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.