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The Hizzle of T-Fizzle

December Curling - USWCA 5 and Under Bonspiel



April 3rd, 2008

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Finally a real curling update! And there’s still 2 weeks left in the season (when I started writing…now it’s over)!

I believe I mentioned in a previous post that I have joined a competitive men’s team consisting of Ken B, Eric R, Vince F and me. Our plan was to go to The Dykes (Francis Dykes Bonspiel - don’t get any ideas), which is one of the premier men’s “5 and Under” events on the east coast. 5 and Under is a division that requires all team members to have less than 5 years’ experience. It gives them a chance to have a good shot at doing well in a tournament without getting kicked to the ground by people with lots of experience.

The US Women’s Curling Association sponsored their first-ever 5 and Under Open event this year at Nutmeg Curling Club in Connecticut. I believe their intent is to sort of round out a “Grand Slam of Novice Curling” that includes The Dykes for men, Women’s Challenge for Women and Kayser for Mixed. For those of you wondering, the difference between Mixed and Open formats is that Mixed requires 2 men and 2 women throwing alternately while Open can be all men, all women or any combination and throwing in any order.

Being a new event, this bonspiel didn’t have an existing fan-base to fuel attendance, and it’s close proximity to the December Holidays may also have made teams hesitant to register. I have since also learned that curlers like to wait until the very last minute before they commit! In any case, at our Harvest Bonspiel, someone let slip to Kaptain Ken that the Nutmeg event was still looking for teams to compete. Ken did a quick straw poll and found that we were interested and probably available, although lacking a 4th man (at this point Eric R had already pretty much finalized his decision to not stay with our team). Fortunately, it turned out that there was another 2nd year curler at Broomstones in Boston looking for a team. An unholy alliance between Boston and Philly was thus formed.

Friday, December 14 was the opening day of the tournament. We had a nice draw time in the afternoon that meant we would not have to get up insanely early or leave the day before to make it to Nutmeg in time. I drove up with Ken while Vince decided to have a go at taking the train. Ken and I made fine time getting to Bridgeport and arrived at the train station 15-20 minutes ahead of Vince. We used the time to explore Bridgeport a little bit and rustle up some lunch at Subway. After picking up our food, we circled around to the train station, picked up Vince and headed out to the curling club, some 15 minutes away.

We made a couple minor wrong turns on the way but we arrived at the club in short order with nearly an hour to eat, change and stretch before our match. And of course figure out who our third man was. Our third man had asked to play second and we figured we would give him that. In league play Vince and I had switched off at vice and Ken was indifferent about where we played in the lineup at the bonspiel. He basically said “Let’s try it one way and if we get killed maybe we’ll switch for the next game.” Good plan! Well, having recently started keeping notes of my shots and accuracy percentages, I was clocking my strongest average in guard shots at 53.13% and my draws and takeouts were both in the 40% range. In addition, I had been playing lead in most of my teams and felt that I was throwing really well at lead so I might as well try and grow it as much as possible.

That, and I like playing lead. In club play the least experienced players usually play at lead and second (front end). The reason for this is that a strong vice and skip (back end) can make up for a terrible front end. If the front end makes their shots, so much the better. If the front end misses everything, hopefully the more experience back end can bail them out. This makes a lot of sense in club play because putting the newbies in the back end makes it very hard for their team to score and will lead to the players feeling discouraged and not having a good time. You don’t want that. The downside is that it leads to a notion that front end spots are “lower-ranking” than back end spots. People have a desire to “move up” from the front-end. As a result, the lead position could be a real chance to shine.

In any case, due to my enjoyment of playing lead and my recent strong performances, I nominated Vince to play Vice. Around this time, we were introduced to our final player, the affable Dan Hines. A man brimming with what I can only describe as “Boston-ness.” He’s got a little bit of the accent, but really when I say Boston-ness I mean he’s just really friendly, easy to get along with, nice guy, etc. He sort of embodies what I feel when I go to Boston…if that makes any sense.

A stretch, bite and a handshake later we found ourselves out on the ice playing against some beloved New Jerseyans from one of the other PCCs, the Plainfield Curling Club. I won’t bore you with a stone-by-stone accounting of the match. I was a little bit jittery when we first stepped onto the ice. Ice at bonspiels is usually a little quick compared to our ice at home and I was very nervous about not being able to slow things down enough, but I managed to throw my first stone in front of the house and hogged my second stone. I was definitely able to keep my weight down.

The game was close throughout, although I felt that we had things under control for the duration. Things got a little bit scary in the final end. I don’t know what happened, but as you can see in the stats I missed both of my shots in the final end setting Plainfield up for a comeback, but Dan swooped in after me and cleaned up the mess. We pulled it together and finished up the win. My 43.75% on the game was not my best work, but it was not too bad, either. I was psyched because I had not won a single bonspiel match and while I thought we had a solid team, we are still on the low-end of 5 years.

The bad news - we were playing some Juniors from Broomstones. JHCurl blogged that you might see these kids in the Olympics. Their opponents in the first round quit after just 4 ends. It was a total blowout. I told X that if we lost to a bunch of kids we’d probably have to talk Ken down off a ledge, so let’s hope we don’t have to actually play them. There goes that theory!

I picked up a Plainfield pin. They have a really cool junior pin that looks like a NJ license plate, but I opted for the “traditional” one. Hopefully I can get one of the other pins later. After the Plainfield folks cleared out, we noticed one of them left their pouch of pins. I’m not sure why, but we decided to pick it up so that it we could safely return it to them the next day. As if they would not be coming back to the club…strange logic, but I guess we were tired. There was not a whole lot going on at the club that night so we grabbed a little dinner and headed back to the hotel.

I had heard Bridgeport is seedy. It is. I had heard the hotel is seedy. It sort of is. It’s in a seedy area, but once inside the hotel it seemed pretty average as far as “budget” accommodations go. We all definitely agreed that next time we’re at Nutmeg we’ll probably stay in Trumbull instead of Bridgeport. Sorry, Bridgeport :)

It was only about 7PM when we checked in. Thinking the hotel was seedy, I did not bring my laptop since it is a work laptop and I’d hate to have it stolen. So all I had to entertain myself was a couple books and TV until at least a reasonable time to sleep. We had an early game but I can only go to bed so early! I told Ken and Vince to give me a call when they were settled if they wanted to go down to the hotel bar for a drink to kill some time.

Ken rang me around 7:30 and we headed down to the hotel bar which left us less than impressed. We left pretty much as soon as we came and sought Vince who had been exploring the hotel. We picked him up at his room and went to Ken’s room to look for a place to go hang out. We weren’t finding much except a bar that might be at a nearby college and might be more our speed. We went downstairs to ask the front desk if there was anything nearby. She told us of a place just a couple blocks away. I was a little nervous about venturing out there, but we gave it a shot.

We stepped into this little sorta-Irish bar and found it well-light and fairly pleasant. There was an interesting mix of people and the music blaring from the jukebox reflected this in a rather bizarre oscillation between the likes of Queen and 50-Cent. It seemed like a pleasant neighborhood bar where all the regulars knew each other and just hung around on a Friday night. We had a few drinks. Vince, who has a rather canine drive to explore new surroundings, got up to scope out the back rooms. He reported that there was a pool table back there and while no one said anything to him, he got the impression that he should probably not stick around.

While we drank, we commisserated about the match ahead of us. I’m going to talk frankly here, so I want to preface this by saying that I don’t intend any offense to anyone. I hope my 2 or 3 readers would find our psychological struggle interesting and there’s nothing more to it then that.

We were a little bit unhappy with the prospect of playing the Juniors. We were scared of getting our butts kicked, but we were also sceptical of their eligibility for the tournament at all. You see, youths can begin curling with half-sized stones at age 6. They switch to full-sized stones when they enter the Junior level at age 12. These guys ranged from ages 12-14. Even if you only give partial “credit” for their years playing with half-sized stones, it seems a stretch to consider that they have less than 5 years’ experience. The 14-year-old was conceivably in his 8th year curling! We don’t mind losing, but it seems really weak to lose to a team that perhaps shouldn’t be eligible to play at all.

We asked ourselves a lot of questions that night. Should we complain to the organizers? Should we complain to the juniors’ coach? Should we complain to the USWCA? Should we forfeit that match under protest? Should we call someone at our club and ask their advice? One of the main problems was that if we played them and won, we really had no grounds to complain. If we played them and lost, it would seem like sour grapes to complain. We basically needed to complain before playing.

But what would complaining really do for us? We stepped back and looked at the facts. Somebody gave these guys the OK to come down here and play. They paid an entry fee just like the rest of us. Maybe it’s normal to allow competitive juniors to compete in Under-5. Maybe it’s not normal but the bracket was not filled up so the organizers made an exception to allow them. In any case, we’re talking about guys 12-14 years old who just want to curl. If we complain or forfeit, we won’t be teaching them a lesson; they’ll just wonder why the adults wouldn’t play with them. At the end of the day, we also represent not just ourselves, but our club. Poor conduct on our part would basically be considered poor conduct from all of Philadelphia. We concluded that the only honorable course of action was to go out, play the best we could and hope for the best. After the bonspiel we could consider expressing our concerns.

A guy in a weird puffy coat with fur trim came in. He looked like trouble. He talked to the bartender for a few minutes, then left. We then struck up a conversation with the bartender. He told us that soon after the other bartender came in at 10:00 the place would fill up with “knuckleheads.” What kind of kuckleheads? Let’s just say that after 10PM they don’t serve anything in a glass container. If you order beer in a bottle they pour it into a plastic cup before they give it to you. A glance down at the watch…9:30. And the creepy dude with the puffy coat just came back in. Maybe it’s time to get out of here while we can still call it a pleasant evening. We also needed to prepare for the tough battle ahead of us. We walked back to the hotel, came up with a meeting time for the morning and went to sleep.

Day 2, early. We met in the hotel lobby and walked around the corner to Dunkin Donuts to grab some breakfast before heading to the curling club. Wondering off-handedly if Dan will show up since he had a comp and spent the night at Mohegan Sun. We rehash our strategy. I will not disclose it, but one of our mantras was “Don’t give up any big ends.” The atmosphere among us had the grim gravity of going into a battle that you are pretty sure you cannot win. Nonetheless, we suited up and headed out onto the ice to face our youthful adversaries.

I lead off with a half-decent draw to the front of the house. The Broomstones lead immediately replaced it with his own. And that’s when we started digging in hard with our strategy. We didn’t take that stone out. Ken called to tap it back or sit on it. As I delivered the stone I heard one of the guys on the other team say “What the heck are they doing?” After the first-end smoke cleared, we had scored. If nothing else…it wasn’t going to be a shutout.

For the next 7 ends, I tried to shape my face into a mask of non-chalant, completely unconcerned, but utter determination. Anytime I started to get jittery, I’d strike up a conversation with Dan which calmed my nerves. As the numbers ticked up onto the scoreboard, end after end, they somehow kept ending up on our side of the scoreboard. We kept stealing aces and even though we weren’t crushing them and we knew one mistake could quickly turn the tables (hence our “No big ends” mantra), it seemed like our strategy was working and as long as we could continue to execute it, we might actually pull it off.

When all was said and done, I had 59.38% accuracy, my second best recorded score since I started keeping notes. I had also thrown a career-high 65% on guard shots. But more importantly, after the 8th end ran out….we were ahead! Somehow we managed to eke out a victory against them to stay in the 1st event. Elated, but drained from the match that was perhaps more emotionally strenuous than physically, we went out to the warm room to broomstack.

One great thing about beating teenagers is that you don’t have to buy them a beer :). We hung out for awhile chatting, and as we got to know the kids and their coach, the more I knew we made the right decision playing them even if we had lost. You remember being 12, 13, 14. Sure you want to win, but at the same time, you just want to have a good time. Regardless of whomever allowed them to enter the tournament, whether it was correct or not, from these guys perspective, all they wanted to do was just go out and play! And now if these guys ever make it to nationals, worlds, olympics, etc, we can tell everyone that we won a match against them back in the day :-)

We couldn’t celebrate for too long, though. We now had a match against another Broomstones team in just a couple of hours. There went the plans to go back to the hotel for a nap. We did make a brief drive back to the hotel area, though. Remember those pins that the Plainfield guy left? He came in for the next match and was relieved to learn that we rescued them for him. I went to get them out of my bag…they weren’t in there! They must be in the car. Go look in the car…no pins. Now I was getting nervous. I tried to recollect exactly what I had with me in the morning. Best I could do was this: we had a gift bag that we got when we checked in. I had taken it back to my room the night before with the pins in it. In the morning, I must have taken the bag with me, pins and all, and then while we were in Dunkin Donuts, I sat the bag on the counter so that I could pay and forgot to pick it up again. The only problem with this theory is that no one remembered me carrying this gift bag! With little else to go on, Ken drove me back to the Dunkin Donuts and waited in the car while I ran across the street. I stepped into Dunkin Donuts and stuck my hand in my coat pocket and felt something in there next to me gloves. CRAP! The pins were in my coat all along! I really didn’t bring the gift bag! Annoyed that I didn’t think to look in my coat, but relieved that I hadn’t lost the pins, we drove back to the club and I was able to return them. I still don’t know why we didn’t just leave them…it’s not like they would have gone anywhere! Ahh well.

Not much time left then, just a quick bite before it was time to take on more Broomstoners. Poor Dan had to take on some of his own people! This was also a beefy team. If you look on the GNCC bonspiel results pages for names like Karen Walker, Paul Marseglia and Stephanie Torta, you’ll see them appear in a lot of places.  Tough match-up!  It’s also worth noting that Stephanie Torta is the graphic designer behind LittleFish whom we met last year at Schenectady.

Out on the ice we played a decent match.  In fact, while it did not FEEL like the strong match we played against the juniors, the numbers I recorded in the notebook were even better - 62.5% overall and 75% on guards.  My draw percentage was also ever-increasing.  I did not throw any takeouts this match.  Unfortunately, despite another strong showing, we somehow managed to run afoul of our “No Big Ends” rule somewhere in the 6th or 7th end where a 3 or 4-ender put the beantowners out front with too little time to recover.  Our trip to the First Event final ended in the semi-finals.  The good news is that regardless of win or loss, we had guaranteed ourselves a 4th game by winning the first two, and would get to play on Sunday in the 4th Event final!

Saturday evening there was a nice dinner followed by a game where you took one of the half-sized youth stones and put it in a specific location in the ice and then play a relatively normal game of curling using the small stone as the “button.”  Oh, and if you hit the small stone and move it, the stones are scored based on the actual location of the stone.  In other words, the target moves.  We had a re-match against the juniors here (well, Vince and me) and a clutch shot by one of our teammates saved us in the end.  After that there were drawings and raffles.  We didn’t stay too late since we had another 8AM draw.

Sunday.  Not to be superstitious or anything, but…repeat process from yesterday with Dunkin Donuts for breakfast and then a trip to the club.  For the Fourth Event final we were facing some potential home-team ringers from Nutmeg.  I mean, the skip’s name was LaRoche and based on the liberal use of French we could only assume some of these people were Quebecois.  I had already had my fair share of trouble from Montreal…here was more.

As luck would have it, the Canadian portion of our adversaries did not actually take up curling until after moving to the US (this was a tournament for 5 years’ experience or less, remember), so it wasn’t the usual beating I’ve gotten from Canadian opponents.  Not to say it was an easy match, but we managed to keep it tight and this time we got the big end and held on to the lead.  I managed to increase my scores again, ending the tournament with a “career-high” 67.86% overall and 83.33% in the guard department.  At some point during this match Ken offered me a choice between a guard and some other shot and I told him that at this point I’ve probably thrown 50 guards this weekend and a lot of them are starting to go where they are supposed to go.  If it ain’t broke, I’ll throw a guard!

After the match we had a quick drink and a mingle.  We could not stick around too long because Vince had a train to catch and we wanted to get home and get some rest!  There was a brief presentation of the award pins, and our gracious hosts supplied us with some slices of really tasty hoagies for the road (N.B. the box said ‘Wedge’ so I have now seen this rather obscure name for a hoagie used in the real world).  We dropped Vince at the station and headed for home.

It ended up being a great weekend.  I really did not know what to expect - while we didn’t do awful in men’s league, we certainly weren’t winning matches.  Sure, a bunch of second-year curlers should be outmatched by pretty much every team, but we also thought that at some point things would line up correctly and we would pull out a victory!  On top of this, we had to acclimate ourselves to a player we had never even met before, and the pressure and jitters of a bonspiel.  There was also a lot riding on this because getting crushed would probably have been a sign that we should disband our team and come up with different teams to bring to the Dykes in February.

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.  We almost made it to the top.  Despite its name, the 4th event is basically the consolation game - if you assigned 1st/2nd/3rd place, you’d probably call it 3rd place.  Nothing to complain about there!  Our surprise victory against the juniors was defintely the highlight.  The entire team was completely focused and connected.  It was an amazing game.  A big thanks also goes out to Dan Hines for playing admirably for us even against his own Broomstones compatriots.

On a personal level, I was able to keep the nerves (and the weights) down and put stones out front for cover or to be tapped in later on.  As can be seen in the stats, my scores improved with each game and my overall average was 58%.  It will be interesting to see how bonspiel scores compare to “regular season” scores as I accumulate more data.  Our performance at this tournament had us really looking forward to the possiblities of what might happen at the Dykes!

Here are the stats:

Cumulative percentages before and after:

And the full data can be seen here.

I’m not sure if this qualifies as false advertising…



March 12th, 2008

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But it sure seems crappy.
I promise I’ll provide a curling update before the end of the season (I am still transcribing stats from my now-infamous notepad), but I’ve just got to get this off my chest first.

You may have seen this commercial. I don’t watch too many commercials thanks to DVR technology, but I managed to spot this one and it REALLY jumped out at me.

A pickup truck is pulling a trailer and stops on some sort of grassy knoll. People get out and unload something which they inflate into what appears to be some sort of large rubber/plastic sphere…almost like a giant beach ball. The sphere actually has another sphere inside it. From what we see in the commercial, you throw in some water (presumably for lubrication), put one or two or maybe even three people in the middle sphere through a built-in tube, push them down the hill and they enjoy the ride. Because the riders don’t stick to the surface of the inner sphere, they remain fairly stationary while the sphere rolls around them. It really looks like a heck of a lot of fun. You can see a logo in one of the shots. It says “Zorb.”

I figure they would probably be expensive to buy, but I thought I would look it up anyway and here’s what I found: The people that invented Zorb do not sell them! They have some pretty sensible reasons for doing so, including: They want to ensure that they are always used safely (nothing kills a product quite like a product with a reputation for killing people), the spheres are handmade and expensive to build and maintain (of course limiting your market doesn’t contribute to lower production costs), not many people have access to the appropriate hill which they specifiy as something like 300m of gentle slope and another 200m at the bottom for a landing strip, etc. Instead they are relying on franchising Zorb operators who maintain the spheres and hills and safety procedures. This is not inherently bad. Although it seems unfortunate that such a business model will basically relegate Zorb operators to the class of business that operate bungee cranes, laser tag games and other “amusements” at high prices in and around tourist centers, it’s certainly their choice to make. Currently there is only one operator in the US and a single ride (how long can a quarter-mile possibly last?) sets you back over $30.

Anyway, that’s not my complaint. Here is my complaint:
The commercial appears to depict PRIVATE Zorb owners. It looks like a bunch of people who happen to own a few of these and decide to go rolling down a hill on a warm spring day. Like fair-weather sledding - grab your sled, head to the hill, go have fun. If you can’t actually buy a Zorb it seems like the commercial should not depict what appears to be private ownership of a Zorb. It’s not really false advertising seeing as how they aren’t specifically advertising the Zorb, but it’s pretty annoying to see this and learn that you can’t actually own one (unless you want a knockoff).

The end of button proliferation is nigh!



January 31st, 2008

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I interrupt regular curling coverage to present this observation. 

Back in the “good old days” we had Atari 400 and Commodore 64.  Yes, these machines had keyboards, but by-and-large most of the contols for the games were carried out using the venerable JOYSTICK.  It had ONE directional control and ONE button.  Despite this limitation (not to mention severe limitations of memory, graphics, processing power, etc), game designers managed to put together fun and innovative games.  It’s not just nostalgia talking - a couple years ago the Fitzes and X and I literally spent HOURS playing Winter Games on the C64 plug-n-play device and had a blast.  The simplicity is part of what made it fun.

Along came Nintendo.

Now, we had games with more than one button (or more than one control stick) in the arcade for awhile.  But for the most part your average home video game system featured the standard one button/one stick control.  Nintendo wanted to push the comfort limits of gamers.  In 1985 (in the US), the NES was released featuring a controller that would revolutionize video game playing, and ruin it, all at the same time.

I remember the first time I played the NES at a friend’s birthday party.  I remember thinking the thumb-operated d-pad looked awkward.  But most of all I wondered how one could manage TWO BUTTONS!  How do you keep them straight in your mind?  Why is B on the left and A on the right?  To this day I prefer a joystick to a thumb pad, but I learned that I could quickly adapt to the extra button and after a round or two of Mike Tyson’s Punchout, I had no trouble playing NES games even if the controller had twice as many buttons.  The extra button was a good thing…it added quite a few control options with little extra complexity.

Then the war began in earnest.

The Sega Master System and Genesis appeared before us.  At first there were THREE buttons.  Even later they came up with a SIX-button design (probably not coincidentally around the time Steet Fighter II was released for Genesis)!  Three buttons were iffy.  It was beginning to get confusing - too many possible combinations, too many positions to commit to muscle memory.  You could make it work, but it was not as effortless as the two NES buttons. 

But it seemed that Nintendo was not going to take this affront lying down.  They plopped FOUR buttons onto the Super NES controller, and they weren’t stopping there - two shoulder buttons were added for good measure!  They were smart in texturing the thumb buttons so that they were not unmanageable, but at this point we were really pushing the limits of good sense.  You had a lot of fingers in action, a lot of button combos to keep track of.  Games were beginning to become less fun for me, and as the graphics got flashier, the gameplay seemed to get more repetitive. 

After SNES, a cold war style button proliferation went into full swing throughout the 1990s.  Controllers morphed from simple, intuitive handheld units into enormous two-fisted monsters with multiple analog sticks, multiple d-pads, analog triggers, multiple shoulder buttons, etc.  I was probably 4 or 5 when I started playing video games.  I think a 5 year old would have trouble even holding a modern controller in his hands!

With the GameCube controller, Nintendo seemed interested in making the human interface easier if not actually simpler.  The A button was made larger and green to help make it an intuitive “main” button with secondary buttons around it.  It was a bit of an improvement, but there were still lots of buttons.  In the meantime Sony and Sega/Microsoft had at least cooled down.  Microsoft added 2 buttons to the Xbox controller but otherwise the controller was similar to Dreamcast’s.  Playstation’s control structure has been fairly static since the Dual Shock with it’s two analog sticks.  While things were not getting crazy, controllers were still cumbersome, and so were games.

Nintendo, the first agressor in this unfortunate battle for complexity, finally decided to really, honestly simplify the control structure when the Wii Remote was envisioned.  At a glance, it does still have a lot of buttons, potentially six counting A, B, 1, 2, + and -.  But they are situated in such a way that it seems Nintendo wants to discourage game designers from trying to use too many of them at once.  Of course analog sticks have been replaced with motion sensing that is both more intuitive and less painful (analog sticks always gave me a sore thumb).  Not only is it easier to use than the previous monster controllers, but the controller-as-an-abstraction concept makes for a fun gaming experience.  It’s no longer the thing that controls the character, it’s whatever the game designer wants you to think it is.  A baseball bat, a tennis racket, a crank, a lever, even an umbrella.  They wanted to make gaming accessible to everyone and the Wii Remote makes it work and with this I believe that the end of button proliferation is nigh (although the beginning of motion detection proliferation could well be at hand…we shall see).

I have only one warning for the game developers: with the Wii Remote, Nintendo has cooked up a unique way to operate a video game.  There is great potential for awesome games like Zack And Wiki.  But there is also a great potential to use the motion sensing as a cheap gimmick to crank out dull and useless games.  It’s already happening with the large collections of mini-games that all make use of the same throwing and swinging motions.  Please think carefully before you try to squeeze another drop of blood from the “swing the controller like a _____” stone.  Ask yourself “Is this just something that was done in Wii Sports with a different visual skin?  Can I come up with something original instead?”  Remember how annoyed you were when you started to realize that an awful lot of Atari games were just some variant of Pong?  At least Atari designers had stringent technical limitations to blame.  What will YOUR excuse be?

Whether the Wii Remote goes down in history as a gimmick or an innovation is in the hands of the game designers. Please don’t let us down.

November Curling Update



November 22nd, 2007

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This past weekend was the Harvest bonspiel.  It’s the club’s premier ’spiel, an invitational mixed format.  As such, we raffle off slots that aren’t taken up by teams from “out of town.”  My CPK colleagues and I at this point feel comfortable representing the club in our more “serious” event, so we did not enter the raffle.  But we did get recruited to be on the planning committee for the event so we were around for most of the weekend helping out where necessary.  Everyone had a great time and we were able to raise some money to help club member Jeff Harris who suffered a spinal cord injury over the summer - thanks to everyone who contributed! 

In a personal success, X and I conducted an off-beat curling game including trick shots and throwing of cornish hens.  The success was that this game was played by people in street shoes, some of them more than a little in the bag and no one got hurt!  For next year X and I are already planning some refinements to this portion of the event.

On the curling front, I met some nice and talented curlers.  Chris Faircloth scored me a $16 jackpot and went on to win the second event.  “Team Scotland” claimed the third event which included my former teammate Rich Chadwick and his father.  And the 1st event was conquered by Derek Surka.  That marks his 4th win at the Harvest in 5 years.  His vice (and wife) Charissa was quick to point out that the year they lost was the year she was not in attendance.  I guess there’s some truth to that old saying…

Thanks to everyone who came out, helped, planned, participated, donated and otherwise made it a success!

In the actual “playing” of the game, I believe I’ve played 4 games since my last match.  The first match was a banner game for me in the Mixed league.  I was just hitting things right and left.  Even mistakes went right.  The following Men’s match was not quite as good but still pretty solid.   The next two matches were fairly bleak.  We had a Beginners’ match on Sunday, worn out from the bonspiel.  With the exception of our lead we were just not hitting a thing.  Meanwhile the other team was just dead on, hitting shot after shot.  Anytime we even started to make some headway, they would just blow us right out of the water!  I don’t usually quit early, especially in the Beginners’ where it’s supposed to be a learning experience anyway!

I also made good on my promise to start taking notes on the games and it’s already interesting to have some stats.  Despite my most extensive experience being in the lead position, I am currently weakest in throwing guards at 34% while for takeouts - a weak point for me all last season - I am throwing 50%!  Go figure! 

Also, I throw nearly 3x as many out-turn shots compared to in-turn.

To acquire the stats I’m basically cribbing the 4-point system that is commonly used, simplified a bit so that I can quickly note the handle, called shot, actual shot and score while in the middle of a match.  I break shots into draw, takeout and guard.  Tap-backs I am qualifying as draws.

For draw the scoring breakdown is 4 points for the shot made as called, 3 for being close (within a few feet), 2 for getting the weight OR the line fairly good, 1 for the stone being basically somewhere in play, and 0 for a hog, flash, or something way off (like if a draw to the back 12 comes out as a guard). 

Guards are similar to draws, although depending on the situation I may give myself a zero just for getting it in the house.

Takeouts are a bit tougher to explain…basically 4 points for the shot as called, a zero if the stone misses, 1 if the stone misses and sticks around, 3 if the shot is close but not quite (no roll on a hit-and-roll or losing the shooter on a hit-and-stick).  I’m not sure where a 2 comes in.  I’ll know it when I see it.

In any case, here are the current stats:

You can view the full spreadsheet, containing shot-by-shot breakdowns and point totals by clicking here (opens in new window).  If you have any ideas for other ways to cut the data, let me know and I’ll incorporate them.

Curling Season 2 - It’s That Time Of Year Again!



November 12th, 2007

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Wow…it took me so long to finish writing about Berlin that it’s already curling season again. Where did the Summer go?

Last week kicked off the new curling season. This year I have teamed up with 3 other novice guys to make a go at upsetting some of the more experienced people in the men’s league and perhaps taking a trip to the Dykes which is a major men’s novice bonspiel for the Grand National Curling Club - the sanctioning body for the northeastern US.

Before we could begin, I helped out making the ice. Previously not a lot of club members knew how to build or maintain the ice, so the club president has been working to get more people educated. Building the ice is pretty much what you would expect it to be. You squirt water on the ice. You do it in thin layers, building up bit by bit. Every so often you run the scraper over it to level the ice and hopefully cut off any deformities. I also was involved with laying the 4-foot guidelines and the 50th Anniversary Logo, also a simple process - the guidelines are pieces of yarn stretched tightly and “glued” down by spraying water on them. The logo is just printed on plain paper, sprayed with water and flattened out with a paint roller. There was also a pebbling and scraping class. There was some belief last season that imperfections in the ice were created in part by inconsistent pebbling techniques so we are hoping to alleviate that by actually teaching people a “standard” (if not entirely proper) method of pebbling.

Once the ice was completed but prior to the “official” opening of the club, I was able to join the other members of my team for a practice session. It was still very warm outside and very humid inside. There was literally water running down the walls as it condensed! The air seemed so thick that after just sliding 5 or 6 times without even pushing a stone, I was already huffing and puffing! I did some slides at varying speeds with no stones, then another 10 or so slides pushing a stone but not releasing it at varying speeds. Then I started to throw some stones down to the other end. The ice was very slow and it took a lot of force just to get stones over the hog line. While I was doing this, the remainder of my team and a few others were playing a mini-game and had just finished up so skip Ken came over to call some shots. By the time I had thrown 6 stones, Eric and Vince joined me and we threw our first two stones as a rink.

We corralled all the stones on one end and decided to play an end or two against ourselves. I forgot how much work curling was and I was beat after about 40 minutes of this. The ice conditions were lousy but we had a good time and the session was VERY beneficial for getting some of the cobwebs out.

Over the ensuing weekend, Ken, Eric and Vince joined forces with another club member to play at the Inaugural Bonspiel in Potomac. They had a great run and ended up as the runners up in the main event! This was a very encouraging way to start the season…congrats you guys!

A few days later it was time for our season opener. On the original slate, I was set to play lead with Eric second and Vince on Vice. It was rainy last Wednesday, so it took me a long time to get from work to the club. I ran in, changed and ran out to the ice just in time for the first stone and to catch the news that we were going to flipflop my position and Vince’s since Vince and Eric felt really solid as a front end. Fair enough…I don’t mind skipping, although I have to admit I hadn’t given much thought to curling strategy in awhile and I’ve never played alongside Ken, so it was a bit of a shock to stand in the house at the end of the first end and try to recall all of the hours I had spent with experienced skips over the last season learning the ins and outs of curling strategy.

The game itself was a little bit rough.  We took the first end, lost one on the second end and then things went downhill when we gave up 3 or 4 in the third.  The ice was heavy at first and then the center alley sped up while just outside this remained frosty and very heavy.  Judging weights was very hard and clocking the shots yielded inconsistent results between ends.  After the third end we just couldn’t dig ourselves back up. 

The second game of the week was the Beginner’s League opener.  Our team consists of X, Eric (same as above) and Jay.  We were playing against our teammates and occasional arch-rivals Mike and Mary.  This was a better outing for me than the previous game.  It was X’s first time on the ice since last year and she didn’t feel all that comfortable although she was making decent shots.  The weather was a little colder and the ice was a little more “normal.” 

The second game was very close with both teams exchanging aces and deuces until about the 5th end when a couple of slipups allowed the other team to score 4 and take a 3 point lead.  We managed to take the next 2 ends to claw our way back to a one-point deficit going into the last end with no hammer.  It was fairly late on Thursday night and X was in favor of quitting but fortunately Eric is not the type to quit especially when down by only one point.  Things were not looking good for us through the end…the other team had 2 stones solidly buried, but a mistake after my first stone left an opening.  Eric called for a takeout on the visible stone.  I have been working on throwing up-weight without losing my balance and had been doing well on takeouts this game.  This throw was no exception - the stone went fast and straight, right into the visible stone which careened sidelong into the other stone for a game-saving double takeout.  We were not out of the woods yet, but we at least had a chance.  Eric managed to sneak a second stone into the house and after a couple of misses from the opposition we realized we had managed to pull out a win.  Yay.

Saturday we kicked off the mixed league.  The weather was very warm again.  We ran into some trouble when we all arrived at the club in time for the game only to find that no one had a key!  Someone went home to get one and we started about 1/2 hour late.  I am lead on this team and I was beginning to hit my stride…even on the slow ice I was doing a decent job on the guard shots and I was beginning to grow some accuracy in gauging when to sweep.  Unfortunately we got caught off-guard by some strange ice conditions and just couldn’t catch a break.  It was a fairly close match but they got us in the end.

Previous to the Novice game we mustered up the ranks of CPK to plot our <s>Bonspiel Schedule</s> path of destruction for the year.  Looks like we will be able to make it to two or three “travel” ’spiels plus MACA Friendlies and maybe some of the in-house events in Philly.  I am hoping we can improve our standing by perhaps winning some matches, although I would at least settle for continuing our record of having never been shut out in a tournament :-)

A few more matches played since I started this post - another loss in the men’s league although we played pretty well, and a loss and a tie in Mixed.  Towards the end of the last season, I had a weekend where I played maybe 5 games between league play and the MACA Friendly at Potomac.  That was basically the peak of the season and I had some banner games.  Well in the recent mixed game, I felt about as I did during that peak stretch last season - I think it’s going to be a really fun season.

I’ve also decided to start keeping some stats to help me spot trends in my play like maybe I always screw up out turn draws, or I think I’m doing pretty well but looking back objectively I see that really I just get lucky a lot.  I’ve tossed a notebook in my pocket and am trying to note what shot was called and what I actually ended up throwing.  Hopefully it’s useful.  I’ll post them up here so that stat-head Mike can enjoy them.

Speaking of stats, I have been collecting driving stats for the past few months but I didn’t want to interrupt my Germany tale.  They should be up someday.

Finally, the Harvest Bonspiel is this weekend (Thurs - Sun, 11/15 - 11/18).  It is the club’s premier bonspiel, an invitational mixed format featuring players from as far away as Scotland and Seattle.  Don’t quote me on this, but I believe they don’t mind visitors coming to watch. 

Berlin 2007 - Day 8: Homeward Bound



October 28th, 2007

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04/05/2007:
By morning we were all feeling a little bit better. Not 100%, but at least well enough that we weren’t going to be getting sick on the plane ride home!

I forgot to recount 2 humorous stories of yesterday:

The first is that X bought me a giant Kinder Egg. For those not in the know, Kinder Egg is a candy sold by Ferrero, the diabolical geniuses that began with the invention of Nutella and have also brought us Tic Tacs, and Rocher. Kinder Eggs consist of a hollow chocolate egg that is made up of two thin layers, one milk chocolate, one white chocolate. Inside the egg is a plastic capsule and inside the plastic capsule is a toy. They aren’t super special but they are cute and have a lot of novelty in that, predictably, they are not actually legal in the US. I always thought that this was because it was an obvious lawsuit in waiting, but apparently the original mandate for the FDA in the 1930s actually forbade embedding toys in food from the get-go. I like to pick some up anytime I’m in a country where they are available.

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X picked this up as sort of a “get well” present and I was very grateful, although I had to poke fun that she had got me an egg for girls. She protested that it wasn’t her fault - the label is in German! Look closely at the label and you will see why I got a good laugh at this. It’s basically your normal Kinder Egg only it’s much larger.

Fortunately the toy inside doesn’t seem particularly gender-specific. It consists of a bunch of plastic ants and a plastic honeypot that you stack up.

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Clicking this link will take you to the Kinder Egg album.

The second story is that at some point during the evening our landlord stopped down to return our security deposit. Mike and I, already not good at math spent an absurd amount of time passing Euro banknotes back and forth to each other but could not figure out a way to make it balance out. Mary was getting quite a laugh listening to us go back and forth unable to make any progress.

OK so our flight home was fairly early. We were already packed so we really just had to clear out and pick up a bus to the airport which was very close to the apartment. We walked out to the bus stop and waited. And waited. And waited. While we waited we discussed the bus schedule and why we hadn’t seen a single bus. Maybe we were just outside of peak hours. Maybe we just missed the last bus. Suddenly it occurred to me - it was Good Friday, which I had heard was a widely observed holiday. Maybe there is very limited public transit on Good Friday!

No sooner than I got these words out did a taxi cab approach us on the opposite side of the street. And not just any taxi cab - a big van. Big enough for all of us. Mary used her elite NYC skills to quickly flag him down. I was concerned he wouldn’t stop since he had to turn around to get to us, but he swung right around and picked us up. A few minutes later we were checking in at the airport.

Tegel airport seems pretty tiny. A long narrow hallway with all the check-in counters and another long narrow hallway divided up to form the gate waiting areas. We had to loaf around in the first long narrow hallway waiting for the security people to arrive and clear us. When they did, they flagged me to look through my backpack. My backpack is a combination camera bag/backpack (a review on this later) and so the lower portion contained the camera and the upper portion contained solely the giant Kinder Egg. I have no idea if the Kinder Egg looked suspicious on the X-ray display or if it was just a random check, but the woman doing the inspection seemed quite amused to find that my backpack pretty much contained nothing but a giant Kinder Egg.

The flight home was fairly uneventful. There were no Scary German Guys.

Back in the airport, we got a good taste of Department of Homeland Security dog-and-pony show. Maybe not specifically DHS but it at least illustrates some of the stupid things we do. As most travellers know, luggage is sent to a baggage claim where each traveller is responsible for finding his/her own bags and double-checking to make sure they aren’t mistakenly taking someone else’s. This isn’t a bad system. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than this.

After we collected all of our bags, we found that one of Mary’s was missing. She found the people to talk to and after a little while was notified that someone had picked up her bag and when they presented it to check in for their connecting flight it was caught since the destination tag indicated it was staying in Newark! They told Mary where to go to get her bag and then asked her to provide ID to claim it. This seems somewhat silly considering anyone can steal anyone’s bag from the baggage claim, but whatever - it’s just lucky that these people had another flight, otherwise they probably would not have noticed they had the wrong bag until they got home and opened it!

We considered making a stop at Harold’s on the way home, but after the previous days’ illness and wanting to just get home and unwind we decided to just skip that and head straight home.

It was a great trip, and Berlin is an awesome city. I think I may like it even better than London, and the fact that it is a LOT cheaper than London makes it all the more appealing.

To see all of the pics from the trip, head on over to the Gallery!

Berlin 2007 - Day 7 Shopping Sick Day



October 16th, 2007

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04/04/2007:
I didn’t want to spoil it in the title, but there it is. Sick Day.

Mike and Mary had an unpleasant evening and were totally wiped out by morning although their intestinal issues were beginning to at least subside. Kate was feeling a little bit queasy. X was feeling ok. As for me…I absolutely despise getting sick to my stomach. So much so that in her day care days, X merely mentioning one of the students getting sick to his stomach had me feeling off for days wondering when the other shoe was going to drop and I would get sick. So I was also feeling a little bit off, but was uncertain whether it was the real thing or if it was all in my head.

We had put off most shopping excursions for Day 7 instead of trying to make side trips to various places that we wanted to shop. We figured we would wrap up any remaining touristy things we wanted to see, go get souvenirs for friends and family, and have a fairly easy day.

After having a bite to eat, the 3 relatively healthy travelers set out. We hopped on the U-Bahn. Kate was looking a little pale but she vowed to tough it out. And tough it out she did. For about 3 stops. At this point she decided that maybe it wasn’t going to go so well after all, so we got off and hopped on the train going back towards the apartment. When we got to our station and got off the train, Kate was getting worse. She probably doesn’t want this story recounted, but it’s worth recounting.

She got sick on the U-Bahn platform. Fortunately there was a trash can nearby. X went ahead to stop at a drug store/apotheke to see if she could get some drugs. Meanwhile I was with Kate on the platform pondering the rather odd situation here. I didn’t want to abandon Kate on the subway platform, but I didn’t want to get too close because A) I didn’t want to get sick and B) I kinda didn’t want people in the area to know that I was with her. Later on Kate would have a similar concern that people passing by would identify us as uncouth Americans who come to Berlin, get totally drunk and party all night and then get sick in public places!

After this unfortunate event, we walked back to the apartment and were joined soon after by X carrying some sort of odd medicine that the pharmacist had confirmed was good for upset stomach through hand signals. It was a strange tincture that you mixed with water and drank. It had an herbal scent. Kate mixed up a dose, took a sip and decided it wasn’t worth it.

Meanwhile, I was still feeling fairly OK if not a little bit washed out. We decided to go on shopping expedition, take 2. On the way to the kneipe the previous night, I had spotted a toy/game store that I wanted to check out in the hopes that I could find a cool German game and maybe something for Lee.

On the way across the bridge, a man stopped us and asked for directions. FINALLY someone doesn’t immediately assume we are Americans! Unfortunately he was a bit disappointed with the result since he seemed to be in a bit of a rush and of course we could offer little assistance other than confirming that the large palace across the river was, indeed, Schloss Charlottenburg.

As we made our way to the game store, I was feeling OK…not great. When we walked into the game store, things immediately got a lot worse. I’m not sure if it was the temperature differential, but it was fairly chilly outside (in the 50s) and it was pretty hot in the store. Either way, in the store I started to feel unbearably hot and could not decide if I was just overheating or was about to faint, but either way, I felt that it was extremely important to get out of that store and into the cool fresh air.

After getting back outside I felt a little bit better, but still not great…more and more fatigued for sure. We decided to go back to the apartment and I felt worse and worse as we went. I laid in bed and slept, read, sweated, etc. My stomach started to feel queasy but I never did get sick. I did take a dose or two of the strange medicine which did taste pretty gross but it did settle my stomach.

X, meanwhile, was still feeling healthy, but was pretty much stuck. As if she wasn’t already hesitant to travel alone in an unfamiliar foreign city, she was doubly concerned that she was going to get sick sooner or later and did not want to be alone in an unfamiliar foreign city and getting sick! She hung out with me most of the afternoon which was very nice. At some point I commented that while I loved traveling to foreign countries, I think our next trip needed to be a cruise…I needed a relaxing vacation!

As the afternoon wore into the evening, Mike and Mary were still hiding out in their room. They reported that their symptoms had mostly subsided aside from just being completely wiped out. I was about in the same boat. Kate seemed to be feeling relatively normal and X had not yet developed any symptoms. X decided to keep her date with the family and go meet them for dinner and Kate also felt up to the challenge. We decided that our plans for a little party in the apartment probably should be abandoned. X and Kate left and I slept awhile longer.

Eventually I heard some stirring and found that Mike and Mary were up and moving around. I wasn’t feeling too bad either. We had some toast and tea and found that we could get the EuroSport channel in our apartment here, too so that we could watch more curling. We found it amusing that while the commentary was in German, many of the curling “terms” such as “takeout” or even “double takeout” were still pronounced in English by the commentators. We discussed our illness and how it might have come to be. Eventually we settled on a theory that Kate would later call “The Snow White Incident.” Remember the apples we ate on the train the day before? We had no way to wash them. Who knows what was on them, be it germs or some pesticide that will make you sick. This would also handily explain why X did not get sick - she had a banana. In fact she consciously chose the banana because she was concerned about not being able to wash an apple - which…good thought. Would have been nice if she had told the rest of us this concern!

However, since that fateful trip I have learned a little bit about norovirus and I have to ease Mike’s conscious (since he provided the apples) by pointing out that our symptoms were consistent with norovirus AND the “epidemiology” as it were also works out. You see, 6 weeks or so prior to our trip, X had a sinus infection and took some broad spectrum antibiotics. She then started having some intestinal trouble. I think it was a side effect of the antibiotic even though the doctor tried to claim otherwise (I think maybe he just wants to discourage people from diagnosing themselves). In any case, she was given a targetted antibiotic for this and was specifically told to not consume even the slightest bit of alcohol.

All through the trip, Mike, Mary, Kate and I were constantly sharing things, in particular beer. We would all order different beers and then try each others. All of us, that is, except X who was prevented from drinking beer. If any one of us had picked up norovirus - which would be fairly easy to do travelling on airplanes, busses, subways, etc - the rest of us would have very easily been infected through all this sharing of beer!

Nonetheless, “The Snow White Incident” is a great title so we’re generally sticking with that. It also gives us another reason to dislike Prague. When you get right down to it, our one day trip to Prague ended up costing us 3 days - the day spent travelling to and in Prague, the day spent coming home and then the day spent laid (and throwing) up!

X and Kate came back fairly late. Late enough that we were a little bit worried especially since we had no real way to get in touch with them. But they were fine. They had gone to a pizza joint that Maria and Colin had said was really good and they came back with very favorable reviews and had a wonderful time.

Unfortunately, we had a fairly early flight home and so we needed to pack before bed, otherwise we would have to be up at 5AM trying to get everything together. After packing everything up we went to bed with a heavy heart.

We were thankful that it looked like none of us was going to be sick for the flight home!

To see all of the pics from the trip, head on over to the Gallery!

Berlin 2007 - Day 6: The Descent



October 16th, 2007

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04/03/2007:
Our train back to Berlin did not leave at the crack of dawn as our train out did, but it left fairly early. Early enough that in order to do further sightseeing in Prague, we would have to truly get up at the crack of dawn. Instead we opted to sleep in a little bit. We woke and packed and got some breakfast from the cool kids lounge and then went down to wait for our taxi.

The taxi was right on time and took us right to the station.

For some reason, Nádrazí Holesovice was either uncommonly empty yesterday or uncommonly crowded today. We were in the station around the same time both days, but for some reason today there was a lot of people. Touristy people. With all of these travellers in the station who were there with a purpose, Holesovice seemed a lot less seedy than before. Had we stepped off the train into this environment I might not have been quite so skeeved out.

In the station were a bunch of American girls. Pretty young I’d say…17 years old maybe? They seemed *awfully* young to be travelling without any adult supervision…or at least a beefy male to back them up. One of them approached me and asked me about a train to Italy. “You do know there are other train stations, right?” She said that her train was leaving from Holesovice. “Is this Holesovice?” Yes. *Whew* For a minute I was concerned these girls weren’t even in the right station.

Meanwhile, our train was listed as delayed. I took advantage of the extra time to waste the remainder of my Czech crowns seeing as how by the time I ever come back that currency will be long-gone. I suppose I could have kept some as a souvenir, but I don’t need the clutter. Believe me.

At some point we decided our train’s arrival was imminent. We went out on the platform where it was shockingly cold. I believe there were snow flurries in the air. There was a single tramcar sitting on the track. Was this the cause of the delay? I suggested that we all just get behind it and push it out of the way, but this plan did not last long. Everyone was cold and we went back inside.

The train was not super late in the end. An hour, maybe? I don’t recall completely. We found our car and boarded and I was disappointed to learn that we did not get a cool compartment to ourselves. For the ride home we would be in normal train seats. Sometime into the ride, Mike revealed a stash of fruit in his backpack. He had the foresight to take a little snack along for the ride. X had a banana and the rest of us had apples.

The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful. Because we didn’t have private cars, and the dining car seemed pretty crowded, we went there in shifts. The girls went first while we held down the seats and then X came and got us and we went back and assumed their table at the dining car while Kate and Mary went back to the seats. On the long walk through the train we went through the smoking car which was astounding. You could smell it two cars away and it was thick with smoke. I’m pretty tolerant of smoke and it threw me for a loop! At the dining car I had some sort of sausage and lentil stew that I really liked.

We arrived back at our lovely apartment and kicked back for a few minutes to change, freshen up, nap and plan dinner. We also planned some activities after dinner - namely a ride on the 100 bus that goes around the touristy attractions so that we could see them light up at night. We also wanted to visit the Siegessäule.

All week long we had been going back and forth about visiting a kneipe. You see, my guidebook described kneipen as, basically old-man bars. Seedy joints where neighborhood people went to get blitzed after work. It specifically said that women rarely ventured into these dives. But Mary, on the advice of her guidebook and a co-worker had been lobbying to visit a kneipe listed in her guidebook. At some point I mused to X that maybe Mary’s guidebook described kneipen more favorably, so we decided to compare. Sure enough, Mary’s guidebook talked of the kneipe being a friendly neighborhood pub where the whole family goes out for a drink and a cheap bite to eat. It would be interesting to visit the kneipen listed in my guidebook to see if they really are seedy dives.

In any case, spurred on by the favorable description in Mary’s book we sought out the kneipe that she thought was most interesting. We stepped inside the main entrance and it wasn’t beautiful. It did seem like an old-man bar. In fact it was full of old men - actual old men in the 60+ range, a lot of them playing cards. This might not be the crowd we’d normally hang out with, but they did not seem a dangerous lot. We got some looks as we entered but nothing disconcerting. There were no tables in the bar but someone spotted a door leading off to another room. We went through to find more of restaurant-like area. This area was completely empty. We sat down at a nearby table.

On the table was little metal cube that had a picture on it of a crossed-out cigarette. Presumably this room was a non-smoking section. A bit of an extra bonus since people smoke pretty much everywhere in Berlin, including at the dinner table. While they eat. Shortly after we sat down, a pleasant waitress buzzed by the table and sat down an ashtray! We got a chuckle out of this. Evidently the non-smoking section is not heavily enforced!

Once concern with eating at a kneipe is that they are not really touristy so you are less likely to find English-speaking staff or English-language menus. I don’t know how much English the waitress knew - we all try to be polite travellers and just do our best in German and hand signals. She did fairly quickly determine that we were English speakers and did bring us an English menu. I always carried a guidebook that included a food dictionary, but having an English menu always makes things simpler!

This seemed like a good opportunity to get a Berliner Weiße which was described in the guidebook as one of the things you *have* to do in Berlin since it’s something pretty much unique to Berlin. I asked for it mit grün which includes a shot of a woodruff flavored syrup since that also seems to be the most traditional of all the options. Actually, I ordered a different kind of beer mit grün and I believe the waitress told me that you wouldn’t want to put that syrup in anything but Berliner Weiße, so I heeded her advice. It is definitely different and I can see why it’s very popular during the summer months!

For dinner I got this dish that had a name that I cannot recall but it was bloodwurst and liverwurst fried up with potatoes and onions and maybe some sauerkraut into a sort of hash. I think you would have to try pretty hard to come up with a meal that is more unhealthy and more offensive to the senses. It was really, really good. Frying liverwurst is a brilliant idea.

At some point during the meal Mike, who had previously mentioned not feeling very hungry, declared that he was going to opt out from further touring activities for the evening and just get an early night. He was looking a little bit pale. Mike and Mary departed and X, Kate and I finished up and paid. We decided not to go touring without Mike and Mary after a long day on the train. On our way back to the apartment, we got a little bit lost. A very nice woman noticed us huddled around a map and asked us (in German) if we needed help. At least I recognized the word for “help” in there somewhere. Kate used this opportunity to use the one German phrase she has truly mastered “Ich verstehe kein Deutsch” or “I understand no German.” The woman chuckled. We pointed to her on the map where we wanted to go and she pointed us in the right direction.

Meanwhile back at the apartment, Mike and Mary were in bed. Aunt Bern and company were supposed to arrive the next day so our plan was to meet them for dinner. Since we had this awesome apartment with this awesome balcony and the weather was beautiful, we figured after dinner we could hang out at the apartment. To celebrate the occasion I had picked up a case of Berliner Pilsener at ReWe during our last shopping excursion. I have no idea if it’s good beer, but really it’s hard to find BAD beer in German. In ReWe there were a couple of guys who were giving away some Berliner Pilsener schwag to go with a discount on the case and they seemed to enjoy practicing their sales pitch in English. We scored a pen, a lanyard, a metal motorscooter keyring and a model tractor trailer :-) Anyway, we had this case of beer so we figured we’d crack into it. Kate and X and I sat and talked and drank for awhile. Well Kate didn’t drink because despite feeding her beer in every restaurant she just can’t get into it.

After awhile, Mary came out to chat for awhile. She wasn’t feeling all that great either. Suddenly, Mike runs past and into the bathroom and gets sick. Mary goes into to assist…and soon after she gets sick, too! After things started to calm down we got the sick soldiers to bed and then retired ourselves. Not a very spectacular day for us!

To see all of the pics from the trip, head on over to the Gallery!

Berlin 2007 - Day 5: High-Speed Prague



October 3rd, 2007

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04/02/2007:
It was early. 5AM maybe? I don’t remember. It was dark. I showered before going to bed so I could sleep later. Maybe if I can find my ticket stub I can figure out when the train left…suffice it to say that factoring in time to make it from our apartment to Berlin Hauptbahnhof, we had to get up really really early. We had a little breakfast and made our way out to the station via S-Bahn. Berlin Hbf is really nice. Here’s a picture:

Berlin Hauptbahnhof

If it looks familiar, you probably saw it on Day 2 from atop the Reichstag.

We found our way to our track and waited around for our train. There was a clock on the platform that did a weird hitch every minute. I can’t imagine how it stayed accurate.

European rail travel is interesting. It’s a little more complex than travel in the US since people actually use it and you can actually go places on it for a sensible amount of money. Crazy, I know. Since tracks are shared by multiple carriers and cars can be headed to different destinations, you actually have to make sure you get on the right car because the wrong car might get disconnected from the train before you arrive!

We found our car and stepped inside and looked for our seat numbers. Very shortly we found this:

On the train

We had our own compartment! Just like in the movies! And since we had bought the group ticket for 6 people we knew that the 6th seat would remain unoccupied and we wouldn’t have to share it with some creepy or chatty person.

The ride down to Prague takes about 5 hours and you see a lot of scenic countryside and you pass through Dresden. On the way we saw a lot of tiny cottages no bigger than tool sheds on plots of land. We have it on reliable sources that these are basically rentable backyards that urban people can use to get away from the city and spend some time in the garden. It is also reported that there was a set of these a couple blocks from our apartment but we never went by it.

Anyway, we arrived in Nádrazí Holesovice which is one of Prague’s secondary train stations, but it is the one that you go to when you come from north. It was probably 11AM or so. Holesovice is seedy. There are not a whole lot of people around and the few people that are there don’t seem particularly wholesome. I felt leery and it was boad daylight. Interestingly, in researching this post I found an article that says the main train station is actually SEEDIER than Holesovice! Yikes…

Doing our best not to look like complete targets, we attempted to find our way to the public trams. The signs seemed to lead in circles. We did find a way to the subway, so we went and studied the subway map and stared at the antiquated ticket machines. More modern ticketing machines generally speak English or are illustrated with pictograms allowing you to at least pick your way through. These were coin-op. I commented that the subway map looks like it was drawn with a crayon. I held up my pocket map of Berlin’s transit system next to the Prague map. “See?” X and Kate lobbied to just go get taxis. I wondered if maybe we should just cut our losses and buy a ticket on the next train back to Berlin.

Eventually we capitulated and decided that even though it would be more expensive, we might as well just take a taxi and get where we need to go. We proceeded to a taxi stand where we found some guys standing around smoking. We told one guy where we were going and how many people and he called over a couple of other guys. We asked how much (when travelling in places where taxis are not well regulated, always negotiate the price first. Depending on how you feel, you might even want to have the driver write the price down so that he can’t “forget.” Even in places where it’s safe to take taxis, you still might want to get an estimate from the driver before you take off!) and the driver quoted us something in local currency - Czech Crowns or Kurona. It was like 500. It sounded like a lot. Here’s something I don’t like about Prague - the crown is worthless in just the right amount to make it very hard to compare with dollars or Euro. Prices are always in the hundreds of crowns and the numbers are just weird enough that it’s hard to calculate in your head what something would be in the other currencies. This will get better once they fully convert to Euro, but for the time being I get the distinct impression that merchants in touristy areas are charging high prices in crowns hoping people won’t be able to figure it out. In any case, we didn’t have much local currency. We told the drivers we would discuss it and walked away. As we walked away he told us we could also pay in Euro - 20 per car. We went back into the station, huddled up and decided that the 20 Euro didn’t seem too terrible. We went back. I was expecting the driver to say “30 Euro, now!” but when I asked to confirm he said it would be 20.

The ride to the Prague Hilton was uneventful. Driving in Prague seems frightening and crazy, and the hotel seemed a bit out of the way, so taking a taxi seemed a decent idea. We got to the hotel and checked in. It’s a very nice hotel. We dropped our stuff off and explored the lay of the land. X found a desk in the hotel that offered a walking/bus tour of the city. It seemed a little bit expensive, but it also seemed like a convenient and safe way to see all the major sights. After discussing with the group we decided to do this, and booked a tour with them.

We had a little bit of time for lunch, so we sat down in one of the hotel restaurants. There wasn’t a table big enough for all 5 of us, so we sat at a 4-top and pulled a 5th chair over. After a wait of typical European length, a waitress finally came over and asked us if we were ordering food or drinks. We told her food and she said “This table is not for 5 people to order food.” And then walked away! She did not offer to split us up. She did not offer to find us another table. We were not sure if she is going to set something up for us or anything. We waited a few more minutes and she did not return. We were running out of time. Mike and Mary and Kate decided to run upstairs to the club lounge for cool people like Mike who book a lot of Hilton rooms. X and I sat at a 2-top and were finally able to get someone to serve us sandwiches. Again, the bill came back in crowns. The conversion still boggles my mind, but I’m pretty sure it was outrageously expensive…something like $30 for a sandwich and a bowl of soup. I had heard that if they bring bread to your table and you eat it, they also charge for this, but there did not appear to be a charge for the bread. The food was tasty, at least :-)

At the appointed time we went out and met our tour guide who had a nice slavic name like Yaroslav. We had him all to ourselves which was really nice. They took us into the center of the historic district where we walked all around and saw all the historic sights. I don’t remember most of the names and I don’t have a guidebook, but suffice it to say we saw all the major stuff like the Charles River Bridge, Wenceslas Square, etc. Here are some highlights:

Cathedral

Cathedral

Stained Glass

Stained Glass

The local standard for 1 meter

The local standard for one metre.

imgp0622

The Prague skyline.

After walking around we hopped back in the bus where he showed us more cool things. There was a lot of traffic in the city, so the guide and driver decided that instead of wasting a lot of time sitting in traffic, we would walk some more and meet the bus at another location. We were now travelling off of the planned route, so the guide had to get a little bit creative. He began taking us into all kinds of crazy places to show us the centuries-old architecture that has since been converted into things like banks and department stores and still have amazing gilt ceilings and murals. Unfortunately you can’t take pictures in most of these places, but it was neat. Eventually we met up with the bus where we were driven to a square near the Charles River. We crossed the bridge to the square where there was an open-air market going on along with a band and lots of activity. We asked our guide if he could show us a good place to get real Czech food. We ducked off into a side street and followed him into a door to a small, smokey pub. It was basically an old man bar! It might have been good. In fact, considering that it was absolutely stuffed with people I’m sure it was good, but it was too crowded. He gave us directions to another place and lead us back to the square where after a brief goodbye, he disappeared into the crowd.

We took this opportunity to explore the market. There were a few rows of stalls, but they all seemed to be selling the same overpriced (if you can figure out the conversion) junk. We did pick up some souvenirs for folks back home, though. We also found this interesting fire-roasted pastry called Trdlo which they seem to pitch as being a Czech tradition, but this story is of dubious origins. Either way it’s like a pretzel, but it’s fire-roasted on a cylinder and coated with cinnamon and sugar. It was a tasty snack.

The square seemed to be teeming with American tourists. It seemed like everyone was speaking American English. A guy from New York started a conversation with me and remarked how beautiful the city was and how awesome it was that there were so many Americans around. I didn’t want to be a wet blanket so I agreed, but deep down inside I felt kinda like it was Busch Gardens and not an actual old world city. Did we come all this way to hang out with other Americans in a square where the vendors are selling trinkets at high prices?

After wandering the market a bit longer we set out to find the restaurant that our tour guide had recommended. He indicated that it was a good place to get Czech food, but would be fairly accessible to tourists. The restaurant was called Kolkovna and for all we know it could basically be the Czech version of TGI Friday’s, but it certainly fit the bill of offering ribsticking Czech food but accessible to tourists with translated menus and the like. We enjoyed our meals. Unfortunately I didn’t write what I ate in my notes. Had some tasty beers, too.

After dinner it was getting dark. X, Kate and I still did not feel all that comfortable about the environment and decided to make our way back to the hotel. Mary and Mike decided to press on for a few more hours. I guess all of their time spent wandering NYC in the wee hours during Mary’s college days makes them a little bolder about that kind of thing :-)

Back at the hotel we decided to arrange for our transportation back to the station. We told the woman at the Reception desk our story about the taxis and how it took 20 Euro to get there. She seemed to think we had definitely been screwed. She said she would call and have a van pick us up, picked up the phone and gave us some confirmation information. And a price. You want to know how much? 20 Euro! Who is ripping who off here? Maybe the going rate for that trip really is 20 Euro? The bonus is that this would be a van so really the trip would be half the price in total. Score.

We then relaxed in the room a bit. The Eurosport network was showing the Men’s World Curling Championships. It’s a bit absurd that I could see this event in the Czech Republic but I would not have been able to watch in the US! We also wandered up to the business center in the hotel to play on the Internet. I chatted with Lee for a little while.

When Mike and Mary returned safely, we went down to the restaurant for some desert and drink and then we thought we’d check out the casino in the hotel. Why not? I’ll tell you why not. It was whacky. When we got there, a woman at the front desk asked if we were hotel guests. She then told the girls they could go into the casino, but she would need to see the guys’ passports. The girls went inside. Mike handed her is passport and she began writing down some information. Before she was finished, suddenly a TON of guys came in. Like 20 people. All speaking Czech or another Slavic language. They were pushy and rude. They came in and began throwing their passports at the woman. Instead of trying to serve the people in order (in other words clearing Mike and I first!), she took one of their passports. It then occurred to me that the reason they were bumping and jostling was because they were actually pickpockets. I decided I had had enough of this nonsense. Around this time the girls, wondering what was taking so long, came back out into the lobby. I signaled to them and told Mike I was getting out of there and made for the door. No casino that night. I didn’t need to spend the money anyway! The girls said it was pretty small and not that impressive anyway.

At this point, we had been up for quite a long time and we also had a fairly early train back the next day so it seemed like a good time to call it a night, and so we did.

Here are the rest of the pictures from Prague:

Inside Cathedral

Do I seem kinda down on Prague? Well, I AM down on Prague! I actually felt homesick for our awesome little apartment in Berlin. You see, we had heard a lot of great things about Prague up to and including it being the best city in Europe. It’s really cheap. It’s really beautiful. It’s really pristine and unmodernized. Those last two things are quite true. But it’s not cheap. Not by a long shot. I think the people we talked to haven’t been to Prague in the last few years. Food was expensive. Beer was expensive. It seemed very touristy to me. So many things seem to be set up just to exploit the tourists. I constantly felt like I was asking myself “Is this person trying to screw me?” It was in many ways like being in Cancun, minus the ocean and in another language. And that language is really challenging - there are very few cognates and the words *look* like you shoudl be able to read and understand them but there’s just no way. Maybe it’s better suited towards a different type of tourist, but even Mike and Mary who are more exploratory were not overly impressed. Of London, Berlin and Prague, Prague is my least favorite by a long shot.

There are some great things about Prague - the beer, the castle, the cathedrals. It is beautiful and picturesque. When you close your eyes and picture the quintessential old world city in your mind, you think of narrow, winding cobblestone streets. Stone buildings with terracotta roofs. Squares and plazas with fountains. Elegant gardens. Historic Prague is that image come to life right out of your imagination. Should you skip going there if you have a chance? Definitely not. Should you go out of your way to get there? I don’t think so. In retrospect, I think I would have preferred to have more time in Berlin or a stop in Leipzig, Lubeck or the Harz Mountains.

To see all of the pics from the trip, head on over to the Gallery!

Berlin 2007 - Day 4: Wo ist Knut?



September 7th, 2007

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04/01/2007:
Another Berlin morning. More big Berlin plans. And plans further afield! We had all heard many positive things about Prague. Prague is not exactly “right next door” to Berlin, but it’s certainly not that far by train. Our first stop of the day was to buy our train tickets, so we went to Bahnhof Zoo to figure out how. This also fit in with our next stop for the day since we needed to catch an S-Bahn train.

At the Deutsche Bahn store (which was running a temperature comparable to the Pergamon lobby) we scratched our heads at some timetables. Then we scratched our heads at some automated ticket kiosks. The kiosks had an English mode, but they still seemed a bit confusing. Mary decided that it would be a good idea to perhaps go talk to a live person and got into the longish line. Everyone waited in the store. I was beginning to black out and went to sit outside in the station. After a few minutes, X waved me in since I had our money and passports in case these were needed. When Mary got to the front of the line and spoke to the woman, it became apparent that speaking to her was a Very Good Idea. As it turns out, there is a 6-person group rate. There were only 5 people in our party, but it still ended up cheaper to split the group ticket 5 ways instead of buying 5 individual tickets. Mike fronted the money. Again. 4 days after paying him back for fronting the money for hotels and the apartment I was back in the hole!

Satisfied with our success and excited about visiting another country, we pocketed our tickets and found our way up to the S-Bahn platform. Next stop: Olympic Stadium!

Stadium front

The Olympic Stadium was built on the location of a race track. A stadium was built in the same site for the 1916 Olympics, but WWI prevented it from happening and the original stadium never saw Olympic competition. Towards the end of the 1920s, new plans were made to expand the complex. The Great Depression almost halted the plans, but Berlin was awarded the 1936 games. When Hitler rose to power, he didn’t want to just expand the old stadium, but build a new one. The stadium is one of the few examples of grandiose Nazi architecture, as most buildings built by the regime were demolished after WWII. Hitler wanted to use the Olympics as a chance to show the world German might. Anti-semitic laws were temporarily suspended and lots of pageantry was used to help show the world Nazism’s best face. Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals showing Hitler that perhaps his “master race” idea wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Today the stadium has been modernized and is still in use for soccer, football, concerts and other events.

Olympic Rings

Two columns with the Olympic rings suspended between them guards the approach to the stadium. Looking back from here provides a commanding view all the way back into the city.

Stadium panorama

Once you walk in, you get a commanding view across the stadium to the cauldron. The bell tower juts up from the parade grounds beyond the far end of the stadium.

Troy and the Berliner Bär

Near this panoramic view stood a soccer-themed Berliner Bär. The emblem and mascot of Berlin is a bear so in keeping with current trend of having painted animals all over the city, Berlin has painted bears all over the city.

Kate and Mary shaking their fists!

We began to walk around the side of the field. Kate and Mary wanted to take a closer look at the field, but when they went to walk around the edge, they found that there are some kind of plexiglas barriers between different sections. My only theory is that this is to minimize the impact of rioting soccer hooligans. The girls were, as you can see, not too happy about having to hike back up the stairs!

Cauldron

On the opposite side of the stadium stands the cauldron.

Roll of Honor

The Roll of Honor is on the wall near the cauldron. You can see the events won by Owens. Also in this area are plaques honoring many of the people involved with the construction of the stadium. People who were closely connected with the Nazi party have been removed.

Belltower and Parade Grounds

Behind the stadium is the parade ground. The bell tower comes up from the middle. This part of the complex was being renovated.

X and Troy at the bell

Coincidentally, the original bell is no longer actually in the tower. In addition to time-honored symbols of Germany (an Eagle on one side, the Brandenberg Gate on the other), the bell also bore some Nazi symbols. A fire damaged the tower, the bell was used as a firing target, and when the bell was to be removed from the tower, it was simply dropped from it’s perch 200+ feet up! I probably should have taken a picture of it (duh) but it was interesting to see how the swastikas were obscured on the bell. This picture is expertly composed - you can see the bell tower behind us.

After exploring the stadium grounds awhile longer, we found that we were getting hungry. After a brief consultation, we concluded that the best course of action would be to eat at the stadium cafe rather than be starving by the time we got back into town and found a place to eat. This worked out well - the cafe’s food was both good and inexpensive. This was also my opportunity to sample one of the Berlin standards, currywurst. As the name suggests it’s a sausage that is topped with some sort of curry/ketchup combination. Very tasty.

Olympic Rings

It’s time to catch the S-Bahn back to town. You can see the rest of the stadium pics if you click this one.

Later, back at Bahnhof Zoo…

We split into teams again. Mike and Mary took off to see some cultural attractions such as some of the few remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall. Kate, X and I made for the Zoo.

X is a big fan of aquariums and zoos, so a trip to the Berlin Zoo (which everyone says is really nice) was probably already a priority goal, but the prospect of seeing Knut sealed the deal. Knut has been drawing record crowds to the zoo and there was a decent line to buy tickets. We managed to skirt this a little bit by finding that one ticket booth was being mostly ignored.

Map

The first thing we did was take a picture of the map. Not my idea, unfortunately, but the girls theorized that if we got lost, we could look at the map on the camera’s display. It actually would work fairly well, except it’s very hard to orient yourself when everything is written in German. Sure, you can see that you’re standing next to some flamingos, but good luck finding this on the map! Can you find the polar bear area? I’ll give you a hint: In German they call polar bears “ice bears.”

We wandered the wonderful zoo where there are not so many walls and fences…many animals are isolated from the people by way of trenches and moats which makes it very easy to see the animals.

Along our travels we saw:

Baby elephantBaby goatBlack bear cub

Baby elephants, baby goats, baby black bears…

FlamingosGiraffesOkapi

Flamingos, giraffes, okapi…

LlamasOrangutanMonkey

Llamas, orangoutauns, and other monkeys…

BirdBirdPelicans

Birds of all sorts…

KangarooCheetahCat

Kangaroos, cheetahs, and other cats…

SealNO YODELING!

A charismatic seal, a cryptic sign on a goat enclosure that must SURELY mean “NO YODELING!”…

LionLion yawningEyes with prideLion

And one REALLY AWESOME male lion…

What are we missing? CUTE BABY POLAR BEARS! We finally consulted a map and tracked down the polar bear enclosure and made our way towards it. We found polar bears doing usual polar bear frolicking. None of them looked very much like cubs. None of the onlookers seemed particularly interested, either. What was going on? Wo wahr Knut?

Well, we couldn’t wander around forever - we had other places to go before meeting Mike and Mary for dinner. And so we decided to ask where the little rascal was. And thus we ran into a common problem with knowing just enough of a foreign language to get into trouble. I taught Kate and X how to ask “Where is Knut?” in German (see the title of this post). Except none of us had any idea how to actually process the answer. As they went to ask a zookeeper, I took some more pictures and suddenly heard behind me “AAAWWWWWWWWWWWW!” The zookeeper must have said something like “Knut ist schlaffen” (which I know now), and got blank stares from the girls so conveyed through a hand signal that KNUT WAS SLEEPING! We (ostensibly) travelled thousands of miles to see that “sleepy bastard” (as he came to be known)! They should have gone and woke him up!

Fail! But the zoo was still very cool and very nice, and at 11 Euro, not expensive.

Black bear cub

You can see the rest of the zoo pics by clicking the bear.

After the zoo, we had a little bit of extra time before we had to be at dinner, so we wandered over to KaDeWe, a giant and famous department store, particularly known for its giant deli/grocery/food court on the 6th foor. It’s huge and you could spend a long time there sampling all kinds of good stuff from cheeses to meats to breads and pastries. We didn’t have a whole lot of time so we vowed to return on our last day (which we had planned as our shopping day).

Our dinner plans were at Storch (that link may no longer work, but it used to). The girls seemed certain that the restaurant was very close to KaDeWe so rather than find a U-Bahn stop or bus stop, we decided to walk there. Turns out…Storch was not so close at all. It was a long hike there, and we ended up getting there about 1/2 hour after our meeting time! Oops…

Storch is a cool place. It is Alsatian cooking so that Kate could continue keeping in touch with her heritage. You sit at long tables where, if you were in a smaller group, there would be a high potential that you would share your table with other guests. It is common for strangers to share even a smaller table in Germany if no tables are available, but the configuration at Storch makes it highly probable. Being a group of 5, this did not occur for us.

We were greeted at the door by a jovial man who also seemed to intuitively know that we were Americans and were the rest of the party that the other two Americans were waiting for. We sat down and found our menus. They were in German. And handwritten. In order to read these menus, we would need to negotiate both the language barrier and the somewhat illegible handwriting! Not wanting to be “ugly Americans,” we would have just done our best, but the happy host (who had already translated the menu once for Mike and Mary) took a seat beside us and happily translated the entire menu for us newcomers. What a guy! The menu was full of awesome-sounding dishes and beers. It was hard to decide!

We ended up with an appetizer consisting of some really tasty cold sausages and mustards. I had a dish that consisted of sauerkraut with pork knuckle, bacon and sausage. Christa had a sort of stew with beef and shallots. They were awesome. So good that this is the only meal that inspired me to actually write down what I ate! Everyone else seemed really happy with their food as well and Storch would end up being regarded by all as the best meal we had in Berlin!

After sticking around for a while having some drinks, we bade the jolly man goodnight and made our way back to the apartment. It was not very late, but we had a 6AM train to Prague and we were going to have to get up very early to get to the station.

To see all of the pics from the trip, head on over to the Gallery!