Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Proposal Story Part II

Working for an international oil and gas drilling service company has afforded me many opportunities for international travel, and whenever possible I try to arrange for Andrea to come along or meet up with me so we can see the sights. I figured that in order to keep the proposal a surprise, I would be best to do it on one of these trips. They are usually last-minute, and Andrea would expect me to be hooked up with work most of the time. All I had to do was wait for the right trip. I wanted it to be someplace far away (because we like going to far-away places), yet someplace fun and interesting.

That said, this winter at my company's annual management meeting, it became apparent that I would need to visit our Middle East districts this spring, and I had my first inkling of a place to propose. I had heard of Ski Dubai, a massive indoor ski resort in the desert in the United Arab Emirates, which seemed like the perfect place! We both really enjoy skiing (Andrea especially), and it is in a far away, exotic place that neither of us have ever been to.

I spent the next few months working out plans for the trip, which would include a few days each in Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Turns out that for various reasons, Oman and Saudi Arabia would not be possible on this trip, so the trip was shortened to just include Qatar (where I would need to visit some key customers) and the UAE (where I would hold a meeting of field coordinators from all Middle East disricts). As the discussions progressed, it became apparent that our North Sea division coordinators could stand to have a meeting as well, so meetings in our Holland office (about 20 mins drive north of Amsterdam) was added to my itinerary. Suddenly, I had a new idea: a European proposal!

Proposing in Europe (and in particular, Holland) had some significant advantages: First and foremost, I have been to Holland before. I know my way around the country, I have friends (work associates) there, and I thought it more "Western" so I could find things I wanted on the internet. (It is hard to even find a good map for cities in the Middle East.) I decided that this would be my new plan, so after haggling with the home office for time off before my meetings, I started to make (secret from Andrea) plans to get engaged there.

I called Lyda, our office manager in Holland, and searched the Internet for ideas. I Googled everything I could think of: Holland+Tulips, Holland+Canal Cruise, Holland+Castle, Holland+Cheese, Holland+Windmill, Holland+Romantic Stuff, etc., and started making a list of ideas. Somewhere along the way, however, I came across the city of Brugge, in Northern Belgium. Various travel websites listed it as "the most romantic city in Europe," or "the Venice of Northern Europe." Intrigued, I set about learning more about Brugge.

According to what I read, Brugge is a an old city (many 12th and 13th Century buildings) that retains much of its old world charm. Its city center is a UNESCO World Heratige Site, which in my experience designates it at least as a place worth visitng. Best of all, Brugge is only a few hours drive from Schipol Airport in Amsterdam!

I began a more directed search on the city of Brugge and found a place called the "Lake of Love" in Minnewater Park. "Hmm," I thought, "Can't do much better than the Lake of Love!" Google Earth was not too much help in scoping out the lake (see for yourself: N: 51.198808° E 3.224369°), so I resorted to looking at peoples pictures and descriptions. I decided after some searching, that this would be my spot, and looked for a hotel in the area. To my delight, I came across the Die Swaene hotel. The reviews were all top notch, and there was availability on my dates, so I booked two nights. My plans were set for the Brugge proposal, but just in case of the unexpected, I decided to set up a few back-up plans.

I booked two tickets at the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens, as my first alternate plan. I decided that we could walk amongst the beautiful tulip fields until I found a quiet, secluded spot and I would pop the question. Luckily for me Brugee worked out instead. As it turns out, the tulips in Holland only bloom for a few weeks a year, and they are a MAJOR attraction. The gardens were quite busy, and it would have been rather difficult to find a secluded, yet romantic place there. I might have been able to sweet talk us in before the opened (I heard that for special occasions, they will do that), but I doubt I could have got Andrea up at 5:30am for tulips anyway! The tulips were amazing, by the way, you can see our pictures in the travel section of the gallery.

Wanting to be extra prepared, however, I decided to plan a second alternate proposal as well. I reserved a private table for two on an evening candlelight cruise through the canals of Amsterdam. The cruise line was highly recommended by Lyda, and had good reviews. Best of all, the cruise passed underneath Amsterdam's Skinny Bridge. They say that if two lovers kiss while passing under the Skinny Bridge, they will be true lovers, and will stay together forever. So, as alternate #2, I decided a kiss while passing under the bridge would be followed with an engagement ring! Even though I had already proposed, we still kissed while passing under the bridge, so we should be set in the "true lovers" department.

All the while, I kept Ski Dubai as my last resort backup, although I was never fond of the idea of carrying the ring through customs in unfamiliar countries. We still went skiing as planned, although in retrospect had I needed to propose in the Middle East, I think that the Majlis Al Bahar resturant at the Burj Al Arab would have been my first choice. The Majlis Al Bahar is located on the Jumeirah beach looking on to the hotel. We had an outdoor candlelight dinner on the beach, set against the waves of the Persian Gulf crashing on the shore. This was much more romantic than Ski Dubai, which was located in the Mall of the Emirates. (Not a bad mall, as malls go.)

All said and done, I am sure glad that the first option worked out. By now, you've no doubt already read Andrea's version of the day, but I still plan to post the proposal from my point of view.....

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Proposal Story Part I

Generally speaking, I think of myself as a confident, knowledgeable consumer, but when it came to shopping for an engagement ring, I was clueless. I started my ring search at Tiffany & Co. as they make it easy; there is an implied quality in their product, and as a consumer, you needn’t know much to be assured that you’re walking away with quality. This worked well for a novice like me! I snuck away during a few visits home with Andrea to meet with the salesman there, and more or less had narrowed down the parameters of what I wanted to a particular size range (and associated price range).

Somewhere along the way, I stumbled onto pricescope.com, a website and forum dedicated to buying diamonds. There was detailed information and links describing all aspects of how diamonds are graded, and what makes a diamond sparkle. I found the whole thing interesting, but the volume of information was a bit overwhelming. I read enough to know that T&Co. carried a substantial markup and to know that if I was going to buy from somewhere else, there would be a serious diamond learning curve.

I decided to take the easy way out (since time is never on my side anyway) and arranged to meet my T&Co. salesmen one weekday morning. I needed to keep this whole thing a secret from Andrea, so I invented a story about working in Bakersfield and instead headed north. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the T&CO store, they did not have the exact ring that I wanted. The ones that were brought in were either too small (I had an idea in my head of what size I wanted) or too big (I am not related to Bill Gates.) I went home empty-handed, and started thinking about Pricescope again.

I set up a secret email address that I could use for diamond-related business (since Andrea sometime uses my computer, and I am sure that an email titled “Your Diamond Ring Request” would have caught her eye). I am an engineer at heart, so I spent a lot of time learning about diamond mathematics, preferred angles, color, clarity, and cut. I was amazed at the various tricks that a diamond cutter can use to make diamonds weigh (and cost) more but sparkle less.

After some time, I was confident in my knowledge of diamonds and felt ready to make a purchase (from someone other than T&Co.). I contacted a few internet diamond vendors and while on a trip to Houston, decided to meet one of them to check out their stash. I made my way down to a nondescript jewelery building in Southwest Houston (not very flashy, really – I guess fitting for an internet vendor).

When the elevator doors opened, had a few butterflies in my stomach. I walked out into a long hallway with cameras and locks on all the doors. On the inside, I poured over loose diamonds with the VP and selected the perfect center stone and matched pair of side stones for Andrea’s new ring. We looked at the selection of settings, and while I saw some components of rings that I liked, there was no ring that jumped out at me as the one. I told the exec just that, so we decided to design a custom ring instead. He took out a pad of paper and we started to design a ring. Together we worked out the prongs that would hold the diamonds, the shank around the finger, the relative heights and taper of the three stones, and other details.

A few days later and back in California, I saw the ring take shape for the first time. I received two CAD-generated images of what the ring would look like. They were a bit crude, but they certainly showed that the ring would come out how I wanted. I decided at this point to go for the custom ring! I did the paperwork to arrange for payment for the finished product (had to pay by wire transfer – a new experience for me), and made a few minor design changes that I had considered after my meeting in Houston.

About a week later, I got an email that the ring was ready. It included photos of the finished product, and I was sooo pleased. They also informed me that if I had no problems, it would be shipped out the next day. I made a special trip down to the FedEx station in SLO to pick it up, and as soon as I got back to my car with the box, I tore into it so I could see it with my own eyes. It was exactly what I wanted. Now, I just had to keep it a secret for the next few weeks while I planned the proposal….but that’s another story!