Saturday, June 17, 2023


The next morning, before leaving, we were able to attend church with Rachel at Black Forest Christian Fellowship, which was held in the Black Forest Academy auditorium. The pastor started his sermon with an illustration accompanied by a short clip from Star Trek. I guess there are some things that are universal.

Our flight to Iceland departed from the same airport (ZUR) in Switzerland where we had previously arrived. This time around, Gabby discovered a delicious airport restaurant called Marche that had healthy cafeteria style options from which you could pick. We also encountered more Americans airing family drama. This time, it consisted of young man complaining to his aging mother in a wheelchair that he can’t get into medical school due to his ethics professor not liking his position on cannabis, while at the same time claiming that it’s at least partially his mother’s fault for making him take the class in the first place.

Adam decided the Eurowings is his new favorite airline, just barely edging out Ryanair for the top slot. Given their complete lack of legroom (and he thought Ryanair was bad, with his knees up under his chin) and somewhat lacking flight crew, it wasn’t what would one consider a “premium experience.” However, they did get us there, and it was entertaining. At one point, the flight crew apparently smelt someone smoking or vaping, so they came over the intercom to threaten to have whoever it was fined and arrested when we landed, if they could figure out who it was.

Next, we had a nice deserted layover in Dusseldorf, Germany. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to the restaurant we wanted without leaving and going back through security, so Adam and I settled for a German bratwurst and a pretzel. While we were walking through the terminal, we spotted an official state plane from the United Arab Emirates. We assumed there was a delegation visiting Germany, but we managed to stay out of the news in this scenario as well. We eventually returned to our gate area, which was occupied by some free range kids, who were running laps and hurtling suitcases while their parents looked on, uninterested.

When we landed, we embarked on a whirlwind tour of Iceland, very similar to the sub 24 hour tour of Paris we had taken not more than a week ago. Both Adam and I had been to Iceland previously, but this was Gabby’s first time (and, she said afterwards, her favorite stop of the whole trip). Given that it had been more than five years since we had last visited, and Iceland has developed substantial infrastructure around tourism in that time, we felt like the theme of our trip this time was, “That was here the last time.”

Our first roadside stop was the Kjosarhreppur waterfall. This was a good introduction to Iceland’s beauty. Completely out of the ordinary and tucked away in a deserted valley, but not so overwhelming as to overshadow other sights to come. Next, we stopped at Thingvellir National Park and walked to the end of the park to see a waterfall we had missed the last time. Continuing around the golden circle, we stopped at the Haukadalur Geothermal Field, where more permanent ropes had been set up to prevent the shortcuts taken by some of our group the last time around.

We stopped at Gulfoss and were able to get much closer to the falls themselves, this time around, given the observation areas weren’t covered in ice. Next was Selandrafoss, which we were actually able to walk behind (although this left us very wet). We also made our way down the cliff face to the Gljufrabui waterfall, hidden from view in a canyon, accessible only by hopping from rock to rock up a narrow canyon. Just a little bit further on, we stopped at a hidden waterfall called Irafoss, off the beaten trail. This might have been one of my favorite stops on this trip, as there was no one else there and we got to enjoy a little solitude for a moment.

Next, we stopped at Skogafoss, which was one of my favorite waterfalls we visited the last time around. This time we hiked up beyond the falls and encountered herds of sheep grazing. Adam and I agreed that, although this was still spectacular, there was a little something lacking without the snowy, frozen, wind swept vistas we encountered the last time we were here. We also stopped at the Sólheimajökull Glacier. This place was deserted, but we hiked up to a breathtaking up-close view of a wall of ice. Finally, before heading back, we revisited the Black Sand Beach where the infamous dunking of Steven occurred. Gabby enjoyed finding and skipping perfectly smooth volcanic stones.

After the end of a long day, we boarded a ferry to the Westman Islands for our overnight stay. The ferry itself was deserted on this last run to the islands (arriving after midnight), and the town we landed in was similarly desolate. As we hiked up the hill to our AirBnB, it started to rain, and, for the record, Gabby intoned that this was the “second most miserable” experience of her life. However, once we arrived at our lodging and everyone had had some grilled cheese and soup, things got a little better. Adam had a little bit of trouble checking in for his flight the next morning, and for a moment, I thought he might end up like Joe (just barely making the last plane home), but he messaged Play on Instagram (their only means of contact), and it was resolved overnight.

The next morning, the last thing we had to do was to see the puffins, that we came all the way to this particular island for. These were at the top of Gabby’s list, and I was hopeful that this island would provide the opportunity. We set out from our AirBnB and walked towards the coast, and I started eagerly examining every black bird, hoping that it would be a puffin. I even tried pointing some of these out, “I think that might be a puffin!” Only to be met with the response, “That’s not a puffin.” The more time we spent looking, the more grim our chances appeared. I started praying, “Lord, please show us the puffins. You brought them two by two to Noah, I know you can bring them one by one to us.” We continued looking, to no avail. I started to think about how miserable the flight home was going to be, when, all of the sudden, Gabby said, “Look, a puffin!” Sure enough, perched on the edge of the cliff was not one, but TWO puffins (a breeding pair). We stayed for a while, watching these two and a couple others fly around before heading back.

From there, it was a whirlwind home. We rode the ferry back to the mainland and drove back to the airport, passing our friend Mike Jones' favorite KFC, and stopping at the local wool store for our friend Keren along the way. Adam and I both agreed that, as amazing as Iceland was in the summer, it is even more spectacular in the winter. Overall, it was interesting traveling during the summer, but I think a combination of the heat and the people reminded me why I like our February adventures so much.

Black Forest, Germany

Our final day in Germany, we explored the area around Kandern and the Black Forest. This might have been one of my favorite laid back days. This area also felt less tourist heavy, and we did more things ordinary Germans vacationing in the area were likely to do (as recommended by Rachel and her friend). Our first order of business was exploring the area around Hofen, where our AirBnB was located. Our first stop was the Kirche Hofen church building that was within sight of our AirBnB, sitting at the top of a hill, all by itself. Adam and I took a few kilometer walk down the public path behind the church to the neighboring locality, taking in the sleepy village life along the way.

One unique thing about (at least this area) of Germany was the incredible number of public walking trails and paths throughout the area. When I first looked at a Google Maps overview of the area, I thought I might be seeing contour lines in the forest (representing elevation), but when I zoomed closer, I realized those were all individual paths. As Rachel explained, property rights in Germany function very differently than in the United States. Most property is public property, and the “right to roam” trumps any particular property owners claim to privacy. This resulted in many excellent public trails, similar to the Huckleberry in Blacksburg, and cyclists everywhere (many of which on electric bikes, but we’ll let that slide for now).

On this last day, we saw three castles, much to Adam’s delight. Our first was Rotteln castle, which may have been the most authentic castle ruin we saw during the entire trip. When we arrived, there was wedding about to start, and the photographer was taking pictures of the bride and groom. When we walked up to the entrance booth, we discovered this was a cash only establishment, but, unfortunately, we didn’t have any Euros. The sweet old lady manning the counter put a finger to her lips and then waved us through. Later, as we were sitting on a castle bench, Gabby sneezed, and received the sweetest genuine “gesundheit” from a little girl holding her dad’s hand walking by.

From there, we headed back to Kandern, stopping for hike in the Wolfsschlucht (Wolf Valley), along with what looked like a group of moms and their young kids, out to let off some steam. We stopped at Rachel’s apartment for coffee and enjoyed talking about German culture, school life, and things both she and her friend enjoyed doing together while at Black Forest Academy.

Our next stop was Sausenburg castle, which came highly recommended as a nice hike and a beautiful place to go stargazing at night. We hiked along until we came across this castle ruin the middle of nowhere, accompanied by a sign, but, otherwise, little fanfare. We climbed the steps in the tower (which were well maintained) and spent a while taking in the view of the German, Swiss, and French countryside. I also happened upon my first international Geocache, perched in an inconspicuous spot.

Next, we made our way to Badenweiler castle, which was a little bit of a disappointment, after everything else we had seen. This castle was in the middle of a fairly developed city. Adam said, “It’s not even that old.” Finally, we had to make a stop for “spaghetti eis,” a German treat we had been told not to miss. Ironically, this is almost exactly like what it sounds… spaghetti ice cream. However, this isn’t spaghetti flavored ice cream, but, rather, ice cream that *looks* like spaghetti with a combination of vanilla ice cream in noodle looking form, strawberry sauce, and shaved white chocolate sprinkled on top. The resulting dish bears a surprising resemblance to the dish in question.

Interestingly, credit cards were not accepted by any of the surrounding ice cream shops in this area of Germany either. This was odd to me, because, after our experience in the UK (where even the buskers were set up to take contactless tips), I just assumed all of Western Europe was similarly developed. Rachel informed us that, particularly in her area of southern Germany, this was not the case. In this scenario, we managed to track down our ATM in order to get our ice cream.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

The next day, we set out to cross into Switzerland again and visit Interlaken (the land between the lakes) and the Lauterbrunnen Valley, home of the Jungfrau, the highest peak in Europe. This is literally the Rivendell of Europe, as they used this location for filming some of the scenes in the Elven haven here. On the way there, we encountered a Vespa convention being held in the town of Interlaken. Hundreds of Vespas everywhere, some with multiple passengers. Our friend Jeff would have loved it. This is also one of the best places in the world for BASE jumping, skydiving, and paramotoring and we saw many people flying through the air via various forms of transport.

Given our time constrains, once we arrived, we discussed several options, and eventually settled on hiking up the valley wall to a town called Wengen, which sits on the shoulder of the mountain. Two and half miles and 1,600 ft. of elevation gain later, we made it. This was quite a punishing hike, but the views all the way up were worth it. About halfway up, we encountered a horse trough with water flowing through a spigot into it. Recalling Rachel’s guidance, and observing two other hikers refilling their water bottles, we took advantage of this refill opportunity, without which we would have ended the hike extremely thirsty.

At Wegen, we caught the train back down to the valley floor. As we rode, we all agreed we should have taken the train *up* the mountain and then “hiked” back down. However, given all there was to do in the valley, we were mainly focused on optimizing our time, and waiting for the train didn’t seem very enticing when there are mountains to be hiked.

Our next stop was Trümmelbach Falls, a series of waterfalls inside of the mountain, which we were told is a must see. We arrived just a few minutes before closing time, and the lady at the ticket booth tried to talk us out of it. She said, “There is not enough time to see all of the falls.” I told her we may never be here in our lives again, and asked if we could see them anyways. Luckily, I was more successful here than at the Arc de Triomphe, she conceded, sold us our tickets, and we boarded the last sketchy looking elevator to the first lookout. From there, we ran up the stairs to get all the way to the top, and began to work our way back down. I don’t know that I have ever climbed that many steps with a similar sense of urgency, but we got to see all of the waterfalls, and guy locking up let us linger for a while, taking it all in.

As we were getting ready to leave, we noticed the local police interviewing someone in the parking lot, but, rather than involve ourself in another international incident, we moved along quickly. From here, we drove up the Lauterbrunen valley until we had to turn and then drove back down, playing the Rivendell theme from Lord of the Rings, and taking it all in.

Our final stop for the day was at Lake Thunersee, one of the two lakes which give Interlaken its name. We found a nice public beach with public bathrooms maintained well enough to put many facilities in the United States to shame. We jumped into the ice cold, pristine, blue water for what would be a short shim (and more of a dip for Gabby). As we were getting ready to leave, an elderly lady showed up, waded in, and swam out towards the middle of the lake, apparently unbothered.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Southern Germany

The next day was our driving tour across southern Germany. Our first stop was in a city called Ulm, to see the Ulm Minster cathedral there, which, apparently, has the tallest spire in the world. Driving through the city to get there, though, was no picnic. I accidentally cut one lady off, and then immediately committed a traffic violation. I topped all of this off by going the wrong way in a bus lane next to a police car (who promptly turned on his lights and rolled down his window to yell at us… in German). Hopefully that means they thought we were just less than stellar German citizens and not stupid Americans. At least the cathedral was nice.

The next stop was Meersburg Germany, a town built on a lake of the same name. It was beautiful and we noticed there were lots of vacationers, but not many Americans. Gabby called it the “San Torino of Germany.” We ate outdoors at a restaurant called Ins Fischernetz with a view of the water, and had some type of German macaroni and cheese that was really good. We also climbed the adjacent hill to look at the Meersburg Castle before heading on to Black Forest.

Our many reason for visiting the Black Forest area was to visit our friend Rachel. We met her and her friend at a nice restaurant near Fischingen called Fünfschilling. There’s something kind of magical about seeing the familiar face of a good friend so far away from home. We enjoyed catching up over dinner, I got some driving tips, and had a delicious chicken cordon bleu. Gabby got a summer sausage that was conspicuously lacking actual sausage and was very disappointed (almost as bad as Tanner’s hamburger in Costa Rica with... no burger).

After dinner, we got a tour of the Black Forest Academy, where Rachel works. Serendipitously, I had grown up hearing stories of this particular place in Germany as friends of ours from my home church had served there previously as dorm parents. The picture of Germany in my head were primarily based on the stories they would relay when they were home on furlough. I greatly enjoyed touring the school and seeing the town I had heard so much about. After the school, we walked a long loop through the town of Kandern. At one point, Rachel pointed out a stereotypical angry German grandmother scowling at us from her balcony.

Later, we crossed the mountain to Hofen for our AirBnB. There was a little confusion upon our arrival, but we eventually were able to contact our host. She gave us a tour through the upstairs apartment, which looked like perhaps someone’s grandparents had lived there previously. Nothing had been disturbed, down to the books and notes on the dining room hutch. We enjoyed the expansive balcony from which we could look out, see the valley, and enjoy watching daily life.

Traveling to Europe during the summer, I was again reminded there are three things that Europeans seem to despise: air conditioning, ice, and water fountains, which is a shame, considering these three things make the heat of summer much more bearable (at least to me). However, on the last point, Rachel informed us that fountains that you see in the public square often have drinkable water. The rule of thumb is, “If there’s no sign (telling you not to drink), then it’s drinkable.”

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Bavaria, Germany

The next morning, we woke up in our AirBnB in Wolfertschwenden, Bavaria, Germany. This little town obviously wasn’t used to tourists. We picked our AirBnB due to its proximity to several sites we wanted to visit, and, as it turned out we ended up in the middle of a quaint village going about its daily life on a Tuesday morning. Kids walking to school, a house being built, and a tractor carrying a hay bale down the street.

The first order of business was a visit to the grocery store. There was no Aldi close by, so we chose to visit a local chain called Dorfladen. After gathering what we needed for a couple of meals, we went to check out. The nice German lady helped us, but as we went to pay, there was some issue with the credit card (also not used much here, apparently). There was some confused German, and then a call across the store that we understood, “Sandra!, Sandra!, Help!” Eventually, we understood there was a minimum for the credit card charge, so we ended up with five extra pretzels to get us over the limit (along with our tomato soup). This was fine with me, because one of my goals on this trip was to eat as many authentic German pretzels as possible. We also found some peanut butter, labeled, ironically, with the brand, “American.”

Our main destination on this day was the Neuschwanstein Castle. You may have seen pictures of this castle before, as it is one of the most iconic sites in Germany. It has also been used in several films, including "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Upon arrival, we realized the castle’s popularity would also lead to crowds of people. Adam quickly dubbed this “Bavaria’s Gatlinburg.” As we arrived at the base of the mountain, we noticed a helicopter flying multiple trips back and forth to the summit, near the castle. At first, we thought maybe this was a tour or, as we got closer and saw rescue personnel, some kind of training. It wasn’t until later when we saw the police were involved, and, the BBC reported that there had been an attempted double murder. A man had lured two ladies off the trail, attempted to assault them, and then pushed them both over a cliff. One woman survived, but the other did not. They were able to quickly capture the suspect (an American, ironically).

At this point, we told Adam, we might have to be careful traveling with him. When we were in the UK recently, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy just happened to be visiting London and we were passed by Rishi Sunak’s motorcade on the way to Stansted Airport to meet him. Also, Adam mentioned the last time he was at CDG airport, the Concord plane crashed (which eventually ended its service to Europe). And now this. News seems to follow Adam.

Now we come to a segment called, “Tell me you’re American without telling me you’re American.” Sometimes, these things are simple; the guys wearing OBX or Dunder Mifflin shirts, for instance. Other times, these things are funny; like the guy who yelled “Gesundheit!” when his buddy sneezed with the thickest southern accent I’ve ever heard. And sometimes, these things are a little more disappointing; like the penchant for public arguing and airing of grievances for anyone within earshot. We passed one American family that was obviously not having a good family vacation, and I told Adam if he ever heard me speak that way to my Gabby, he has an obligation as one of my groomsmen to kick me in the butt.

When we arrived back at our AirBnB we were greeted by our jovial German host, who was excited to emphasize all the amenities available to us, including the sauna in his backyard. He spoke even less English than we spoke German, but we managed to get by with Google Translate. He even had one complete phrase in screenshots, asking us, if we enjoyed our stay, to leave a “five stars review.” He also told me I looked Norwegian. Maybe it’s the red hair? Since it was included, we decided we were obligated to try the sauna. Adam and I found this a little uncomfortable, unless we were as close to the floor as we could get. Meanwhile, Gabby was in her happy place, basking in the heat like a turtle on a rock.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023


When we landed in Switzerland, I was immediately impressed by the Zurich (ZUR) airport (especially coming straight from CDG). It was spacious, clean, and the bathrooms even smelled nice. It probably helped that SWISS Air (unlike a lot of the other airlines we fly) is more like a real airline, with adequate legroom, water, and even chocolate during the flight!

We picked up the rental car and I began my first significant driving experience in a foreign country. I drove a little bit in England (experimenting with left sided driving), but have not been the primary driver on most of our trips. That usually works out well so that I can navigate and plan along the way. We figured out pretty quickly that what I thought was a stop sign was actually a “no parking” sign. I also encountered my first “Ausfahrt” (exit) sign. Our first stop was at Schnitzelworld in Zurich for some lunch. After that, we began our beautiful drive through the Swiss countryside.

One observation: Switzerland (and, later, we found, Germany) really likes tunnels. I bet they have more highway tunnels per capita than any other country in the world. At one point, we had to detour around one of these tunnels, which routed us next to this beautiful alpine lake with mountains directly behind it. We made our first unplanned stop on the side of the road in town called Mols to take in the breathtaking view. We also noticed information on SCUBA diving in this particular location and seriously considered it as an activity for an upcoming day. However, we eventually realized that this would be considered diving at altitude (1,800 ft), which neither of us are currently trained for, so we deferred.

Our main destination for the day was our AirBnB in southern Germany, but, along the way, I wanted to make a stop to visit Liechtenstein, the world’s sixth smallest country, because I wasn’t sure we’d ever be back. This country, consisting of just 62 of square miles, is definitely the smallest I’ve ever visited. However, since they are a member of the EU, all we had to do was drive over a small bridge on the Rhine River, crossing the border with no formalities, to enter the country. The entire country is set on the edge of a mountain, and we stopped to visit the capital, Vaduz.

We parked near the Kathedrale St. Florin, but it was closed for the day, we then walked through the town square and down main street. It seemed like a nice sleepy little country and they even had a LEGO store! The residential castle with the ruling monarch sits on the top of the mountain, but as was made obvious from all of the signs, no, you can’t visit the castle. And stop asking.

After we wrapped up our visit to Liechtenstein, we continued on towards Germany, dipping into Austria briefly on the way. We stopped at a McDonalds (one of the few things open that late) for dinner. This was no ordinary McDonalds, but a fancy, two-story affair with touchscreen monitors for ordering (luckily for us, with English as an option). It was obviously the place to be, and there was a small conference room upstairs playing a construction time lapse on loop. It was obviously the pride and joy of that small town. I think eating a meal in a country counts as visiting it, but Gabby says we have to come back in order to count Austria.

At this point, it was very dark, and, with a few hours of European driving under my belt, we crossed into Germany. I saw a German state trooper sitting at the border, so I was careful to mind my speed. A little ways into Germany, we passed a circular white sign with a black slash through it. Not being well versed in German road signs, I noticed, but didn’t think much of it. However, just a few minutes later, I spotted headlights in my rearview mirror. Still going what I thought was the speed limit, I noticed this guy was going relatively fast. As he got closer, I realized he was *very* fast. Before I realized it, the guy was on top of me and blew past going maybe double the speed I was going. At first, I though this was an anomaly, some German teenager out for a joyride. However, not but a few minutes later, someone else buzzed past me going a similar speed.

That when it dawned on me. I was in the middle of figuring out the Autobahn from scratch. That little sign we had passed, with the circle and the slash in it, was an indicator that all speed limits had ended. I was driving through Germany in the middle of the night on a road with no speed limit. Later as I was reading up on German driving regulations, I ran across this comparison: “Germans have similar feelings towards mandatory speed limits as Americans have towards gun control or Japanese towards whaling.”

Monday, June 12, 2023

Paris, France

Before Gabby starts her residency, we decided to take advantage of the flexibility we have to do some traveling. This resulted in planning a whirlwind two and half week sprint before her first day. To start, we drove to Ohio for my brother’s wedding and were there for three days. We came back on a Saturday night and flew out for this trip on Sunday. The day after we return (late at night) we’ll be driving from Virginia to Colorado with our friend Nick and his moving truck, flying back home a couple days before Gabby officially starts.

For this trip, we and our friend Adam booked four one way flights. A flight from Washington, DC to Paris, France on Play Airlines; a flight from Paris to Zurich, Switzerland on SWISS Air; a flight from Zurich to Keflavik, Iceland on EuroWings (I know, I’d never heard of them either); and, finally, our flight home from Keflavik to Washington, DC.

The trip to the airport on I81 was a little rough, with lots of accidents and construction slowing things down. Plus, the guy driving the shuttle bus from the parking lot at the airport pulled over to the side of the road and turned the bus off at one point. However, Dulles has nice bag scanners at security where nothing has to come out of your bag (liquids, electronics, etc.), and, with that boost, we made the flight somewhat comfortably.

Our first flight connected in Iceland, but, unlike other times we’ve flown through there, we noticed it never actually got dark on the way, although we were flying through the night. This was definitely different than traveling in the winter, and one of the first things we had to get used to in taking a somewhat normal “summer vacation!" Our flight was a little late into Iceland, so the connections were going to be pretty tight. Knowing most of them were on Play, I asked the flight attendant and she confirmed my assumption that they would hold the connections for their arriving passengers.

When we got to passport control though, there were obviously a few people who hadn’t gotten the memo. In particular, there were three college aged girls traveling together standing in line behind us, and, in our first instance of Americans loudly broadcasting their business to everyone within earshot, they were arguing about whether they were going to make their connection. One girl, obviously the leader of this operation, was freaking out, while the other two tried to calm her down. “I told you guys this wasn’t a good idea. I would pay three times the amount for a direct flight. I’m so f---ing pissed. F--- us, honestly. We’re so f---ed.” Later, Adam said, “See, Ezra, you’ve got it easy. I could be like those girls.” I said, “Adam, if I had any inkling you would be like those girls, I would never have brought you.”

The second (shorter) flight to Paris was much better, especially because I ended up in the exit row. I tried not to rub it in with Adam too much. We arrived to a (hot) terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport and navigated buying tickets for the train into the city while trying not to look like bumbling Americans. We bought a two day ticket with unlimited rides which definitely paid for itself. We had also pre-purchased the Paris Museum Pass, which gave us admission (and, in some cases, priority access) to a lot of the destinations we were planning to see. We made it to our AirBnB, met our host, dropped off our backpacks ("Pack light, travel fast!") and grabbed a baguette at a local corner cafe. Given it had been 12 or so hours since we had eaten anything, that was the best sandwich I had ever had.

Our first stop was the Pantheon, a former church converted back and forth into a national memorial several times. Our Paris Museum Pass allowed us to skip the line and go straight in (which felt like seeing New York with my friend Jeff), and had Adam was singing its praises. We saw the giant time keeping pendulum and a crypt where Voltaire is buried.

Our next stop was the Lourve. It was gigantic (and also hot). We did our best to hit the highlights, which included the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and The Winged Victory of Samothrace (which Adam told us is "very important"). Unfortunately, when we finally arrived in the room that housed the Mona Lisa, it was obvious this was a similar situation to that at Platform 9 and 3/4 of King’s Cross Station in London: a huge line snaking back and forth through the center of the room just to get the chance to take your picture of the painting. Gabby said, "I'm not standing in that line."

Next was the Pompidou, with lots of strange modern art. Adam enjoyed the Norman Foster exhibition, while Gabby and I examined a horse skin hanging from the ceiling and a piano in a sweater. The Pompidou’s one redeeming quality in my eyes was the amazing views out over the rest of the city, including the Eiffel Tower and the The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris. We had some delicious hamburgers for dinner at a place called "Meating Corner."

After dinner, we headed to the Arc de Triomphe and arrived right at 10:15 PM. However, although the website said access closed at 11:00 PM, apparently they let the last group in to go to the top around 10:15 PM. They were shutting down the area when we arrived, but I asked one of the attendants if he could let us through. He deferred to his boss who told me it was “impossible” because they had already shut everything down. I tried my best Tanner charm impression, “Aww, cmon, man, you can’t help me out?” to no avail.

Undeterred, we made our way down to the Eiffel Tower for the 11:00 PM light show. Continuing a theme for the day, this area was, of course, swarming with people. There were also “entrepreneurs” everywhere. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone selling the same light up Eiffel Tower statutes. Also, a nice guy with champagne that will charge you an outrageous markup so that you can enjoy your adult beverage under the tower. I still can’t figure out how there’s a market for that many of the same thing. I kid you not, there were five guys selling the same thing standing within 15 feet of each other.

On the metro back to the AirBnB, a group of ladies speaking English loudly boarded the train. It was immediately obvious they were “Not from ‘round here.” I listened to the accents for a minute before asking “Virginia or North Carolina?” “Kentucky,” came the answer. I was close.

The next morning we checked out of the AirBnB, and got breakfast at the same local baguette shop. We stopped at Notre Dame, which was damaged in a fire recently, but is currently being reconstructed. A fun group of street performers was playing nearby, including one guy with a real piano that they definitely hauled through the metro (tour production managers with keyboards in fake upright shells take note).

Our final stop in Paris was Sainte-Chapelle’s cathedral, which may have been my favorite. At first, we entered into the lower level and were a little disappointed. Then we found the staircase to the beautiful top floor with huge stained glass windows that tell stories primarily from the Old Testament. I looked carefully for distinctive objects that could help me identify what story a particular window was for. I found a bathtub ark (some things are cross-cultural) and the ark of the covenant.

After that, we took our final train back to CDG airport. For the record, CDG is probably in my bottom five airports thus far. It’s a hub and spoke design to start with, which gives it a strike puts it on the same level as Newark (NWJ). Our flight was delayed here, which was a shame, since we could have spent more time in the city. I also almost stepped on a pigeon who was standing in the security line in front of me, but no around appeared to think this was unusual.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Traveling Home from the British Isles

The morning of the day we were finally planning to depart, Joe was the only one who couldn’t check in online for the flight. He contacted Play customer service via Facebook and was told to go to the checkin desk at the airport before the flight. We got to the terminal early and said goodbye to John, who was staying in England an extra day to give a seminar on some of the work that his lab does to collaborators of theirs in Loughborough.

Joe, happy to be going home
Joe went to the desk and was told that, for some reason, he had been put on standby for the flight home and was fourth on the list. Not very optimistic that he would make it, we headed to the gate as he started researching other flights home. We came up with several potential options, but they would be pretty difficult logistically and fairly expensive. However, just as we were getting ready to board, they called him up to the desk and gave him a seat - 38F - the very last seat in the back of the plane. Much to Theo’s disappointment, Joe got a window seat, as opposed to the middle seat he had. Theo said, “First Joe gets interviewed by the Polish media, hangs out with the royal horses, and then gets the window seat on the way home. Next week he’ll be dating a model. Joe just thinks he’s the cat’s meow.”

All aboard!

While I was very happy that Joe made it onto the airplane (I was afraid he was going to mess up my stats there for a minute), I have to admit, there would have been just a small amount of sweet justice if he had been the only one to miss this flight, after waving at us from the Spirit Airlines flight that took off and left us all behind in Florida, during our trip to Costa Rica

A well traveled apple
We arrived at the Iceland airport, and I finally enjoyed my apple which had traveled to all five countries with us. Several hours later, we finally arrived in Baltimore at BWI. Mobile Passport allowed (most of) us to make it through the customs line quickly, but Abbie was disappointed she didn’t get a, “Welcome home!” from the agent.

The Arctic Ocean
We encountered a little bit of car trouble on the way home, but Sam came to the rescue and we were all able to limp home while listening to the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl. We made it back early Monday morning, just in time for us all to be at work the next morning. No harm, no foul on the delay! 

Bonus Day in London!

Unfortunately, as you may have guessed by now, due to the inclement weather in Iceland and dangerously high winds, Play airlines cancelled our planned flight home on Saturday. This left us with a couple of options. Do we try to rebook on the next available Play flight for free, or look for another flight and try to get our money refunded? In contrast with our experience with Spirit on a previous international trip, the option of just renting a car and driving home from wherever we were stranded was not on the table. Eventually, we decided to rebook, crossed our fingers, and decided to enjoy our “bonus day” in London.

We checked in at the hotel near the airport, and, after having to change rooms a couple of times, finally were able to get some sleep. Joe got compensated for his “trouble” (of having to sleep in an extra room by himself), with vouchers for the hotel restaurant.

The next morning, we rented another car to make a second pass at London. There were no minibuses available for same day rental, so, instead, Joe and I both rented cars to transport everybody, and I also got to experience left sided driving. Luckily, my learning curve was a little shallower, given I had been navigating and watching Joe drive all week. Once we had everyone, we drove to the nearest Tube stop with parking and made our way into the city.

Once in the city, we decided to divide and conquer. A few of us were going to try to make it to the Premier League football game between Fulham and Nottingham Forest, and others wanted to see more of the classic London tourist sites. The football group stopped at the British Natural History Museum on our way down to Fulham, ducked in, and dodged the mass of humanity to get our pictures of the giant whale skeleton hanging in the atrium. Another distinction we observed in museums is how crowded they are on a Tuesday afternoon vs. a Saturday afternoon.

British Natural History Museum

Unfortunately, we were unable to get tickets for the football match, so, instead, we decided to try to watch the game in a nearby pub. However, when we arrived, the pub was showing rugby, despite being just around the corner from the stadium where the football game was taking place. The proprietor broke the news to us that no one is allowed to show 3:00 PM games on TV in England, because they want to encourage people to go to the matches instead of watching them elsewhere.

Polish radio interview

Meanwhile, as we later found out, Joe, Abbie, and John were having the “best day ever.” They looped around Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, and Big Ben again in the daylight and got to meet the queen’s (king’s?) horses close up. They also went to Trafalgar Square and Abbey Road where they were interviewed by the Polish media for a radio piece discussing American opinion of British music. Somehow, Joe got to be the expert American on British music, much to Theo’s chagrin.

Hurlingham Books

After a quick stop at a bookstore bursting at its seams, we looped back towards the Tate Modern to give Adam another chance to see that museum. We took in some modern art, including a urinal signed by the “artist” and an installation of venetian blinds. Meanwhile, a few others went to see Shakespeare’s recreated Globe Theater and had some gelato.

Sol LeWitt Upside Down – Structure with Three Towers, Expanded 23 Times, Split in Three

Southwark Bridge with The Shard in the background

We reconvened with the rest of the group at Platform 9 and 3/4 at King’s Cross station where Abbie’s best day ever ended with a 10% off her cupcake and a bonus one. From King’s Cross, we took the train home, saw a massive hay fire on the M11, and grabbed some McDonald’s for dinner like true Americans before going to bed.

On the train home

Dublin, Ireland

Having learned a few lessons from our previous experiences, we checked out of our AirBnB early and arrived for our flight to Ireland with plenty of time to spare. So much, in fact, that they hadn’t yet assigned which gate it was departing from by the time we cleared security. On the way to Ireland, we also flew over the Isle of Mann. After picking up our rental car and grabbing a few things for lunch at Lidl, we began our adventure across the country of Ireland.

As we started to make it into the western half of the country, I was surprised by the sheer number of sheep, stone fences, and ruined castles. This raised many questions. Why so many sheep? Where did all those rocks come from? What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?

Kilmacduagh ruins

On a whim, we stopped at the Kilmacduagh Monastery ruins in Burren National Park while driving through the Irish countryside. The ruins of this monastery date back to the 13th or 14th century, and this was one of my favorite random stops. I mean, just look at these pictures (and yes, the grass really is that green).

Seagulls for scale

The main objective for this day was visiting the Cliffs of Moher, which are on the opposite side of Ireland from Dublin. After driving for more than three and a half hours on some pretty narrow back roads, we arrived at the cliffs. The cliffs soar 200 meter above the Atlantic Ocean, and, as we discussed, pictures absolutely do not do them justice.

Cliffs of Moher

After enjoying our time at the cliffs, we headed back towards the eastern side of Ireland to check into our AirBnB. Considering we were meeting our host, we were trying to make it back before 9:30 PM. We stopped for groceries along the way and executed a coordinated strike on Aldi to minimize our shopping time. Everyone was assigned two items to grab and bring back to the front of the store. Between that and Joe’s driving skills, we arrived at our AirBnB (a converted Bed and Breakfast) just in time. This was a more laid back evening where we hung out around the wood stove and discussed the advance of technology and Sam proposed we should begin teaching epistemology to children in kindergarten.

Aughrim, Wicklow, Ireland

The next day, we set out to explore the beautiful countryside of Wicklow, Ireland. We stopped for coffee along the way at the Granite City Cafe in Aughrim, one of the few places we went that didn’t seem to be catering to tourists. Adam enjoyed talking to an elderly woman in one corner (who, judging by his accent, thought he was Australian), and Sam observed that in the length of time we were in the shop, they played both “Kids of America” and “Surfing the USA.”

St. Kevin's Church

St. Peter and St. Pauls' Cathedral
Our first stop of the day was the monastic settlement of Glendalough Valley. We took a hike up towards the twin lakes and the Poulanass waterfall, seeing lots of sheep along the way. Next, we stopped at Avoca, the oldest continually operational wool mill in Ireland, and also hit a small local craft shop called Plain Pearl for Keren to get some Irish wool for knitting. After that, we did some castle hopping on the way into Dublin, exploring three ruined castles (Kindlestown, Oldcourt, and Monkstown), which all happened to be located in residential neighborhoods.

Monkstown Castle

In Dublin, we stopped for dinner before our flight back to England. Unfortunately, the first restaurant we were planning to go to, Jack O’Rourke’s, was full. At the second one, Keren walked into the glass door and, after looking at the “tasting menu,” Gabby decided it didn’t fit our group’s vibe. We ended up going to a place called Kelly and Cooper’s instead. Joe, John, and I parked the van and found Sam sitting outside the restaurant waiting for us. Joe asked if he was the bouncer and he replied, “No, they just don’t allow smoking inside.” As he said this, a helpful pedestrian happened to be walking by, stopped, and directed Sam to the closest smoking location. We enjoyed our dinner, and when the proprietor (presumably Kelly) came with the check, she handed the terminal to me for some reason.

Glendalough Valley

Edinburgh, Scotland

On Wednesday, we finally had all of the monkeys in our circus together. We split up between two cars (Tanner having picked up a small manual transmission car that beeped at him every time he changed lanes without signaling) and headed to the airport for our first out of country adventure to Edinburgh, Scotland. On the way, we were passed by a motorcade headed to the airport to meet Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was visiting the UK that same morning. Our best guess is that the motorcade belonged to UK Prime Minster Rishi Sunak (although Tanner claimed Boris Johnson waved at him). Theo waved as well, but the wave he got back may have been more of a “get out of the way” rather than a friendly wave.

While we were planning the trip, we discovered some incredibly cheap roundtrip flights on Ryanair (less than $50) that would allow us to maximize our time and see Scotland and Ireland without having to spend all day driving there from London. Considering our penchant for and experiences with flying budget airlines, a few speed bumps along the way wouldn’t be unexpected.

Not my circus - oh, wait.
We almost missed our flight for the second time as we showed up a little later than intended (due to late departure and traffic) and were greeted by a security line that took at least half an hour. While standing in line, we realized that Ryanair had moved the gate closing time back to a half hour before the flight was supposed to take off (rather than the standard 15 minutes). To make matters worse, almost all of the bags in our particular security line were being flagged for a secondary search. Not thinking we would be able to make it, I sent the others along while I waited with Keren for her bag to be searched. I figured Tanner was our best hope as a negotiator and Joe promised to make a scene at the gate to give us enough time to get there.

The agent picked up Keren’s bag, looked at the X-ray image, said she didn’t see anything, and then sent it back through for another scan. As soon as it cleared the X-ray machine, we both started sprinting towards the gate, winding our way through the maze of duty free shops and straight-arming people who wouldn’t get out of the way. As it turned out, despite being well past the original boarding time, when we got to the gate no one had actually started boarding yet. Having experienced this phenomenon twice, we decided this might just be a scare tactic the budget airlines use to ensure their flights leave on time.

Our first double decker bus!

The Royal Mile

When we arrived in Edinburgh, we rode a double decker bus from the airport to the city instead of renting a car. We were dropped off at St. Andrew’s Square and from there walked down the Royal Mile. Our friend Emily suggested we visit The Haggis Box for a genuine haggis experience. When all eleven of us walked in the owner came out from the back looking a little overwhelmed and asked, “Okay, who’s in charge here?” She then gave us an overview of the menu with an American friendly “interpretation” for several of the items. As the rest of the group was deciding on their orders, Tanner, Livi, and I went down the street for pulled pork at a restaurant called “Oink!” When I say pulled pork, I mean literally pulled off the roasted pig in front of you. It was moist and delicious. Perhaps the best barbecue I’ve ever had, excepting the sauce (it’s hard to beat Due South’s Sweet Brown or Mission’s Smoky Mountain).

Fresh pulled pork

After lunch, we spent several hours touring Edinburgh Castle, which has been in existence in some form for almost 2000 years. We also saw the crown jewels of Scotland here, and Theo got chastised for trying to climb the castle walls. 

Edinburgh Castle

Next we split up a little bit to do some shopping (Sam wanted to find a kilt), and some of us visited St. Giles cathedral, “the cradle of Presbyterianism.” This church was, for a time, led by the Scottish reformer John Knox.

St. Giles Cathedral

Finally, we reconvened at the National Museum of Scotland. It’s interesting how different museums have different character. The British museum definitely gave off the impression of being serious and austere, while the Museum of Scotland was more whimsical and family friendly with lots of video elements and interactive exhibits. Gabby and Abbie said they definitely preferred the latter.

Arthur's Seat

To wrap up our day, we went to a Scottish pub called Doctors and had some fish and chips with mushy peas. After riding the bus back to the airport and boarding our flight to Stansted, we said goodbye to Livi and Tanner, who had decided to leave the next morning (instead of on Friday) to beat the incoming weather in Iceland (even more foreshadowing).

Longest (or shortest) night

Monday, February 20, 2023

London, England

We decided to spend our first (and theoretically only) full day in England visiting London proper. Unfortunately, we also found out that our friends Tanner and Livi (who were supposed to be joining us Tuesday morning) were delayed in Iceland until the evening, due to a blizzard coming through (foreshadowing). Before we got started, our host came over to help us sort out a couple of things with the AirBnB. I nominated Sam as our ambassador to the English and he worked with the realtor to figure out the necessary details.

Old Spitafields Market

We parked our bus at the Uxbridge metro station and jumped on the Tube to ride into the city. Our day started in Old Spitafields Market to meet our friend Matt, a former Northstar staffer, in an area with lots of food trucks and stalls for lunch. Matt filled us in on what he had learned in his two months living in London and then walked with us down to the business district where Adam was interested in seeing several buildings with architectural significance (including Lloyds, Gherkin, Leadenhall, etc.). We almost lost him a couple of times as he stopped to take pictures.

Tower Bridge

Next, we visited the Tower of London (where the Crown Jewels are kept), saw Tower Bridge (often confused with London Bridge), and then headed toward the Tate Modern. Gabby, John, and Sam decided to run all the way around Tower of London, which turned into a detour over part of Tower Bridge, though the Borough Market, and past the reconstruction of the Globe Theater. We eventually all reconvened on the Millennium Bridge in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The Lion of Knidos

The main thing we had scheduled for Tuesday was seeing the British Museum. We could have spent all day here, but, in an hour, we managed to hit the highlights, including the Rosetta Stone, Easter Island statues, Egyptian mummies, etc.

The Great Court in the British Museum

Westminster Cathedral
Finally, we went down toward Buckingham palace, saw the royal guards, and had our picture taken in front of the palace. We wrapped up at Westminster Cathedral and Big Ben and then hopped on the Tube to head back to the AirBnB to meet Tanner and Livi as they were arriving. Since the place we were staying was a little hard to find, Sam, Joe, and I went to stand out by the road to wait for them. I made some comment about how sketchy three good for nothing guys standing beside the road probably looked and Sam replied, “I believe the proper term is ‘blokes’.”

Buckingham Palace

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Cambridge and Oxford

 Our first “day” (including an overnight flight) started with a drive from Blacksburg to the BWI airport. We shuttled a third vehicle for Tanner and Livi (coming directly from Northstar’s trip to the Dominican Republic), and made it with plenty of time to spare. However, after we got to the gate and went to go get dinner, we had our first scare with missing a flight. Despite what both the gate and the boarding pass said, there was an announcement over the public address system that the doors would be closing fifteen minutes earlier than scheduled. We hurriedly boarded the plane as we arrived at the gate, and Keren and Abbie came running down the concourse as the agent announced the doors would be closing in 60 seconds. As we later discovered, the doors wouldn’t have really closed at that point, the gate agents were just trying to motivate people to board the plane.

Departing BWI

Despite that experience, our first flight on Play was perhaps the best flight that several of us had ever been on. This was mostly because the flight was roughly half empty, and, after takeoff, we all redistributed into the empty rows with lots of legroom. Joe managed to get an entire row to himself, laid down across the seats, and promptly went to sleep. An elderly gentleman bumped into his foot that was hanging out in the aisle at one point, shot him a dirty look, and continued to the bathroom. The flight attendants, on the other hand, brushed past him without even batting an eye.

Meanwhile, the whole plane was learning all about James and Sophie, two other passengers from England in the row with John who were talking loudly about their experiences in the US. Maybe we Americans wouldn’t be the loud ones after all, I thought (spoiler: we were). At one point, Adam even saw the Northern lights while we were over the Atlantic Ocean. Given he was the only one in our group who missed seeing them in Alaska, I was particularly excited for him.

Arrival in Iceland

We had a relatively short layover in Iceland, where it happened to be snowing a little bit (foreshadowing), and then continued on the same plane to Stansted, just outside of London. The Stansted airport had certainly seen better days, and they sent us through a maze of hallways, trams, and outdoor passages in order to deliver us to immigration. Despite taking a redeye, we had decided to hit the ground running when we got to Stansted, so we went straight to the rental car place to acquire our transportation.

Rental bus

Our rental car of choice was a nine passenger minibus. The rental car agent asked Joe, “Do you know you’ve rented a bus?” Yes, yes we do. The rental car company provided a helpful bracelet reminding Joe to “Drive on the Left” and we all piled in. After one or two false starts drifting towards the wrong side of the parking lot and adjusting to having all the extra width of the vehicle to the left instead of the right, Joe quickly started to get the hang of it. The speed limits in the UK are still in MPH, so that was helpful, but there are a ton of traffic circles to navigate. Joe and I started to develop a system where I provided direction with hand motions for which exit to take from the traffic circle. Little did I know, some of our passengers were imitating these the whole time behind me.

Front seat, best seat

We stopped for breakfast at a place called “The Coffee Shop” (which reminded me of Wikiteria at the VTCRC in Blacksburg) and had our first traditional English breakfast with eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, beans, tomatoes, and mushrooms. There were two older ladies running the whole shop who humored our misunderstanding of their “white or granary” inquiry (for the type of toast). We were hungry, and it was delicious.

The first stop of the day was in Cambridge. Unfortunately, we discovered that a lot of the museums in Cambridge (and Oxford) are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so we spent our time walking around the city. First, we went into the The Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs. This was our first stop on Adam’s architecture tour of England. I asked Sam what he thought the gates between the narthex and the sanctuary were for. “Perhaps to prevent a run on the sacraments,” he speculated. We walked through Downing College, by King’s College (partially under construction), and visited Great St. Mary's, the University Church. We found some phone booths to take pictures in at Cambridge Market Square, and we also made a quick stop at the Lion Yard mall to exchange money, pick up a SIM card for Sam, and visit the RaspberryPi store.
Notice anything different here?

Next, we headed to Oxford. There isn’t much parking available in Oxford, so instead of parking on the outskirts of town and riding the bus in, we parked in the Westgate mall parking garage. This parking garage was a little short, but we estimated the height of our bus to be roughly equivalent to one Adam (2 meters) tall. The height limit was 1.95 meters, but we figured there would be margin, and everyone held their breath as we scooted under the signs and light fixtures. From the roof of the mall, we had a beautiful view of Oxford spread out in front of us. We walked over to Bonn Square to visit my friend Emily, who is serving at New Road Baptist Church in Oxford. Emily told us a little bit about the history and ministry of the church, then we went out to find somewhere for dinner. Given that the Eagle and Child (the Inkling’s favorite pub) was closed for renovations, we decided to try the Lamb and Flag, another favorite of Lewis’s. Unfortunately, they were very full and apparently didn’t serve food.

Navigating the parking garage

At this point, I knew we were in trouble because it had been quite a few hours since our earlier brunch. One principle I have discovered on these trips is that groups are a whole lot less likely to mutiny on a full stomach, but when the hangriness kicks in, all bets are off. I knew we were at a critical juncture, and if we didn’t find somewhere to eat soon, I might not survive the night. We eventually settled on a restaurant called Turtle Bay that was able to seat all ten of us, but when one of the staff told us it could be a 40 minute or more wait for food I almost stood everyone up and took them to the Five Guys location around the corner.


After a delicious dinner, we walked to Broad Street and came down High Street. We saw Blackwell’s Bookshop, several colleges of Oxford, and the Radcliffe Camera, as well as the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin where Lewis preached his “Weight of Glory” sermon. We then parted ways with Emily and headed to our AirBnB in Iver, England.

When we arrived at the AirBnB, we had a difficult time finding the gate, and, subsequently, getting into it and back out of it to go grocery shopping. Here, I think it is appropriate to apply the concept of the “standard idiot” that my roommate Tim and I developed. There exists in the world a standard idiot, to which all general use systems or processes should be designed to accommodate. My working assumption was that, collectively, our group’s intelligence rises above that of a standard idiot. If our group had a difficult time figure out how something should work, imagine the confusion of your standard idiot when he encounters it.

Regardless, after we got the gate figured out, Joe, Theo, Sam, and I went on a late night grocery store run so that we would have breakfast food in the morning. The self check out was also a fiasco, with multiple errors due to the basket not being in the right place, scanning duplicate items, and picking up items before the transaction was complete. We eventually got it figured out, though, got back to the house and crashed. Come to think of it, maybe in our sleep deprived states we had fallen to the level of substandard idiots.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Visiting the British Isles

This year, we decided to travel to the British Isles, an area made up of the Great Britain, Ireland, and a few outlying islands. This was largely due to the recent formation of Play Airlines and the resulting cheap airfares. For those familiar with our previous experience with WOW airlines, they’re basically identical, except Play’s planes are red (as are the flight attendants’ outfits). Super cheap, no frills, budget airline, with stopovers in Iceland. Joe had a few reservations when he saw that the only support they offered was through social media and there was no phone number to call if you had an issue. I told him not to worry about it, as there wasn’t likely to be a problem serious where we would need to speak with support (foreshadowing).

This would be our largest group trip, with eleven of us total (all friends from GAP at Northstar Church), two of which would be joining partway through the week. It’s difficult to keep track of that many individuals, so, with some help, I developed a few groupings. I had the toddlers (Keren, Abbie, and Livi), happy to go wherever and to do whatever; the intellectuals (Sam, John, and Adam), here for the experience, but also cultural immersion and exchange of ideas; the troublemakers (Joe, Tanner, and Theo), the individuals most likely to cause an international incident; wife (Gabby); and myself.

This would also be our most logistically involved trip, with a plan to travel through or see six separate countries, necessitating three independently booked roundtrip flights, six passes through airport security, three different lodging locations, and numerous bus and train rides. I tried to encourage everyone to, “pack light, travel fast.” The airlines we were flying allow only one personal item (like a small backpack) for free and sticking to that limit made us much more quick and nimble checking in for our flights, getting through security, and using public transportation.

The good news is, this trip was made more manageable by the travel trifecta: currency, smartphones, and language. If these three items are easily manageable in any particular location we’re traveling to, it makes the logistics massively easier. If any two work, not having the third is manageable, but, in my experience, if at any time you lose access to two out of the three, you start to get into trouble.

For currency, the British Isles are made easier by the fact that almost everywhere takes contactless credit card payments (although Discover and Amex support can be lacking). Even the buskers on the street took contactless tips. In fact, contactless seemed to be so broadly accepted that, in some places, swipe, or even chip, payments were no longer accepted. Having contactless payment methods also made the London Underground (or Tube) uncommonly simple, as there is no longer a need for a Tube specific “Oyster Card.” Instead, your contactless credit card, phone, Apple Watch, or other compatible device serves as your card which you use to tap in and out at each station.

For smartphone connectivity, I was able to get an eSIM from Vodafone Ireland online before we arrived in the UK. This SIM allowed 10 GB of data and unlimited talk and text with a local Irish phone number. The benefit of purchasing a plan from Vodafone Ireland was that they are required to roam throughout the EU, and, due to agreements in place with the UK, would easily roam there as well. Best part? It was less than $25 for a 30 day pay as you go SIM plan, as compared to the upwards of $10/day that most US carriers charge for roaming mobile data overseas. Add to this the convenience of not having to acquire and swap in a physical SIM and this was definitely the way to go. Just having access to live digital maps made this trip, which, 15 or 20 years ago, would have been much more difficult logistically, actually feasible.

Lastly, language. Initially, I think we assumed that, since we spoke English, this part would be simple. But, as we discovered throughout the trip, the numerous accents and uniquely British English phrases made this piece of the trifecta more fun and interesting to sort out. You stand in a queue instead of a line. You park in the car park rather than the parking lot. You go to the toilet instead of the bathroom. You get takeaway instead of carryout. You look for “way out” signs instead of an exit. You might be referred to as mate, love, or lad. One Irish lady told us to go over the wee footbridge and take a wee walk down the wee path. And if someone tells you to expect them at “half eleven” you should be looking for their arrival at half an hour past eleven.