Thursday, December 5, 2013

Movin' On Up

I've mentioned a couple of times now that we've been super busy this autumn. The main reason was that we moved! We're still in Pittsburgh, but in a different part of it now. Let me start our moving story with a bit of a flash-back. Three years ago, we were living in a super small/dark/generally-crappy basement apartment far away from everything (except a job I had left long before).

The entire living room from the front door, and the entire kitchen from the living room

Our friends, Ben & Anne, owned a lovely house in a down-and-out neighborhood. They were passionate about helping to revitalize the area. They shared it with her mom and his brother. When Mom decided to move out, they offered us her room. The rent was very low, so we could use it as an opportunity to catch up financially. We said yes.

The house on move-in day, and Shane in our tiny bedroom wearing a hat
(Incidentally, the picture on the left is the reason I don't wear pants in public anymore.)

We stayed for two and half years. In that time the brother moved out, Ben & Anne themselves moved out, and three more friends moved in. Our friend Dylan bought the house next door and filled it with people in a similar way. We had a little almost commune happening. It was great! And it was very hard! Looking back, I see that it was also very good for us. We grew a lot there.

Our steampunk Halloween party! (sorry for the blur...)

Then Shane and I went on vacation. When we got back, it became clear to me that it was time to be just the two of us again. I talked it over with Shane, and he agreed. I spent the next week cruising Craigslist in my spare time. Shane called half a dozen of my leads on Friday night, and we spent Saturday apartment shopping. One of the wonderful things about this move was that there was no time limit. We knew if we didn't find anything right away, it would be OK.

The first place we saw was just like our old apartment. It even had the same ugly green carpet! We couldn't leave quickly enough. We spent some time in a comfy little coffee shop double-checking the listings. Then we went to another appointment. This one was more promising. The walls were yellowed, and the carpet awful. But the landlord said he would put down new hardwood floor and paint.

From the Craigslist posting. Taken before the previous tenant moved in.

We told him we'd think about it, and found one more place across the street. We called the number on the sign, and a salesperson from the management company was there in a half-hour. It was much more expensive, and not much nicer. That night, Shane Googled the management company and found out they have a terrible reputation. Of the three places, we had a clear winner, but was it worth jumping on? We gave it a few days of thought, and decided it was. The next Saturday, we went back to sign the lease. The floors were already done!


Shane and the landlord looking over the lease, with new floors and seriously scary walls.
And my excited-to-have-a-new-apartment face at the train station afterward.


We waited until the middle of October to move. (The first two weekends of the month were filled with parties!) I spent a lot of that intervening month going through boxes. Because the house was fully furnished when we moved in, most of our things had stayed in the attic. I went through everything we owned looking for things to get rid of. I found a ton! We have learned a lot about living simply in the last few years, and it shows. I was surprised by how many times I thought "Why do we have this?". Once I was satisfied, we moved everything to the front porch, and asked the VVA folks to come pick it up.

The work in progress filling the dining room, and later on the porch: ready to go away

Shane booked the pick-up online Sunday night, and they came by Monday while we were at work. The way all that stuff disappeared seemed like magic! Still, some of my childhood things were hard to get rid of. I took pictures to remember them by, and tried to keep in mind how I felt at the end of Toy Story 3.


When moving day came, we had tons of help! YAY FRIENDS!! Matt and Brandi (and Elie) and Al helped us load the truck. Neil helped us unload, and Beth helped with everything. I didn't think we'd be able to get it all done on the first day, but we did! When we took Neil and Beth to dinner, we discovered a fantastic Indian restaurant just down the road. The next day, we had still more amazing people who wanted to help us. Jenn and Derek assembled our Ikea bed and wardrobe (and more). Kira washed most of our dishes and then helped us drop off the truck and run to the grocery store. After the weekend was over, we felt super tired and very well loved.

The living room: still too much stuff, and the Ikea parts and wardrobe manual.
(I found them days later. The incredible Jenn and Derek flew without a net!)
The wardrobe name is appropriate because that's what assembly makes you feel like: a DOMB├ůS.

I can't wait to show you how the place looks when we're done putting it together! We're mostly there now. I cleared out the last of the boxes a few weeks ago, and spent a good deal of my Thanksgiving weekend hanging things on walls. I even put up the Christmas tree! I think the apartment is really starting to feel like it's ours. That really means a lot to me. It's a feeling I've been chasing for a long time now.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Vacation - Part 5: Gettysburg

This is my last vacation post! I will try to keep it brief. It's a shame, really, because I remember being super excited to write about this final part of our trip. But a lot has happened since early September, and I am sick of waiting to write about it all. Hopefully, the pictures will help to do the talking.

We spent a day and a half exploring Gettysburg, PA. I think two would've been perfect. We were camping again; this time at Cunningham Falls State Park in Maryland. The park was wonderful! I hope to return someday just to explore the hiking trails. However, a word to the wise: the campgrounds got very busy on the weekend.


The first morning, we drove straight to the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center. It is a big, beautiful building with lots of parking. We booked a personal tour in advance. I highly recommend it! For almost the same price as two bus tour tickets, we had a delightful guide drive our car around the park for us. His name was Ted Gajewski, and we loved him! His delivery was polished, but he paused often to ask if we had questions. His enigmatic presentation made the battle feel real and immediate to me. When he concluded the tour on Cemetery Hill, I had to resist the urge to applaud him!


Included with the tour was admission to the visitor center's museum, video presentation, and cyclorama experience. If I had a do-over, I would check out the indoor stuff first. We breezed through the museum before our tour, which gave me the background I needed to truly understand the story our guide walked us through. But I would've liked to have had a closer look. We saw the video/cyclorama presentation after our tour. The video was terribly redundant at that point, but the cyclorama is spectacular! It is a giant wrap-around painting accompanied by a recorded light and sound presentation. A voice-over talks about the battle with gunshots and explosions in the background. Sadly, I could not stay in that room for very long. After our immersive tour, it was too much for my poor emotionally spongy self to handle.

Me & Abe outside the visitor's center

After the battlefield, we took the free trolley from the visitor center to downtown Gettysburg. I was impressed by how non-commercial the place was (esp. compared to Williamsburg). It didn't seem like a tourist town so much as just a small town which happens to have some tourist business.

There was a house museum on my agenda which advertised a look at everyday family life around the time if the Civil War. I figured it would be a nice break from all the upsetting battle talk. Boy was I wrong! Please don't misunderstand; the Shriver House is a great place. The tour guide was nice and competent, and wore period clothing. But I was not going to avoid sad stories there. The Shriver family had it rough! Granted, most families in Gettysburg did. The battle left behind something like 15-20 times more wounded, dead, and dying soldiers than there were local civilians. Essentially, every building became a hospital in some way.


After all that sad, we went to Hunt's Battlefield Fries for dinner. It doesn't look like much, but the reviews online were great. They were right! We enjoyed awesome cheese-steak, and super friendly service. Also, they had more bottled craft soda than I've ever seen in one place.


We were beat after dinner, so we called it a night early. On our second morning in Gettysburg, we packed up the tent and drove downtown. We found good coffee at the Cafe Saint-Amand, but the wait time for food was super long. That was a bit of a problem because we had an appointment for our photo to be taken. The experience we had with Victorian Photography Studios was great, though. Check out our awesome wet-plate photo:


I plan to use it for our Christmas card! (Nothing says "Happy Holidays" like a picture where are heads are being held still by metal brackets, right?) Incidentally, I'm still trying to come up with a good caption for the card. Something like "Party like it's 1859", but you know... good. Please tell me if you have any ideas!

After the photo session, we got delicious ice cream from Mr. G's Ice Cream, toured the Gettysburg Foundation's headquarters/free museum called the Rupp House, and hit the road for home. It was fantastic to take a whole week off! We saw family, explored history, and enjoyed the great outdoors. I ticked two places off my "Travel Dreams" pinboard, and discovered another destination that I liked even better! I don't know when we'll have another chance to take a vacation like this, but I hope it's soon.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Vacation - Part 4: Williamsburg

Thanks for coming back with me after my unintentional hiatus! It's been a crazy month. Let's get back to that summer vacation. (My goal is to finish writing about it before Christmas...)

The penultimate stop on our big vacation was at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. This was by far the most commercialized experience on our journey. It took me some sleuthing online to figure out the set-up, as their website is huge! It's pretty, but not so straightforward. Basically, anyone can walk around the small neighborhood called "Revolutionary City" for free. Here's the website's description:
"The Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg stretches over 301 acres, and includes 88 original 18th-century structures. Hundreds of houses, shops and public outbuildings are reconstructed on their original foundations. Some buildings are open to the public, while others are private residences and administrative offices."
Inside these "open to the public" spaces there are often costumed actors. Some of them were tradespeople just going about their business and answering questions from tourists. Some were more classic tour-guides with a script to follow as they showed us around. All of these areas require a pass to access.

The Smithy

We arrived bright and early at the visitor center. It is a modern building which seemed to me like a cross between a shopping mall and a small airport. We found our way to a ticket kiosk which spit out two badges for us to clip to our clothes. Shane hunted down an employee for a map. After gaping at the long schedule of special performances and demonstrations printed on it, we decided to just wing it. (Insider tip: Another thing the website doesn't say is that tickets purchased online are about $10 cheaper than the ones you buy in person.)

There is a shuttle bus which will take you down from the visitor center. We decided to walk in though. It was not a short walk, but it was a beautiful morning. After winding around on hiking trails near the highway, we emerged behind the reconstructed governor's mansion. We were in! And we were hungry!

We found a historical tavern. (I am 90% sure it was the King's Arms.) We were seated in the basement; which is way neater than it sounds. The floor was the original brick floor from the 1700s, the old cooking fireplace filled a whole wall, and it was lit almost entirely by candles! The food was rather plain, but well made. I was super excited about the appetizer though: Pasties! Well, they were more like meat turn-overs... but they were still really good.


After our bellies were full, we walked to the far end of the compound, figuring we'd work our way back slowly. The farthest mark on the map was something called "Bassett Hall". When we arrived, we found a tour about to begin with only two other people, so we jumped in. We were told that this was one of the family homes of John D. Rockefeller Jr. Yes, that Rockefeller. It turns out that he and his wife were the philanthropic catalysts for the preservation of Colonial Williamsburg. It was not at all what I expected! It is decorated as they had it in the 1940's, and Mrs. Rockefeller's tastes were super kitschy. It reminded me of my great-grandparents' farm in Iowa, except you know... expensive. (Sorry, no pictures were allowed.)

We wandered back to the main road, and tried to get into a tour at the Capitol Building. The guard outside told us we'd have to wait fifteen minutes, but that the Declaration of Independence was about to be read. We said "Ok. We can wait." and his reaction was something like "Whatever you want, weirdos." Except he was stoic, and old-timey, and polite. But I bet that's what he was thinking, because it turns out the Declaration is kind of a big deal. So we wandered on over. There were costumed actors on the street with microphones, reciting reactions people might have had at the time like: "'All men created equal'? Maybe that means us slaves too." and "'All men created equal'? Maybe that means us women too." (The response to which was, in both cases, "Don't be stupid. It doesn't.")

Me with the stoic guard outside the Capitol Building & the declaration of the Declaration

After the performance was over, a ton of people headed toward the Capitol Building entrance. So we ended up skipping it. Also nearby was something Shane's brother told us we absolutely could not skip: the Coffee House. Boy was he right! We were given a pretty long speech describing how coffee houses were like fancy bars. They also rented out rooms for people who wanted to throw small parties. Then we walked through the house, and were given samples! My coffee was amazing: more like Turkish coffee than modern American stuff. Shane ordered a hot chocolate. It was un-sweetened, and very rich. We loved it! But it was definitely a more grownup taste than Swiss Miss with marshmallows.


We wandered around a bit more, visiting tradespeople. All told, we saw a joiner (frame maker), tinsmith, blacksmiths, basket weavers, gunsmith and the palace kitchens. There were bunches more to see, but we ran out of time! If I ever get to come back, I'll be sure to plan at least two days to take everything in.

 (Clockwise from top-left) Basket weavers; Tin-smith (With new baskets!);
Joiner with a planer; A typical meal in the governor's kitchen building (Yes, that's real food!)

Our final stop of the day was back at the Governor's Palace. We were given a tour by a very nice lady who told us she was a servant in the house, and just the night before the masters had fled in anticipation of the revolution. This governor was England's representative in the colonies. He and his family were the only true nobility around. The palace is a modern re-construction, but you'd never know it. They followed every detail they could find, right down to the correct number of dishes in the pantry according to the housekeeper's inventory.

How many weapons do you need, Lady?!?

The palace has beautiful gardens in the back stretching for acres. There is a whole plantation back there too. But we were beat! We waved goodbye to the palace, found a modern sandwich shop nearby, and took the bus back to the car. I hope there will be another visit to Colonial Williamsburg in our future. This time, we barely skimmed the surface!

Goodnight, Palace. Goodnight, big lawn. Goodnight, tourists and tiny dog.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Vacation - Part 3: Jamestowne

After visiting awesome family in NC, we drove up to Williamsburg, VA. We pitched our tent at Chickahominy Riverfront Park. The park is at the intersection of two rivers. This made for swampy conditions, but spectacular views.

click to embiggen

There were practically no other people, but we weren't lonely. I have never seen so many raptors in one place! At first, it was cool. But by our third night, I was pretty sick of the vultures.


Our fist day was devoted to driving and getting settled. The next morning we woke up bright and early to get to Historic Jamestowne in time for the "In the Trenches" tour. This was my favorite part of our sight-seeing! I knew it was only offered twice a month, and I knew it was lead by the Project Director: Archaeologist Dr. William M. Kelso. What I didn't know is that Dr. Kelso discovered the ruins of Jamestowne fort.


Jamestowne was the first successful English settlement in North America. It started out with just 100 men and 4 boys in 1607. They had a lot of trouble at first, but the settlement eventually became a thriving town. For nearly 100 years it was the center of English commerce in America.

In the 1960s, a young Bill Kelso toured the island (which was a peninsula in the 1600s) and was told that the remains of the fort had been covered by the James River. Two decades later, now an archaeologist, he discussed the fort with his mentor who agreed that the ruins might still be buried on land. A group of lady historians had been given a portion of the island in the late 1800s  to protect a 17th century church tower. They had a concrete barrier erected to protect it from the encroaching river.

The tower was being restored.
The attached church was erected in the early 1900s.
It's only a guess at the original.

After another decade of paperwork, Dr. Kelso was given permission to dig on the land still owned by the historical society (now called Preservation Virginia). He went to the park alone with a shovel and chose a nice shady spot between the church and the river. After only a half-hour of digging, he found a piece of pottery! He turned to a tourist nearby and told her "I found Jamestowne!" He said she responded by slowly backing away. :) It turns out, he'd found the basement of a building in the fort!

Now fully excavated, they've made a recreation of the frame of that building.

The site is still an active archaeological dig. Most of the first fort walls have been located, and replicas have been built. The first Anglican church in America was discovered. (Where Pocahontas was married.) A few other structures have been excavated; and many, many human remains have been found.


Above, Dr. Kelso shows us the basement kitchen where they recently discovered evidence of cannibalism. The winter of 1609-10 is called the "starving time". It was said that the settlers resorted to eating horses, dogs, boots, and even settlers who died first. But that last one was considered a ridiculous rumor until May 2013 when the skull and a few bones of a 14 year-old English girl were found with the marks of butchering. Jamestowne settlement was important to the forming of the US, but it was not a happy place to be...

Even though many of the stories are bleak, it was exciting to be so close to history. And it was even more exciting to see it in the process of being uncovered. The sense of mystery about the place was exhilarating (for me anyway). The number and quality of artifacts unearthed is incredible! It doesn't look like it's slowing down anytime soon either. I could go on and on about this place, but I'll leave you with this brief overview. (Not everyone gets as jazzed about history as this nerdy girl!)

Me and Dr. Kelso

If you want to learn more, I suggest checking out the website. Or, you could visit yourself! The park entrance is managed by the National Park Service, so it's probably closed today... But when it opens again, there is a lot to see! The park visitor center includes a museum (which we didn't have time to check out). The dig site includes a beautiful Archaearium: a collection of exhumed artifacts on display. There is also a very nice little cafe right next to the dig site. And if you like monuments, you'll feel right at home.

Capt. John Smith

The National Park section of the island hasn't been excavated at all, which I find a little unnerving as the island is still eroding away. We walked around a bit, looking at the more recent (mid-late 1600s) ruins. We also drove around the rest of the island reading plaques and marveling at how crazy swampy it is there. (I have never seen such giant flies before!)

A friend in the Nat. Park ruins Swaaaaamp

If you can swing it, do try to take the tour with Dr. Kelso. His enthusiasm for the project is infectious. And of course, his stories insights about the fort are second to none.