Two Weeks In Europe: Day 1 – Leaving On A Train, Then Jet Plane

What would become the greatest trip of my life started as a complete coincidence. It was early in 2015, and I’d already thought my travel plans were set for the year; I’d have a week in Mexico, and that would be it. However, my mother called me unexpectedly one afternoon, saying that she’d come across a flyer for the Royal Caribbean cruise line. She’d been considering Greece – this was long before the refugee crisis became headlines here in the States – but decided on something far grander: a two week trip with stops in Spain, France, Italy, and Montenegro. We’d been to this part of Europe before (years before I owned a digital camera, sadly!), but never to Barcelona or Nice. I’ve always been a huge history and art geek, so I was immediately hooked on the prospect of seeing Rome and Venice. Mom had actually been trying for almost a decade to get a trip booked for Rome via her timeshare, but couldn’t get anything in the city itself. This cruise seemed like a feasible way for her to tackle her bucket list, and we wanted to travel together while she was still capable of doing so. So, we made arrangements and marked our calendars.

Skip forward about 6 months (the Mexico trip in June is a story for another time), to the morning of October 18th. I’d slept at Mom’s place overnight – amazing how the living room sofa felt better than my old bed – because we had to leave the house before dawn. Instead of driving to SFO, we stuck with what’s become our go-to option: taking BART train line all the way to the airport. It’s easy to navigate, cheaper than a shuttle, and you don’t have to worry about parking. Assuming there are no malfunctions, protests, or police activity (which all happened coming back from Hawaii last December), it’s a smooth, straightforward trip. It’s just a long ride from our starting point, almost from one end of the line to the other. It feels even longer when you’re still half asleep, shivering in the cold, and hauling 50 lbs of your mom’s luggage onto the platform. We took the first SFO-bound train of the day, and were surprised to find at least two dozen other travelers along for the ride. Any Bay Area commuter knows that getting a seat on BART during the busy hours is like a competitive sport; it’s all about positioning yourself in the crowd and seizing opportunities – and vacant chairs – with keen observation and timing. I usually stand during my daily commutes, but going to the airport is different. We tried getting the coveted senior priority seats (there’s more open space for our bags), but ended up sitting across the aisle from each other.

After about an hour of struggling to stay awake while keeping the bags standing and out of people’s way, we finally made it to the airport. Finding the terminal was easy, but the actual ticket counter was something else. We thought our flight was with United Airlines; it said so in nice, big letters on our printout. However, we failed to read the fine print: the plane belonged to United, but the flight itself was being operated by Air Canada. Cue us wasting about half an hour wandering through the terminal and getting incorrect directions from every information desk. Finally getting our luggage checked was a huge relief, both physically and mentally. Getting through security was surprisingly easy this time, too; I’m one of those unfortunate folks who seem to be a magnet for the TSA. It’s probably the suspiciously long, beautiful hair. Aside from her purse, Mom was toting a large bag full of food and her medications. She was diagnosed with diabetes last year – she carries around the doctor’s note to prove it to the authorities – but it always strikes me funny how she’s able to get several meals’ worth of snacks, cereal, and veggies past security. The most I bring are a couple packages of crackers and two refillable water bottles. With the hardest part out of the way, we had a little less than two hours to kick back and wait.

We weren’t flying straight to Spain, though. We had to fly to Montreal, then make a connection. It’s pretty standard fare…except that there was only 30 minutes between flights. When I wasn’t distracted by the movies (I got to watch Jurassic World, Inside Out, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Reviews coming soon!), I pondered over the logistics of our layover. 30 minutes to disembark the plane, get through customs/security, and find a gate in an airport that I’d never seen before. Yeah, it was going to be messy. Air Canada was well aware of our problem; when we landed in Montreal, they announced that the people with close connecting flights – less than a dozen of us in total – were allowed to disembark first. They were even good enough to find out what gate we needed. Mom and I bolted and got through security quickly – they have a small booth off to the side just for connections – and rushed to the next gate.

But there was no plane.

I checked my watch. No, we had at least another 15 minutes. There’s no way it could’ve left. I went to the flight listing display and searched for ours. Lo and behold, it was still at the airport, but at a different gate, in the opposite direction that we’d come. The Air Canada crew had outdated information. Because it couldn’t be that easy, right? Mom and I nearly sprinted to the correct gate, only to find that they’d been delayed and had just started boarding. We scrambled into the line and got on without any problems. As I sank wearily into my seat and buckled up, I closed my eyes and tried to rub my headache away. We’d been traveling for over 12 hours straight across multiple time zones, and we’d made a connection that, in normal circumstances, should’ve been nearly impossible. Once dinner and drinks had been served – apple juice is my beverage of choice when flying – I tried settling back and sleeping. Time passes strangely on overnight flights; with the windows shuttered and lighting inconsistent, it’s impossible to tell what time it is without looking at a phone or watch. And when you’ve been on your feet for so long, your energy and circadian rhythm are all out of sorts. I think I slept, but I’ve blacked out on flights before. I was more worried about Mom; her endurance isn’t as strong as it used to be. She spent most of the flight trying to find a good sleeping position – often using my shoulder as a pillow – but with little results.

Eventually, someone pulled up a shutter, revealing that the sun was already out. I’d lost track of the night at some point, but that didn’t matter. The captain announced that we were within an hour of Barcelona, the port where we’d board the cruise. I rubbed my eyes and shared some bread with Mom. At this point, we’d been traveling for over 24 hours straight. My head was pounding, but I had to focus on what was coming next. Disembarking. Finding our luggage. Hopefully none of it got lost in transit like the last time we were in Spain. Finding the airport-to-ship shuttle service we’d reserved in advance. We were almost an hour late, hopefully they were still waiting for us. Boarding the ship. What did that entail? So many questions, so little time.

Continued in Day 2…

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San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival 2015

Hey, folks. If you’re into Japanese culture, festivals, or botany, chances are you’ve heard of the Hanami, more commonly known in the West as the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Most associate it with the events in Washington DC or Macon, but San Francisco’s tradition has been going strong for almost five decades. I happened to be in the Bay Area this year – my travel months usually fall between April and May – so I decided to go for the first time. The festival lasted two weekends in a row, but that wasn’t enough time to do everything; I settled for going each Saturday and seeing what I could. The results were mixed, but it was an awesome experience overall.

WEEKEND 1

I hadn’t been to Japantown in a couple of years, so I’d forgotten how much of a walk it took to get up there. It’s certainly BART-able; I’m in decent shape, so the 1.5 mile trek (most of it uphill) was a nice warmup. The official website even recommends that you take the bus, but I wanted to save money and get some exercise in. However, it’s understandable why everyone just takes public transit; if you’re going to Japantown from the Financial District on foot, you have to go through the city’s dreaded Tenderloin. You’ll never see such a sudden and drastic change in atmosphere. Just a few blocks from the flashy lights and trendy stores of Union Square, there are boarded-up windows, seedy bars, crime, prostitution, and more homeless than you’ll see anywhere else in the city. Most depictions of San Francisco conveniently overlook this area. Pretty sure those red double-decker tour buses never drive on Turk Street, lest those high-paying visitors see something horrifying and tell their friends. I love wandering the city in my spare time, but I typically make a beeline onto Geary and call it a day. However, the Tenderloin is redeemed by its incredible art; it’s so easy to stumble across a gorgeous mural and varied architecture.

Japantown was another story entirely. I was used to seeing the place on weekday afternoons; a peaceful, quiet district that happened to house every geeky anime and video game thing I could want. But this time, the square surrounding the Peace Pagoda was crammed full of people. I don’t like crowds; they feel suffocating and draining to me. There were hundreds of people sitting in rows of chairs, or standing at the nearby railings, all eagerly anticipating the drum performance by the iconic Taiko Dojo. I couldn’t find a good place to see the show, so I decided to wander. What struck me wasn’t just the amount of people, but how many of them were cosplayers. I’ve never been to Comic Con or any major geek convention, let alone seen these dedicated and creative fans in person. For example, I immediately bumped into this familiar fellow:

That’s aside from Junior from RWBY, No-Face from Spirited Away, Mega Man, a mini Gundam, Ryuko Matoi from Kill la Kill, a couple Harry Potters, and at least three Soras (one even had a metal keyblade!)  from Kingdom Hearts. Not to mention all the people in their gothic and sweet lolita outfits; I think that fashion style rocks, and I wish I were confident/pretty enough to pull off the look. Or any cosplaying for that matter; I actually considered going as Vincent Volaju, but the weather was too warm for a trench coat. I also didn’t to come off as one of those creepy guys that stalks and takes pictures of these coplayers at conventions, so I kept my photography to objects and performances. It was probably to my detriment, though; I was surrounded by literally thousands of other geeks, but I didn’t actually talk with anyone. I thought I’d gotten a handle on this whole introversion thing. Sigh. There’s always next year…

I spent most of the time exploring some old haunts at the indoor Japantown Center.  If you’re a local and don’t like buying your anime/gaming memorabilia online, chances are you’ll find your products here here. Japantown Collectibles has a decent selection of models (though Ying’s Hobbies in Chinatown has a vastly superior Gundam selection), as well as several Play Arts Kai and other statues. Japan Video & Media is essentially a one-stop shop for anime DVDs, as well as decent variety of plushies, posters, and other memorabilia. That also apparently includes body pillows (?!) printed with famous characters; I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned having a childhood crush on Sailor Mars, but nowhere near the point of cuddling up to a picture of her! There’s also the Kinokuniya Bookstore, which has an absolutely massive selection of Japanese texts, both translated or otherwise. The lower floor is dedicated to manga and gaming; while the average Barnes & Noble stocks a shelf or two of manga at most, this was practically an entire store’s worth of comics! Their art book selection is impressive as well. I was sorely tempted to pick up UDON’s Street Fighter and Bayonetta works, but I kept my temptation in check. These places are a wonderland for collectors and hardcore fans…but they don’t come cheap. Anime products released stateside – DVDs in particular – suffer from serious price gouging. After making a mental wishlist, I left the stores without regret.

Instead, I focused on the artist’s alley. It wasn’t huge; there were a dozen booths spread out near the shopping center’s main staircase. These folks know their clientele; everyone was selling some kind of print, pin, or bead sprite depicting characters from popular series. Stuff from Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, Metal Gear Solid, Sailor Moon, Persona 4, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy…the characters go on and on and on. I looked at each table three times before settling on a signed print of this Okami work by Wenqing Yan, famously known as yuumei on DeviantArt. I’ve been a fan of her work for years, but I never thought I’d ever see her in person. On the way out, I stopped by Katachi and bought a nice, sturdy machete. I’d been meaning to replace my old one for months, so I didn’t want to pass on the opportunity. The 25” blade was too large to fit in my backpack – the hilt was stick out of the back – but thankfully no one on BART noticed.

I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the booths outdoors. There were plenty of other local artists (The Bamboo Whisperer is still my favorite!) but I focused on the food. There was a small – but quite successful – vendor selling freshly cooked Japanese cuisine. It was a selection of edamame, takoyaki, and karaage. I’m not a foodie by any means, but their karaage was easily the most delicious thing I’ve had this year. I’m actually tempted to look up some recipes. The most popular food seller, however, was the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck. Seriously, that’s a real thing. They were selling a small assortment of boxed desserts, including donuts, mini cakes and, macarons, as well as bottled lemonade and t-shirts. The line for this smorgasbord of sugary adorableness stretched down – and through – most of the street. There were at least a couple hundred people in front of me; after 20 minutes and only a few feet, I gave up. I managed to score a free box of Pocky from another truck, so it wasn’t a total loss.

After enjoying a performance by the Nihon Buyo Kiyonomoto and picking up some commemorative stamps for my grandmother, I made the mistake of leaving early. I did not want to walk back to BART at night. Also, I somehow missed the post that showed the full schedule of events; I didn’t know that I was missing out on kendama and ikebana demonstrations, the cosplay chess tournament, and tea ceremonies. After realizing my mistake later on, I was determined to return and see more.

WEEKEND 2

Armed with a schedule and a map, I returned to Japantown on the 18th. I stopped long enough to watch another Taiko Drum performance, but kept walking. I skipped all the stores I’d visited previously – though I did pick up two boxes of Harajuku Mochi Chocolates at Nippon-Ya – and made a beeline for the Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibit at Issei Memorial Hall. There were at least a couple dozen entries from the Marin Bonsai Club, the Yamato Bonsai Kai, and a few other groups. I did at least five laps around that room, taking as many shots of those amazing plants as I could. Growing a bonsai requires patience and dedication, so I was stunned by the 60-year old Chinese Elm on display. The exhibit deserved far more attention; I’m glad to be one of the relative few to enjoy it.

Afterwards, I headed upstairs just in time to catch the Iaido demonstration by the Nishi Kaigen Iaido Dojo. I’ve played enough video games to recognize the martial art on sight, but it’s so much cooler in person. An average person might be able to awkwardly swing a sword, but these practitioners were unbelievably smooth and precise. It was going well until one of the performers tore his foot on a staple in the stage’s carpet. I was standing off to the side, so I got a glimpse of the bloody injury before the man was carted off by the EMTs. In order to save face, the remaining iaidoka had the audience push the chairs back, then continued the show in front of the stage. They were followed by the Azama Honryu Seifu Ishisenkai USA and Kinuko Mototake Dance Academy, a troupe that specializes in traditional dances from Okinawa. Their performances were slow and relaxing – an older fellow sitting next to me kept falling asleep – but quite elegant. I’ll have a few more videos for them up soon. On the way out, I stopped by the Washi Ningyo table at the back. There were several detailed paper dolls (including a miniature taru mikoshi!) on display. The owner invited me to an upcoming workshop, but I haven’t decided to go yet.

On the way out of the building, I stumbled across a shodo (aka Japanese calligraphy) demonstration. I’ve never studied it, so it was fascinating to watch this group of elderly folk make beautiful art from just ink and paper. The placement of the characters, the shading, the coordination involved…it was so good. And to think, this is initially taught as a mandatory elementary school subject. Do we even teach cursive to American grade-schoolers anymore?! Once the show was over, the calligraphers gave out personalized trinkets to the kids. I sheepishly asked for my name on a fan, which is now proudly displayed on my desk. Coincidentally, I came across another shodo desk when I went back through Osaka Way. Not only did they give me a second personalized fan, but a mini wall scroll with “Knowledge” painted on it. I also stopped by Forest Books; it doesn’t have Kinokuniya’s huge selection, but focuses more on Asian culture, history, and politics. Definitely worth visiting if you’re looking for more obscure texts.

With the day winding down, I had one more objective: the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck. This was my last chance to pick up some desserts for my relatives, and I didn’t want to come back empty-handed. The line wasn’t so bad this time; about 20 minutes later, I walked away with a box of donuts, five macarons, and a cute little tote bag. Yes, I truly earned the swagging rights. I also stumbled across the real mikoshi on my way out; unlike the doll version, this one was decked up out intricate patterns and golden trimmings. A few kimono-clad women were offering people some free sake, but they ran out by the time I walked over. I don’t drink – sparkling cider is the strongest beverage I’ve tried – but it would’ve been an interesting experience. On my way out of the Peace Plaza, I stopped to watch the UC Berkeley Yosakoi Group perform their dances. Such a strong, awesome show was the perfect way to finish my day.

As I walked back down Geary and onto BART, I thought about what I’d seen over the last two Saturdays. The Cherry Blossom Festival is an interesting blend of both old and new; the younger folks enjoying their modern forms of art, while still appreciating the traditions of their predecessors. With all the manga, anime, and games permeating Japanese pop culture, it’s so easy to overlook how they were influenced and inspired by the creativity of the older generations. Not everyone cares about the humanities, but judging by the turnout, they’re won’t be forgotten any time soon. Hopefully next year’s festivities will be even better!

Oh, and one last thing. In a bit of irony, I didn’t see any cherry blossoms at the festival. Due to the stormy weather we had a couple of weeks back, all of the usually gorgeous trees were completely bare. There were more cherry blossoms in my front yard, for crying out loud! There’s always next year…

Daily Prompt: The Not-So Good Old Days

Hey, folks. Tonight’s Daily Prompt is all about “salad days.” It’s a saying that refers to a great or memorable time in your life, usually seen through the lens of nostalgia. This one’s kind of tricky for me, because I’ve realized that some of my “good old days” weren’t so good in retrospect. My knee-jerk answer is to say my university years, specifically the time leading up to my graduation. Getting my bachelor’s degree was, from an achievement standpoint, the crowning moment of my life. I strode across that stage in a black cap and gown, practically drowning in the sweat of a 110-degree June morning. Reaching that moment wasn’t quite so easy; paying for my entire college education out of my own pocket taught me the value of discipline, patience, and motivation. I still cherish those long commutes on BART, dosing off involuntarily every morning, and desperately trying to do as much work as possible on the way back. Those insane 2 AM essay writing sessions, staying awake just long enough to perfect every last sentence. Working part time jobs, scraping by with every last penny, learning to appreciate the taste of canned peas…It was physically and mentally exhausting, but it was so satisfying. Doing something for myself – be it working towards a goal, building something with my hands, climbing a mountain, whatever – makes me feel more alive. Something was forged in that academic crucible, and I’m still trying to figure out what it is.

Looking back, however, I now realize it came with a cost. I was so focused on academics and not wasting time, I sacrificed everything else. Most folks associate college with partying, beer, romance, and the development of one’s identity. I had none of that; I never went out for the sake of going out, never developed any relationships, nothing. You ever try talking about astrophysics or Renaissance Literature in a social setting? Not fun. I often had the same classmates in different lectures, but I only regarded them as familiar faces, not actual individuals with lives of their own. That was a huge mistake on my part; I may have been at the top of my classes, but I was an absolute dunce as social and interpersonal relations. Reading and learning are much more fun when you can share the experience. I’m still really introverted and shy around people, but even I recognize the importance and necessity of interacting with others. It’s not about being the life of the party or center of attention; it’s about finding common ground and helping each other grow. There’s an old saying that “no man is an island.” I’m 30, and I’m just now starting to turn my proverbial island into a peninsula.

If I have any legitimate “good old days,” they were probably in the summer of 2013. For the first time in my life, I had free time to indulge in more things I truly enjoy: traveling and exploration. I usually travel abroad once or twice a year (including a certain last-minute winter surprise that’ll be revealed soon!), but circumstances put me in downtown San Francisco twice a week. I had hours to fill in a city that I’d never really seen before. So, I walked. And walked. And walked. I’d intentionally get myself lost by taking random turns, navigating by my sense of direction and knowledge of certain landmark locations. I’ve mapped out about a third of the city on foot, wandering through neighborhoods, exploring foreign markets, climbing all the hills I could find…Those adventures made me realize how much I enjoy photography; before that, I was firmly entrenched in the written medium. Judging by the photo gallery here, my adventures paid off in spades. Most folks in the city are so focused on their phones, they don’t notice the marvels around them…The happiest moment of that summer was looking down at the curved city landscape from the top of Lombard Street, with the sun shining on my back, and a steady breeze blowing through my hair.

I hope the coming days will be even better.

Dreamforce 2014

Hey, folks. If you’re in the tech industry, you’ve probably heard of the annual Dreamforce expo. For that week, San Francisco’s Financial District is flooded with business owners and enthusiasts seeking the latest advancements in technology. I’m neither of those; when the expo happened last year, I noticed everyone wearing little blue lanyards and merely wanted to get one for myself. I followed the trail back to the Moscone Center, politely asked about the event, and managed to get inside despite knowing absolutely nothing going in. It was an eye-opening experience. I got a look at some of the more technical aspects of businesses, and managed to make myself look like I actually belonged there.

This year, I signed up well in advance. The regular passes for the keynote speeches cost over a thousand dollars, but anyone could sign up for a free pass to the showroom floor. I couldn’t go on Monday due to weekly errands and scheduling. Nor could I go on Tuesday, as that was reserved for paying attendees. I finally made it on Wednesday, though getting the pass was a bit of a hassle. According to the sign-in schedule, attendees had to go all the way to the Hilton near Union Square. It was hardly a problem – I regularly hike around the city – but it was more time consuming than expected. I later learned that I could’ve gone straight to the desks at the Moscone Center. It’s okay, I got to see the inside of a famous hotel and had a little extra morning exercise. Checking in was no trouble at all; Salesforce made it as easy as typing in an email address and showing proper ID. The people running those desks were…tired. I’ve had my tours in the trenches of retail services, so I know how that goes all too well. Dealing with thousands of people will drag anyone down quickly. Still, a smile and a little courtesy would’ve been nice. The gentleman who gave me the lanyard didn’t even bother including the extra slip of paper that had event information. When I asked for one of the fancy Dreamforce backpacks I saw everyone carrying, I was coldly informed they were for paying attendees only.

Well then. My trusty North Face pack is better anyway.

As I made my way back down to Moscone, I was struck by how crowded the streets were. I mean, that part of San Francisco is always crowded. But this? It was like every square inch of sidewalk was covered with bodies, so much that actually staying on the sidewalk wasn’t always an option.  I’m always surprised by how many people are willing to jaywalk through oncoming traffic just to get a few extra seconds ahead. Never mind the self-endangerment and all potential the accidents. A little common sense goes a long way. A lot of credit should be given to the folks handling the mess of pedestrian and vehicle traffic on those 4th Street intersections. At Moscone Center proper, security was even more on the ball. Take more than a few steps onsite without a pass, and they’d be on you in a heartbeat. I saw at least two or three people being escorted out of the green concert area, as well as a confused pedestrian getting into an argument with an officer. Considering the high-profile guests at these events – including Hillary Clinton as a speaker – it wasn’t surprising. Come to think of it, I wonder what their procedure was for dealing with contraband; everyone was wearing backpacks carrying who-knows-what, so something being snuck in would’ve been a possibility. I happened to be hauling my three-foot umbrella, but only one attendee called me out on its resemblance to a sword.

Shortly after getting inside the building, I found a table serving free salad containers and lemon-flavored soft drinks. I was struck as how they were just handing these out. If you’ve ever been to the Financial District, you’d know its homeless population is huge. Poverty is one of San Francisco’s most prominent issues. It’s almost bizarre to see the two opposite ends of the wealth spectrum shoved into such close proximity. I recently saw a man wearing nothing but a blanket standing amongst a small crowd of businessmen. Most corners, subway entrances, and major storefronts have at least one person with a sign and cup. The security detail must have swept through the surrounding blocks and kicked all the beggars out of the area. Yet at the event, you could get a nice lunch for free, so long as you showed up with a pass. As I guiltily ate my lettuce and beef strips, I decided to give my next free meal in the city to a homeless person. I actually did so the other day, but that’s another story entirely.

After crossing the concert area – someone onstage was belting out Michael Jackson covers – I ducked into Moscone West.The booths hadn’t changed much since last year. Seemingly endless rows of desks and tables, each boasting a different business brand, piles of cheap pamphlets, free swag, and representatives practically shouting their sales pitches over the roar of the crowd and music. If you’ve read about my shyness and introversion, you’d know that this crazy, chaotic setting is the exact opposite of what I enjoy. For a couple of seconds, I actually considered bailing. After some deep breaths, I slowly, methodically checked out each booth for anything interesting. Most of the representatives were far too busy to notice me at first, so I took the opportunity to read pamphlets and nab free goodies while waiting. When they finally got to me, I put on my most confident, yes-I-really-do-belong-here attitude and let them do the talking. The entire time, I felt like an imposter sneaking into a high-security fortress. I’m not a techie by any means, but I’ve got more than enough experience with operations and procedures to understand what was being sold. Most involved client communication and data management, though there were some interesting things being done with robotics and gyroscopes. I politely nodded along with their sales pitches, asked a few questions, and gave them my contact info. Rinse and repeat a few dozen times, and I toured the whole building in one day.

Some high (and low)-lights include:

-Tracking down Vidyard. Every time I tweeted something about the expo, these guys would immediately message me back. So, I made a point of actually finding them:

-The Coca Cola booth had special bottles made for the convention, but they weren’t for sale:

-The new Tesla car model on display. I couldn’t get a good picture due to the huge crowd around it, but the interior is sleek, and the dashboard interface looked amazing.

-Free books. Just like last year, attendees could get their hands on Salesforce’s manuals for the programming and development of their products. It took over half an hour to get through the line, but getting this kind of information is valuable. Who knows, maybe I’ll start developing an app…

The Oculus Rift. Yes, they had a demo of the virtual reality system ready for use. It was…unimpressive. Wearing those huge, clunky goggles was uncomfortable, especially since I had to take off my glasses to use it. It was supposed to simulate the interior of a car, but the textures were far from realistic, and the touch-based interactivity was inconsistent at best. Opening the virtual car door involved not a smooth, natural motion, but lots awkward flailing. Hopefully the next build will be better.

-T-shirts. One section of the second floor was devoted to a series of t-shirt printing stations. People could sign in, choose what color and design they wanted, have the artist press the design by hand, and send it through a drying machine. I think I impressed the gentleman handling my shirt; rather than making him do all the work, I handled the pressing myself. I ended up choosing a purple shirt, which was the least of three evils. It was either that or a garish light blue or bright orange. I’ll get a picture posted on here once I’ve ironed out the wrinkles.

-The lei. The third floor had a distinct Hawaiian theme to it. Not sure why it was chosen, but it worked decently. Lots of bright colors, a photo stand with fake waves, and decorated surfboards. They were also offering a chance to win a free trip to Hawaii. I went to Maui earlier this year, so of course I couldn’t turn it down. Entering the contest involved using Salesforce’s new info displays to run a mock Hawaiian-themed business. It was ridiculously easy to figure out (seriously, how hard is it to read a bar graph or pie chart?), and I finished the challenge in seconds. What caught my eye, however, were the leis decorating the stand. I put on my sweetest and most polite face and asked a representative for one, and was turned down…so I waited until another rep passed by and asked again.

Let me tell you, wearing a Hawaiian lei on BART is one heck of a conversation starter. Most guys wouldn’t be caught dead wearing something like that, but I worked it with style. I strode confidently out of Dreamforce 2014 with a beautiful wreath of flowers around my neck, several new potential business contacts, a backpack full of books…and a killer backache from hauling around so much stuff. But it was worth it. Here’s hoping next year will be even better.

Weekly Photo Challenge: On The Move, Or: Subway On Saturdays

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Weekly Photo Challenge: On The Move, Or: Subway On Saturdays

Part of my commute involves BART, the main train system for the San Francisco Bay Area. Don’t be fooled by the lack of people; this was taken at the Embarcadero station on a Saturday. If I took this on a weekday evening, there’d be at least 500 more people in this photo.

Happy Belated Free Comic Book Day!

Hey, folks. Yesterday, North American comic fans celebrated the annual Free Comic Book Day. Basically, you could go to a participating comic book store and receive a bag of free samplers (or a selection of stuff on display) while enjoying whatever other promotions or sales going on. Since I live within reasonable traveling distance – the BART subway system has proven immensely useful – I decided to take the plunge for the first time. I don’t like being in huge crowds, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. Besides, the weather was perfect for a little urban exploration.

I got to Fantastic Comics in Berkeley around 11:15, and the line was out the door and almost to the street corner.  It was a drastic change compared to my previous visit; last year I ducked in there for the Graphic Canon, and bought it seconds later. The wait this time was made bearable by the swift pace of the foot traffic, as well as all the awkward, sleepy kids in their little super hero costumes. There were also some cosplayers:

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Things were a little more hectic inside. The setup was simple: the incoming line hugged the wall, browsing the shelves until reaching the counter at the back. Everyone was given a plastic bag filled with comics, then a choice of four other assorted comics on display. Once that was done, people could split off from the line and explore the store for more stuff. And man, did they have a lot:

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^That’s only about half the store. The Walking Dead, Y: The Last Man, Marvel Compendiums, Game of Thrones, Batman, Ghostbusters, My Little Pony, Gundam, Dexter’s Lab, Usagi Yojimbo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Avatar…pretty much every graphic novel you could possibly think of. A shame they didn’t have any of the Street Fighter art books, though. I ended up settling on Battle Royale; I’ve been meaning to pick it up for a while, and I’d like to see how it influenced The Hunger Games.

From there, I browsed a couple more stores on the block, particularly Half Price Books and Games of Berkeley. One of the local sandwich shops apparently broke bad for the occasion:

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I got back on BART and headed to Collector’s Haven in downtown Oakland. Due to its location, most people would probably miss it. I certainly did; I had to double check the address just to make sure. It’s sandwiched within the vicinity of a tattoo parlor and a psychic, and at the top of a narrow flight of stairs. It was much smaller and quieter – there were maybe 4 people, including the staff – but they had a good selection of figurines and had an X-Men cartoon playing. I got a few free volumes that I missed at the previous store, then got back on the train. My next destination: San Francisco. Today was supposedly California Book Store Day, but the Alexander Book Company didn’t seem to have anything special going on…I left without getting anything, then ducked into the Cartoon Art Museum. The selection certainly changed since last year; they had Studio Ghibli art books for some of Hayao Miyazaki’s films! I ended up getting the Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, then promptly left before temptation could overwhelm me. I wandered around the city for a couple more hours, then finally made the trip home.

So, final count for Free Comic Book Day:

Battle Royale

Art of Howl’s Moving Castle
Mega Man Archie Comics #36: The Trial of Doctor Wily (including what has to be a Phoenix Wright knockoff at the beginning!)
A promotional pamphlet for The Clear Case by Stephanie Edd

Free comics/previews/samplers for:

  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Rocket Raccoon
  • Mega Man X/Sonic The Hedgehog (Snatched this up the second I saw it)
  • Street Fighter (I’m a huge SF fan, so this was a very nice surprise!)
  • New 52: Futures End
  • Teen Titans Go
  • Far From Wonder: Volume 1
  • Uncle $crooge and Donald Duck: A Matter of Some Gravity
  • Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: A History of Japan
  • Les Miserables: The Fall of Fantine (Art by SunNeko Lee. Dunno how I feel about Les Mis manga-style…)
  • Entropy
  • Courtney Crumrin

That’s aside from walking four or five miles, getting 28 tags on my 3DS StreetPass, and having a much-needed day out in the city. Now that I’m back home, I know I’m going to regret all this activity in the morning. But at least I’ll have plenty to read…

Daily Prompt: Close Call, Or: The Sleepy Commute

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about close calls. Seeing as I already mentioned a near-fatal one not too long ago, it’s probably best if I go with something a bit lighter. When I transferred to the university for my junior/senior college years, I had to deal with the longest daily commute I’d ever experienced. Imagine this: You leave the house sometime around sunrise, if not earlier. You walk nearly three miles to the BART train station, and wait for a train that runs to San Francisco. But you don’t go to the city; halfway down the line, you have to get off and wait for a Fremont train to roll in, which then takes you down to the furthest southern reaches of the system. After many stops and delays, you stumble onto the platform, go down the stairs, and wait for the university shuttle to show up, which will whisk you away to the campus nearly 20 more minutes away. Then you will climb at least a couple of hills’ worth of staircases, open a door, and somehow find a seat before the lecture begins.

For two years, that’s how my morning commutes worked. In theory.

The problem was with the university shuttle. The last one left at 9:00 AM sharp, so there was a lot of competition to get a seat on it. The stampedes down those train platform steps were epic, glorious races; half a step, a hesitation, anything could cost you everything. Okay, not everything. But you had to wait for the city bus, shell out additional fare (a bane for any student), and endure a trip that was ten minutes longer. When you’re trying to get to your morning classes – especially when you’re coming from several cities away – every millisecond counts. So all of us fought in these unspoken wars every morning, all for the sake of scheduling. I’ve always been pretty quick on my feet and have a good sense of balance, so practically sprinting down those stairs was rarely an issue for me.

Falling asleep on the train, on the other hand…

So this one time the train rolled into my stop. But I was asleep; heated train car + early winter morning + general lack of rest = one slouching, potentially drooling student. I didn’t feel the train stop, nor did I hear the doors open. But by some instinct, I snapped awake just as the doors were starting to close. Luckily, my backpack didn’t get stuck. I groggily dragged myself over to the stairs and went down. I thought other students would be on my heels and rushing me to get down, but there were none. My heart sank when I made it down to the bus stop. Three dozen or more people in front of me. Even if the shuttle driver would let me stand, there still wouldn’t be enough room. I stood there, silently hoping that I was wrong…but I wasn’t. The last shuttle left with a small group of us standing there. I wearily sat down at the city bus stop and waited. I was going to be late. There was no avoiding it. I begrudgingly paid my extra fare – thankfully I planned for just such emergencies – found the nearest chair, and sulked.

I didn’t sleep on the bus ride up to the campus. I was too wired, too angry at myself for failing. I knew I’d have to sprint up the hills to get to class on time. Maybe the professor wouldn’t notice me. Yeah, sure. He wouldn’t notice a dude with long hair, a trench coat, and a scarf sneak into the room. Ugh, so embarrassing! I practically leaped off the bus when we finally got to campus. Up the first flight of stairs, weaving through the groups of others going to class-

“Hey!”

Someone called out. I didn’t think it was to me; no one ever talked to me. I kept going. One more flight, making a left, going up the wooded path, there’s the door to science building-

“Hey, wait up!”

It was the same voice as before. I opened the door and dared a glance back. A middle aged man in a jacket and scarf came huffing and puffing towards me, and I could see his breath in the cold morning air.

“Hey, you’re one of the students in my 9:30 lecture, aren’t you? I was on the same bus you were, but I don’t think you noticed!”

Whoops.

“…Uh, heh. No, professor.”

“Thought so. Well, don’t bother rushing. I’m pretty sure class can’t start without me.”

“Right.”

We leisurely made our way up to the lecture hall, and I tried to hide my blushing face under my scarf. I’ve had way more serious close calls than this, but I’ve never forgotten that tedious yet funny commute.