Bangkok Homes and Gardens Charity Tour

On Saturday the Dusit chapter of Soroptimist International, an organization that concerns itself with issues surrounding women’s welfare, held their biannual Bangkok Homes and Gardens Charity Tour.  We had the opportunity to visit three beautiful homes all located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River.  One was a prince’s home, another was a merchant’s, and the third was a nobleman’s.

I’ve compiled a very nice (if I do say so myself) eight-minute video.  Instead of duplicating the information below, I’ll post some pictures with very brief comments.

Wanglee House

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This Chinese house was built in 1881 by a rice merchant.  The Wanglee clan owns it to this day. 

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The house is built according to the principles of feng shui, facing the river.

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Designed in traditional Chinese courtyard style, the house represents a study of the Chinese culture brought to Siam by Chinese merchants during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Chakrabongse House

Pronounced “cha-kra-bong”, this house was built in 1908 by Prince Chakrabongse, the 40th child of King Rama V.  While studying in Czarist Russia, he eloped with a Russian woman, bringing her back to Siam unannounced. 

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The house is now owned and lived in by the prince’s granddaughter. 

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There is also a small boutique hotel built on the property closer to the river.

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We were provided a guided tour to the inside of the house.  No photos were allowed so I have borrowed other photos that appear on the internet.

Praya Palazzo

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An Italian-inspired mansion built in 1923 by a colonel in the customs bureau during an era in which Italian artists and architects were all the rage in Siam.

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The palazzo is now a very exclusive 17-room boutique hotel, accessible only by boat.  Very charming place.

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The unseasonable rain finally caught up to us and the hotel staff rounded up umbrellas to shuttle us back to the pier.  Made it back to the Shangri-La Hotel reasonably dry and appreciated the opportunity to get a peek at what life was like in Bangkok a century ago.

 

Building a Better Acoustic Screen

After I resolved the issue of not having a monitor stand wide enough for my new laptop computer, I had to address the next item on my to-do list: building a proper acoustic screen to reduce extraneous noise when recording audio.  A major responsibility in my work is creating online training materials.  One part of this is recording the narration that accompanies the training.

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The condo unit I use as an office has concrete walls and ceilings and a tile floor.  From an acoustic perspective, the room is very “live”.  My previous arrangement was to use a stack of throw pillows, carefully balanced, to try and reduce the noise.  Not only was this prone to collapsing in the middle of a recording session, but it also didn’t do a very good job reducing the noise.

Over the past few months I had tried to source acoustic foam panels here in Bangkok, an elusive product that exists but nobody actually seems to sell.  Finally, after going to a high-end audio shop that I had been told would have the foam, an employee there told me to go to the Ban Mor district near Chinatown.  “That’s where everyone gets everything,” he explained.

Ban Mor is about two blocks of a small soi, or alley, located across from the Old Siam shopping center.  I go there all the time with Tawn but never realized we were literally across the street from the electronics district.  Going from shop to shop on the crowded street, I finally located a speaker store that sold sheets of acoustic foam.

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Truth be told, this foam isn’t the same high-density acoustic foam that I originally had in mind.  But it is dense enough to do the job and was not too expensive.  I brought the sheets home along with some plastic fiberboard then started constructing the acoustic screen.  The idea was to measure carefully so the the two panels would hinge closed with the foam fitting together like crocodile’s teeth.  This way, it folds up flat, allowing for compact storage when not in use.

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After about an hour’s work, I had everything fitting together neatly.  The noise reduction is much better than the pillows I was using before and I don’t have any problems with them collapsing mid-recording.  One more thing I did to improve the quality of the recordings was to purchase a better quality microphone. 

Previously, I was using basically any random microphone you could plug into your computer, just like the ones you might use to talk on Skype.  After some research, I settled on a Snowball USB microphone from Blue Microphones.  This condenser mic has both omnidirectional and cardioid modes and produces professional quality sound.  Pairing that with a pop screen and the acoustic screen and my recordings have improved many times over.

Another project checked off the list!

 

How Does My Garden Grow – Part 2: A Move to the Sunny Side

Three weeks have passed since I rolled up my sleeves and started my balcony vegetable garden and while there are encouraging signs of life, there have also been a few lessons learned.

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One of the first lessons learned, almost as quickly as I finished washing the dirt from under my nails, was that I should have started the seeds in small containers and then transplanted them once they grew larger.  With our heavy rains nearly each afternoon, the wee seedlings were being pummeled and the soil wound up splattered all over the balcony, creating a mess.  Plus, there is no direct sun on this side of the building for another month or so.

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My solution was to move the pots to the hallway outside our units, where they enjoy some better protection from the rain and at least a few hours of sun in the mornings.  Soon, though, that sun will go away as the star passes directly overhead our building.  At that point, I’ll move them back to the balcony.

Here is a container-by-container update:

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These are the large Chianti Rose tomatoes.  The cherry tomatoes are at a similar stage, with the second pair of leaves growing.  The cherry tomatoes will also need to be significantly thinned as one 15-inch container is not going to handle a dozen plants.  So far, so good.

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The carrots and beets seem to be doing well.  I think I didn’t grow enough carrots and I think my beets may be too crowded, but I’m happy to see the frilly leaves on the carrots – a sure sign that they really are carrots.  I’ve planted some additional carrot seeds in the open spaces between plants.  I realized that each plant produces only one carrot.  For some reason, maybe because I always see carrots in bunches, I expected I might get a bunch of carrots from one plant.  So much for having farmer’s blood in my veins.

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The two mini bell pepper plants are doing well, also with a second pair of leaves forming.  There is another sprout coming up in the background but I don’t think this is a pepper plant.  Not sure what sort of interloper it is.  Curious, though, as I know I planted at least three pepper seeds.

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On to the mixed herbs container: These two stalks are growing in the area I planted parsley seeds.  I’m not sure what baby parsley plants are supposed to look like, but this isn’t what I had in mind.  Am I not looking for crinkly leaves?  Do those just grow in later?

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The first hints of what may possibly be cilantro peeking up through the soil.  These little green flecks have scarcely grown in a week.  The rosemary seems to be missing in action.

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The Italian basil is doing well, not seeming to mind their close quarters.  I’m looking forward to having the basil developed enough to cook with, although I guess I could eat the young shoots, too.

That’s all from the farm.  Stay tuned for more details in another few weeks!

 

Searching to Silence a Squeaky Bed

The bedroom, according to Thai culture, is a private place.  It is a place into which you do not normally invite others, whether they be strangers or even friends.  But I am going against convention and inviting you into my bedroom because I have a story to tell about my quest to silence a squeaky bed.

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A local metal worker made the bed frame we have used since moving into this condo more than three years ago.  It has all the stylings of an expensive Martha Stewart Living frame (upon which the design was loosely based) at a fraction of the cost.  But in the past year or so, the bed frame has started to make noise.

Cue the obvious jokes and smart-alec comments.

Somewhat ironically, it doesn’t make any noise from those sorts of activities.  In fact, it only makes noise when you turn over and, even then, only intermittently.  The noise isn’t the full-throated “squeak, squeak” of mattress springs.  Instead, it is a subtle but high-pitch chirp that echoes through the frame and is at just the right volume and frequency to momentarily wake you up, producing something like an auditory sleep apnea.

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We tried many things to troubleshoot the problem.  For example we cut up an old yoga mat and used it to cushion every point at which the frame came into contact with anything else.  We tightened all the screws and connections.  Initially, we didn’t realize that the frame was held together with hex key screws and were just tightening the decorative knobs.  When that didn’t work, Tawn had the makers of the bed frame come out and they revealed the hidden screws, tightening all of them.  That lessened, but did not eliminate, the chirp.

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Notice the little bits of pink yoga mat cushioning the frame.

Working our way through the problem solving process, we turned our attention to the board under the mattress.  Ever since moving out of my parents’ home decades ago, I’ve never had box springs, not seeing the point of them.  But I started to rethink the wisdom of living without box springs because every twist and turn of our bodies was being transferred to the frame, which would in turn protest with that shrill, sleep-interrupting chirp.

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The next-to-final solution was to purchase two box springs to replace the boards and transfer the full weight of the mattress to the floor rather than to the bed frame.  Workers from the department store came and measured to ensure the box springs would fit inside the frame.  We placed an order and last night, some six hours after the scheduled appointment, the delivery men arrived and installed the box springs.

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The fit is good and the box springs are only about an inch higher than the boards on which the mattress previously sat.  Tossing and turning to test them, we could not induce a single chirp from the bed frame.

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Waking up the following morning, I’m glad to report that there were no interruptions to our good night’s sleep.  The weight of the mattress now bypasses the frame and with two box springs, one person’s turn causes less disturbance to the other sleeper.  There appear to be only three resulting problems:

The first problem is that the frame, which no longer has any lateral support, shifts easily.  This means you cannot sit up in bed, resting against the headboard to read a book.  The second problem is that there is no longer any under-bed storage now that there are two box springs taking up what was once free space.

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The final problem is trying to figure out what to do with the two large plywood boards.  Any takers?

 

How Does My Garden Grow – Part 1: Defying Gravity

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Gardening is probably in my blood.  After all, my father was born and raised on a farm and when I was growing up in suburban San Francisco, he tended to an extensive backyard garden.  But in the nearly twenty years since I moved out of that home, I’ve had only two summers when I was able to garden: 2004, when Tawn and I were living in San Jose and I had five tomato plants growing from 5-gallon buckets, and 2005, when I was living in Kansas City before moving here to Thailand.

Finally, I am going back to the land, getting the dirt under my fingernails, and fulfilling my birthright: to grow my own food!

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In the more than three years we’ve lived in this particular condo, we have wanted to hang plants from our balcony but the wire planters they sell locally are really wimpy – good only for petunias and shrinking violets.  We finally found a gardener who said he could make some heavy-duty planters for us.  It took a year to actually get them made, but finally he delivered. 

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But they look pretty flimsy, don’t they.  Sure enough, just hanging on the edge it looked like they would hold maybe 10 pounds at best before collapsing four stories onto the backs of cars parked below.  So the gardener went back to his workshop and returned a few hours later with three metal brackets to put below the planters, providing better support. 

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I’m still petrified that the planters will crash to the ground below, seeing as how they are actually attached to the balcony railing with wire!  I’ve purchased some plastic cable straps to provide greater security and am inspecting the planters frequently to look for signs of distress. 

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We have two balconies, one in each unit.  For the balcony outside the bedroom, Tawn wanted a hedgerow so we don’t have to look at the abandoned building next door.  These trees provide a nice sense of greenery outside and with the bamboo blinds, one can wake up almost imagining being in a tropical resort.

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While in the US in March and June I did some seed shopping.  Faced with limited space, I whittled down my selection of seeds to these five: mini bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, beets, carrots, and heirloom tomatoes. 

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Didn’t get a picture of me actually mixing the soil, which was a bit of a mess given the small work space.  However, we now have five 37-cm pots hanging over the edge of the balcony.  I mixed chopped coconut husks into the bottom two-thirds of the soil to ensure it drains well and to reduce the weight of the pots. 

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Some Starbucks stir sticks were purloined to make for row markers.  In addition to vegetables, I did one pot with mixed herbs.  I think I’ll have to purchase a few more pots and place them on the floor of the balcony.

One challenge we face is that our units face southwest and during the summer months the sun is actually to the north of us (since we are so close to the equator).  During the cooler months, though, we get direct sun.  I’m worried this might throw the plants off a bit, especially the tomatoes which I think will do best if they have hot days but, as the fruit sets, relatively cool nights.  We’ll see. 

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I planted the seeds on July 4.  Three days later, the first sprouts were pushing their way through the soil.  Here, a cherry tomato seedling.  It occurs to me now that I should have planted first in some small containers, then transplanted into the bigger ones.  I’m going to have to thin out all of the larger pots since I can’t grow multiple tomato plants in a single pot. 

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Sweet Italian basil “micro-greens” – ha ha!  Of the four herbs – basil, rosemary, parsley, and cilantro – the basil is the only one that has so far made an appearance.

Well, stay tuned over the coming weeks and months to see how this experiment at gardening goes.  To be sure, my maid is fascinated by my interest in this.  You have to reach a certain level of the bourgeoisie, I guess, to see growing your own food as a hobby rather than a necessity.

 

Shower Retiling Project

This past Monday we started a long overdue tiling project.  For the past three years, ever since our remodel was complete and we moved into our condo, the lowest point in our shower has not been the drain.  For a variety of reasons, the original contractor seemed unable to construct a well thought-out shower and his workers were unable to install marble tiles on the proper angles to ensure drainage.

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In the old arrangement, there was a gap between the glass and the raised portion of tile outside the shower.  The rationale behind this is that a 1/2-inch diameter pipe connects the lower tiled area in the shower with the tiled area beneath the stacked washer and dryer, about five feet to the lower right of the picture.  The connection was designed so if the drain for the washer backed up, the overflowing water could flow to the shower.  Good concept, but the contractor didn’t make sure the shower was lower than the area where the washer is.

For three years, we’ve had to use a squeegee and a spare towel after every shower to clean up the water that accumulates in the corner of the shower and at the end of the gap, close to the door sill.  Not only was this annoying, but despite our best efforts there was seepage of the water into the concrete.  The brown stains in the marble tile come from seepage, where the moisture pulled the stain from the wood floor in the hallway.

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Not only was the damage cosmetic, but the exterior wall of the unit, which backs up to the shower, started to show signs of moisture and the paint began to blister.  Finally, we were able to coordinate with Chang Dii (nickname meaning “Good Handyman”), the handyman who often works for Tawn’s father.  His reputation is very good and after being burned by our contractor three years ago, we wanted to work with someone reputable.

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Monday seemed to be an auspicious day to begin our project, as it was the day the condo’s pool was reopened after a two-month re-tiling project.  I guess it was auspicious because the pool project finished on time, not because it took two months!

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Precautions to keep the dust from the project safely confined to one area of the house were extensive.  All the cabinets in the bathroom were emptied.  Padded floor cover was laid on the wood.  Sheets of plastic tablecloth (bought off a roll at Carrefour) lined the doorway into the bedroom and covered the main cabinets and washer and dryer.  Additionally, towels stuffed the crack under the door.

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From the main hallway (which is the location of the bathroom’s main entrance), we put up more plastic tablecloths as a dust curtain, and laid down heavy towels to clean our feet as we passed through the portal.  It made the space feel very compartmentalized.

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The first morning, Chang Dii showed up with four young men to help him do the demolition work.  They completed it in less than three hours.  A complaint about the Thai education system is that creative thinking and problem solving is not encouraged.  After watching them swing the door around, trying to chip away tile underneath the door, I finally suggested they remove it from its hinges.  The look I received from the young men seemed like, “Oh… yeah, I guess we could do that, huh?”

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Three hours later, the tile and previous cement was removed and neatly cleaned.  The pipe that connected to the washer area had been removed and the remaining bit to the left plugged.  We’ll take our chances that a washer drain overflow is relatively unlikely.  Another problem we had dealt with from the earlier contractor is that the edge between the tile and the raised wood area had never been finished.  The underside of the wood flooring was exposed.  Thankfully, Chang Dii fixed this in the end.

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Late Tuesday morning, Chang Dii and part of his team returned to begin cutting and installing the marble tiles.  To save money (and get the best of both worlds) we bought ceramic tiles that have a thin layer of marble on top.  The beauty of marble but the structure of ceramic.  Chang Dii explained that the problem we were having with the water wasn’t just that the slope of the shower was wrong, but that the contractor had installed the tile in a “dry manner” – adhering the tiles on top of already dry cement, leaving gaps for the water.  He chose to instead use a “wet manner” – placing the tiles directly on the wet cement and carefully leveling them, to minimize the risk of any gaps under the tiles.

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At the end of the first day, they had completed the wet area outside the shower.  The area is now slightly higher than it originally was.  Since the tiles were floating on wet cement, it was important not to step on them for several hours, so Chang Dii wrote a sign for us.

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Now, I’ll let you know that his Thai spelling is as bad as mine.  But just in case I couldn’t understand Thai, he included the international graphic for “No Stepping”.

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Which, upon closer inspection, I thought showed his attention to detail and clear understanding of the potential for mis-communication.  The original foot is floating above the floor, suggesting perhaps that no levitation is allowed.  So he amended the drawing to bring the (now huge) toe into contact with the floor. 

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Halfway through Wednesday, the third day of Tawn and me having to take our showers and use the toilet next door in the second unit, which we call The Annex, careful progress was being made on the shower tiles.  His guarantee: every drop of water would go down the drain.

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The workers actually did a very good job of keeping their workspace neat and swept the entry hallway thoroughly each evening before heading home.  By the time the project was finished, there was no noticeable dust in the living room or bedroom area.

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By the end of Wednesday, all the tile was laid, except for the door sill.  We originally weren’t going to change this but it was stained brown from the nearby wood.  We called a local stone company and ordered a piece and one of the workers went out to fetch it.  At the end of the evening I noticed the marble, which Chang Dii had trimmed to fit better, appeared to be nearly a centimeter (about 3/4 of an inch) too short.  Tawn and I discussed this and decided it was worth spending $20 on another piece of marble to make sure the work was done correctly.

Thursday morning I shared my concerns with Chang Dii and he admitted, sheepishly, that his men had cut too much from the piece.  Mai pben rai, I said – no worries.  By lunchtime the replacement piece was on site and being carefully cut.

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By Thursday evening we were able to use the shower and toilet again, enjoying a nicely finished tile job.  The gap along the glass is gone, the water drains wonderfully in the shower, and even the connection between the wood and the tile area has been neatly caulked.  All in all, an excellent job.  Hopefully, the moisture that has previously seeped into the walls and floor will quickly dissipate and cause no lasting damage.

As for the question that comes up often – “When are you going to connect the two units?” – the hassle involved with just changing the tile in a single bathroom serves to remind me how not eager I am to undertake a larger remodel and joining of the two units!

 

Annexation

Two years and three days ago, we purchased our condo.  It is 68 square meters (roughly 730 square feet) and “kind of” two bedrooms in that a portion of the main living space is partitioned off by a pair of pocket doors to create a separate salon in the fashion of the old San Francisco Victorian houses.  But even then we realized that 68 square meters isn’t a lot of space for two people, especially when one of them works from home.

While we were in the process of purchasing our condo, we engaged in some wishful thinking: wouldn’t it be nice if one of these days we had the opportunity to purchase the studio adjacent to our unit?  On some of the other floors in the building, owners had joined the corner and studio units to create very nice 100 square meter (1,076 square feet) proper two bedrooms with a larger living area.

In fact, just about three weeks ago we had once again said how nice it would be to have a little more space, after Tawn expressed his frustration upon getting home from a long day of work how we were tripping over each other as I continued with some calls to the US from my “office” – the small second bedroom that also serves as our TV room.  “I need space to just be,” he said.

It was an interesting coincidence, then, when a week later I was approached by the owner of the small convenience store downstairs who serves as rental manager for about 40 of the 200 or so units.  The tenant of the studio, a famous supermodel, had moved out and the owner was open to selling, provided it could be done quick and easy.

Yesterday, two weeks after the initial conversation with the rental manager, we were at the Land Department registering the sale.  We were able to agree to a price that was 10% lower than what we paid per square meter on our first condo, and I think the larger space will allow us to command a premium if we should choose to sell it in the future.

Home Expansion

The question, of course, is what to do with it.  After the horrendous six-month remodel we went through with the original space, I really don’t want to get into that again.  Tawn and I have agreed to a two-year moratorium on any significant changes to the new space.  We’ll freshen up the bathroom, where the vanity is badly water damaged, and put some new paint on the walls, but for now that is all.

We will also keep it as a separate unit for the time being, which will give us greater flexibility over the next few years until we have a clear sense that the timing is right to incorporate it into the original unit.  Then, we’ll install a wood floor to match, remodel the bathroom, build a door into the wall between the units and brick over the existing outside door of the new unit.

In the meantime, my office armoire, the TV and sofa are all moving into the new space.  It will truly become my office, leaving the original unit for living, cooking, sleeping and entertaining.

With this annexation, I hope the owner of the next unit over won’t get nervous.  Truly, no need to worry – this is enough!