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Amparo Bertram

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February 22nd, 2017

05:00 am: Water, water everywhere
The rain has been pretty heavy this past week. The most recent storm turned most of my back yard into a swamp. This makes for a lot of muddy doggy footprints on my floor.

I went to my local nursery a couple weeks ago and asked if they carried any dwarf avocado trees. The staff had never heard of such a thing. I went back this weekend, and they had gotten a bunch in stock. They must have looked them up and ordered them after my previous visit. I picked up one of those, plus a 4-in-1 grafted almond tree to try out in my yard.

Next weekend I'll start the seeds for my summer transplantable crops, mainly squash and cucumber.

Another promising piece of news is that I may have found a contractor to do my bathroom renovation project. He's a friend of one of my neighbors. He responded quickly when I called and returned a reasonable estimate. I just have to get a good estimate from his plumber, and I should be all set. If I'm lucky, the project could get started next month.

February 11th, 2017

11:00 am: The dog days of winter
I got a lot of spring vegetables planted, and my dad helped put fences around all my garden beds to keep the dogs out. However, it turns out that a certain beagle is more persistent than expected, and he managed to scoop big chunks of dirt out of one of the pea beds despite the fence, the little stinker. My dad reinforced the fence with some bamboo stakes, so hopefully that will do the trick.

Not much else has been going on, as we mainly huddle inside watching TV and playing board games while rain pounds outside. I have gotten the beans sorted from my variety trial last year and they're all organized for planting out in April.

February 1st, 2017

08:16 am: After the storm
The Bay Area received a substantial amount of rain in January. While the water was much needed to replenish what was used during the drought, it also resulted in a lot of flooding and damaged roads. It also meant that it was hard to do any work out in the yard, with everything so wet.

We finally had a few sunny days this past weekend, so we used the opportunity to get a lot done. We finished the winter pruning and planted the early spring vegetables, plus more strawberries. My dad worked on putting up fences around all of my garden beds to keep the dogs from digging up the plants. He also did a lot of weeding in the front yard, which I have been neglecting for months.

We're still working our way through my bountiful winter squash harvest. I also cooked up some of the salsify that I've been letting self-seed in the front yard.

I'm going to try growing onions this year. I've been avoiding them because they look similar to an annoying weed that grows here, but I've decided that if I grow the onions only in a specific area, I should be able to tell them apart.

I've placed an order for more bees to replace the ones that were killed off last summer. This time I'm ordering a nuc (essentially a small hive) instead of a package (a queen with a bunch of unrelated workers). That ought to give them a head start in building up a strong colony.

07:58 am: January board game report
My parents joined me in playing a lot of my games this month. Here is the list of all the new-to-them games, along with their top picks for the month.

Click for meeple goodnessCollapse )

Both of my parents decided that their favorites were the Dominion upgrade packs, but they didn't think it was fair to include those in their lists, because they were already predisposed to like them. Thus, Dominion gets a special bonus award instead.

Mom's Top Five
5. Traders of Osaka
4. Colony
3. Aeon's End
2. Five Tribes
1. Pandemic Iberia

Dad's Top Five
5. The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game
4. Yardmaster Express
3. Taluva
2. Colony
1. Pandemic Iberia

Pandemic Iberia comes out as the big winner for the month, with Colony also appearing on both lists.

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January 19th, 2017

09:36 am: Filling in the gaps
I keep wanting to wait until I've finished my trip report before adding new current updates, but then I keep not doing the trip report. My computer with all the image editing software is in my bedroom, which has two enormous leaky windows, making it uncomfortably cold to stay in during the winter. I keep the door shut so I don't waste money trying to heat it, and then I never want to go in there if I don't have to, so I end up postponing working on the trip report until "later"...

In any case, days continue passing without updates, so I thought I'd get caught up. Not that there's much to catch up. There isn't much happening in the garden this time of year. The biggest piece of news is that my job instituted a new 5am shift, so when I'm on that shift, I have to leave home at around 4am to catch the bus to get there on time. I would put the dogs out in the yard before leaving, but then the neighbors complained about them barking so early in the morning. I ended up buying a large shed for the back patio that I could use as a dog house with a door that I could use for closing the dogs inside when I have to leave early. Until the shed was assembled, I kept the dogs shut in the bathroom while I was away at work, and that seemed to do the trick reasonably well.

My parents arrived on January 4 for an extended visit. They've already been doing a lot around the house and yard, cleaning and assembling the shed and pruning plants in the garden, as well as helping me get a lot of my board game collection played. The dogs love having company during the day.

I've been trying to find a contractor to take on a project to add a shower to the half bath in my master bedroom. The first contractor gave me a good estimate, but when I arranged a meeting to finalize plans for the project, he told me that he talked with his bathroom crew and they didn't want to work in my area. @_@ I've been trying to find someone else since then, but either they say they'll give an estimate but never do, or they give an estimate that's ridiculously high, or they disagree with my design decisions. I've tried calling the contractor who did my kitchen, but he has become relatively famous since appearing on HGTV, and he moved his business north to Sacramento. He said he'd refer me to his former foreman, so I'm crossing my fingers that will work out.

That's pretty much the extent of the news around here.

January 1st, 2017

05:45 pm: Top Games of 2016
These lists are to sum up my thoughts on the best new board game releases of the year. One caveat is that I still haven't gotten to play all of my new games. Items excluded due to this include Agility, Allegiance: A Realm Divided, Colony, and Kanagawa, among others.

Top 10 2016 GamesCollapse )

Top 5 2016 Board Game ExpansionsCollapse )

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December 23rd, 2016

04:05 pm: Europe Vacation 2016 - Part IV - Frankfurt
On Tuesday, October 18, we boarded a train to Koblenz that traveled roughly along the Mosel River. One interesting thing we noticed about the train is that it didn't have windows built to open in emergencies; instead, there are glass breaking tools attached to the walls at intervals, with nearby windows marked with red spots where people are supposed to crack them open if required. I don't think I've ever seen such a system before.

After arriving at Koblenz, we went on along the Rhein to Frankfurt. We had originally thought about getting off the train to take a short cruise up the river for the scenery, but that would have added a lot of time to the trip, and we could see a lot from the train windows anyway. It was just hard to take pictures due to the speed and the foliage of trees blocking the view. Still, I did get a few shots of the many cathedrals and quaint villages and castles (...and more castles...and more castles...) we passed.

We arrived at Frankfurt Station early in the afternoon and checked into our hotel, which was conveniently close (though the tradeoff for that was that the location is in the red light district). It was gray and rainy, but it was still light enough that we decided to walk around the city a bit. We mainly wandered around wherever the sights took us, without any particular goal in mind. (At one point, a large police-escorted procession passed us, and we thought maybe Angela Merkel was in the convoy, but we later saw on the news that she was in Berlin, so it must have been someone else.) We came across lots of scenic buildings and strolled through another cathedral.

Oh, one more thing. The burning question whenever it comes to trip planning: Does it have MANGA?

Yes. Yes, it does.

After supper, we wended our way back to our hotel, using distinctive skyscrapers as landmarks. (It's definitely quite the modern city, despite all the historical sites we visited.) We repeated the experience the next day, taking different routes to see more of the city. We came across some more fun sights, like an out of the way Lego store, and a decorative restaurant. We did get a tad lost along the way, accidentally walking to the complete opposite side of the city and visiting the zoo gift shop, but at least that was a big enough landmark that we were able to re-orient ourselves and head back.

One sobering part of our exploration was coming across commemorative metal markers embedded in the sidewalk noting the names of Jewish people who had been taken away during the war. There was even one a few yards away from our hotel.

After lunch, as we were on the way to our hotel, I stopped in at the local game shop to browse. I was hoping to find some games that I'd like to buy that are available only in German and were never published in English, but sadly I didn't locate any of the ones on my list. However, I did make a different discovery. When I was preparing for trading games at Essen, one person contacted me and offered to buy one of the games I had available. He also asked if I could order a particular title that he said was sold out in Europe. Sadly, it wasn't available in the US either, so I wasn't able to get a copy for him. As it turns out, though, this shop in Frankfurt had a copy of it on their shelf. When we got back to our hotel that evening, I managed to send a message to this person to let him know it was there, and he contacted the store and ordered it. Happy ending!

We spent the remainder of our evening playing games in our hotel room and listening to the rain outside. It was almost time for the final leg of our journey.

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December 11th, 2016

04:54 pm: Europe Vacation 2016 - Part III - Taking the Scenic Route
Sunday, October 16, we returned to the main Essen train station for the next leg of our journey. We stood near the platforms for a while as I tried to decipher the route map to find which train on which platform we would need to take. Eventually I gave up on that and left my parents watching the luggage while I searched other areas of the station until I located a master train schedule with the information I needed. I bought our group ticket and we boarded the train to Cologne (Köln).

Our hotel was only about two blocks from the station, so we didn't have much trouble finding the place and checking in. The man at the front desk even came outside and greeted us by name as we approached, then gave us a map of the city and recommendations of things to see and places to eat. We dropped off our luggage in our room and went out to visit the sights.

The main attraction in Cologne is the cathedral, which is a stunning architectural feat. The entire place had been bombed to rubble in the war and was reconstructed afterward, matching the new portions to the recovered pieces of old stone.

We only looked briefly at the cathedral that evening, as we were interested in seeing a museum or two, which were only a few blocks away. We set off in the direction that we thought the museums should be, according to our map...but as we walked and walked and didn't see any sign of them, we knew something was wrong. We kept checking the map and comparing it to the streets around us, but there are no regular street signs, just the occasional one posted on the sides of buildings.

Finally we crossed a subway line that had maps outside the entrances, and by following those we were able to re-orient ourselves. It turned out that we were basing our reading of the map on the location of the cathedral, but what we had thought was the front of the cathedral was actually the side, so we were off by 90 degrees. That was why we couldn't make sense of any of the locations.

By the time we got back to where we had intended to go, we had been walking for about an hour and were too tired and hungry to spend any time at the museums. We entered a crowded plaza lined with shops and restaurants and looked for a place to eat. Since arriving in Germany, we had eaten Italian (pizza), American (burgers), Japanese (sushi), and Indian (curry), but the only "traditional" German food we had tried was the Berliner jelly doughnut that megory had bought specifically so that she could quote Eddie Izzard.

We sought out a traditional brewhouse and ordered the potato pancake meal, served with applesauce and thin slices of heavy rye bread. We also tried the local beer, called Kölsch, which is supposed to be famous in the area. (It just tasted like regular beer to me, but I'm not really a beer drinker.) We were glad that the man at the hotel had warned us about the beer-serving custom in this city, which is that the server will refill your cup whenever it is empty...but the refills aren't free. The server keeps track of the refills by making tally marks on the coaster, then bill you for everything at the end of the meal. If you don't want the refills, you have to place the coaster over the top of the glass.

We returned to our hotel after supper for some board gaming and a good night's sleep. In the morning, we were treated to a substantial breakfast buffet, which was included in the room price. It was an impressive service of various cheeses, jams, and pickles, with toast, boiled eggs, fresh fruit, pastries, yogurt, puddings, granola, and cafe-style coffee. We did some more early-morning sightseeing in and around the cathedral, then checked out and carted our luggage back to the train station for our ride to Trier.

I had originally heard about Trier because it's the setting for a board game that came out at Essen in a previous year. (I picked up a copy while I was there, knowing we would be visiting the site.) It's on the Mosel River, which is famous for the vineyards that grow along the slopes that line the river valley. Some of the slopes are so steep, they appear nearly vertical, as perhaps can be seen in this shot I took from the train. Something else we could see from the train was that Germany has lots of solar panels. I knew there was an internet meme going around touting Germany's dedication to solar power, but reading something on the internet isn't the same as seeing all the panels in person.

In Trier, I had opted to reserve a room at a hotel a fair hike from the station. In exchange, our hotel was literally a few doors down from the main tourist attraction, the Porta Nigra, a structure built centuries ago by Romans.

Not only is the imposing Porta Nigra quite photogenic, it fronts on a popular courtyard surrounded on all sides by decorative buildings. We spent some time wandering up and down the streets, gazing at all the carvings and towers and fountains and statues and other artistic structures in the area. (Of perhaps equal import at this point in our trip, we located and made use of a coin laundry, which happened to be down the street from the Karl Marx House.)

The crowds thinned and shops started closing once the sun went down after about 5pm. We selected a restaurant for supper, and the place was practically vacant, which was quite the contrast to the number of people having drinks and desserts at the outdoor tables earlier in the day. After supper we strolled down the block to our hotel and prepared to head to the Big City. Next stop: Frankfurt.

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December 5th, 2016

10:14 am: Europe Vacation 2016 - Part II - Essen
On October 12, we hauled our luggage through the Underground to the airport and left on a flight for Dusseldorf. The first thing we had to do was figure out how to catch a train to our destination, Essen. I spent several minutes fiddling with the ticket vending machine and managed to get a group ticket, but I wasn't quite sure how to read the route map to find a train to our destination. From what I could tell, the next express train wasn't leaving for another hour. Fortunately for us, a kind stranger asked if he could be of assistance. It turns out he was going the same place, and he knew how to find a train (not an express) that would depart sooner. He was also traveling on a group ticket that was valid for up to five people, so he let us travel with him and share his ticket in exchange for me giving him the one that I had just bought.

The German train system is extensive and relatively convenient, if you know how to buy the proper ticket and read the train schedule. What seemed bizarre to me (in comparison to the train system in Japan) is that there were never any turnstiles at any of the stations for checking the tickets. Instead, the system relies on random spot checks by conductors, with fines for passengers traveling without tickets. Also, there are substantial discounts for traveling in groups; only one person in the group has to be carrying a ticket.

We got off the train at the main station in Essen and located the tourist information office where we bought our tickets for the gaming trade show (Internationale Spieltage, aka Spiel) we were there to attend. Then we took the subway to our hotel, which was around the corner from the convention center. We splurged on this particular hotel, and I think it was worth it for not having to travel the subway every morning to commute to the convention. Tens of thousands of people attend, and though many drive cars, the subway is still packed to the gills every day. The hotel also had good wi-fi service, which would turn out to be uncommon (at least at the more budget hotels where we stayed later).

The morning of October 13, we set out early to find breakfast. We selected a little cafe a couple blocks away. Germany is full of little sandwich and pastry cafes; while that made it easy to find something quick to eat, eventually one gets tired of eating sandwiches. We were partial to this one, however, because it served a brand of tomato juice with a familiar name.

After breakfast, we walked to the convention center, and along the way we first noticed the bike path. Bikes are everywhere in Germany, and while the bike paths are sometimes marked on the streets, often they are part of the sidewalk. The distinguishing feature is that they are paved with a different type of brick from the area intended for pedestrians. (This technique is used for other purposes as well, such as demarcating handicapped parking.) While this is certainly clever, since it eliminates the need for repeatedly touching up painted lines, it means that pedestrians have to be constantly watching the stones at their feet to make sure they aren't wandering into a bicycle zone.

While I'm on the topic of paving techniques, I should mention that Germany seems to have a love affair with cobblestones. Not only do they use bumpy cobblestones for regular sidewalks, they also use them for areas where they KNOW people are going to be rolling wheeled objects, such as the area in front of a hotel, or the handicap-accessible ramp leading to a major train station. Honestly, I can't imagine what they were thinking.

Anyway, we spent the morning browsing the vendors at the convention. While not as gargantuan as Comiket, it's still huge, and the whole thing is packed with people trying and buying board games. I had made up a list in advance of the games I wanted to see and purchase, so I dashed through the halls with my parents in tow to get to the vendors I was afraid might sell out. Once the initial rush was over, we wandered in a more leisurely fashion. We ran into Richard Ham, a popular game reviewer, who remembered us from Gen Con two years ago. We also stopped by the table where his wife was selling her handmade glass crafts, and I bought a set of decorative coasters.

At noon, we attended the math trade, where I exchanged a bunch of games that I didn't need anymore for a bunch of new-to-me games. My parents were a great help in this endeavor, as they could stay in one place with my stack of games to be given away while I could venture into the mass of traders to locate the people with games for me to collect. Once the trading was accomplished for the day, we went out to a pizza place for lunch, then plunged back into the crowds for more exploration of the vendor halls. We stayed until the evening, when my mother and I attended an informal meetup of a bunch of women who chat on the BoardGame Geek forum. It was fascinating to meet everyone in person; they were not only from Germany, but also Poland and other surrounding countries. Everyone spoke English because it was the one language they could all understand.

Once the gathering broke up, we picked up my dad and all went out for supper. I had looked up a list of vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the area, so we went to one of the places on the list, which was actually a burger joint. It wasn't something I would have tried on my own if I hadn't seen it on the list, because I would have thought there wouldn't be anything we could eat. As it turns out, despite the prevalence of sausage everywhere, vegetarianism (and veganism) is apparently popular in Germany. Many restaurants have special vegetarian sections of the menu. We never had any trouble finding something to eat. Even when we went to a steak house where the name of the restaurant was literally Meat (well, technically it was "Me[e/a]t"), they would substitute a vegetarian burger for any of the regular burgers on the menu.

Friday, October 14, was mostly a repeat of the previous day. We got breakfast at the cafe, then attended Essen until the midday math trade, where I concluded all my game exchanges. In the afternoon, we walked into town, where I wanted to stop by a bookstore to buy an authentic German cookbook. We had a late lunch of sushi before returning to the convention for a last-minute game purchase. At that point, I measured the weight of my suitcase with all the games in it, and I found that I was at my limit. I could still fit a little more in my handcarry luggage, but as I intended to buy souvenirs later in the trip, I knew that I had to stop buying games or it wouldn't all fit.

Due to that, we decided not to go back to the convention, even though our tickets were good for two more days. Instead, we spent Saturday morning at the shopping mall near the main train station. It was interesting to see all the shops there, and we had a nice Indian curry lunch. We also encountered our first public restrooms, which are pay-to-use. The one at the mall had an attendant standing in front of a table with a little tray of coins. When a person finishes using the restroom, the requirement is to toss a 50 Euro-cent coin into the tray. Because of the necessity of paying coins to use restrooms, I had to make sure to keep an abundance of small coins at all times.

The system at the mall at least made sense. Later, we would encounter the system used at the train stations, which is rather bizarre. The restrooms are blocked by automated gates. There is a machine on the wall that accepts coins to open the gate. Your choices are either to pay 1 Euro coin, in which case you get back a coupon good for 50 cents at any of the station shops, or to pay a 50 cent coin plus a 50 cent restroom coupon (from a previous visit), in which case you get nothing back. So you're actually being charged double if you use the coupon. One might think this system is intended to save the cost of hiring an attendent, as at the mall, but in fact there was an attendent present (I presume to help people who didn't know how to operate the machine and to make sure there were no gate-jumpers). I didn't really understand the point of the strange coupon system, but I guess it works for them.

We walked back to our hotel and packed for the rest of our trip.

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November 27th, 2016

09:31 am: Europe Vacation 2016 - Part I - London
My trip started on October 9, when I hopped on an outbound plane at SFO. My first stop was LAX, where I had to make a transfer. If you've never been through LAX, let me just say that they have a serious signage deficiency. I had to stop and ask staff several times where I was supposed to go for my connection, because there weren't any signs showing the way. For example, my domestic flight landed in a tiny outbuilding, and I had to board a bus to drive across the tarmac to a different terminal. There were two available buses, one bound for Terminal 4 and one bound for Terminal 6. I checked the flight departure board for information about the location of my next flight, and all it said was "TBIT."

Nowhere did it explain what TBIT meant, nor did it say which of the two buses would get me there.

That was just my first experience with frustration at this airport. It's a good thing I allowed plenty of time for my connection when I booked my ticket, because such situations kept happening. Either there were no signs, or the sign was facing the opposite direction so that I was approaching from the rear where I couldn't read it, or the sign pointed me toward an area marked "authorized personnel only," or there was an intersection and the sign was at the end of the hallway so you would have to be lucky enough to pick the right path first before seeing it.

In any case, I made my flight, and I landed safely at Heathrow the morning of October 10. My parents, who had arrived there several days earlier, picked me up and helped me get my luggage to the hotel. I was bringing a checked suitcase packed full of games, which I would be trading for different games when I reached Germany. In the meantime, I had to maneuver it through the city's Underground, which was exceedingly inconvenient because half the stations don't have elevators or escalators, only stairs. I guess they expect people with wheelchairs or strollers just won't use half the stations?

Another problem I encountered was that I hadn't packed the right outerwear. The temperature was in the 80s when I left San Francisco. I figured it would be colder, but I estimated it would be in the 60s, so I packed mainly T-shirts and a couple sweatshirts. As it turns out, the weather was in the 40s and 50s for most of my trip; it even got down into the 30s for a while when I was in Munich. If I had known, I would have brought my winter coat. I ended up borrowing a windbreaker from my parents, which helped cut the chill a bit.

After settling my things at the hotel, we went out for lunch at a nearby bookstore called Foyle's, which had free wi-fi (our hotel didn't) and a cafe on the top floor. I had my first meal of tea and scones. It was quite good, and it came with enough tea that all three of us could share one. After eating, we walked over to the British Museum, which was only a few blocks away. There were lots of buses traveling the streets, and my parents had ridden them to see the city a bit before I arrived, but I preferred to walk.

The biggest annoyance when walking anywhere was that the city is full of smokers, and everyone apparently lights up the moment they step outside a building. No matter where we went, we were always surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke. Heck, even Tokyo has outlawed smoking on the sidewalks, and they smoke like fiends there. If they can do it, why not London? To be fair, Germany had the same issue. There were people smoking not only on the sidewalks, but also waiting on train platforms, sitting at outdoor tables at cafes, and standing in doorways. The main difference was that the population density in Germany was generally less, so we would occasionally encounter patches of breathable air. London was so packed, the smoke was inescapable most of the day. Really, London, WHY SO MUCH SMOKE?!

Anyway, we spent a few hours viewing the museum, by which point I was ready to crash. We made arrangements to meet early the next morning and then turned in for the night.

On the morning of October 11, we set out in search of breakfast. We ended up going to McDonald's, where we knew we could get something hot and fast. They had an interesting system, where they had installed giant touch-screen panels on the wall for people to place their orders. Once the order is placed, people just wait around for their numbers to be called on a display screen, then pick up the order and go. No need to interact with a staff person at all. I haven't been to a McDonald's in years, so I don't know if we do the same thing here, but I had never seen that before.

After eating, we walked down through the theater district. We passed by the place where they were performing the Harry Potter show, which was decorated so that you couldn't miss it. Patrick Stewart was performing at another place nearby. If I had been staying longer, it would have been nice to have seen some kind of performance, but I just didn't have time. We wandered through Chinatown, which was practically vacant at that hour, and continued on toward Trafalgar Square.

By the time we got there, pedestrian traffic was starting to pick up. That's when I also started to notice that about 70% of the pedestrians completely ignore the traffic signals. (I suspect the other 30% are the tourists.) As I was contemplating this observation, I noticed that the pedestrian traffic signals in this particular area did not have the standard images for "walk" as in other parts of the city. Instead, they had been modified to represent various lifestyles. (I pointed this out to my parents, who hadn't realized what the symbols meant.)

We continued on down the road toward Buckingham Palace. Unfortunately, we were there on an off day, so we wouldn't be able to watch the changing of the guard. We could at least see the shiny gates, though.

From there, we turned and headed toward more landmarks, such as Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. We crossed Westminster Bridge, from which we had a panoramic view of the city. I thought there were a lot of bridges here in San Francisco for traversing the bay, but London definitely has us beat in the bridge department. As we moseyed along the Queen's Walk, we kept track of our progress by how many bridges we passed. After seeing the outside of the Globe Theater, we went back via the Millenium Bridge, from which we could see still other bridges farther down the way.

We walked back toward Trafalgar Square and stopped in at the National Gallery to view some art. We followed that up with some shopping at Harrod's. The store was certainly large; it was easy to become disoriented. We asked for directions to the escalator, and the staff person advised that we should take the "Egyptian" escalator, because it was the best one. We were perplexed by that description...until we followed her directions and found it. The escalator was located in its own little connecting hall, and the entire chamber from top to bottom had been sculpted to look like something out of a pyramid. There were carvings and statues on every surface. I thought about taking a picture, but there was just no way to capture it in a single shot.

By the time we finished shopping, it was starting to get dark. We returned to Foyle's for supper (and more wi-fi), then went back to our hotel for the night. In the morning we would be leaving on a plane to Germany.

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