Monday, June 30, 2008

St. Petersburg Russia(+59° 53' 26.76", +30° 12' 33.68")

I’m sure that like us, for most people being in Russia was the high point of the trip. Something I never grew up thinking I would do. This of course was tempered by arriving in an industrial port since our ship was to large to park in the river.
This was the only place where we had bought a ship excursion. I didn’t know where the ship would dock and could not find any information about riding bikes in Russia. I had also read a lot of recommendations to use a guided tour for the Hermitage museum since it is so large and it will get you in early.
The warning the tour operators gave us was to expect lines and accept them as part of the experience. Well, it was true. We waited in the auditorium for them to call our tour then followed the line out to go through customs. While waiting there was a band playing American band songs which seemed really odd to me.
The marathon was going on that day so our bus had to re-route around it. We ended up walking about a half mile to get to the Hermitage. It was busy; very busy. There were crowds everywhere and the guide wisked us from room to room. It never really hit me that I was in the Hermitage until we were allowed a short time to wander and I saw a Picasso I had studied in art history. It was very overwhelming since not only is there all the artwork but since it is in former palaces the floors, walls and ceilings are beautiful too.
From the Hermitage we walked across the square to a small cafe where lunch had been arranged. It was a traditional meal with borscht, Stroganoff, and some sort of berry tart. It was the best borscht L. and I have tasted. It had started raining during lunch so we were stuck there while they tried to maneuver the bus closer. It was frustrating to just not walk to the next place since it was so close. Finally everyone grey restless enough to put up with a little rain and walked to where the bus was.
Since we would not be going to Moscow I wanted to see the church of the spilled blood to see the traditional Russian church. It did not disappoint. The outside was full of detail and all the walls on the inside were covered with mosaics. After the tour of the church the guide set us loose on a nearby market.
The problem with being in a tour group is there is no way to escape being a tourist. One of the people in our group got pick pocketed. (L. thinks by a group of 3 guys acting like they are selling books that they were shoving into peoples faces which fits the description.) But such a large group always had to move through a gauntlet of street sellers, and the radio receivers around our necks branded us as tourists like nothing else could. Because of this L. and I decided that it was not that long of a walk (It ended up being 4 miles into town) For the bus ride home I tried to memorize each turn the bus made and took pictures of all the intersections as we headed home. We had bought a map but the ship had docked off of where the map showed. While L. knew enough Russian to read the Cyrillic alphabet all the names still sounded the same so street signs where not much help.
The next day we were able to use our visas that allowed us to come and go as we wanted. We got off to an early start so that we would not have to wait in the line with the tours to get past customs. From our ship we caught the little green bus that offered free rides to the dock workers to get them around the dock. So with a bus full of dock workers we rode to the security gate that saved us about a mile of walking. We had our visas were examined again and we finally were on our own in Russia. We had decided to walk everywhere here since I had not seen any bikes locked up anywhere and the few bike riders I saw were factory workers so I'm guessing could lock up their bikes indoors. Since we were walking into town we got strange looks from all the people headed to work. We stopped at a gas station for L. to use the "WC". While there they would not sell us water bottles but because of the language barrier we could not figure out why.
We decided to head down the main street in town, Nevsky Prospekt. Since we were able to stop in any store we liked we were able to check the tourist price vs. locals price for fur and caviar. It ends up that at the stores specializing in receiving tour busses the prices are about 40% higher (a fur coat was $3000 vs $5000) I really liked walking down Nevsky Prospekt because we saw a lot of the buildings in the pack of post cards we bought to send people.
We stopped for lunch at a local cafe and again enjoyed delicious borscht along with crepes. L. was to tired to keep walking so we bought tickets for the local double-decker tour bus. They gave you headphones and each seat had a plug, you chose the channel for the language. The funny part was that it was around 350 Roubles (~$15) for each of us. The similar tour if we had booked through the cruise ship would have been $80. We were able to see the rest of the city and a lot of the locally important places that might have been skipped otherwise. The bus let us off closer to the ship port than if we had walked but it was still three miles.
The architecture for the whole city seemed like exact copies of each other. All 19th century stone block buildings. It made it easy to get lost. However, by following the rivers we did not get lost. I like the look of soviet cars. They remind me of the VW notchback.
Once the ship left port they had brought aboard souvenirs for people to buy that did not have a chance to buy anything for the tours they had gone on. What unfolded was a crazy scene of people buying stuff on the ship. It was like a day after Thanksgiving sale and they just had to buy something, anything.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Helsinki Finland(+60° 8' 59.18", +24° 55' 16.47")

They offered a shuttle into and out of town for $6. I looked it up on the map and saw it was 2 miles into town. We laughed and headed out on our bikes. Our first stop was the local flea market (eg. swap meet, car boot sale). It was Saturday so there were plenty of booths and people. L.’s brother had asked for us to buy him some Finland metal music so I gravitated to looking through the CD’s. (I was surprised how many people in metal and black we saw there in Helsinki.) I knew most of the CD’s that I was looking through but was sad to see that so many Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Destiny’s child CD’s had made it out of the US. It was very interesting looking through old stuff from other cultures and I enjoyed doing it for the rest of the trip. I ended up getting 3 CD's for my brother in law and a Dire Straits one for myself (€4 each~ $6).
From there we followed a bike path along the water to the Sibelius statue. It is made up of hundreds of stainless steel pipes for a Helsinki composer. It was very interesting but we also came here for another reason. We knew the folk museum was in the area of it was off the edge of the map. We asked one of the bus tour guides and were off.
On our way to the folk museum we took a wrong turn and ended up at a beautiful house with a high fence and security cameras. I realized it was the Prime Ministers house since that was still labeled on the edge of the map. The folk museum is actually its own island. Houses from all over the country were brought and reconstructed here. Finland has a lot of different architecture styles since it goes above the arctic circle, borders Russia, has a lot of islands, and some even looked like they belonged in “It’s a small world”. It was also interesting to me what here would be the Indian or native american museum, there is the folk museum since it has always been the same people.
From there we rode into town stopping at the parliament building since it was on the way. Like most there were large imposing steps with small side doors that were the real front doors since no one likes to use all the steps. We also visited the Stone Church (Temppeliaukio Kirkko). Both of us had studied it in our art history classes but it was only open alternating hours so we shopped and climbed the outside looking for elusive baby pigeons (something I want to see before I die, but it was no avail.)
We continued our ride into town and ate lunch at a local restaurant called “Tractor”. Imagine a country themed steak house only playing traditional Finnish music instead of country music. We enjoyed reindeer stew and blood orange lemonade.
From there we crossed town to the open air market where L. did her souvenir shopping. Since we had some extra time we also saw the covered market with the food and chocolate stalls. The Uspenski Cathedral was beautiful but there was a wedding going on so we could not see the inside. Instead we went to City Hall and saw the Helsinki history museum (It was free).
When we left the port we sailed for hours passing many small islands that were no more than sand bars with navigation domes (just like buoys but not floating). The ocean bottom seemed shallow and I’m glad there were experts steering the boat.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Stockholm Sweden(+59° 20' 39.82", +18° 7' 40.64")

They actually told us we were at a different place on the map then we were. We followed signs pointing to the center of town and realized the bad directions when we arrived. (I guessed correctly what “centrum” meant.)
The old town is on it’s own island with narrow roads that did allow for cars but were prefect for bikes. we followed the “Rick Steves” walking tour but again got distracted by L. wanting to find shops. After riding around all the narrow streets we decided to ride to City hall. This is where the nobel prizes are handed out each year. Because we did not arrive right on the hour we could not join a tour. It is just as well since it most likely would have taken to long as we had a lunch appointment at one.
L. has a very different maiden name. While researching it she found that it links back to Swedish royalty and wealth. She also found someone in Stockholm that was interested in genealogy that shared her old last name. We had agreed to meet for lunch while we were there. We spent a long time talking about the history of the family name for both sides of the Atlantic and best of all L. was able to get the proper pronunciation which sounds much better. The woman we met with had also brought her son with her since she had married into the family I didn’t notice any resemblance but I guess being about 10th cousins will do that. It was also interesting to just to have a long talk with local people about the local issues. (They had just passed the wire tapping law there in Stockholm and the people are mad enough to rebel and are trying to throw the government out. If only there was the same level of passion or even people noticing what was happening here in the US.)
After that we saw the Vasa ship museum (42 krona ~ $8). A 1700’s ship was badly designed and sunk on its maiden voyage because it couldn’t handle the light breeze that tipped it over. It is was interesting since it was so well preserved.
From there we hurried back to the ship. L. wanted to get a souvenir for everyone in her family since this is where the family name and still needed something for her Father. I decided to quickly ride back into town and was pedaling hard enough to pull the chain off the sprocket. While putting it back on I realized there was a tourist shop at the port so I quickly headed back and L. was happy to see me. One of the souvenirs that was selling everywhere was the traditional Swedish Dala Horse. It was weird because to me it looked identical in style, color, and decoration to wooden horses I have seen in Mexico. I guess it is a case of parallel cultures.
As we left the port we passed though many narrow channels with summer houses along the shipping route. People were sitting on their porches watching the ships go by and would occasionally wave to the people on the ship waving at them.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Life Aboard the Ship

There were four “at sea” days. Add that with the time in the morning and evenings we were in Ports and we were spending a lot of time on the boat.

Background music: Some of their music choices were a little odd. We both enjoyed eating breakfast on the back deck of the ship because there were always seats and I wanted to be outdoors whenever possible. While eating Breakfast we were treated to house and dance music. While I was OK with it, it didn’t seem your normal fair for the other passengers. The other place was while exercising songs such as “Never-ending Story” played.

Food: There were 5 free restaurants and 5 restaurants that had extra cover charges. We ate lobster, scallops, steak, and cheesecake and a bunch of other tasty food at the included restaurants, and there was always the buffet too, so we never felt the need to eat at any of the extra charge ones. We had looked at the menus for them a few times and came real close to paying the $15 cover for the all you can eat sushi until we realized that even though we were in the middle of the sea the fish probably wouldn’t be that fresh. The normal restaurants had the same service of about a 3-4 star restaurant. (Put the cloth napkin in your lap, bring over dessert silverware on it’s own plate, clearing the salt and pepper shakers to serve dessert.) Since we were on a “Freestyle” cruise there were no set times for meals so we ate at some odd times since our internal clocks were so messed up. Everyone says you gain weight on a cruise. I figured I would loose the weight before so that after the cruise I would be back to the same weight. If you never want to gain weight then just loose the weight before. The memory of the extra exercise will keep you from over eating. Also when I did over eat for breakfast one day I was sluggish that day in the city we were visiting (A cardinal sin in my book) so while I enjoyed all the variety I could not bring myself to gorging. However I did always order appetizers which is something I usually don’t do. But with the appetizers usually being fresh tropical fruit it was just my way of fighting off scurvy.

Shows: Every night there was a show at 8 and 10PM. They ranged anywhere from a really bad comedian to juggling, magic, and dance shows. It really set it up so that every night was felt like a date for my wife and I; going to dinner and a show.

Old to young ratio: One of the stereotypes of cruises is that everyone is old. While the population on the ship was defiantly older than me I think there is a misconception about the number of old people. See, everyone is moving around the ship a lot. It only takes a couple of old people moving slowly to clog a hallway where a lot of people are trying to squeeze by. All the passing people will think that the number of old people is higher than it really is. Personally since I work with studying the actions of older adults at work I thought it funny and a good way to study the migratory patterns of older people when the famous word “Bingo” is heard over the intercom.

Nationality: Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) you would think would come from Norway. Apparently, they did at one time but their headquarters is in Florida and they accepted dollars on the ship. However the ship itself was registered for Nassau Bahamas, I’m guessing for tax reasons. Most of the crew officers were from Canada. Most of the service crew were from the Philippines but there are some from everywhere. (For some odd reason most of the spa crew were from South Africa.) As far as the guests on board, from the polls they did during the shows it seemed a pretty even split between USA, Canada, and the UK. Spain, France and Mexico came next with a whole host of other counties finishing off the list.

Light: We set sail on the summer solstice so the days couldn’t get any longer than they were. We never crossed over the Arctic circle so we still had a sunset between 10:30-11:30 and sunrise between 3:30-4:30 depending on how far north we were. However, it never did get dark. We always had that glow of just right after sunset that would rotate on the horizon to the sunrise position. I witnessed this because I wanted to see the Aurora Borealis. It was not until I got home that it is best to see that in the Spring and Fall, not during the Summer.

Activities: They had special rooms you could reserve on the ship. We had fun playing the Wii they had on board. We also both took our first crack at singing karaoke and realized that yes, both of us sound much better singing along with the songs instead of singing them. Other things they offer to kill time are seminars and such. The annoying thing is that everything leads to an up-sell. Example, exercise seminar leads to pitch for personal trainer and detox wrap. All raffles you had to be present to win so they could try to sell jewelry or spa services. Every disembarkation they wanted to take your picture to sell to you. Before the nightly shows they sold bingo and raffle tickets. At the pool waiters went around trying to sell drinks. It seemed like they knew they had a captive audience and they used it to their advantage.

Room service: Our room was cleaned and straightened twice a day. I’m not sure why they did it more often than a hotel but every night when we got back from dinner or the show we would find a copy of the “Freestyle daily” that gave the schedule of the next days events and a towel animal (elephant, penguin, snake, they were all pretty creative.)

Formal attire: two nights that we were at sea were considered optional formal attire. I can see why they do it, why go to any trouble to present yourself good when stuck on a ship. That could get ugly quick with 2,300 guests. It still felt weird getting dressed up to walk around the ship and go to the same restaurant you went to for the past 3 days in normal clothes. I know L. likes the way I look dressed up and with my casual job does not get to see it much so I consented. Of course there were photographers out in force to take pictures. I felt like people from 100 years ago getting dressed up just to go strut around the promenade and show off your finery.

Hot tubs: After each of the longs days biking and most of the other days too we ended our day in the hot tub. They did not close until 11 and it was still light so we enjoyed them. It was odd that the whole pool area was deserted at night since the pools were heated but we enjoyed having the place to ourselves.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Warnemünde Germany(+54° 10' 33.45", +12° 5' 36.83")

I don’t know why. I guess Germany is a cheap place to dock or maybe the city gives kick-backs to the cruise company but one of the places that we stopped was a small beach town. Most people bought the tour packages for the train ride into Berlin and maybe that’s why the cruise company stops there but we decided since we had already been to Berlin (and it was a huge city that one day could not do justice for) we would have a beach day instead. We rode our bikes to the beach and the first thing we saw there is the lighthouse. We decided to climb to the top (€2 ~ $3) and I was able to see down the beach that all the people were close to where we were and if we walked down the boardwalk a ways we could pretty much have the beach to ourselves.
About every 100 meters or so was a path cut into the sand dunes leading to the beach with different sign with a picture (Cherry, Ball, Teddy Bear...) along with icons for what was and was not allowed at that portion of the beach. No fires, horses and such but there was one that wasn’t an icon but instead the letters “FKK” that alternated being crossed out or not. We followed one of the paths and walked along the beach and noticed some of the people were not only topless but totally nude. We wrote it off as a European thing but have found out that is what “FKK” stands for. We found our own nice spot and just relaxed in the sun. The sea was cold, cold enough that after a while I was shivering and my teeth were chattering so we decided we had been in it long enough.
We walked back to our bikes and rode back to the ship to eat lunch since we were not in any hurry. We were in this port until 10 since it took so long for the train to get back so we decided to head back out and just ride bikes. We at first headed south but it was boring industrial port stuff, and communist era industrial architecture is not interesting to look at. So we headed back into Warnemünde. The path that followed the beach then turned into a forest bike trail. It was so relaxing just riding along the trail that we ended up riding for miles until the trail ended. We rode back into town and walked around all the shops. It an antique store we went into they had old Nazi and communist era medals since this used to be part of east Germany but I thought it was interesting that they had a piece of sticky note covering all the swastikas but not the communist hammer and sickle.
When back on the ship we heard how the train ride in and out was boring and took forever so that no one really got to see that much. Anyone that had stayed in Warnemünde had a smile on their face and was refreshed and relaxed.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Copenhagen Denmark(+55° 41' 50.06", +12° 36' 2.35")

It was our first port and we wanted to hurry and get off the boat with our bikes to not get stuck in a crowd. However we were disembarking from deck four instead of seven where we had got on the ship so after figuring that out we of course got off the boat at the same time as a tour group.
Based on the map I had and looking out the window from the ship I also guessed wrong where we were on the map so we ended up riding north for about 10 minutes. When it all started looking much more industrial than it should we happened to ride by the Unicef dock and I remembered it from the map. We were soon headed south and we had docked much closer to town than I thought. (I found out later that they would show me where we were on the map at each port at the reception desk.)
The first thing we saw because it was so close was the little mermaid. This city is very proud of Hans Christian Anderson so this statue was for the little mermaid that is happy to turn into sea foam instead of the Disney happy ending version.
From there we followed the “Rick Steves walking tour” to the royal palace. But Copenhagen is a city full of cool church steeples so we quickly got off track riding from one to the next. Since we were so off track we decided to ride to Chistianna. If you are not familiar it is a hippy commune that took over an abandoned military base and declared themselves separate from the EU complete with their own police force. (Which ended up being a couple of guys sitting on 50 gallon drums on the main dirt road in town.) For a bunch of anarchists they were pretty friendly but they had no camera signs everywhere so we didn’t take pictures. I guess they don’t like being a tourist exhibit but they do offer tours of the commune.
From there we rode to the national museum but didn’t stay to long since it was mainly stuff from other countries and the stuff that was Danish was pretty modern (It was odd looking at a computer disk in a museum case.) The coin and medal collection was nice though.
We next rode to Tivoli gardens. It is the original amusement park (Entry: 80 Krone ~ $16). Again something Disney copied when creating Disneyland. The place is beautiful with formal gardens full of flowers (That may or may not have a roller coaster right next to it.) For lunch we tried the famous Danish “open faced sandwiches”. Which as it turns out mine did not have bread, just a cup with cold herring and onions slices. Apparently “sandwich” in Danish as the waiter explained loosely translates to “lunch food”. We also couldn’t resist eating the Danish waffles and ableskievers (small puffy round pancakes that we originally thought were Swedish but are Danish it turns out.) Yes, they were better tasting then any of the ableskievers I have made. We of course had to go on the Hans Christian Anderson ride (2 tickets=32 Krone ~ $6) You climbed into a large steamer trunk and luckily there was a nice switch on the top that switched from Danish to English Narration. It then flew you through (Peter Pan ride style) all of the stories. It was a blast but very confusing because we never knew where one story ended and the next picked up.
After a little shopping we rode back to the ship, on time, and without getting lost. Our first port was a total success. Leaving Copenhagen we were surprised by how busy the shipping lanes were. Denmark has a lot of off-shore windmills and all the ships just travel right down the center of them.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

First Day at Sea

On leaving Dover our first full day on the ship was also a full day at sea. It turned out that it was a rough day too. L. gets motion sickness easily which is one of the reason we had booked our trip on the biggest boat out there with an active counter weight to try to and lessen any problems she would have. I think it helped but a lot of people including employees were queasy. The report said there were 7-12 foot waves and watching the gauge that was true. Taking Dramamine took care of the problem for L. but knocked her out. Using the wristbands did not have strong enough of an effect so by using the wristbands with a lower dose of the motion sickness pills seems to work the best.
For me, I found it fun. Most people were weaving as they tried to walk anywhere. I tried to see how straight of a line I could walk instead leaning into the tilting deck. It made walking down the narrow halls equivalent to a drug trip with my view twisting and turning. Normal things like taking a shower required new dexterity as the water changes it's path. While sleeping it messed with my dreams because it reminded me of sleeping in a car. Rolling toward my head was breaking and rolling toward my feet was accelerating. I'm sure the funniest thing to watch though was the dance lessons. Trying to learn to waltz when the floor has a mind of its own should have, but didn't, lead to at least one broken hip.
The other big reason we booked a cruise on the biggest ship we could find was to keep me from going stir crazy. While L. was in her drug induced motion sickness pill sleep I explored the boat by walking around each of the levels. (At least where I was allowed to go, the security cameras, and signs make little room for excuses for being in the wrong area.) For how many people were on the ship they sure did a good job of hiding everyone.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Choosing a Room for the Cruise

Apparently there is a great science in reserving just the right room on a cruise ship. This can be seen in the huge varieties of room pricing when you try to book a room. For our cruise they varied from $1299 to $3000 a person. (I also read the penthouse cost $30,000)
From the research I did the biggest things that people tried to accomplish is to disguise the fact they were on a boat. To reduce the rocking of the boat normally you want to be as low as possible but with newer ships with active sway suppression it is better to be near the middle. Noise is the other big problem. Engine noise is higher for lower decks and further the cabin is in the back.
Higher decks are closer to attractions, and I read repeatedly (and it was true) that the elevators are slow so you use the stairs a lot. The other type of noise you try to eliminate is other people. You don’t want your cabin above or below restaurants, the casino, weight room, or pool; and you don’t want to be next to stairs or an elevator.
For us, our cabin was on 9th of 14 levels. All the stuff was on the 7th or 12th floors so we had buffer floors to cut off the sound and we were one cabin away from the stairs. It worked our cabin was quiet.
The other stuff I didn’t read about that ended up mattering was getting a window or not. We got an inside cabin because of price but I was afraid our cabin would be to small so I got a four bed cabin thinking it would be bigger. It ends up there was just a bunk bed attached to the wall and a trundle bed under our bed. But our bikes fit next to our bed and our luggage in the closet so we were happy. It ended up being a very good thing to get an interior cabin since we were so far north it never got dark at night. Neither of us would have been able to sleep with the light coming in through the cracks in the curtain. With no sound and no light it was disorienting when we did wake up. To get around this there was a channel on the TV in our cabin that was from a camera pointing out over the bow of the ship. We referred to this as the window and turned it on to see the progress of docking or to check the weather before heading up to the hot tubs.
As the trip went on I was really glad to not be in the lower cabins. On the lowest level (deck four, everything below that is engine or storage I guess.) there were no opening windows so there was a strong smell of chemicals and diesel fumes. Also to have everyone marching past your cabin for every port while you are trying to sleep did not sound fun either.

Boarding the Ship

The ship we had bought tickets for was the biggest class cruise ship there currently is. This meant 2400 passengers and 1100 employees. We figured that between 3500 people trying to get on one boat would be pretty crazy.
We had already tagged all our bags with our room number so we were able to just drop It off. It felt weird just leaving our bags in the giant pile without anyone checking anything off and I think a lot of other people felt the same because there was a large crowd milling around watching for when their bags got moved to the conveyor belt.
From there we moved our way through a line. We signed all the paperwork, got our key cards, walked up the gangplank and were on the ship within a half hour. I was surprised how fast we got on the ship.
Once on the boat we were able check out our cabin before they did their muster drill. We took our life vests down to our designated meeting place and had a safety presentation and hand washing demonstration.
The biggest surprise during the whole process is the importance they placed on hand washing. On check-in we had to sign a paper stating we did not have diarrhea or vomiting in the last two days. They spray your hands with hand sanitizer every time you step foot on the ship. There are auto dispensers that squirt Isopropyl alcohol onto your hands at every restaurant on board and for those that do not put their hands under the dispenser an attendant will ask to spray them for you. Also, none of the crew will shake anyone's hands. I guess there have been enough problems on cruise ships that out of everything else that is what they decide to crack down on. Most likely because it cost them the most money.
We were given key cards that controlled everything. It was the key to our cabin door, it had our credit card attached to it so there were no cash transactions, only your key card. Every time you get on or off the boat they swipe your card and your picture shows up on the screen so they know exactly where you are. When you made a dinner reservation they swiped the card to keep track of who ate at which restaurant each night. (I think it was to keep the employees out of the nicer restaurants but no one would admit it.)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Dover UK(+51° 6' 42.97", +1° 19' 17.99")

L. and I agreed to meet up at the Dover train station because it seemed smaller and easier than anything in London. I left London earlier than I was going to because I couldn't think of anything else to see and took the train to Dover (£24 ~ $50). To kill time I walked my luggage down to our hotel. L. Still had not arrived so I walked into town and bought a bike pump since I forgot to bring one. She still had not arrived so I walked back to the hotel and checked into our room and retrieved my luggage and put it in there. When she still had not arrived I ran out of things to do so just sat at the train station and played games on my phone. It ends up the train on front of hers had locked up its breaks and she had to take a bus. It took an extra five hours for her to get there and was out of phone range the whole time. So as far as adventures on our trips this was thankfully a small hiccup. The next morning we could see our ship on the other side of the bay so we decided to walk. The thing is the ship was bigger than we thought and therefore looked closer and was actually about two miles away. My homemade bike suitcase didn't make it. One of the wheels jammed from coming loose so I ended up dragging it the last mile (between the bike and case it was exactly 50 pounds.) It wore though the tire and the first layer of fiberglass. When we made it to the ship hot, tired, and cranky. Knowing our luck there was a free shuttle from our hotel we just didn’t know about.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


I flew over to London before L. It was really weird being in another country by myself.
After riding on the subway in NYC so much, the “Underground” in London presented no problems. While the routes are a little more confusing there are no express stops to deal with. I hate to say it but the tube in London is a lot cleaner and the escalators are in better working order then the NYC subways. I think it is because they close down at night so it gets rid of anyone trying to sleep there and repairs are easier to preform. But there were at least two people at every station which was nice when I was dragging my box with the bike in it since they would always open the gate for me instead of just buzzing me through.
Since I was there early I tried to do some sight seeing on my own but being a single tourist is not fun. Since we had been there before I had a big problem of trying to find stuff that we had not seen before.
I am a strong believer in speaking the local language and British English is different then American English so I did try to use the proper words when talking with people. The problem was this led to me catching myself also starting to use an accent which I did not want to do for fear of sounding patronizing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Building a Suitcase

To try and transport our folding bikes to the other side of the world I decided to build a fiberglass suitcase for each of them. Another reason is that I have never worked with fiberglass and it is something I wanted to learn. It would have cheaper and easier to buy cheap rolling suitcases but the bikes were to wide. I bought some inline skates from the thrift store to use as the roller wheels and I found an aluminum rod to use for the extending handle. The fiberglass cloth was some thick remnants i bought from eBay. Trying to make the rolling luggage might have been a bit much for my first time and I should have stick with just the basic box.
The way I did it was I got large pieces of cardboard from the bike store and used a glue gun to glue them to the shape I wanted. It is harder than it sounds because there can not be any 90 degree angles so everything has to have soft edges. Once it is formed, then just cover both sides of the cardboard with fiberglass. It worked great but I should have made one big box and cut it in half because the cardboard wet with resin deforms a little. It was hot in my garage so everything cured quickly and I still have not figured out the answer to the riddle of how to get the cloth to stick to the suitcase when my gloves are more sticky. The next mistake was to try to cover the paint job with another coat of resin. The two chemicals did not mix well and I ended up using a heat gun to cure the resin because the catalyst was not doing anything. The finished product looks like a beginner job but I learned from my mistakes and won’t make them again so I am satisfied; not to mention that the end product is sturdy enough to stand on.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Summer Storms

Growing up in California you knew when it was going to rain. You could look out the window in the morning and that would be the weather the whole day. You could sense rain (there was actually humidity in the air). In Oregon it was pretty easy too, it rained a little every day. I remember good summer storms in Utah and forgot how strong they could be until we moved here to New York.
L. and I were coming out of a store and looked up to notice the cool cloud formation. The fast moving clouds were creating the black ominous funnel that usually is associated with the bad wizard calling on evil powers in movies. We had made it to the car when the first drop hit. I already had my key out so In the 3 steps from the front of my car to get inside I was soaked. We were amazed at the volume of rain that just burst out. Then the hail started, and I realized my convertible top might not make it. luckily it didn't get any worse and within 5 minutes it went down to a light sprinkle and stopped. The sun was shining 10 minutes later but there was probably 1-2 inches of rain from that five minutes.
It happened again while we had some family visiting. We got soaked running the one block to the subway. Everyone else in NYC was huddled under overhangs or had gone into buildings. I kept expecting it to let up but this one just kept going. While driving home I had to pull off the road because my windshield wipers could not keep up and the defroster on full blast with A/C on still couldn't get rid of the humidity in the car.
I don't ever remember having weather stop me in my tracks like that. I guess it is from growing up in California but weather is usually just something to remember to bring an umbrella or not. I guess that's why I don't like icy roads so much. It bugs me when "Mother Nature" puts her foot down.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Misconceptions of Living on the East Coast

One thing I do not miss about being in California is being around "The Biz". I hated the traffic caused by filming movies on closed freeways and roads. I thought it was something we would leave behind. Imagine the fun now of getting to deal with filming at Grand Central Terminal when we arrive by train though. I guess, different area, different mode of transportation that needs to be filmed.
I have not got used to just driving between states on regular errands. While growing up driving outside of California, usually through Las Vegas, meant it was a long drive that usually took at least 6 hours. Now I'm in three different states in one day while running errands as if they were counties.
Another thing I have noticed is the number of older buildings. I know someone from Las Vegas who thinks anything older than 20 years is to old and ugly. I have buildings in my town that were built in the 1600's. Of course all the old buildings lead to more abandoned buildings. I guess its just the nostalgic part of me that keeps saying- wow, that building is so cool, why doesn't someone want to fix it up. It seemed like in California that everyone wanted a new house and was willing to drive quite the distance to live in one.
There are a lot of misconceptions about the other coast from people that I talk to. I keep comparing it to California because that is where I lived the longest, but I have lived in plenty of places. There are people I know that live on both Coasts that have never left the State they were born in, and that is saying something on the East Coast. The "never left their state" people here were surprised that everyone in the west was not still using out-houses. People on the West Coast can't believe I see deer on my commute a couple of times a week since the whole East Coast is nothing but one big city according to them. Its funny, I live closer now to NYC than I did to Los Angeles when I lived in California and there is less urban sprawl where I live here.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Childhood makes more sense on the East Coast

There is a lot of things when I was a kid growing up on the West Coast that did not make sense to me. I had always chalked it up to there just being old sayings or traditions but since we have moved out to the East Coast I understand how they came to be.
Thanksgiving: All the pictures I had seen of Thanksgiving Turkeys are colorful with purple heads and almost a peacock plumage in the back. Anyone who drove past the Turkey farm on the 60 freeway in Los Angeles (You'd remember the smell if you did.) know that Turkeys in captivity are all white. Any wild turkeys I have seen were small, brown and just a little larger then a chicken. I was amazed when I saw a wild Turkey here, they look just like all the cardboard signs from my childhood.

White Christmas: My wife tells me of the snowy Christmases she would have in Utah of getting a bike for Christmas and it doing no good since it is to cold outside. All the Christmas songs actually make you want to things like drink hot chocolate here when you don't have to have the air conditioning on like I remember one year.

Groundhog day: I have never seen a groundhog until moving to the East Coast. When I was a kid I always thought it was something similar to a gopher, not something as big as a cat. (I thought the one off of the movie "Groundhog Day" was a fat one in captivity.) February in California is also the rainy season so the groundhog seeing his shadow would mean less of the much needed rain. (Or whichever it is, I never could keep them straight since it did not matter to me.) Speaking of rain, the saying "April showers brings May flowers" is true here. April in California brings the Santa Ana's which leads to Summer starting in May. So by that time most things are brown. In Oregon everything is green and rainy year round so it really doesn't make sense.

TV showtimes: Every commercial always announces a TV show time something like "8/7 Central". No math is needed since I'm already on Eastern Time. (With cable something on at 8ET would be on at 5 pacific time.)

They just cater to you. Being part of a big enough group to be catered to is a very different feeling to me. I am not used to it at all. I am starting to see how the baby boomers see life.

Monday, June 02, 2008

My Job

I guess I have not written that much about what I do for work. Well I'm the new guy so I get to work on the projects that no one else wants. I built a database for HR and worked for quite a while trying to add speech recognition to a program with an under-powered engine.
The department I work in tries to create software for people with disabilities. I know, I've got one of those jobs where I can say "Well at least I'm making a difference." Then laugh under my breath because of the bureaucracy. Since the biggest demand is to help companies this translates into helping older workers work longer. While this may sound like a terrible thing to be part of but when I do any testing of the software with older adults they are thrilled to have it so I guess its more along the lines of helping people to be more productive as they get older.
Since my area is Human-Computer Interaction I am the one in charge of re-designing the user interface. When I started working there I basically declared it needed to be done and assigned myself to it. I guess its a good thing my boss agreed with me.
It is an add-on for Firefox to make text bigger, more contrast, speak to you, steady mouse movements, add sound to the buttons, space out words, and a bunch of other things. Since it has to be so customizable the user interface is pretty complex so it makes it interesting to work on but also takes a long time. The bureaucracy steps in when they want to expand it to as many groups as possible. Dyslexic kids, low vision adults, those with cognitive problems, and a group with motor problems like MS to name a few. They all have little things they want and need and sometimes they conflict (It is impossible to have "Universal Accessibility") so making it easy for all the groups to use it and understand everything gets exponentially harder as they add each group. Everyone is all smiles and has a list of things they want to add when I have done user testing so I guess I am doing something right though.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Driving in NYC

One of the biggest reasons that people are scared to come visit us is the fear of driving in NYC. After all the places that I have gone, and growing up in the Los Angeles area, I have come to recognize some of the cultures of driving. For NYC it leans towards aggressive. Mind you not as bad as Italy. The most aggressive is still Naples. But really that is the only fault. Other places I have driven have more dangerous traits: Laissez-faire attitude to the laws- Places like China where the lines on the roads are worn off from everyone driving on them. Unawareness- Utah, I can only guess they are so involved with what is going on in the car they have no idea what is happening outside of it. Speeding- route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, if there is empty road in front of you its going to waste.
The aggressiveness here really slows down traffic. I would say that even with more cars on the road traffic in Los Angeles seems to move better because there seems to be more of an acceptance of traffic. It becomes mind-numbing but and along with that comes the idea that everyone is sharing the goal of getting to the destination. Here it is totally normal to cut off traffic and back it up 30 seconds to shave 3 seconds off your commute. People will get to the absolute furthest point before merging lanes or exiting/entering the freeway. That is the one that really bothers me and I have been honked at for not allowing cars to merge. (It makes you think- they are mad because I'm not letting them cut me off, I still don't understand it either.)
The worst drivers I have seen though are cars with New Jersey and Pennsylvania license plates. I guess it is because they have to commute even more. We saw a car (Pennsylvania) with a spike sticking out directly in front of their front tire. So if you didn't let them merge in front of you, you'll end up with a scratch down your car or a popped tire.
Like most places though, as long as heavy traffic times are avoided it is much less stress. There is also no real reason to drive into Manhattan, public transportation is good and finding parking is expensive and a pain.

What became of the motorcycle gear

The thing about owning a motorcycle is that it is only one piece of the puzzle. There is a lot of other gear involved.Originally I had planned to sell it all with the motorcycle but the guy that bought it was pretty short and didn't know what to do with the manuals I had.
I kept my armored jacket and pants to use for skiing. I figure crashing on a motorcycle and skiing into a tree are pretty similar. I have only been skiing once in my life so we'll see if this actually happens. It just so happens that a few people were buying motorcycles at the same time I was getting rid of mine. I figured trying to sell most of the stuff was just not worth it. I gave my summer jacket to my friend D. in the hopes that he would use a little more protection, and the tank bag and gloves to his step father.
The best one though was giving my leather jacket to D.'s uncle. He just got a Harley and was very much into the image of it. Apparently he spent all the money on the bike and getting the jacket for free allowed him to ride in colder weather. The reason why this is important is he found out he had cancer, then only lived a few more weeks before dying. One of his dying requests was to be cremated in that jacket. It was weird that something I didn't care about made someone else so happy. Glad I had the whim to offer it to him since it just sat in my closet for years since it was to heavy for me.