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Archive for September, 2009

… and a pond

September 29th, 2009

We have a nice pond with a little waterfall and fish in the garden.
 

 
It caused us quite a lot of pain in the run up to closing the house purchase. We’ve been given several versions of the events by various sources, and were finally able to piece it all together.

The previous owners of the house liked that pond very much. They installed it over 15 years ago, with appropriate permits from the township, and enjoyed the sound of gently cascading water and the pleasing ambiance of having it in the garden. Adding to the charm, a bunch of koi fish lived in the pond.

Then, a few years ago, the owners decided to add frogs to the mix.

Yep. They figured that the sound of a dozen croaking frogs is exactly what’s been missing from the picture.

And the frogs croaked. Or barked, given that this species of amphibians is known as “barking frog”. The owners loved it.

The neighbors, however, were not happy at all. Their much younger children could not fall asleep under the constant accompaniment of frogs. I am not sure how many times, if at all, they asked our sellers to get rid of the frogs, but eventually they complained to the township. I fully understand their desperation.

The township couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about the frogs directly, but it suddenly “realized” that the pond was built on top of a utility easement. Which is a serious no-no.

The sellers did remove the frogs eventually. Or the frogs died out, I am not sure. But when the owners applied for a Certificate of Occupancy in order to sell the house to us, the township refused to issue one unless the pond was altogether removed, correcting the issue with the easement. For practical and impractical reasons, nobody wanted to do that. The sellers’ attorney engaged in negotiations with the township, which yielded the following result: The CO was issued in exchange for us signing a document that granted us a revocable license from the township to use the koi pond – and nothing else – on this particular easement. The township has the right to demand that we remove the pond from the property at our sole expense, but nobody seems to think that this will ever happen. (Whether this will become an issue when we decide to sell the place is a point of concern, but I’m not willing to lose sleep over it for the next ten years or so.)

These negotiations ended up pushing the entire process back by a week, which sounds like an unremarkable inconvenience until you factor in all of the other inconveniences related to being in between houses.

On the plus side, we have a beautiful pond.

A couple of days after we moved in, the landscaper who worked on our new garden for the last however-many years paid us a visit to introduce himself and to offer his continuous services. Our neighbors saw him and almost had a heart attack. They inferred from his visit that we would be getting the frogs as well.

We assured them that we have no interest in that. I can’t say that I much enjoy any night-time noises. The chirping of crickets, at least, largely becomes white noise after a while…

Chronicles, Photography

House pictures

September 28th, 2009

Spending all of my free time – however little of that! – in making “my” part of the house (offices, computers, assorted electronics) presentable, I am still a few days away from resuming some semblance of settled-down existence. And blogging. In the meantime, due to overwhelming demand, here are a few pictures of our new home.

Please click on the pictures to enlarge.

First, the view from the street.
 

 
A closer view of the façade.
 

 
The view from the back, which turned out in rather dramatic light.
 

 
A view of the pool and the garden.
 

 
Our garden ends where the tall trees end. There are three levels: The main patio underneath (the picture was taken from an upper bedroom window), the pool on the middle level, and the “woods” on the lower level.

The pool, unfortunately, will be closed this coming Wednesday. We only managed a few short dips in the week+ since we bought the house. Even a heated pool is not warm enough in this weather…

Photography

No-car commute

September 25th, 2009

An unexpected hold-over from my days on British Isles – I don’t use a car on my commute. We now live only about a mile away from the nearest commuter bus stop. So I walk.

My stop is one of the major ones on the same service that I used to take years ago when we first moved into the area. In the morning, I can get onto a waiting empty bus, and in the evening, I can catch express service with the first stop where I need to get off. There are also making-all-stops buses to be used as an alternative. Fairly convenient, reasonably frequent, does not take much longer than a train would, fares are cheaper than on the rail service. Plus, I don’t have to worry about parking.

Wake up at 6:15, get out of the door at 6:46, get on the waiting bus at 7:03. Same driver every day, with his priorities – to get customers to the destination as quickly as possible – firmly in order. In the office around 8:30-8:35. Two twenty-minute walks at each end of an hour-plus bus journey. Roughly the same commute duration that I always had while living in Jersey.

The walk on the “home” side is pleasant enough, along quiet leafy streets. There are uninterrupted sidewalks, but I am the only pedestrian on them most of the time. I pass people walking their dogs occasionally, and a group of girls of high-school age waiting for their school bus in the morning, but nobody else seems to be making a similar walk to the bus stop. No more than a dozen cars drive by those streets while I’m on my way.

In the evening, with minimal lighting coming from nearby houses and sparse street-lamps, the walk is a bit eerie… The other night, a guy came out of a house to check for something in his car parked near the sidewalk. He did not notice me until I was practically next to him. He was startled to a point of cowering and raising his hands as if to protect himself from an attack. Then he realized that I was just passing by. I said, “Sorry, man, I did not mean to startle you”. He laughed nervously, and sheepishly said something along the lines of “nobody walks here, ever”…

Natasha can drive me to the stop and get back home within a space of five minutes. There’s always that when the weather turns bad.

Chronicles

In my own bed

September 24th, 2009

Sleeping in my own bed is nice.

It’s not just the fact that we bought nice and soft new mattresses, which are a huge improvement over anything that I remember sleeping on in my life. It’s not only the quiet neighborhood, the chirping of crickets – or whatever the little buggers are – the only sound that breaks the night’s tranquility.

It’s the feeling that this bed is mine. In my own house. Not a temporary accommodation, not a rented house, not a place where I have to be.

A place where I want to be.

You could guess that I’m enjoying the return to home-ownership tremendously.

I even took a dip in the pool late last night. The water is already rather cold, we’ll be closing the pool soon, but the night was comparatively warm, so I braved it. I imagine how much I will enjoy it next summer. And the following summer. And the following…

Surprisingly, most of the house already looks lived-in. There is still plenty of stuff to do in sorting out our belongings, which Natasha has been wading through for the last couple of days. But another few days, and we’ll be officially resuming something like “normal” existence…

Chronicles

Moving in

September 21st, 2009

I haven’t been wearing my pedometer today, which is a pity, because I must have hit a new daily record with all running up and down the stairs. The movers are here to deliver our old stuff. The stuff that largely has no place in this new house of ours. It’ll take a while to figure this all out.

Just wanted to let everyone know that I’m still alive and kicking. Just barely, at the moment…

Chronicles

It happened!

September 19th, 2009

You’ve noticed, no doubt, my general reluctance to discuss our house hunting and purchase beyond vague allusions to things not going too smoothly. I’m going to rectify that now.

Why now?

Well, it is with a great amount of relief – satisfaction, I hope, will settle in later – that I can announce that my lovely spouse and I are finally, once again, homeowners.

The arduous road started in a fairly promising way when Natasha went to the States on her reconnaissance trip in June. Her main purpose was to find us a suitable house to buy. She visited nearly twenty different properties in four days. No property truly stood out, but one of them had pretty much everything that we were looking for in a house. We discussed it a bit and decided that not being in love with the house should not preclude us from buying something that we saw as perfectly suitable.

We made an offer, negotiated and entered into contract. When I went to NY/NJ myself later that month, I saw the house and appreciated what it could offer. House inspection highlighted a couple of non-trivial problems, but the sellers agreed to take steps to fix some and others were not of the deal-breaking kind.

The deal was scheduled to close on August 4th, less than a week after we were to land back in America.

On the third day of our holidays in Spain in July, I happened to check my BlackBerry and noticed an email from my mortgage officer. He advised me that the appraisal on the house came in considerably lower than the agreed purchase price. Since the bank’s rules were to lend based on the appraised price, if we wanted to stay at the same loan-to-value ratio, we would need to pony up a serious additional chunk of money. Or, alternatively, incur financial penalties in the form of PMI for staying with the initial borrowed amount which would now come to over 80% in loan-to-value ratio.

Or, renegotiate the price down. Which is what we tried to do, because other options were unattractive. Except, the sellers were unwilling to. We made them a couple of offers, but they wouldn’t budge by more than 5 grand. At some point, their lawyer intimated to our attorney that his clients felt conned because I worked for the bank where I was getting my mortgage and surely I arranged with the bank to have the appraisal come in very low so that we could drive the price down… After a week or so of such “negotiations” – they did affect our overall enjoyment of vacationing with friends on the Mediterranean – we had enough and cancelled the contract.

The sellers and their lawyer tried to play games with our deposit, but legally there was little they could do… That house, by the way, is still on the market, now listed very near to the final price that I was willing to pay above the appraisal. Basically, the sellers ended up with several more months – and counting – of owning it, with no current prospects of coming out better in any new deal than they would with us if they were slightly less obstinate.

We should thank them for being so. Seriously, I am contemplating sending them a bouquet.

The next day after our arrival in the States, we started another intensive round of house-hunting. There were several new nice houses on the market by that point, none ideal, but many suitable.

And then on Sunday afternoon, the last of the houses that we wanted to see, we saw our ideal one. It fit every single criterion on our list. And we did, to use that tired stamp, fell in love with it the moment we walked through the door. It helped greatly that it looked to be in immaculate condition: Move in, start living.

Long story short, that house is now ours. There were a few bureaucratic delays in the process that did little for my comportment, but all is now in the past. These sellers were the nicest people, ready to fix the smallest problem at their own expense. Not that we demanded much. There were literally nothing in the inspection report to raise as a concern…

And on the evening of September 18th, we finally found ourselves where we wanted to be.

Our home.

The next few days will be taken up by deliveries and such. More headaches, but rather pleasant ones at that.

Chronicles

New York imagery: 6th Avenue

September 16th, 2009

I’ve taken this picture a while ago, on one of the first days of resuming my Manhattan working life. There is nothing expressly special about it. I just happen to like the wide expanse of New York’s 6th Avenue above 42nd Street.
 

 

New York City & Environs, Photography

Questions wanted

September 15th, 2009

In the past, a 6-day interval between posts on this blog would invariably mean that I was on a trip to some fun and rewarding destination. At present, not so much. I still don’t have a writing angle that I want to be exploring in depth, and I’m increasingly lukewarm to posting “recurring features” for the sake of appearing active.

Maybe I should try one of those exercises designed to overcome writer’s blocks…

Or maybe I just don’t find anything worthy of a writing effort these days.

I had a thought earlier to attempt to explain how turned off I am by the politically charged atmosphere in the country, dominated by extremists, demagogues and ignoramuses, and how I already miss the fact that in Europe politics does not take over everyday discourse the way it does in the States. But a) I could not come with a coherent transformation of my feelings into a fact-based narrative, and b) as little as I wrote on political topics in the past, I already decided that there will never be another post about politics in this space.

I have an idea for what I think would be a fairly interesting – for me, at least, – on-going blogging project, but it has not fully gelled yet.

My other choices consist of recounting our daily life, and I just don’t feel like it’s something I want to pursue. It was kinda fun to keep a diary of our living abroad, but when it comes to a “normal” life, I’m not a diary kind of guy.

(That did not sound right, by the way. Is “diary kind of guy” an existing species at all?)

So, my patient and neglected readers, the few of you that I still have left, could you kindly lend your hapless host a hand? If there are any burning questions that you have been dying to hear me address, won’t you ask me, please! Inexpert advice on topics I have no right to be opining on? Obscure points in my illustrious biography? My tastes in arts? Anything and everything will be entertained.

Well, except for politics.

Hell, maybe I should go and dig up another meme…

Blogging

15 Movies Meme

September 9th, 2009

In the absence of truly original content, I sought to fall back on a gimmick today, that being the trebly-symmetric date of 09/09/09. Except, to keep the symmetry intact, I would have to talk about something related to the Olympic Games, as I did both on 07/07/07 and on 08/08/08. Alas, Olympics are lately as much as on my mind as, say, Newton’s binomial theorem. Not a lot, in case you did not get the allegory. Not at all, in fact.

What is on my mind are what we hope the last remaining bits for fully re-integrating ourselves back into American life. Closing on a house and such. Not the topics I am willing to blog extensively about.

Instead, realizing that I’ve been increasingly neglecting my blogging host responsibilities of late, I decided to resort to the true and tried crutch of a meme and followed a recent one via Jason. If interested, look below the cut.
Read more…

Movies

Pictures from Costa Brava

September 7th, 2009
Comments Off

It was a good summer.

Some of the best memories are now immortalized in the new album, accessible through the links on the right or directly here.

Photography, Website Bulletins

New York imagery: 8th Avenue Westin

September 3rd, 2009

Maybe I’ve become more attuned to noticing them in the past few years or possibly they simply were not here in my previous New York City life, but I keep coming across pretty cool modern buildings in Midtown that I don’t recall seeing before our expatriate period.

Such as this Westin Hotel on the corner of 8th Avenue and 43rd Street.
 

 
By the way, Hugin Panorama Tools Front-end rulez like no other. Half a dozen clicks was all I needed, with no manual adjustments.

New York City & Environs, Photography

Back from Chicago

September 2nd, 2009

You did not think I’d stay put for long after repatriating, did you?

Actually, I did not expect myself that my first travel experience back in America would happen so soon.

My brother and his family never made it to London in the three years that we lived there. I did see them on a business trip to Chicago in 2007 and we crossed paths in New Jersey later that same year. But, Skype/MSN Messenger aside, we have not seen each other for almost two years. And then, he became a father again two months ago.

That was a perfectly good reason to travel to Chicago and see the family and meet its newest member. My parents wanted to go anyway, but weren’t too happy about the cost of air travel. So, when I offered to join them for a driving adventure, the trip was on.

We drove in two stages each way, stopping overnight somewhere in Pennsylvania (on the way back, that somewhere turned out to be Mars – that is, Mars, PA). Beautiful landscapes alternated with less attractive ones, but the vistas were generally pleasant. I officially added Ohio and Indiana to the list of US states that I set foot in (both feet, as it were, at several rest areas – the ones in Ohio are especially impressive). We spent 13 hours covering roughly 800 miles, and then almost 2 hours crawling around Chicago for the last 30 or so. On the way back, a zealous Pennsylvania state trooper pulled me over for ostensibly catching up with the car in front of me in a one-lane road-work zone (I was going 68 in a 40-mile zone while everybody else must have been doing 66), but after chastising me, he wrote me a no-points ticket for a “general speeding” (the fine itself is listed as $25, but there are surcharges and extra fees for another $80).

I met my newest niece, a cute tiny person whom I was more than a little afraid to hold. I have no recollection how small the newborn babies are… My other niece, who just turned five, for quite some time did not want to let me out of her sight… My brother and I went to play a round of 9-hole golf at the neighboring course; we both suck, but he decidedly less so… There was a visit to old friends who live in the area, a children’s party at the community aquatic center, a restaurant celebration of a family member’s birthday… For good measure, I checked into a hotel in downtown Chicago for one night and spent the following morning around the office, on a meet-and-greet mission that gave the trip a small pretense of being a business one.

We did not do any sightseeing – there was no room for that during a whirlwind 72-hour stay. No big deal; I’ve been to Chicago many times and surely will be there again before long. I did enjoy panoramic views of the city from the high floor of our offices in the recently-rechristened Willis Tower.

What about Natasha and the girls, you ask? They had their own adventure, planned well in advance, joining our good friends for a tour of Pennsylvania attractions centered on Amish country. Among their activities were visits to a chicken farm and a dairy farm, a day at the Hershey amusement park and chocolate factory, train and buggy rides, and tons of other fun.

We’d like to think we’ll continue to be actively seeking new journeys…

Travel