Thursday, January 31, 2013

Downsizing to a one-bedroom apartment

This is what a one-bedroom apartment without furniture looks like.

It's been a long, long time since I lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Since 2005, in fact. Since then, in order, I've lived in a ramshackle farmhouse in Virginia, a four-bedroom duplex in Brooklyn, a two-bedroom duplex in San Diego, a house in Massachusetts, a three-bedroom Victorian in Rhode Island, and now--a one-bedroom cookie-cutter apartment, in an huge apartment complex.

So, naturally, it's a bit of an adjustment. We'd gotten rid of almost all our furniture before the move, so that isn't a problem. (We also got rid of almost everything else, so the lack of storage space isn't really a problem either.) The biggest change is the lack of space--we're not used to being on top of each other all the time. The cats, too--they're used to having more room to romp. This is also the first time we've lived together with only one bathroom. That'll be the biggest source of conflict.

I won't be able to hang all our pictures (not enough wall space) and we will no longer have a dedicated guest room. But there are advantages to downsizing, too. To wit:

1. We won't have to buy a lot of furniture.
2. We won't need a laundry basket. The washer and dryer are right there, two feet from the bedroom.
3. Very little to clean. Which means no more fights about cleaning, or gardening, or yard work.
4. Oh yeah, no yard work. No raking leaves, shoveling snow, or scraping the car (since we get an assigned garage parking space with our unit).
5. We only have two windows, that come with blinds, so no hanging curtains.
6. The kitchen came with a microwave, so we don't have to buy one of those, either.
7. The utility costs are folded into the rent check, a set amount every month, so we won't have to worry about regulating the electricity/heat/air conditioning usage. I can't tell you how nice it is to be able to wander around my apartment in bare feet, in January, after freezing my ass off in New England for three years.

I also realized, while at Costco, that I'll need to shift my grocery-buying habits a little.

Since hubs and I got married, I've shopped like this. Bulk first, then fill in the corners with sales, supplemented by a CSA. But after moving once a year since then, twice cross-country, I'm rethinking my whole approach to buying in bulk. I don't have the room anymore, and I'm tired of having to get rid of perfectly good food (and cleaning supplies, and paper towels) every time we move. So here is a partial list of things I'm no longer buying in bulk: Paper towels, shampoo/conditioner, spices, oils and vinegars (except for olive oil), bleach, garlic, bread flour, grains, soap, dried fruit, cornstarch, cornmeal, cleaning supplies, and multiples of anything. From now on, I'm only buying those things in normal amounts, when they're on sale. Not at Costco.

I'm also scaling back the sheer variety of my pantry. I love the option of having olive oil, walnut oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, grapeseed oil, and truffle oil at my disposal, but each time I've moved, I've found myself either frantically trying to use all those up or giving away half-bottles of each. Plus, they're expensive. This time, I'm going to start with olive oil and peanut oil and see how far those take me. Ditto vinegars, exotic spices, different flours, different kinds of salt, and grains. I don't have the storage space I used to have, and let's be honest: if current trends hold, I'll be moving somewhere else soon anyway.

Here's the biggest change: Washington State has an almost 35% tax on liquor sales. 35%! That means there's basically $10 extra in taxes on every bottle I want to buy. Given the usual variety of our bar, that means $300 or so extra in taxes, just to set up the bar the way I want. So you know what that means: we're going to be drinking a lot more beer and wine while we're here. No more crazy cocktails at home--we're drinking the stuff that's not taxed.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Grilled cheese sandwich

The simplest thing, right? It IS possible to make a bad grilled cheese sandwich. I made a delicious one last night, with fresh-baked bread.

Start with two big slices of bread, and toast them. Meanwhile, grate some high-quality Gruyere cheese. When the bread is toasted, butter it well, on both sides, and layer the grated cheese in the middle.

Get a skillet really hot, and drop a pat of butter in. Grill the sandwich on both sides, until golden brown, and the cheese is melty.

Serve hot, with a little salad on the side, and a nice glass of wine.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Baked rigatoni with eggplant, chard and mushrooms

Hey, look! I cooked something!

It's been over a month since I cooked anything (Christmas Day, to be exact). In that time, I've been eating a lot of other people's cooking and road food. Also some nice meals out, but probably too many.

To avoid spending unnecessary money on both road food and eating out, I wanted to get my kitchen operational as quickly as possible. Step 1: unpack. Step 2: stock the pantry. I started at Costco, and finished with a couple of trips to local grocery chains. I've discovered that some things are weirdly cheap (eggs are $1 a dozen, eggplants are $1 each) and some things are weirdly expensive (booze has a 35% tax! Can you believe it?).

The pantry is about 85% there, but it's enough to get started. First I made chili with ground pork, then I made a big batch of tomato sauce, then I made some fudge, and now I'm making bread.

For dinner last night, I made baked rigatoni with eggplant, chard, and mushrooms. It's a variation on a theme, but a delicious one.

1 large eggplant (about 1 1/2 pounds), cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large onion, chopped (I used one large shallot)
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 small package of mushrooms, quartered
1 bunch chard, loosely chopped
3-4 cups tomato sauce
Leaves from 1 small bunch basil
1 pound rigatoni
1 pound fresh mozzarella
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Heat some olive oil in a skillet until hot. Add the eggplant pieces in one comfortable layer (you may need to do more than one batch) and cook until golden brown. Set aside in a large bowl. Cook the mushrooms next in the same skillet. Add to the eggplant. Saute the onion and garlic next, and add that to the eggplant. Cook the chard just long enough so that it's wilted, and add that to the eggplant as well.

Cook the rigatoni until still slightly firm. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Add both to the eggplant, along with the tomato sauce, basil and any seasonings,  and the mozzarella. Mix well, and pour into a large casserole dish. Top with parmesan and pepper, and bake at 450 until the cheese is melted and slightly browned. Serve immediately.

Monday, January 28, 2013

We have an apartment!

My new kitchen!

The living room needs some work, thought. And some furniture.

Hallelujah! We arrived in the Seattle area on Sunday, and on Friday we were moving into our new place.

We were staying with friends of my husband's in Kitsap County. Lovely people, but it required either a ferry or a two-hour drive to get to Seattle, making it an inconvenient base of operations. We started looking at apartments right away.

I forgot how many crappy apartments there are in the world, and what a pain it is to look at several of them a day. We were using craigslist exclusively; on day two we found something we liked, small but cute, with a partial view of the Space Needle. We decided to put in an application, but to continue looking, just in case our application was rejected (since we are both technically unemployed).

Naturally, the very next apartment we looked at was the one we really liked. It's in an apartment complex, one of those big fancy rabbit warrens of apartment living with garage parking, a fitness center, a rooftop deck, and 24-hour security. I haven't lived in one of those for a while--the place we had in San Diego was kind of like that, but much more spread out. It's a one-bedroom, with a small separate office area. We went from a two-bedroom duplex in California to a three-bedroom house with a huge yard in Massachusetts to a three-bedroom, two-bath Victorian montrosity in Rhode Island with a rain shower and a built-in wet bar, to a one-bedroom cookie-cutter apartment. With beige carpeting. But I'm actually fine with that--I loved that apartment in Providence, but hated Providence itself, and I knew we'd never be able to get that kind of place again. At least not in Seattle, unless we win the lottery.

For a one-bedroom with beige carpeting, it's pretty roomy. There's a separate room with doors we'll use as an office, our own washer and dryer, decent closet space, and a cute little kitchen with a breakfast bar area. We got rid of all the furniture before we moved, so a one-bedroom is perfect for now. We can put a futon or something in the office and use that as a guest room, when the time comes. The kitchen doesn't have quite enough cabinet space for my taste, but then, I have a lot of kitchen stuff. There are also Weber grills on the roof deck, for community use, and best of all, garden plots in large stainless-steel tubs. I requested a couple of garden tubs, so I can grow herbs outdoors. And the place is right on the edge of the International District, so we can get amazing cheap food at all hours.

The moving-in process was painless--far more painless than I expected. The apartment was available immediately, so I called UPack and asked them to deliver. I ended up doing something called a "live load-in," which meant the driver dropped off the cube and then waited for us to unload it. We had an hour to empty it, at which point he whisked it away again. That way, we didn't have to worry about getting a parking permit from the city, so that it could be left on the street overnight. But we did have only an hour, so I hired two movers from UPack.

The cube and the movers showed up at the same time. It wasn't raining, and we had the freight elevator reserved. Between the four of us, we had the cube unloaded and everything inside the apartment within 45 minutes. Everyone left, and we had the rest of the day to unpack.

The vast majority of our stuff made it in one piece. The only notable casualty was Grandma's dining room table--half the feet on one side of the base snapped off. My hubs performed some surgery with wood glue and new screws, and we're hoping that'll do the trick. Also, two martini glasses broke. But everything else was fine--the electronics, the picture frames, the china, etc.

After two days, we've unpacked most of the boxes and figured out where everything will eventually go. We'll need a fair amount of furniture to make the place fully operational (a desk, a dresser, a sofa, some dining room chairs, some bookshelves), so I'll start combing the local thrift stores and craigslist today. In the next day or two, we'll get library cards and go to the DMV (new drivers' licenses, new plates for the car).

I can't tell you how amazing it was to sleep on my own bed again--after two months of air mattresses, guest beds, and crappy hotel rooms, my spine sang a hymn of gratitude that first night. My back no longer hurts all the time. Every box I opened was like being reunited with an old friend--oh hey! I remember you! I missed you, my toaster oven! Despite all the winnowing of stuff, we ended up with a few boxes of things we won't need for this apartment (curtains, outdoor stuff), but it's fine, we'll save it for the next place.

Best of all, I'm no longer homeless! Only unemployed.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Traveling with cats

Who, me?

The most challenging part of this move was, of course, dealing with the cats. Our two blind cats travel relatively well--that is, as long as I let them roam freely about the car, they don't freak out too much. Because they're blind, they can't really see what's going on; one of them will usually settle on the armrest between the seats, and the other will settle on my lap. They have no interest in eating or drinking (or using the bathroom) while they're in the car, even if those things are  made available, even if it's a 12-hour drive.

The downside is that they're roaming freely about the car; even once they've settled and stopped yowling (mostly), they'll still get up periodically and wander. Just to make sure everything's the same, I suppose. Also, they're not eating or drinking or using the bathroom; while that's less of a hardship for animals, I still worry about them. The constant in and out of the car for a week has taken its toll on one of them--she's lost some weight.

Fortunately, they've had a few days to recover, and since they've moved cross-country before, I have no reason to doubt they'll settle into our new home nicely.

If you are traveling cross-country with pets, here are some pointers.

I bought a supply of heavy-duty aluminum foil roasting pans at Sam's Club, and used those as disposable litter boxes. I had a bag of cat food, some newspapers, a scooping thing, a jug of cat litter, and two Tupperware containers. Every night, I put down some newspaper, put some litter into a foil pan, and set out the Tupperware dishes with cat food and water. In the morning, I just folded up the foil pan and dropped it in the trash, and put the lid on the food and water dishes and away we went.

Try to pack lightly. We couldn't really, because we were moving as opposed to going on vacation, but the more room your pets have in the car, the happier they'll be.

Put some towels down. Cat hair (or dog hair) will get all over the seats.

Keep some treats handy for when they're particularly stressed.

Make sure you're stopping at pet-friendly hotels. Some chains claim to be pet-friendly, but then will charge you $100 a night, per pet, non-refundable, which in my mind is not really pet-friendly at all. The two cheapest and most reliably pet-friendly chains are Motel 6 and La Quinta. Motel 6 is the cheapest and most ubiquitous; La Quinta is a little bit more expensive, but it's also nicer, and you get free breakfast and coffee starting at 6 am. Both have rooms with mini-fridge and microwave.

Keep some Febreze and paper towels in the car. Just in case.

Napping on my leg

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Road food

Usually when we travel, we take a bunch of stuff from home (pasta salad, sandwiches, fruit, nuts, etc.) and try not to buy very much. This time, however, since we were moving, we didn't exactly have a store of food to choose from. So we bought food.

We had a rotating store of chips, protein bars, dried fruit, fresh fruit, cookies, a box of Cheerios, and sandwich fixings--a loaf of bread with different kinds of meat and cheese, and a small squeeze bottle of mustard--supplemented with the occasional meal out. We spent a couple of dollars a day on hot coffee. We kept a cooler with frozen water bottles in it; the cooler held the meat and cheese, and we made sure to get hotels with a mini-fridge and cooler.

So every morning, we'd start with a protein bar and a piece of fruit (sometimes we'd get a little free breakfast with the hotel room). Lunch would be a sandwich with chips and whatever else we felt like eating. Ditto dinner, except for the nights when we ate out. I made sure to select food that could live in a car in subzero temperatures overnight, if need be. Warning: bananas won't work. The first bunch of bananas I left in a subzero car froze completely and turned black. After that, I stuck to apples.

Water bottles got refilled every night, and a couple would have a cold-brew iced tea bag added to them, so I could have iced tea. I also kept some tea bags, for hot tea. (Free hot water at the gas station plus my own tea bag = free hot tea.)

I was also keeping the cats in cat food and litter; even so, our food expenditures weren't any more than they usually are, even with all the coffee and fruit and whatever money spent each day.

Some lessons learned:
1. Try to stick to hotels with mini-fridge and microwave AND a coffeemaker or free coffee/breakfast in the mornings. Free coffee/breakfast means that's one less meal you have to worry about; a coffeemaker means you can at least make your own. (If that's the case, make sure you have a little good ground coffee with you.)
2. Bananas will freeze, and bruise easily. Buy them one at a time from gas stations (expensive) or stick to apples.
3. If you have pets in the car, be careful of the loaf of bread. It will get squished.
4. Cookies can make a fine breakfast.

We're currently staying with friends in a semi-finished guest house; there's no bathroom or kitchen facilities in the guest house, and we're spending quite a bit of time in Seattle looking at apartments, so we're now in the position of either having to eat out quite a lot or continuing to subsist on sandwiches and chips. I see a lot of cheap noodle bowls in our future. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Great Trek West, Part 7: Everything else

Foggy Idaho

After all those national parks, the rest of the trip was a bit of a letdown. The drive up I-15 to Salt Lake City was completely fog-bound, which meant we couldn't see any of the scenery, or even the mountains that ring SLC. I slipped on some ice at the hotel, too. But we had an awesome dinner at The Copper Onion with an old high school friend of my husband's. First civilized meal in days.

The next day we drove 12 hours to Portland, OR, and guess what--most of that was completely fog-bound, too. We saw a little bit of sun in Idaho, but the Columbia River Gorge might as well have been nonexistent for all we saw of it (that is, none). The sun broke just as we hit Portland, though, and we were able to see Mt. Hood out the rearview mirror. We had a final celebratory meal at Beaker & Flask (go there, and order the short rib. Seriously. It was outstanding.)

A brief moment of sun in eastern Oregon

And then the next day: on to Seattle!

Well, Kingston, actually, across the sound in Kitsap County. We're staying with friends of my husband's. As a final parting gesture from the universe, the entire drive from Portland to Seattle was, naturally, completely fog-bound. Couldn't see a thing.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Great Trek West, Part 6: Backcountry Utah and three national parks

Backcountry Utah is remote.

Seriously. We were lucky in that the roads were clear and the weather was dry; had the roads been the smallest amount compromised, we would have been in trouble. We drove from one side of the state to the other, and passed through three national parks, a national forest, and a national monument, and I think I saw less than ten cars all day. At one point we went an hour without seeing another car, a house, or any sign of human civilization.

But oh my goodness, it was gorgeous.

And really, is there anything better than having a road all to yourself? Especially a scenic one, so that you can stop and take pictures wherever you want?

It was another day of starting off in the dark, driving all day, and ending in the dark. But it was by far the most scenic day. We took Scenic Byway 24 to 12, which winds directly through Capitol Reef National Park, Dixie National Forest, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, and Bryce Canyon National Park to Zion National Park.

Capitol Reef is one of the most remote national parks; and Grand Staircase was the last area of the continental US to be mapped. It's a tiny two-lane mountain road that winds along the backbone of the ridge, miles from any town, with the steepest drop-offs I've ever seen (naturally, with no guard rails). Do not attempt this drive if it's rainy, snowy, icy, or overly windy, and do not pass by a gas station without refilling to a full tank--there aren't that many of them. I can't understand why Grand Staircase isn't a national park. We didn't go off the main road, so we saw only a small percentage of what there is to see, but I'd love to go back there one day when hiking or off-roading would be a possibility.

Here are pictures of Capitol Reef (note the petroglyphs):

The view from Dixie National Forest:

Grand Staircase:

I also can't understand why there's a public road that cuts through so many mind-numbingly beautiful things, and not many people live along that road. I am glad I had the thing largely to myself. In summer, behind RVs and trucks and normal traffic, it would have been infuriating.

Bryce and Zion were just as beautiful as I remembered. Zion was a relatively steamy 54 degrees (when we left Moab at 6 am, it was nine below), and the wildlife was out in full force. We were also able to drive the entire road. In spring, summer, and fall, one major branch of the road is closed to private cars; you can only take a shuttle bus.



Our brains were saturated by the time we bedded down for the night. The next day's drive was obscured by fog, which was a shame, but I'm not sure how much astounding scenery we could have absorbed. How did Utah get all the good stuff?

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Great Trek West, Part 5: Mesa Verde, Four Corners, and Monument Valley

The other day we were in a state that borders Mexico (Arizona). By the end of the week we'll be in a state that borders Canada (Washington).

It's hard work to cover three national parks (well, three tourist attractions) in a winter day, given that there's only ten hours or so of daylight. But we managed it. We got up really early and drove from Moab to Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, a not-very-exciting three-hour drive. In the summer, this drive will probably take far longer, as it's over a two-lane road, through a lot of small towns, with trucks and farming vehicles. We blew through because there was no one on the road at 6 am.

Mesa Verde is set on top of a high plateau--which means it's windy, cold, and at a high altitude. We got winded just walking around. Because it's winter, we were two of about six people in the entire park. We were able to park wherever we wanted, get out, leave the car running, take pictures, and hop back in the car. The cliff dwellings are at the bottom of the park, at the end of a very long and windy mountain road. It will take you about 40 minutes to get from the entrance to the first dwelling (but there's a lot of pretty scenery along the way). One half of the park is closed during the winter, so we were restricted to one road. Only one house, Spruce Tree House, was available for a tour. Still, we took the tour and it was pretty awesome. (But cold--did I mention cold? When you're touring a cave in 16-degree weather, your toes go numb in a hurry.)

Then we zipped back out of the park and headed for Four Corners, about 45 minutes away. It's on tribal lands, so again, two-lane roads, no real cell phone reception, and you'll need to cough up $6 cash to park your car. In the summer, there are parking problems and you have to wait in a line to take a picture on the medallion that marks the spot where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet. In winter, we were the only ones there. We took two quick pictures and set off for Monument Valley.

Monument Valley is also on tribal lands, and it's another 100 miles of two-lane road, through the middle of nowhere, with no cell reception, from Four Corners. The drive, and the valley, were the same as I remembered. In fact, the pictures are exactly the same--only this set has snow.

Awe-inspiring, etc. And we got there around 3:30 pm, giving us plenty of daylight for the drive back to Moab--which is pretty awe-inspiring itself.

However, it's hard work spending 12 hours driving between three states. We bought beer, some cheese, and a salami at a grocery store on the way back and called it dinner.

I'll end with this, the iconic road shot of the American West.