactly livable. One also had a styrofoam ceiling. That's a new one for me.

We've seen one that was firmly situated on the corner of Okay and Not Okay. The tricky thing with Durham is that you can cross one street and go from a neighborhood of lovely, well-maintained homes to a neighborhood you wouldn't walk through by yourself at night...and maybe not during the day. This house, if approached from the south, seemed to be well located. If approached from the north, it seemed to border the ghetto. And for us, the corner of Okay and Not Okay is pretty much Not Okay. (Props to my friend Kate for this original reference, which Jeff and I love.)

We've seen a couple that used to be duplexes but have been reconverted back into single family homes. By reconverted I mean that they simply filled the window and door areas with drywall while leaving the framing. Very classy.

We've seen a cool solar home, but it was a bit far away and more of an ideal set up for a single person, or at least a couple who never intended to have overnight guests.

We've seen one or two homes that are nice, but just aren't us.

And twice we've seen our dream house. The first one was oozing with character---beautiful wood floors, a cool closed in sleeping porch, an amazing fireplace surrounded by built in bookshelves in the living room, an updated but not at all sterile kitchen.

But it was on a busy street, set only a few yards from it (so a good bit of street noise), and with a driveway about as big as one car. It's impossible to get in and out, and the nearest street you can park on requires you traipse through your back neighbor's yard. It also only has one bathroom, and there wasn't an obvious place to put a second one. Also, near the top of our price range, we won't really have extra funds for adding bathrooms. And finally the washer/dryer was in the basement, which totally reminded me of a cave (or being on the Seattle Underground tour). It is not what anyone in Louisville would call a basement, but apparently the standard for around here. It was exposed dirt...with exposed wiring and exposed insulation to match.

The second one we adored was an Arts & Crafts style bungalow (exactly what we were looking for!). It had great hard wood floors and fireplaces, lovely crown molding, a nice front porch, cool built-ins, a redone kitchen, redone bathrooms, and a good yard. Perfect. Except for the neighborhood. The immediate neighbors looked good. (Though the house immediately next door isn't as nice, and is, in fact, on sale for $70,000 less than the house we looked at!) But the house backs up to an apartment complex that appears to house a lot of people who like to keep the majority of their possessions on their front porch. Three houses down in one direction is a house with literally 15 cars parked in the yard. Three houses down in the direction is a house with a falling down barn-like structure and a driveway filled with junk. At the end of the street is a used car lot and a checks cashed place. I really wish we could just pick up the house and move it.

And then there was the house we'd probably put a bid on if it weren't for one major thing. The house isn't our dream house, but we like it a lot. It's just down the street from Dream House #1, and it's a fantastic neighborhood of mainly much bigger houses at much higher prices. It's right across from a lovely park, a short bike ride to Duke, and best of all, just a mile walk from the newly revitalized downtown area. It's set much farther off the street than the other house, has a turnaround and garage, and has a large, terraced lawn that blocks out most street noise. The kitchen and bathrooms are a bit smaller than we'd like, but livable. The living/dining area is great as are the bedrooms. There's a nice fireplace, beautiful hardwoods, elegant crown molding. There's also a closed in sleeping porch that would make an awesome office, and a large and very light-filled sun room. It would make a great house.

So what's the problem? Well, it may just collapse on us if we bought it. You see, the first time we saw it, we noticed a bit of cracking inside by the windows and doors. We took some photos and sent them to my brother, an architect who works for a firm that pretty much specialized in this kind of thing. He got back to me and said that they didn't look too bad from what he could tell, but we should look more closely and especially pay attention to the outside. So we revisited the house, and I don't know how we missed all the cracks the first time. They were everywhere. And worst of all, they were outside. There were lots of stairstep and pyramid cracks, which indicate that the foundation has shifted (or is shifting). There were cracks that had been filled but had cracked again, a sign that it wasn't a one-time thing. There was a crack that was 1/2 inch wide, which my brother says is pretty substantial in the world of architecture. And there was a long horizontal crack, which is apparently a sign of wall failure. Fan-freaking-tastic.

Not wanting to entirely write it off, we requested info from the sellers. They were, however, completely unhelpful. They claim that they had it looked at when they bought the house 10 years ago and were told it was fine, but they can't provide any paperwork to substantiate it. They also claim it hasn't moved since they have lived there, though they haven't had it looked at any time recently and don't have crack monitors, so I don't believe they have any way of knowing, except that it hasn't fallen on them. And they don't appear to have any interest in having a structural engineer look at or in paying for any necessary repairs.

So we're walking. And it's back to square one. Though sort of fun at first, I'm already getting tired of the house hunt. It feels like it's been a long hunt already (as evidenced by this long post!). Not exactly inspiring is the fact that we're moving into the holidays and winter, which is not a popular time to be house hunting. But I guess all it takes is the one perfect house. Cross your fingers for us!

Monday, November 02, 2009

Three Things I Miss and Three Things I Don't

The Things I Miss

1. Jeff

Today, Jeff started work in his lab at Duke. For the first time in a year, we're not together all day, every day. You think that would be enough togetherness to drive anyone insane and make them long for time to themselves, but really, we have a damn good time together, and I miss him. The fact that I'm home completely alone probably doesn't help.

2. Walking
During our travels, we pretty much walked everywhere. We walked to the grocery and to restaurants. We walked to the store. We walked to the beach. We walked through town. We walked up mountains. We walked and walked and walked. I wish I'd taken a pedometer to determine how far we walked each day because it was a lot. Now, we drive. It's too far to walk most places, the road's aren't pedestrian friendly, and well, it's just not what you do. Sure, you can go for a walk, but walking as a mode of transport is not common. We're looking to buy a house in an area where our feet would be our main mode of getting around, but right now, the car is what we use.

3. Summer
Fall was nice at first. The crisp smell in the air, the crunch of leaves on the ground, the splendor of trees in full color. I enjoyed putting on a sweater, and not sweating while I slept. But okay, that was enough. I'm done, especially now that we've changed the clocks, and it gets dark so early. Winter is on its way, and I, for one, am not a fan. I want summer back.

The Things I Don't

1. The Clothes in My Backpack
The five tops and five bottoms I took with me on the trip are still in Seattle, and for all I care they can stay there forever. I love having jeans again, enough underwear to not have to do laundry every week, and clothes that actually look good together. It's a bit overwhelming though, and I have to admit that rather than decide between the many items I have, I sometimes just put back on what I wore the day before (though I do change underwear, don't you worry). If I could re-wear clothes in stinky, sweaty developing nations, then I can do it in clean, clean America.

2. Dirty Bathrooms
I walk into public bathrooms here and marvel at the cleanliness. There's toilet paper, soap and running water, hand towels or dryers! Though before I'm sure I found them a bit sketchy, I'm now quite certain I could probably eat from the floors. Private bathrooms are simply
phenomenal. The soap smells nice! The showers don't require shoes! The toilets flush! We are spoiled I tell you.

3. Eating Out
When you go on vacation, one of the highlights is getting to eat out the entire trip. When you go on vacation for a year, however, that gets old really, really quickly. You get really tired of sitting at a restaurant, only getting to eat what's on the menu, waiting for food, paying the bill, etc. You sometimes want nothing more than to open your refrigerator, pull out your favorite foods, and home cook yourself up something delicious. In South America, a lot of hostels had kitchens, and we took advantage. In Africa, these kitchens disappeared after we left South Africa, and they were pretty much non-existent in budget accommodations in Asia. Now that we have a kitchen back, we don't want to leave it for a restaurant. I'd rather cook.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day: Climate Change

My friend Megan, the world's best photographer (literally), alerted me to the fact that today is Blog Action Day in regards to Climate Change, so I figured why not bounce back into posting on Spargel with some thoughts on the topic.

Over the past year, Jeff and I have been amazingly lucky; we have seen some of the world's most spectacular landscapes. We've watched the sunset over Torres del Paine, seen icebergs calf off of Perito Merino Glacier, experienced the fragility of the Galapagos Islands, come within arm's reach of breeching whales, felt the heat of geysers in the cold desert morning, stared gapjaw at the Iguazu and Victoria Falls, laughed in delight at the antics of Africa's wild animals, stared in silence at the magnificence of gorillas in the wild, relaxed on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, climbed active volcanoes, and gone scuba diving among delicate corals and delightful marine life.

We've also seen mudslides wipe out villages. We've seen farmers stand in barren fields waiting for rains that never come. We've seen great swaths of forest stripped by logging companies. We've seen oil pipe lines destroy the Amazon. We've seen the remains of towns wiped out by floods, tsunamis, and overflowing rivers and lakes. We've watched as people throw trash out the window of buses. We've searched in vain for recycling bins. We've found toothbrushes atop coral reefs and plastic bags in the surf. We've refused to touch some waterways for the amount of garbage that is visible to the eye, not even imagining all the pollutants that we can't see.

Climate change is real. Sometimes we can feel it. Perhaps we did this summer, when normally hot parts of the U.S. end up getting drenched all summer or normally cooler parts see the mercury hit 100. Often we hear about it. Monsoons coming late or not at all. Mudslides occurring in areas that usually don't see much rain.

Some amount of climate change is natural. Let's go ahead and get that out there. The earth has not existed in the same state since it came into existence. If it had, we wouldn't be here. Or we'd be in hiding from the dinosaurs. But the speed at which it is changing in this current era is not natural. We are speeding it along. How much we can slow it back down remains to be seen, but we shouldn't just shrug our shoulders and say oh well. We need to act. Otherwise the amazing places we saw may become only memories. Otherwise the terrible things we saw may only become worse.

Recycle. Take a bike instead of a car on short errands...or longer if you're tough. Lower the thermostat and put on a sweater instead. Be thankful that you live in a country where the water from your tap is not only drinkable but probably delicious and quit wasting money on plastic bottles that only pollute our landscape. Stock up on re-usable bags for your shopping trips and forget the plastic bags. Start a garden. Eat locally. Do what you can.

As for travelers, it's not always easy in the developing world when the people's concerns often don't go beyond meeting basic needs. Unfortunately, it's these places that are most often affected by climate change, so do what you can while you're there. One of the things we took on our trip that we really, really loved was our Steripen. It's small, easy to carry, and saved us money as well as kept us from adding to the already huge plastic problem. After just one minute of sterilizing, we had a liter of drinkable water straight from the tap. If you're going anywhere where you don't think you'll be able to drink the local water without treating it, then I suggest you get one.

If you're feeling uninspired, a little too comfortable in your current life to make any changes, then I suggest you go outside. Take a hike. Go to the lake. Ride your bike through the local park. Stay up and stare at the stars. You don't have to go to one of the official wonders of the world to see how wondrous our world is. Let's keep it that way. I want my children and my children's children and descendants that I can't even begin to imagine to get to see the beautiful things I and in person, not just in a book recounting the way things used to be.