Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Journey to France

We started early on this rainy Tuesday morning in Leeds, a 6:30 alarm call is not usually what you want on vacation! Still, we were mostly packed & the early start enabled me to drop the family off at the train station, return the hire car & then get a ride back to the station with my Dad. After some emotional goodbyes I went to find my wife & child, at the Starbucks of course. There was a fantastic pianist playing, my daughter gave him the last of our UK money which gave him a big smile & got her both a high 5 & a 2 minute lesson, my budding pianist was very excited. So excited that she wasn’t really paying attention when we picked up our bags to head to the train, she swung around & knocked my full cup of coffee all over the place with her back pack. Wet pants & some coffee smells, but no harm done.

The train to London was on time & once we had the luggage in place the journey was pretty pleasant, it only took 2 hours & 15 minutes, we had a table for the 3 of us, reading & good family times were had, British Airways could take some lessons here! On arrival to Kings Cross we made our way, with all 5 suitcases & 2 backpacks out of the station & across the street to St Pancreas. After only a minuted there my sister & her family arrived from Bristol, it was so wonderful to be bale to hug my sister after 4 and a half long years. I met my nephew for the first time & my niece for only the 2nd, my brother in law doing a great job of corralling them as my sister came to find us.

We got through security & customs with no real problems although lugging those suitcases up onto the X-ray machine was – yeah. A quick lunch at a cafe & we were on to the Eurostar for the journey to Paris. Again we were pretty comfortable, my sister had booked our & spaces around 2 tables across from each other. The kids were fascinated at first, but a little bored by the end of the 2 and a half hour journey. The tunnels leading up to the channel gave surprising air pressure pushes on your ears, I’d say worse than a plane on take off, the channel tunnel however wasn’t bad at all. Once we got to France the speed went up & we were causing along at an average of 167 mph, quite remarkable.

On arrival in Paris it was just like getting off a normal train, I kind of expected another go through customs. It was rather odd that French customs were in London, maybe 20 feet down the line from UK exit customs.  In the Gare du Nord we paused as I tried to get my bearings, being all resourceful & not wanting to rely on having data on arrival I had printed off directions to our apartment. Unfortunately, folks won’t leave you alone long enough to get adjusted to everything being in French, taxi here, taxi there, no thanks, I don’t want to pay you 85 euros for a minibus.

We exited the station & couldn’t find the road we were looking for, fail, we walked a little way & then I turned on data on my phone, I was a little worried that I wasn’t on the correct network & would get data charges instead on the free roaming data from the Sprint deal. However after some later research it appears I am ok. The metro station we needed wasn’t too far, however with all of our 2 weeks worth of luggage, the 550 meters (or whatever it was) seemed like quite a haul, there was probably a closer one but we were committed by this stage to the directions we had on hand. Once we got to the metro station, the epic task of hauling those darned suitcases down the stairs began (I know we need them, but my back, my back). Once we got through, the nice lady at the metro kiosk was going to help us, until her card machine wasn’t working, then she thought it was, then no, it wasn’t. Eventually I managed to stay in line at the machine long enough to buy our tickets, I grabbed 30 of the things, no idea if that is too many or not enough, but they did a deal if you bought packs of 10, so 10 each for my wife my daughter & myself. (it turned out to be the perfect amount)

We squeezed through the ticket deal, got down yet another flight of stairs & then made it onto the subway. The doors started to close on my daughter, I reacted quickly enough to stand in the way, otherwise I’d have ben hitting the emergency break or busting a window, no way on God’s green earth I’d leave my kid behind. The subway was packed, people were like they always are on subways, solemn and trying not to make eye contact, of course I can;t help myself & I look them all in the eye, it’s kind of fun when they turn away!

Once we got off, we went up the stairs, through the exit thing & up more stairs, really, I’ll be glad when we are home if only for the suitcases. We exited the station apparently at a different point than my directions expected. So we crosse the road & started walking in the right direction looking for a road that we actually just to the left of where we crossed, not to the right where we were walking. We must have looked like fully confused tourists wit our luggage and me holding my printed map. A very nice and helpful French gentleman offered his help, in English praise God, and helped us to turn around and retrace our steps. It turns out the apartment was only a couple of minutes walk from the metro station.

Olivier, the man I had been communicating with for the rental met us at the apartment. It is a 4th floor place, just down the street from the Louvre. The elevator is just big enough for 1 person and a suitcase, unfortunately with a backpack you cannot turn around which made my exit a little ungainly haha.

After a brief orientation & me handing over the rest of the rent in cash (glad to not be carrying that around anymore), we had the place to ourself. It is a fabulous apartment, 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a spacious living room, dining room & a decent kitchen. It is an old building, I’m not sure how old, but it must be at least 150 years, maybe more. The floor has a fabulous sag to it, everything creaks, it seems safe, but it is so quaint, a slope to the middle isn’t troubling anyone much.

Everyone other than my brother in law & their young son went out to get some supplies from the Monoprix, a supermarket similar to Marks & Spencer just down the street, relatively trouble free, we did get full fat milk instead of skimmed & my wife spent a long time trying to make sure she was actually getting butter.

Once back to the apartment, we had spaghetti bolognese, of course, we are in Paris, lets have Italian 😉

After a nice family meal, lots of dishes were cleaned & then a little r&r (and writing at last) and then bed time. Hello Paris, you seem like you will be fun, I can’t wait to walk your streets free of bags.

 

A Rushed Visit to Leeds

The continuation of my vacation journal from our big thanksgiving trip to Europe ….

York was wonderful, we could have stayed for ages, however it was time to go to Leeds. If York was a nice time catching up with family, Leeds was to be a great time, if a little busy catching up with even more folks. Somehow with trying to do so much on this trip we ended up with only 4 days in the city of my birth.

Friday morning we rose in York and packed our suitcases, yet again, then took a nice stroll into the city for coffee, I could get used to this location! After a last bit of visiting we said our goodbyes to my Aunt, Uncle, cousin & his fiancee.
We then made the relatively short drive to my home town, Leeds. Finally at my Dad’s house, we got caught up, although we had been together the day before. It was nice to be in familiar surroundings, even if I haven’t lived in the house for the best part of 20 years. The old city looks much the same, maybe a little damper looking, it has been raining a lot. The most noticeable change that I saw, other than even more buildings in the city center were all the cars. Leeds has always been a busy city, but it felt like there were probably 50% more cars on the roads than when I lived here. It may just be the smaller roads tricking my Texan brain though.

In the afternoon we joined my Dad & step Mum for a visit to Costco, always interesting to see how the same stores compare in different countries. I was quite surprised how similar it was. The Leeds warehouse was huge, easily big enough to be  a US store, many of the goods for sale were also the same as in the US, there were obviously lots of them not.

In the evening we join an old friend and his wife for dinner at a restaurant called the Moody Cow. The food was great & the company even better. I had a jerk chicken & sweet potato fries and a couple of local beers. It was raining like crazy when we got there & freezing cold on the way out.

Saturday was a fun day, after going for coffee (recurring theme on this trip), we had a family reunion of sorts in the afternoon at my dad’s house. I got to catch up with all my step sisters, their spouses & children. My Aunt & Uncle cam over from York. A few family friends stopped by too. I ate far too much and generally just had a great time being in the company of loved ones.

When everyone was heading out to call it a day, maybe sit on the couch & snooze the evening away, we were headed out to a party. Another old friend’s wife’s birthday party. This one was a blast, there were a ton of my friends from when I used to live here & the whole evening was just one of catching up & reminiscing about the crazy adventures of our youth. The most noticeable difference from when we used to hang out in our teens & early twenties were all the kids from babies to my 9 year old running around the place, it was really rather hear warming.

On Sunday we went to church with my Dad. The church of my youth, it is always nice to go and remember the place. It is a very traditional church of England, beautiful stone building with towering ceilings and a pipe organ. It also has the traditional, cold sterile type of service that i remember, lots of incantations or invocation type things, heres what you say after I say this etc, old hymns that do their best to hide their joy & sense of worship in exchange for I suppose a revered respect. It’s no wonder that I went away from the church as a kid if this is what it was like, it just doesn’t speak to me personally. At the same time I felt a sense of gladness and amazement that God has so many ways to reach different people through different churches and worship styles, it’s quite amazing really & just speaks to how much the Father loves us.

We spent the rest of the rainy Sunday doing laundry, an unfortunate necessity of a long trip, I also had a good chance to read, I am trying an actual fiction book, Mistborne & quite enjoying it so far,

Monday would be our last full day in Leeds, we made the most of it though. In the morning, after packing (again), we went and had coffee with some very old friends, the parents of my primary school best friend, it was wonderful to chat & catch up & be in the house I had such good time sin as a kid. Unfortunately my friend was working away in France.

In the afternoon we went into the city center, or “town” as folks in Leeds refer to it, and did some shopping. Once we returned to my Dad’s house we did one of the most important things of any trips back to Leeds – we got fish and chips from the original Nash’s in Chapel Allerton, they were amazing of course!

In the evening we went to go visit my uncle for a little while, that would be the last visit in Leeds, we got almost all our family & most of my old friends in, pretty successful. It was great to be in my home town, even if it was for only a few days. The sights and sounds, the smells, the people, the roads, just everything about it, it may not be where I live or call home now, but it will always be home & as such, it feels good to visit there at least occasionally. I look forward to returning again, hopefully much sooner than this last time. Hopefully I will remember to take more photos then too, we were so busy this time I hardly snapped any.

 

York & Thanksgiving in the UK

Well, as was somewhat expected, the vacation journaling got a little minimalistic and scattered after we left Scotland. Not a lack of desire, rather a wonderful time of catching up with many loved ones, family & friends that I had not seen in almost 5 years, or much longer in some cases.

We were in Scotland from when we arrived on Friday Nov 20th until the following Tuesday. We were scheduled to be in York on Wednesday which is around a 6 hour drive from where we were staying in Fort William. In order to avoid a 6 hour drive we decided to split the journey & I had us booked into a Holiday Inn Express just south of Glasgow. The price was great, the hotel was not, still it did the job, just a few extra back aches to worry about.

Wednesday morning, after 3.5 almost comfortable hours in the car ( the vauxhall Mokka is not really built for long journeys), we arrived to my aunt’s house in York. My Aunt, Uncle & cousin came to visit in 2012 for thanksgiving, so we decided that we would have our thanksgiving celebration in the UK at their house. After some catch up time and lunch we unloaded the car – I was starting to grow slightly weary of loading & unloading that thing, although I do had it down to a fine art by that stage, the Tetris song playing in my head the whole time. My wife then went to the kitchen to begin thanksgiving preparations, one of her favorite things to do. Which gave me the chance to keep a promise I had made to my young daughter, we would go and visit the Jorvik Viking Museum. She remembered going the last time we were here (4.5 years ago), but didn’t really remember the place.

It was about a 25 minute walk from the house to get to the museum, I delightful walk through the beautiful historic city of York. We knew we were getting close when we got to the old city walls and gate, I really love this town & have very fond memories of visiting as a child. There were many street artists playing all sorts of instruments and juggling, a Christmas market lining the street with all sorts of tempting gifts willing your wallet to open. We managed to pass them all and make it to the museum with plenty of time to spare ( it closes at 4 & I didn’t want to risk getting shut out or hurried).

The one thing everyone remembers about the Viking Museum is the smell, faithfully reproduced to build the atmosphere of being back in the time of the Vikings, it’s not exactly pleasant, you could say it’s somewhat like those candle shops that you get dragged into & then have every scent of candle under the sun shoved in your face repeatedly until your senses just give up & it all turns into a repugnant mush of an odor, yes quite like that 😉

The Jorvik Viking Center is just as a remembered it, it is a truly fascinating place & well worth a visit for anyone if you are in the north of England. The history of the archeological dig is covered well & the details they have been able to ween from their studies is astounding. They know the Vikings diets, lifestyles, diseases, physical ailments. They know where they went, where they traded ( international trade  – I’m a viking lol). The is the most historically significant true there too, fossilized & since world travelled, the guide seemed very proud to tell us all about it.

My daughter and I wandered a little around the center of York before returning home, I would have taken her around the city walls but she was worried that we would get lost & we both wanted to get back to visit with family. My girl especially enjoyed that there was a piano there, she had missed playing the last week & ended up spending the evening doing a duet of Mozart with my Uncle!

The next day, day 7 would be our first Thanksgiving in the UK since getting married. You know, Thanksgiving, the traditional US holiday, it might seem odd to be away from family and friends for it, however this year although we were traveling, we were indeed with family and friends. We were at my Aunt & Uncle’s house in York, my cousin and his fiancé drove up from Reading to join us & my Dad & step Mum came over from Leeds & brought our very young niece with them. I had the chance to revisit the comical old story of when my mother in law asked what I used to do for Thanksgiving when I lived in the UK, to which i dryly responded I usually went to work, it always raises a giggle, especially with my mother in law.

My wife had been cooking since yesterday & so the prep didn’t seem too chaotic (from my distance) on thanksgiving itself. We even had time to go get a good cup of coffee at the local Costa.

The spread was wonderful, everything I am used to, great turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, gravy, back eyed peas etc etc & several pies. We were all so full after the meal though that we decided the pies should wait & we would go for a family walk.

A very pleasant evening stroll through the Christmas market and around the “Shambles” helped us to feel slightly less full, just enough to return to the warmth of the coal fire and enjoy some pecan or pumpkin pies. A little later I managed to figure out a stream for the Cowboy game, which turned out to not be a good thing, my cousin still suffered through it with me until it was clearly a lost cause & we called it a night.

 

Loch Ness

Yes, I am way behind on the journal, I’ll catch you up when I can, probably mostly when I get back home. Heres my journal entry from back on day 4 – seems like a long time ago now 🙂

 

We had been spoiled by the weather so far, it was never going to last – today we were given what in all honesty we had expected all along, cold, rainy & windy weather. The main purpose for beginning our vacation in Scotland was that for the last 14 years my wife has been asking me to take her to Scotland and to one place in particular, Loch Ness. Call it childish fantasy, American intrigue, or just because well, you know, it’s Loch Ness.

It was about an hour’s drive from where we were staying, a long twisting hour of a drive, another that would be incredible fun in a good car on a dry day (if the roads were empty & not speed restricted). Given that we are going to France next week I decided to get a learn French while you drive audio book & spent the journey being reminded of how much I didn’t pay attention in French class as a kid. The twisty roads didn’t sit well wife my wife who was utterly car sick by the time we reached the Loch ness visitors center.

The visitors center was actually quite good, several rooms with projected educational videos. Personally i think they missed an opportunity to really ham up the Loch Ness Monster, but I guess I can get behind the factual & very interesting presentation instead. They did in the end leave it up to us if we believed there was a monster or not (spoiler alert – there isn’t).

The rain eased up just enough for us to enjoy a picnic lunch out of the back of the car.

The next plan was to find a place overlooking the Loch to do some Nessie spotting & also take some photos as well as just breath in the clean, damp air. On the way to Fort Augustus where we planned to do this we saw Urquhart Castle which from the road looked like both a greta place to view the Loch and also another great old castle to go visit. I knew from when we bought our Scotland Explorers pass that it was covered under the places we had already gone to so we decided to venture in.

Unfortunately we then discovered that we had left the pass at home, being an Englishman that was tremendously disappointing, obviously we wouldn’t be able to get in, but also being from Yorkshire I simply wouldn’t be able to pay again to get in, ok so maybe I’m playing up the stereotypes just for fun, but you get the picture. On the bright side, I married a Texas girl, my wife explained the situation & our forgetfulness to the ticket lady who said that my wife had such a trustworthy face that she would go ahead & let us in, but we were not to tell anyone, so do me a favor & don’t tell anyone 😉

The castle was wonderful, evolved from a Pictish camp to a medieval fortress it was abandoned in the mid 1500s following years of raid by the Macdonalds (no big macs that I saw) the residents at the time loaded the place with gun powder and blew it up. The setting was beautiful, down a green grass hill from the road right on the Loch side, the views in all directions utterly stunning. Also stunning was how fierce and cold the wind was down there, it wasn’t exactly pleasant in the car park, but down in the castle it was blowing a gale, the wind whipping up off the Loch bringing blasts of clod dank air.

We still thoroughly explored the castle although a little more hurriedly than we would ordinarily have done. The older I get, apparently the more practical I think, the steep spiral stair & the open windows must have been a nightmare in mid winter. They must have had some good doors to block out the cold or they would have been just miserable living in those castles a thousand years ago.

Despite out best efforts to spot him, the Loch Ness monster was not at the castle, after slightly longer in the cold than we could stand it was back to the twisty road and French lessons. I think I can reserve a room now when we get to Paris, which would be handy if that wasn’t already arranged!