Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A year since Harvey

One year ago today, the floodwaters were just starting to recede and people were only beginning to take stock of devastation. As I one of the lucky ones who survived Hurricane Harvey relatively unscathed, I really don't have much to say about the one-year anniversary of the storm that dumped a catastrophic amount of water on the city and changed the lives of untold numbers of people.

Others, however, do have stories to tell, including Jeff Linder of the Harris County Flood Control District, who recalls what it was like to become the media's "face" of Hurricane Harvey last year:
Most major storms have a "face" that goes with it -- a person who carries the region through the event. In 1992, it was Bryan Norcross, a local meteorologist with a TV station in Miami when Hurricane Andrew moved across south Florida and in 1999 it was Gary England with a TV station in Oklahoma City that talked Moore and Bridge City through a catastrophic EF 5 tornado . I don't think anyone ever thinks they will be that person one day. I never thought that, but Harvey became that storm for me -- more the "blue" shirt maybe than the face. To this date I have not watched a single interview I did during Harvey and I did not see much of the news coverage during the storm. You have to stay focused on the information that needs to get out "as timely and accurate as possible" so people can make the decisions they need to make. I have always approached interviews from the standpoint of what would I want to know if I were watching from home: what is going to happen, when is it going to happen, and what do you want me to do. Those are the three basic questions I would want to know and I think anybody would want to know. The more I was able to get information out and answer the questions that so many people had, the better the decisions that could be made. In the end it all boils down to, I just did my job. I had information and provided it in a way that people could understand. If I didn't know, I said I didn't know. I never had a script unless it was an official evacuation notice. I would write important notes, facts, information on a notepad, but most everything else was in my head. I spoke with facts and would never speculate on topics and tried as much as possible to stay away from words like possible or maybe instead using likely or unlikely which commits more in one direction or the other. I knew people's lives were being devastated and information can be of great help to ease fears during such times. I don't know what it was or why I became the "face" of Harvey, and I really did not know how big an impact I was having until about Wednesday or Thursday when the volume of messages of support were simply overwhelming on social media, texts, and e-mail. I still to this day have a hard time comprehending that people I don't know would raise $26,000 to send me on a vacation. That money was instead used to help 26 different families recover from the damages of Harvey. Each one of those 26 people I would visit would have a story from the storm, what they did when the water was rising, describing what it was like to come back to their destroyed house, and how they planned to move forward. Some were simply in complete shock and disbelief, unable to comprehend how they would ever recover. I remember each one of the 26 people I visited, but one has stuck with me to this day. It was one house in Kingwood that had flooded with about 6 feet of water and had never flooded before. I remember walking up to the door and noticing neatly stacked novels on the front porch that had been clearly flooded and were beyond repair. After talking with the individual for a few minutes I asked about the stacks of books, probably about 150. She paused for a moment, clearly upset, and said those novels I have collected all my life and each one is autographed by the author and I just cannot bring myself to throw them away. It is the horrible realization of the loss of what can never be replaced that in many cases was so tragic.
One of those flooded out of his own home was former mayor Bill White:
For White, Hurricane Harvey began on Friday, August 25, 2017. Houston is no stranger to heavy rains, and neither is White: As mayor from 2004 to 2010, he governed the city through Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike. No small storms, yet as White monitored the news that day, and early rainfall projections began to rise from 20 inches, to 25, to 30, he realized this one was different. “When the estimates of the rainfall amount … went out of the range of anything that had been projected to me, had ever been viable when I was mayor,” he told me, “I realized that it was going to be pretty bad.” 
White’s home sits just above the 100-year floodplain on Buffalo Bayou. It’s built up on stilts so flood water can flow underneath. Yet in White’s 19 years of living there, the bayou had never swelled to such an extreme point.
That changed Sunday morning, when White awoke to a “murmuring sound,” like a river. It was water rushing beneath the house. He spent the next few hours moving what furniture he could upstairs, keepsakes and family photos into the attic. A recent tennis partner called, distraught: A close friend had died the night before, she told him, when she’d taken an off-ramp on the interstate and gone underwater. “I knew then that there was going to be lot of human tragedy,” he told me.
The water continued to rise. By noon, it had made the 10-foot climb to the deck. Touching the bottom layers of the house, the current had shifted from the almost pleasant rhythm of a river to a “rumbling sound, like a train.” “It was an eerie sound,” White recalled. “I was surrounded by moving water on all sides. It was like being on a boat.”
Within 15 minutes, the water found its way inside and began creeping up the walls. It began “popping” and “pooling” out of the floor sockets, like tiny geysers.
It was time to go.
He threw on wool socks, hiking boots, a backpack, and put his iPad, laptop, and some papers in his briefcase. The neighbors had called to urge him along. He found his hiking staff, waded ankle deep to his front door, and began his trek into the coffee-colored river outside.
Thus White—formerly the one to call the shots, to monitor the rescue efforts, to communicate with Washington—experienced his city’s most defining tragedy as a citizen. The thoughts roaming the mind of a flood victim are plenty: Is my family okay? (Yes, White’s wife, Andrea, was out of town.) Did I forget to move something valuable upstairs? (Yes, Andrea’s collection of cookbooks.) Where am I going to stay? (With a neighbor.) 
For a flood victim who happens to be a former public official, however, there is one question that reverberates above the others: How the hell did we get here?
White was able to restore his home after the flood. Others haven't been as lucky, including residents of the low-income, predominantly-black Kashmere Gardens neighborhood:
The Center for Disease Control ranks Kashmere Gardens among the nation’s most socially vulnerable neighborhoods, as determined by “degree to which a community exhibits… high poverty, low percentage of vehicle access, [and] crowded households.” In short: Hurricane Harvey continues to complicate lives that were complicated enough already.

The canyons of flooded waste are gone making ongoing struggles less visible. It’s hard to understate the extent of loss in this community of 10,000 residents. Based on City of Houston estimates, the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston found that a staggering 79 percent of all homes in the Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Data from the 77028 zip code, which includes parts of Kashmere Gardens, show there were twice as many applicants with FEMA Verified Loss (FVL) as other Harris County zip codes. Just half of these FVL applicants received any level of FEMA assistance. Of those households “lucky” enough to get FEMA aid, four in ten still had thousands of dollars of unmet needs in that zip code. This substantial gap in assistance has been met in piecemeal fashion through an estimated 50 organizations and agencies servicing the area. But as Ms. Randle’s experience illustrates, securing help is a long and frustrating journey. 
A glance outside the car window is visual testimony to these facts. As the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey approaches, while the canyons are gone, there are still piles of debris dotting the roadside. We park beside one and knock on a nearby door. Shirley Paley invites us into the modest two-bedroom home she has owned since the 1990s. Furniture sits in cellophane wrapping and a faint smell of paint hangs in the air. Ms. Paley is waiting for the contractor to finish final projects, but is praying hard that she will be able to finally move back in a few weeks’ time. “I’ve had to be my own cheerleader,” she says while mulling over the past year. 
Bam, Bam, Bam. Ms. Paley weaves her post-Harvey story in a breathless stream, each tragic turn of events followed on its heels by yet another. She sat through the storm with her 11-year-old granddaughter and 17-year-old special-needs grandson. For the first time, her house took on floodwater. Finding no temporary housing, she moved her family into her car in the driveway for the first few weeks. Getting her home gutted and repaired has been an uphill battle from start to finish. Volunteers offered to muck her home, but threw all of her personal items in an indiscriminate jumble on the curb. She found her grandson’s Social Security card and other important paperwork lying in the driveway. She sent them away, deciding to salvage important belongings on her own and managed the cleanout herself. A state-hired contractor began more intensive rehabilitation work, but their work was so shoddy that she was forced to use her limited budget to fix their mistakes.

The cost of remediating her home was more than double the $11,000 FEMA provided. Without savings to cover the difference, her only alternative was to apply for a $25,000 Small Business Administration (SBA) loan. But SBA deducted the FEMA payment from the proceeds of that loan, effectively negating the FEMA award altogether. She will now need to repay the full $25,000 with interest, making her monthly loan payment higher than her existing mortgage and more than doubling her housing costs for years to come. All this will account for the lion’s share of her fixed income. Even with the SBA loan, she has needed to find help to cover other Harvey-related expenses. Like Ms. Randle, Ms. Paley has been navigating an alphabet soup of charities and non-governmental organizations, securing assistance from YES Prep charter school, a local church, Baker Ripley, Texas PREP, and Northeast Next Door Redevelopment Council.
Last weekend, Harris County voters - or at least the ones that bothered to vote - overwhelmingly approved $2.5 billion in bonds to fund flood mitigation projects. These bond proceeds are a start, but not nearly enough; they won't fund a third reservoir, or flood control projects in surrounding counties, or the "Ike Dike" storm surge barrier. Flood mitigation projects, furthermore, will also need to be accompanied by a basic change in the way we build:
With recovery funding flowing to the county and city housing departments, the potential flood control bond and other sources aimed at rebuilding and improving the region's resiliency, Houston has an opportunity to shift what was a traditional engineering focus that built a city of highways and concretized bayous to an approach that works with the water, rather than against it, and that prioritizes community cohesion.

"The places where it flooded the most were not the same places where you got the most rainfall," said [Kinder Institute Director Bill] Fulton. "There is an interaction between the way we have built the city and the flood risk and that’s one thing we have to deal with.” 
But Hurricane Harvey brought attention not just to how the city manages floodwater but to how it functions on a day to day basis more generally.

The flood bond would go a long way toward implementing engineering solutions, many of which were on the drawing table before Harvey, but, Fulton insisted, they must be coupled with strategies that look to slow the flow of water, rather than channel it quickly to and through the bayous. Furthermore, new regulations should also be put to work to undo the development practices that have worsened and shaped the region's flooding in many ways.
"You’ve got to have traditional engineering solutions, you’ve got to have green infrastructure…and you've got to have regulations that keep people out of harm's way," said Fulton.
Regulations, however, have traditionally been anathemic to the region's powerful development community. Texas Monthly asks what Houston has learned in the year since Harvey, and notes that, when it comes to at least some of the region's developers, the answer is "not much:"
Others are just as happy to go on as before, building houses in floodplains, contributing to Houston’s urban sprawl—and increasing the prospect of more flooding. Exhibit A is the Katy Prairie. One proposal brought before city council earlier this spring required that new homes built in the floodplain be constructed two feet above five-hundred-year levels. (Post-Harvey research showed that 80 percent of the homes that flooded in Houston could have been saved if they’d been built just a few feet higher.) Then the Kabuki set in: builders claimed the rule would add $32,000 to the cost of an average home, while the city countered that it would be closer to $11,000. Mayor Turner argued that if the vote had “the probability of letting people know in our city and those who are looking to come that we are taking measures to be stronger, to be more resilient, then that’s positive for the city of Houston.” The city council voted 9–7 in a combative meeting to make the change.

A few weeks later, a big land developer and a big home developer went before the council trying to close a pre-Harvey deal to build hundreds of homes in the floodplain out west. Prices would range from roughly $200,000 to $500,000, which might or might not do much to ease the affordable-housing crisis. Turner agreed to the deal after they had met all the requirements laid out in the new ordinance. Opponents of the project protested that Houston shouldn’t be building in the floodplain at all. Turner stood firm, asserting that the passage of the ordinance showed that builders wouldn’t skedaddle in the face of tighter restrictions. 
In the end, the contest between flood prevention and growth had come to a draw. In Houston, that counts as progress.
The Houston Press lists eight things Harvey taught people about Houston. A virtual museum where people can share their photos and stories from Harvey is now online.

2018 Houston Cougar Football Preview

And there is much rejoicing, for another glorious season of college football has finally arrived.

Looking Back: The "major" story of the 2017 season was the beginning of the Major Applewhite era at UH, as he took over the program's reigns after Lying Judas Tom Herman took the money and ran up to Austin. In addition to becoming a head coach for the first time, Applewhite had to fill some vacancies both within his staff and on the field, including finding a replacement for Greg Ward, Jr. at quarterback. Applewhite also had to lead his team through the disruption caused by Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the city and caused the season's opening game to be canceled. It all resulted in a mediocre 7-5 record, which included a loss to Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl. There were bright spots, such as an upset of #17 South Florida on the road and the emergence of dual-threat D'Eriq King at quarterback. There were also dark spots, such as the road losses to horrible Tulsa and Tulane squads, a sputtering offense that averaged 23.8 points per game (the program's worst offensive output since 2005), and a defensive secondary that got lit up for an average of 274 passing yards per game (good for #120 out of 130 FBS teams).

I sensed that 2017 would be a rebuilding year, which is why I predicted a 6-5 regular season record, discounting the canceled UTSA game. However, as I said when the season ended, 2017 didn't feel so much like a "rebuilding" year as it did a "throwaway" year marked by transition and disruption.

The Big Story for 2018: two big stories, actually. number one is, of course, "Big Ed" Oliver. The defensive tackle has announced that this season will be his last before he turns pro, and some people are predicting that he could go #1 in the NFL draft next spring. ESPN lists Oliver as the nation's best college football player going into the 2018 season; he also graces a regional cover of Sports Illustrated:

Good news, Ed: the Astros ended the SI cover jinx for you last November! 
Another story concerns new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, the son of former UH coach Art Briles and formerly the OC of the Baylor Bears. Briles is known for his high-scoring offenses; however, given his association with the scandal-ridden Baylor football program, this decision is not without controversy. Applewhite decided that breathing some life into a struggling offense was worth the risk of hiring somebody tainted by association with Baylor's rape culture. UH officials supported Applewhite's hire, and apparently there are clauses in Briles' contract that allow for his dismissal for cause if new allegations come to light or if he otherwise doesn't keep his nose clean here. Hopefully this will work out for everyone, and Kendal can get the Cougars to put points on the board again while keeping himself clean of further scandal.

Reasons for Optimism: aside from the presence of Ed Oliver, D'Eriq King has now had an entire offseason to practice under center and should pick up where he left off. King, who took over the  starting job midway through the 2017 season, is probably the reason why the Cougars actually managed a winning record last fall. It doesn't hurt that he has an experienced offensive line, anchored by center Will Noble, to protect him. Talent has also been infused into the team through several grad transfers from other FBS programs. Baylor transfer Terence Williams is expected to immediately give the Cougars some legitimacy at running back (2017 starter Duke Catalon has left the program), Ole Miss transfer Deontay Anderson brings some SEC-caliber experience to a backfield that already features three-year starter Greg Davis, and TCU transfer Isaiah Chambers joins Ed Oliver on the defensive line.

Reasons for Pessimism: Major Applewhite is still unproven as a head coach, and some of the games last year (not just the WTF losses to horrible Tulsa and Tulane teams, but the 17-point second-half collapse against Memphis) don't really speak well of his abilities to motivate and get the most out of his players. There are also a lot of holes the Coogs need to fill going into the season. The receiving crops will need to find replacements for several graduating players, including Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner. The linebacking corps needs to fill the gap left by the losses of D'Juan Hines and Matthew Adams, who led the defense in tackles last year. And, while the Coogs look relatively solid at safety, they don't have a lot of depth at cornerback.

The Schedule: the Cougars play seven games in the city of Houston and only three games outside the state of Texas. Arizona is going to be a hard start to the season, road games against Texas Tech and Memphis (both of which beat the Coogs last season) will be tough, and a back-to-back road stretch against ECU and Navy won't be a picnic, either. UH does, however, have the opportunity to exact revenge against Tulsa and Tulane at home. UH has an off week in late September, allowing them extra time to prepare for the start of conference play.

What the Humans Think: Sports Illustrated's writers are high on the Cougars. In addition to putting Ed Oliver on the cover of their magazine, they've also ranked the Cougars #20 in their preseason top 25 and some of their writers have UH making it to a New Year's Six bowl game. The Coogs don't get nearly as much love from the AP sportswriters or USA Today coaches, although they did receive votes in both preseason polls. The UH sportswriter for the Chronicle, Joseph Duarte, foresees a 10-2 campaign for Houston, with losses to Texas Tech and Arizona. Underdog Dynasty predicts a 10-2 record as well. SBNation gives the Cougars a 50% or higher probability of winning in 9 of their 12 regular season games. CollegeFootballNews sets the O/U on the Coogs' win total at 8.5. The SWC Roundup has the Cougars winning 9 games and losing 2 (Texas Tech and Memphis), with the Arizona game being a pure toss-up. Athlon ranks the Coogs #52 overall to start the season and foresees a 7-5 record, while Dave Campbell's Texas Football predicts a 9-3 record.

The Washington Post doesn't predict a win total but does expect Houston to finish third in the American West, even though they rate the Coogs as one of the top ten Group of Five programs going into the season (they have Memphis and Navy ranked higher). Most of the sportswriters at CBS also expect the Cougars to finish 2nd or 3rd in the division, behind Memphis and, in some cases, Navy.

What the Computers Think: again, a mixed bag. Sagarin's beginning-of-season seedings place the Cougars 46th, with a rating of 74.10. That implies a record of nine wins and three losses when the ratings of other teams and home field advantage are factored in. The Congrove algorithm, on the other hand, foresees a 5-7 record for the Coogs. Massey's probabilistic forecasts give UH a 50% or higher chance of winning 8 games; the same is true for ESPN FPI.

What I Think: if 2017 was a "throwaway" year, then 2018 is the year that Major Applewhite needs to prove himself. He certainly has the resources to do so: Ed Oliver's final season, an influx of "one-and-done" grad transfer talent, a new offensive coordinator, and a dual-threat quarterback with an entire offseason of first-team practice under his belt. Sure, there are areas of concern: the running game and pass defense need to improve, a relatively untested receiving and linebacking corps need to prove their worth, and the team as a whole needs to maintain its focus in ways that they did not against Tulsa and Tulane last year. Obviously this team needs to stay healthy, but all the ingredients appear to be in place for a successful 2018.

With all that said, I just can't bring myself to expect a ten-win season because my faith in Applewhite's coaching abilities just isn't there yet. If it weren't for the fact that the Navy game is on the road I would go with nine wins, but it is so I am predicting an 8-4 regular season record, with losses to Arizona, Texas Tech, Navy and Memphis. I realize that is not much improvement over last year, and I know that eight wins is well below the expectations of the UH faithful, but that's my honest opinion. I sincerely hope Major Applewhite, his staff and his players prove me wrong by notching ten or more wins and winning the American West division.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Leaning Tower of Venice

Pisa isn't the only place in Italy with a leaning tower. As our cruise ship departed the port of Venice and traveled along the Guidecca Canal on its way into the Adriatic Ocean, I caught a good view of the campanile of Santo Stefano:

Venice actually has three leaning bell towers in the archeipelago proper and one more in the adjacent island of Burano. This really shouldn't be too surprising, given the way these centuries-old structures - and the wooden pilings upon which they were built - settle in Venice's unstable, waterlogged soil. Venetian officials were even concerned about the perpendicularity of its most famous campanile about a decade ago.

Santo Stefano's campanile was first built in 1544 but had to be rebuilt during the subsequent centuries. Here's a view of it from its front. At 66 meters, is one of Venice's taller bell towers. It is leaning at about two meters off center, which is apparently a similar inclination to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Its base has been reinforced, but it is said to still be unstable. Be sure to see it the next time you're in Venice, because who knows how much longer it will remain upright...

Countries I've visited, 2018 edition

It's been a couple of years since I last updated my running tally of foreign countries I've visited, so it's time to add some dates and some flags.

Last summer's foreign trip was to CancĂșn, where mom, dad, Kirby, Corinne and I snorkeled, visited Mayan ruins and relaxed on the beach. Although Mexico is the country I have visited most frequently throughout my life, this was my first trip there in a decade, and my first trip to CancĂșn in two decades. We also got to see Mexico City for the first time, thanks to a long layover (we followed this itinerary, which I recommend to anyone with several hours to kill between flights; contrary to some peoples' perception, downtown Mexico City is rather safe for tourists).

This summer's trip to Europe mirrored the one we took in 2016 in many ways - we stayed at the same timeshare in Austria, after all - but also featured longer periods of time in Italy and Slovenia and a cruise out of Venice to Croatia and Greece. There were also a couple of day trips to Berchtesgaden, Germany. As I mentioned in my previous entry, I hope to post at least some pictures and thoughts from this most recent trip in the coming months on this blog.

Anyway, below is an updated list of countries I've visited and the years I've visited them, with the most recent visits denoted in red. If I didn't stay overnight in a country - e.g. a order crossing, an airport stopover where I left the terminal, or a cruise port of call - the year I visited is italicized. (Note: my trip to Greece consisted entirely of cruise ports of call visits, but I slept in Greek territorial waters while I was on the cruise ship so no italics.)

Nations with an asterisk (*) next to them are among the world's 25 smallest countries, of which is my life's goal to visit all of them before I die. (I would have loved to have made some progress on that front by working in a visit to San Marino during this most recent trip, but it simply wasn't possible.)

Antigua and Barbuda*: 
2002, 2016, 2018
1974, 1980, 1982


Czech Republic:
1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 2001
2002, 2016, 2018


2016, 2018
1979, 1983, 1986, 1987, 19891995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2004, 20052006, 2007, 2017

The Kingdom of the Netherlands:
The Netherlands
2002, 2006
 St. Maarten:  
St. Kitts and Nevis*:  
St. Lucia*:  
United Arab Emirates: 
2006, 2008, 2012

The United Kingdom:

Adding Greece and Croatia to this list gets me up to 22 out of 206 sovereign (or de-facto sovereign) nations, or just over one-tenth of all the world's countries (not counting the United States). I'm probably going to be stuck at this level for awhile, as my finances need to recover from this last trip (and pay for a wedding!) before I go on any more major foreign adventures.

(Flag source: World Flag Database)

I'm back... and She Said Yes!

We've reach the final third of August, which means that it's time to bring this blog out of its customary summertime hiatus and share some exciting news with both of my faithful readers.

Our trip to Europe (that I mentioned a few months ago) was everything we expected it to be - exciting, enjoyable and educational. We revisited some old sights - my girlfriend (Corinne) and I took our parents back to some of the places we discovered two years ago - and saw a lot of new ones for the first time. I've finally crossed Venice, the Palace of Knossos, the Acropolis and the picturesque Slovenian capital of Ljubljana off my bucket list! Hopefully I'll have the time and motivation to write about these travels in the coming weeks and months even as I follow the exploits of another UH Cougar football season (my season preview should be up in about a week, by the way).

One place that Corinne and I discovered during our first "Alpine Adventure" two years ago was a little village in the corner of Slovenia by the name of Kranjska Gora. Although we were only in the village for a few hours, we became particularly enchanted by it. It was an adorable town, full of cute buildings and friendly people, surrounded by amazing Alpine beauty, and located just across the border from both Italy and Austria. We joked about how we wanted to one day own a house there, which we would use as a base to explore Europe (and escape the Houston heat) during the summer; we'd rent it out to winter sports enthusiasts who crowd the Kranjska Gora region in the winter months. Hey, we can dream, right? The point being: we had always planned on returning.

That, of course, was 2016, at which time Corinne and I had been together for about nine months. Two years later, we're obviously still together - we moved in together a year ago to our mutual enjoyment and satisfaction - and, while I hadn't been under any pressure from Corinne to do so,* it had become increasingly obvious to me that the time had come to "put a ring on it." As we made plans for our summer trip, I decided that the charming little Slovenian village that Corinne and I discovered two years ago would be the optimal location for the big event should happen.

On Saturday June 21st, we disembarked from our cruise ship in Venice, acquired our rental car, and made the journey along Autostrada and Autobahn from Venice to our timeshare in Schladming, Austria. On the way, Corinne and I stopped to show my parents some points of interest in the Julian Alps that we first visited in 2016: the town of Tarvisio, Italy (where we ate lunch), the picturesque Fusine Lakes, the even more picturesque Zelenci Nature Reserve just across the border in Slovenia, and finally, Kranjska Gora (ostensibly to pick up some basic stables such as coffee, breakfast stuff and wine at the Mercator store there, because all of the grocery stores in Schladming would be closed by the time we arrived).

We walked around the charming little town, purchased some souvenirs, visited Kranjska Gora's 16th-century church, and then walked out to the plaza in front of the church. I handed my camera to my parents and asked them to take a picture of us in front of the church. They obliged. Then I asked them to take a couple more, got down on my knee, and pulled out a ring:

Corinne was stunned; I had never given her a slightest hint that I was going to propose to her during this trip. She exclaimed "oh my God, are you really doing this? before I was even able to officially ask her to marry me. My parents were pretty surprised, too; I had not told anyone, not even them, about my plan. Corinne, of course, said yes; there was a smattering of laughter and applause from the few people in the square who were paying attention.

The only hitch was the ring I got: it was much too big for Corinne's finger. It turns out that the ring I discovered when I snuck through her jewelry collection - she doesn't normally wear rings, so I didn't know her ring size - and took to a jeweler to be sized didn't actually belong to her, but rather was a keepsake from her grandparents. What I get for trying to be sneaky! We were easily able to exchange the ring for one with the correct size when we returned to Houston.

After having a celebratory beer at the little inn at the edge of the square and heading back to the aforementioned Mercator to pick up the aforementioned groceries, we left Kranjska Gora and continued on to Schladming to check into our timeshare. Corinne finally got in touch with her mom that evening to share the good news; we also announced our engagement on Facebook, which resulted in literally hundreds of deeply-appeciated comments and likes from our friends and family.

Of course, this all means that we need to plan for (and figure out how to pay for) a wedding. We've just begun the process of researching venues and options and we're nowhere near setting a date, but the stress of wedding planning is already beginning to be felt. This is all new to Corinne, but I've already done this once so I know what I'm in for. (Hopefully, it will result in a better outcome for me than the first time around...)

So here's to a long and happy life together. Even if we never get that summer home in Kransjka Gora, that lovely little Alpine village will always in in our hearts.

*However, over the part several months I did get plenty of pressure from both of our mothers and at least one of Corinne's friends...