The Parentals were Back!

 

Hello again! ‘Twas a lovely little holiday hiatus, but I’m back! We’re now officially moved into the new home and have had the old rental cleaned and keys returned. Perhaps I will post house photos at some point, but only when it starts to develop a state of order. Moving in and then immediately turning around and having family around, then a holiday, then going back to Commuter Life makes for a slow unpacking. But there’s definitely firm progress, and I think we have lofty ambitions to call it settled in by Thanksgiving time. Maybe.

Thankfully, the lion’s share of the kitchen, bedrooms, and bathrooms were unboxed with the help of the super in-laws. They even helped motor us around for such exciting (and necessary) purchases like curtains and curtain rails. Moving into a new house rather makes you forget how many windows a house can have, and how much window furnishing can add up really quickly! We don’t have curtains for every room still, but the living room and bedrooms are sorted, and if people want to be nosey whilst I wash things in the sink, then I suppose I’ll just have to put up with the weirdos for now.

Even with the excitement of moving into the new house, it was still equally rivalled by getting to see Mom and Dad again! They managed to fly in on Monday morning and I met them at Liverpool Street station. The future is weird, and I was able to track them down to the Uber with the Find My Friends app on my phone. Handy, but weird. Ah, it is always so good to see them! Big hugs were exchanged and we headed out for Colchester to try and beat the rush hour chaos.

The next day while still jet lagged, Mom and Dad headed off to Cambridge to see one of Dad’s students and explore the town as I had to go to Manchester for a conference. If you’re into microscopy in any form, I’d highly recommend going to the MMC next year. From top of the line tech companies to amateur fans, it was a very educational experience and I picked up a few new ideas.

After all the dust settled, it was back into work for one more day on Wednesday and the chance to give Mom and Dad a behind the scenes tour of what’s been going on here at the museum. Below is a photo of our newly posed blue whale, Hope, in the main hall of the museum.

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Hope, the new emblem of the Natural History Museum!

Looking at her reassembled and mounted like that, it’s hard to believe that I have handled every one of those bones. (With help on most, mind you!) She’s now quite finished and available to the public, and I cannot recommend highly enough that you come and see her if you’re in town. She’s all of our pride and joy. 🙂

After Wednesday, my time off officially began and started with all of us having a nice long lie in. Between the jet lag and the gogogo! lifestyle of the week, it was much needed. Alas, our weary work was not quite done in terms of setting the house in order, so we put Mom and Dad to work a bit over the weekend. Mom helped with some design quandaries, and Dad performed a miracle and transformed a pile of cardboard boxes filled with IKEA products into a wardrobe, and to professionally hang up all of the curtains.

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Possibly the best pub garden in Tetbury.

With the house shaping up into fine form and my parents in need of a proper holiday, we headed out to the Cotswolds Monday morning to meet up with the lovely in-laws at their house. It was a thankfully mostly uneventful drive, with only a 25 minute delay on the M25, unlike the hour doozy we had last time. Mom also had a good laugh at the “Mexican” restaurant at the service station and the fact that they sold chicken wings. Not to say chicken wings aren’t enjoyed in Mexico, but are they really known for it?

We got into Tetbury in time for a quick tour of the town by the father in law, and then headed out for a delicious Italian dinner. Didn’t want to stay up too late though, as we were off to visit the Roman Baths (finally!) the next day.

If you get the chance to go, I would definitely recommend going to visit the Baths. It was everything I was hoping it would be, sans comic amounts of tourists. I suppose you can never really escape the tourists in Bath, especially in the summertime, but it does make it a bit hairy at some points in the building. Regardless though, I think we all learned something new about Bath that day!

We made it home from Bath after a quick bit of shopping after the tour, in which Mom never did find that yearly planner she was looking for. More of the English family was coming in for the evening, and we had all the fixings for a BBQ lined up. In true form, this meant that the rain began at about noon and refused to let up for the rest of the evening. Not to be dissuaded, the Significant Otter put the BBQ under a marquis and cooked everything anyway, with a fire brigade style chain of family members bringing food back and forth with minimal raindrops.

The next day the skies dried up and taunted us a bit as we were planning on being inside for most of the day. You see, we’d signed up for a brewery tour at the nearby Wadworths Brewery. Again, it was an educational experience, and it was really cool getting to see the giant open vats that they brewed some of the ales in. Also it’s been around since Victorian times, so seeing the mixture of old and new machinery and construction was really impressive. And of course, the variety of ales to try at the end of the tour wasn’t half bad either, though I think Mom may argue the best part was getting to meet the brewery horses. Wadworths is one of the last companies to still bring all the beer kegs within a 2 mile radius to the pubs by horse and cart!

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Not pictured – the gleeful fathers ready to learn about (and drink) all the brews.

On the way back from the brewery, M and I decided on a little pit stop for my parents as the weather was continuing to behave and stopped off at the village of Avebury. I was surprised to hear that even though my Dad had lived in England as a kid, he’d never gotten to see the stone circle around Avebury, so I really wanted them to go. I’m glad we did, as it seemed like they had a really good time. Dad got to enjoy walking around the circle and being able to touch (and sit!) on the massive stones, and Mom got to pet almost every dog there. Even M got some ice cream out of it and seemed pleased with the result.

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Some of the smaller stones, looking majestic in the sunlight.

All good things must come to an end though, and seemingly out of nowhere it was soon time to take Mom and Dad back to the airport. We all spent the night at the hotel outside of Heathrow and had to send them on their way in the morning after a massive cooked breakfast. 😦 Overall though, it was fantastic to see them both again, and I hope we gave them a good trip! Looks like it’s our turn to go out to America next year then. 🙂

I suppose this means back to unpacking and behaving like some kind of adult again then eh?

Speak soon!

 

— Kate

Trip to Milan (Autumn 2016)

Shortly after moving in, we got word from my parents that Dad had a conference in Milan the week of my birthday and that Mom was thinking about going along too so she could visit Italy. We did some quick research and found that flights from London to Milan are relatively cheap, so booked it up and planned to meet up with them at the end of September! Time flew past and soon we were through customs, off the train, and walking into central Milan.

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Our base camp for the next few days.

The bit of the city we were in was relatively modern, but there was a wide array of history to be found in Milan during the week. M and I had arrived a day before Mom and Dad, so we had a little tour around the centre of the city to see what there was to see – without visiting all the touristy bits we knew Mom and Dad would want to come along to as well. We stumbled upon a statue of Leonardo da Vinci, whose famous Last Supper painting is in Milan. (We regretfully didn’t book tickets far enough in advance to see it. 😦 ) We also had a nice wander through the massive Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which is one of the oldest shopping malls in the world. It’s named after the first king of the Kingdom of Italy and was built 1865 – 1877. It’s still actively in use today for the same purposes.

M and I called it a quiet night with just the two of us and waited to catch up with the parentals. The next day we went hunting for history with Mom (Dad was at his conference) and found a rather macabre church nearby that of COURSE we had to go see – the San Bernardino alle Ossa. The church itself is standard Catholic beauty, but the small side chapel is a whole other ball park. The chapel was originally built as an ossuary in 1210 when the nearby cemetery ran out of space. A church was attached in 1269, but the bones were left be until 1679 when it was transformed into a chapel and the bones collected over the years were used as decor in the Roccoco style. You have to ask to be taken to the chapel, but it is still open to visitors today.

From there we thought it might be best to take a trip back to the living, so we headed out for lunch and then left M at the hotel so Mom and I could check out our very first cat cafe. It was all you could hope for and more! The cats were all very sociable and we had little furry friends hanging out on the sofa with us as we drank tea and split a slice of cake. The staff have to give you a warning not to feed the kitties, but that was easy enough. Man, if I had a cat cafe within easy reach of me, I would definitely be there all the time. So much fun!

 

We spent the evening back in the Milano Navigli district where Mom and Dad were staying and all met back up for dinner at a Texas themed rib joint. (Hey, why not?) After dinner, we strolled around the canals and had a nice night outdoors. It’s a really trendy part of the city, and a great place to go in the evenings – though very popular, so book ahead.

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Bright and early the next morning, we dashed across town via the Metro system and made it to the train station just in time to catch a train to Switzerland. We’d heard Lugano was just as lovely as Lake Como and only half as busy, and Mom thought it’d be fun to check two countries off her list in one trip – so off we went! Mom and I were rather disappointed that they didn’t bother to check passports, as it meant no new stamps for us.

Still, Lugano proved to be exactly as gorgeous as everyone said it would be, and very quiet.

 

We mosey’ed about for the afternoon, had lunch, and then climbed back up the side of the foothills to the train station to go back to Milan. Went out for dinner, then got the parents into an intense round of Pandemic back at their hotel. If you haven’t played this board game, you really should give it a try. You can play with 2-4 people, so it’s great for couples or groups. There’s also a ton of expansion packs, so you always have something new to add to it. For this round though, we just went with the original so we could teach everyone. It was a good night. 🙂

The next day was my birthday, and a day Dad had off from the conference, so we went out to do all the touristy bits in the city that we’d been wanting to see. It wasn’t even breakfast before I was dragging people to look at some Renaissance era buildings that we walked past.

The big deal for the day though had to be the Duomo, or Milan Cathedral. This building took nearly 600 years to complete and is the largest church in Italy. The roof is open to tourists and allows a close up view of some of the beautiful architecture that would otherwise go unnoticed at such great heights. The view of the city at the top is nearly as breathtaking as the building itself.

 

Inside is a world of history. The construction began in 1386 with the demolition of older buildings on the site. Construction began quickly and already famous artwork was created for the site, including the tomb of Pope Martin V in 1424. In the 16th century the building was still not completed, but the Spanish domination of Milan put it to a standstill and made the cathedral usable in most respects. The next major works did not begin again until the 17th century. Due to this, the cathedral contains a wide array of styles bridging through the time periods. The cathedral was finally declared completed in 1965, even though there are still some uncarved blocked that are meant to be statues. Regardless, this is an impressive building, and it even contains the remains of not only a saint, but reputedly one of the Holy Nails from the Crucifixion of Christ.

The cathedral is not only the centre of Milan now, but apparently is on the spot of the centre of the Roman Mediolanum. A paleo-Christian basilica was discovered underneath the foundations of the current building that date to 355. You can still see and even walk into the remnants of the old octagonal baptistery.

Feet utterly aching from walking for hours, we took a breather and then all regrouped for birthday dinner at this hole in the wall place that looked authentic as all get out and proved to be utterly delicious. Let me spare you talking about all the food we had during this trip and just give it to you all at once. Good lord, I think I gained ten pounds, but it was all so good!

The morning dawned, and we were on our last day. Determined to go find something Roman whilst in Italy, I then dragged my beloved family across town to go look at the Roman Museum and nearby amphitheatre remains. Got my Roman fix, and got some bonus Etruscan artefacts in there as well. Score!

With that, M and I had to head out before Mom and Dad did, so we all got in a ton of hugs and parted ways towards the airport. It was such a great trip being able to catch up with my family and see some history on the side! We flew back to the UK, which was significantly cooler than the Milan we left. We were coming through customs and I told the guard how glad I was to be home, with which his response was a gloriously sarcastic, “Well you say that now.”

Never change Britain.

 

— Kate

Back to America, Part Two (Summer 2016)

So we left off with the husband and I travelling back up to Salt Lake City and civilisation in general last post. That will be short lived. But first, we get to see my parents again! Mom and Dad came to rescue us from the airport and take us back to theirs’. (After a quick stop for lunch and a venture around the nearby Super Target of course.)

Man, going back to my parents’ house felt like no time had passed at all, but in the same vein I was coming back after a year gone and now with a husband in tow. Still, all changes were good changes, and it was fantastic to see everyone again! We passed on offerings of Percy Pigs and Jaffa cakes, and Dad made some delicious chicken enchiladas for dinner. We capped off the night by hanging out in the new pseudo-pub my parents have built in their basement. Seriously, it’s awesome.

The next afternoon M’s parents arrived in town to see the sights before we all came back to my parents’ for the big party in a few days time. When in the region, you absolutely have to go and see Yellowstone National Park, so that’s what we planned to do. Tuesday morning we all piled in a car and headed up to Wyoming/Montana.

The first day was a mosey about the western side of the park, following the river and the hot springs at the edge of the caldera. We ended the day by driving to Cooke City, Montana and having dinner on the Main Street before heading to our rental cabin for the evening to relax and play some card games. By the end of the night, you could start to see visible withdrawal symptoms from the internet and phone service from M.

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The next morning we went in with more focus on what to see, only to be further stalled by the copious amount of bison on the roads. The attitude towards seeing bison in the wild changed vastly from the beginning to the end of this journey. They are majestic creatures though, even if they insist on standing in the middle of the road.

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We continued our waterways trend, but this time went to the famed Yellowstone Canyon, for which the park is named. The walls of the canyon have a distinct yellow hue to them. M and I separated from the pack and wandered down a trail on the side of the canyon, which looking back on it now may not have actually been an official trail. It was nice enough though until we found the way barred by fallen trees. From there we turned around and had to get back to the vehicle in order to see our next point – Old Faithful!

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Old Faithful is indeed pretty faithful, but its timing has changed due to earthquakes in the area over the years. Since 2000, it erupts about every 45 minutes to 2 hours. The nearby Old Faithful Inn has signs posted outdoors with approximate times for the day. The geyser isn’t the tallest in the park, but its eruptions can shoot  3,700-8,400 US gallons of hot water up to 106-185 feet in the air for about 2-5 minutes.

The Old Faithful Inn is an attraction unto itself once you’ve witnessed the geyser go off. It’s the largest log hotel in the world and has a massive stone fireplace in the main hall. It was originally constructed in 1903-1904 and was advertised for having electric lights and steam heat. It offers all that and paid wifi these days, which I witnessed M seriously considering at the time. We distracted him with ice cream cones from the shop off the lobby and headed back to the cabin. Slowly. Through a herd of bison. Dinner, you will be glad to hear, had free wifi included.

Thursday we popped into a Main Street cafe for breakfast and then drove into the Mammoth Hot Springs area. We admired the features of the massive buildup from slow geyser growth, as well as a moose roaming the village. Feeling quite enough outdoors for the time being and needing to get home to help Mom finish setting up for the party, we headed back after a quick lunch stop.

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And now, you must wait in further suspense to hear what this epic party was all about – unless of course you were there. In which case, shhh. I’ll tell it next week!

 

— Kate

 

 

Back to America, Part One (Summer 2016)

It was bound to happen eventually. Yes, I went back to America last summer for three weeks. Man, that was an adventure. 🙂

We began our journey in London, boarding on to a plane and sitting there for the next 10 hours. As it seems to be a tradition by this point, the significant otter had just gotten off night shift and wasn’t too fussed with the soon to be 7 hour time difference. I didn’t sleep quite so soundly.

However, we arrived in good spirits into Salt Lake City airport, collected our bags, and headed over to border control to enter the country. I’ve gotta say, it’s a pleasant moment to know that someone actually has to let me into a country for a change. My favourite person was a bit overwhelmed by the burly customs agent with his weaponry and questions about where we were going and who we were staying with, but I happily chirped the answers and he let us in with no trouble. I’m not sure why M seemed to think there’d be any trouble for an Englishman coming to visit America with his American wife. I suspect he just needs a baseline level of things to worry about.

We waltzed through the gates and back into the land of my birth, headed towards the car rentals. The doors opened and we were immediately hit with the dry, hot, oppressive air that is Salt Lake in late June. I thought it was glorious. The husband thought he had walked into an oven. Perhaps 97°F (36°C) was a bit much to introduce to the sweets straight from England, but we were going to be in a desert in some form for most of the trip, so I suppose it was best he learned then.

The hotel we crashed at for the evening was across the street from a Cracker Barrel. Of course we had to go in. He needed to witness the American-ness that is Cracker Barrel. And to see what a proper US biscuit was. He survived on a steak and I revelled in the fried chicken. It was a win for all. After dinner, we popped over to a Walmart for his second American experience and picked up some supplies for the next day. I have to say, I was disappointed he wasn’t particularly shocked by it.

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The next morning we were both wide awake at 7:30 thanks to the jet lag, so we decided to go see the Salt Lake before the temperatures rose. I remember visiting the lake last in a cool March afternoon, and forgot some of the things about Salt Lake that are wise to remember.

  1. It is indeed salty, but doesn’t have the tides like the ocean. Therefore when hot, it smells quite strongly of fish and salt spray.
  2. It is really, really sunny in Utah.
  3. The midges like to take over the edges of the lake on nice warm days. Like Biblical swarms that you don’t see until you walk into their lair and they all start to fly away.

On the plus side though, it’s still a phenomenal thing to witness in the middle of a desert, surrounded by mountains. It’s also still beautiful, and the water was lovely to stick your feet into. 🙂 We explored the perimeter near the Salt Air building, then took the causeway over onto Antelope Island inside the lake. There are bison roaming the island! M took it as a mission to try and capture one on camera. I was content to just drive and enjoy the breeze.

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We went back into the city when the afternoon arrived and had a wander around the area for the rest of the day before calling it an early night. When in Rome and all that meant that we had to go look at the Mormon temple. It’s honestly not as big as the photos all make it look, but it’s very distinctive in the centre of a bunch of modern city sky scrapers.

The next day I woke up sunburnt to a crisp, whilst the sensible husband was fine from his constant slathering of sunscreen the day before. Thankfully we had a bunch of water in the back of the car from the shopping before, and so we continued our journey out of Salt Lake City and down into southern Utah to see Zion National Park.

If M thought SLC was bad, he didn’t know what he was getting into. When we arrived into Zion it had reached 107°F (41.6°C) and the park rangers had put up warning signs everywhere to drink loads of water. Even the local wildlife was parched.

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We started at the top of the canyon and drove inwards, then carried on through and explored through the Zion Canyon at 3,000 feet deep on foot. The top of the canyon is entirely desert, but in the basin where we were was forest and the North Fork Virgin River. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to go into the Narrows this trip, as we were just too hot to safely continue walking long distances. Zion never fails to feel like an otherworldly experience though. It really does feel like stepping back in time, and the photos never do justice to the actual sight. I cannot recommend the park highly enough.

 

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As the sun slowly began to drop in the sky, we left Zion and headed to St. George, Utah to sleep for the night. We had found this really interesting place called Inn on the Cliff online and booked it because A) it had a beautiful view and a connected restaurant and B) it was next door to a private airport and M wanted to peep at any prop planes going through it. It turned out to be probably the best hotel we stayed in on the vacation, and I wish we’d had more than a night there!

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The view from our room.

Day three began and we got to watch the ÂŁ plummet in value. Oh yes, Brexit happened the first day we arrived. Yeah, that was only slightly traumatic.I don’t think any of the English family are still overly keen to discuss it at any get togethers. We felt a bit separate from the world at that point though, going from one desert wilderness to the next. Sighing at the news and packing our bags, we headed to Bryce Canyon National Park.

Just like Zion National Park, photos do not do justice to Bryce Canyon. Oddly enough, the area is not actually a canyon, but a massive collection of giant natural ampitheaters along the Paunsaugunt Plateau. These are filled with distinct geological structures called hoodoos, which have been formed over the years by the constant cycle of snow, rain, water and wind. Though only 70 miles away from Zion, Bryce is much higher in altitude with the rim varying from 8,000 to 9,000 feet. It doesn’t feel like it when you’ve driven up to near the top of the rim, but you certainly feel it when you start walking and gasp like you’ve been running.

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After catching our breath and marvelling in the natural beauty, we reluctantly got back into the car and started to drive towards Salt Lake City again. I’ll leave you here in this tale and continue next post!

 

— Kate

 

How to Fly Transatlantic 101

This was originally intended for one of my lovely humans who hasn’t flown before. However, I’m realising that there are quite a few people in my life who have never flown, or at least never flown abroad, and I thought it might put some other folks at ease. With no further ado, I shall ramble forth about flying from the US to the UK. If you’re going anywhere else your milage may vary, but I’d like to think these are mostly all decent tidbits to take with you on any transatlantic occasion.

So you say the flying process makes you nervous eh? Well fear not my new explorer – we have you covered from airport to airport! I am going to assume you are a clever human in all things and likely have researched plenty of this already, but I’ll go ahead and explain everything just in case you arrive into the airport, panic, and go into a flight-induced amnesia with only this post to guide you. Before we even get into the airport though, let us prepare you for what you need to bring.

Before You Leave
Passport: Obviously you will need your passport. However, your first instinct will be to place it somewhere safe, either in the depths of your handbag or somewhere on the surface of your suitcase. Do not follow this instinct! You will want to keep it somewhere super easy to get to, but not in a place it can be bent. TSA gets really grumpy about manhandled passports, and UK Customs are even worse. You will be pulling it in and out of your bag until you are finally settled into your seat on the plane, and you won’t want to just keep it in your hand the whole time because that will make you nervous that it could go missing. There are of course passport protectors, but I find the nice zippered side pocket in my handbag does well. I will leave the option to you.

Plane Ticket: You should always print out all the information you have about flight times and whatnot and keep it with you when traveling in case of emergency. You can also print your ticket with most flight companies (if not all). If you can, go ahead. If not, the front desk at the airport will help you with this. I’ll delve into that later.

Snacks: Do not let them fool you – you can take your own snacks past security. They just can’t be liquid-y, so your Gogurt is either about to be kicked back like some amazing dairy shot at the front entrance or the TSA will take it away from you and ruin your day. If you’ve got some Naturebox squares or anything else though, bring as much as you like. Airports are captive audiences and charge accordingly. I once had to pay $7 for a ham and cheese sandwich at Dallas-Fort Worth and I could have wept. Also, while you can’t take liquids through, you CAN take empty bottles through. To make TSA happy, bring a clear one (either reusable or disposable) and if they look at you funny, just tell them you didn’t want to buy a drink and are filling it up at the water fountain on the other side. This is totally allowed. I’d also highly recommend it, as planes can make you really thirsty. You are of course allowed to just buy beverages on the other side too. We’ll get to that. Also, unless your carry-on bag is visibly heavy for you to carry, they aren’t going to weigh it and you can load yourself down like a happy little snack mule.

Cash: Don’t worry about having UK funny money ready when you get on the plane. People always tell you this and they are always crazy. The only time you’d want any cash is waiting to go through customs to use the vending machine, but you’d need small change you wouldn’t have anyway. Just let your bank and/or credit card company know that you’re going to be in England from X date to X date (you can let them know this now, they just put a note on your account) and they’ll know not to freeze your cards when you use them. Just like there, almost everyone here uses cards for everything. However, it’s good to always keep about £20 on you for things likes drinks or taxi fare. It’s up to you if you want to just use your card the whole time, or if you want to do a cash withdrawal. Almost none of the ATMs here charge a withdrawal fee, but US banks will for having to do an international transaction. This is BS, as they don’t tack that on to debit card transactions, but whatever. Check and see what the current charge for an ATM will be online and decide if you want to just do it all in cash or not. You can take all the bills back to a bank in the US and they can exchange them for dollars, but they refuse to do it for any coins. Keep that in mind if you do go for cash. If you’ve got enough coinage, there will definitely be people here willing to trade you for a £5, £10, or £20.

Pillow: There is literally no way to comfortably sleep in economy class. None. If you’re lucky and the doofus in front of you doesn’t recline their seat the 2.3 inches backwards, you can sometimes sleep on your tray like we all used to in high school on the desks. You will wake up with dead arms. If you have a window seat, you can lean against it and try to sleep. It will be cold and likely vibrating. If you can handle sleeping just leaning back, I would highly recommend one of those neck pillows you always see. Someone always has one floating around somewhere, so borrow it and wear it with pride.

Attire: You will quickly see that there are two types of people in airports – fashion runway types, and just rolled out of bed types. Unless you’re reuniting with your love after years, I’d recommend the rolled out of bed look. I mean, you can even be pretty stylish these days. Yoga Queen is probably the best fashion option. The outfit is stretchy and the shoes are sensible. Speaking of shoes, you have a 50/50 shot of having to take them off these days. Honestly, it’s not the end of the world to need to re-lace your sneakers after you go through security. They have benches available for you to do just that. Wear what you find most comfortable. Don’t wear anything majorly metal that can’t come on and off quickly. Don’t worry – glasses and underwire bras do not set off the metal detectors. Oh, and pack a cosy jacket or hoodie. You can carry it separately to not take up room in your bags and they won’t consider it luggage. It’ll be good for sleeping in.

Suitcase: Weigh that bad boy before you leave! Nothing is more embarrassing than having to do the reshuffling of things into separate bags to make the weight limit. Unless you absolutely need any of your toiletries with you for overnight, just put them all in the suitcase. Also be sure that you can comfortable lift and carry your suitcase if need be. England is not known for its wheel-friendliness, and you’re likely to be lugging it up stairs or over cobblestones at some point.

Carry-on Bag: This will be the bag of food, important paperwork, entertainment, and freshening up supplies. Generally you have the luxury of being allowed one personal bag and one hand luggage bag. (You should anyway. Double check. I think only RyanAir cracks down on that.) You could do a small wheelie suitcase as your carry-on, but I typically go for a backpack or gym bag. You can shove them under your seat during the flight and won’t have to bother the person next to you whenever you need something that would otherwise have to go into the overhead bin. Now this and your handbag will have to go through the x-ray machine at the airport, so make sure you’ve emptied out any shady materials like fingernail clippers and eye makeup remover. If you wanted to bring any travel sized liquids on board the plane with you (say mouthwash or dry shampoo), put them in a clear ziplock bag and leave them near the top of the carry-on. You’ll need to be able to take these out when they go through the x-ray machine. Otherwise, fill this as you will. You’re going to have a TV screen in the back of the chair in front of you to watch movies/tv on, so remember to bring headphones. Otherwise, I’d just say a book and a portable charger for your phone if you want your music. Most of your trip ends up being sleeping, attempting to sleep, eating, or staring out the window.

At the Airport
Check-in Desk: When you arrive, you’re going to need to find your check-in desk. It will either be the obvious one with your company name and/or logo on it, or possibly the name of the company that they’ve teamed up with.  If you end up at the wrong desk or just can’t find yours, any of them can guide you in the right direction. Regardless of whether you’ve already printed your ticket, you’re going to have to go up to the check-in desk for your checked bags. Just hand them your passport and flight information/ticket and they’ll guide you through the rest. They’ll have to ask you, like the post office, that you aren’t carrying anything hazardous or illegal, etc etc. Then they’ll weigh your bag, stick a tag around the handle, and give you your paperwork back. Typically airports are surprisingly easy to navigate, but if you would like directions where your terminal is, you can always ask now. With one less bag to drag around, you can now head to security. Woo.

Security: Security will prepare you for England and its never ending queues. There is absolutely nothing to be nervous about here. TSA, for all the grief we hear about them, are actually pretty chill. They may even offer to let you go through the fast lane if they aren’t too busy. If you get that, it’s AWESOME. You just throw your bag in a bin like usual, but you don’t have to take anything out of it. You even get to walk through the scanner with your coat and shoes on. I think they even smile a little bit.

If you’re stuck in the line with the rest of the plebs, don’t worry. You can fiddle on your phone in the line, but it’s best to put it away when you get within sight of the security team. They get grumpy about phones. At that point though, you get to people watch as literally everyone in front of you forgets basic tasks like taking off their massive belt buckle, or throwing away the Coke bottle in their bag. Don’t be that person. No one likes that person. Instead, awe the crowd by preemptively taking off your jacket and having your bag ready. You’ll likely need two plastic bins. It’s normal. Your bag will go in one, then if your handbag can fit you can put it in with it. If not, you can put it in a separate bin. In the separate bin you’ll also need to put any personal electronics (phone, Kindle, laptop if you brought it, etc), coins, metal watches, rings, belts with metal buckles, your jacket, and an offering to the Airport Gods. They seem to be disinterested in incense. If everyone else is taking off their shoes, go ahead and put yours in that bin too.

At this point, your bags will go on without you, unless some goober has put something questionable in their bag, in which case you’ll likely be waiting on the other side for a while as it slows down EVERYONE’S x-ray bag check. Sometimes at this point you can sneak a peak at the x-ray images, which is cool. Don’t look obvious doing it though, as I don’t think you’re really supposed to be looking. Anyhow, you’re going to be in a line to walk through the metal detector/backscatter machine. (The backscatter machines seem to be on the way out. I’ve only ever seen two.) Wait until they call/wave you over to go through the machine, and just walk through it at a leisurely pace. On the off chance you get stopped for beeping, they’ll wave you over with a metal detecting wand and maybe have to pat you down. If so, you’re pulled to the side and a person of your gender will pat you down with the back of their gloved hand. I’ve had it happen once and it was really no big deal. Regardless, you’ll soon be through it and can collect your things from the bins on the other side. Once you’re suited back up, it’s time to head towards your terminal! Regardless of what languages you speak, airport terminal signs are pretty easy to figure out. Follow the signs and/or shuttles to whichever one you need. If the desk didn’t tell you, it will be on your ticket, along with your gate. Your ticket will also say what flight number you’re on. Just to be safe, always check the screens with flight information for your flight number in case they move you to another gate.

Wasting Time: Once you’ve gotten to your terminal and found the gate you’re supposed to be at, you’ve got options. If you’ve got an hour or so to kill before the flight leaves, you can always wander the shops or grab something to eat/drink. Here in the UK it’s a tradition to have an alcoholic beverage as soon as you’ve cleared security, regardless of time of day, but I can’t say it’s super common in the US. If you’re content with what you’ve brought with you, I’d recommend just grabbing a seat at your gate before they all fill up and waiting until they start boarding. They are never comfortable seats, so don’t plan for a nap unless you can sleep on the floor. Also, if you need to charge something and you see a wall plug available, RUN TO IT. There are never enough and it’s like a Black Friday sale when they open up.

Boarding the Plane: Eventually they’ll start calling zones to board the plane. Your ticket will tell you what zone you are, so just listen up for the staff to call it. Continuing the grand tradition of standing in line, you’ll then stand in line while they check everyone’s ticket and passport against the machine. Have them at hand for this, and don’t put it away after. Next, you’ll walk through the little tunnel bit (whose name I have forgotten) and wait in line for people to get to their seats in the plane. When you get to the plane entrance, a flight attendant will check your ticket and tell you where your seat is. Just head on over to it, stow your bags either in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you, then buckle up and wait. You can have your tray down and play with your phone from now until the takeoff begins. They’ll explain this to you beforehand and will say when you can have them out again later.

On The Plane
Drinks: Depending on the company you fly with when you go transatlantic, you may be offered complimentary alcoholic beverages. These are great for calming nerves about flying, or for helping you wind down to try and sleep. I’m a big fan of accepting any offers in hopes it will help me snooze, but I leave this judgment to you. Otherwise, alcohol on flights is going to be somewhat overpriced as you would expect.
 
Food: Now unless you go with Iceland Air, I’m fairly certain every company will feed you on a transatlantic flight as part of your ticket price. Don’t let the comedians over the years concern you – airplane food has improved drastically and you’ll find it to generally be pretty good. It’s doubtful that you’ll be able to sleep so soon, but if you do they can sometimes not disturb you and pass you up on dinner. I’d recommend staying conscious until at least after food. Otherwise, you won’t get another included meal until about an hour before landing. At that point, they’ll usually bring a light breakfast. The few times I’ve flown over, it’s typically a scone with clotted cream and jam. They are delicious and you should totally grab that option! Tea and coffee are typically offered a few times in the morning, and soda/water/alcohol are offered during the evening. If at any point you’re suddenly starving and/or parched, you can always press the attendant button above you and you can ask for something when they come by. I’ve been told if you bring the attendants some snacks or sweets (purchasable in the duty free shop at that!) and gift them to the attendant towards the beginning of the flight that you will have super friendly staff during your flight. I mean, I’d be pretty friendly to someone who offered me snacks and was nice to me too, but I can’t promise anything.

Buttons/Lights: You’ll have seen these all in the movies. No smoking, don’t get up when the seatbelt sign is on, etc. They’ll explain it all on the plane before takeoff, including the general safety rules. What is of more importance is that you manoeuvre your A/C to hit your face where you want it, and then twist the dial bit on it to control how much air comes out. It can be surprisingly chilly. Also, you’ll have an overhead light to read by. You shouldn’t be a bother to fellow passengers if you read later in the flight, but it all depends how light a sleeper they are.

In-Flight Entertainment: I’ve yet to hear of a transatlantic flight that didn’t have a screen in the back of each chair for you to watch movies and tv from in this day and age. At this point, most will even let you pick what you want to watch so you don’t have to watch a communal movie. If you’re lucky, some will also have basic games to play. Also, they generally all have a constantly updating map of where you’re flying. I like to leave that on when I fall asleep, but that’s up to you. You’ll be surprised how much of your trip involves flying over Canada instead of the ocean when you’re flying from the West. Otherwise, I can only recommend putting in headphones as soon as possible regardless of whether you’re listening to anything unless you want a chance of being chatted to the entire flight.

Sleeping: As mentioned previously, you’re unlikely to get a good night’s sleep. If someone leans their chair back in front of you, you can kiss sleeping on the tray goodbye. You’ll likely be given a thin blanket and small pillow by your airline, which are a nice gesture. However, this is when that jacket or hoodie you brought will come in most handy. A lot of people also recommend taking a Benadryl, but I’d only recommend it if you know it won’t leave you semi-comatose when you do wake up in a few hours time. Sleepy in a new country going through customs is not impossible, but not particularly fun. With that in mind, we jump to getting off the plane!

Going through Customs
Luggage: Depending on what airport you come into, some will have you pick up your luggage and THEN go through customs, while some will have the carousels on the other side. The majority will have them on the other side, so waiting will be easier. Regardless, when you get to the luggage carousels you’ll just need to look for the one with your company and flight number and just wait. Don’t join the mob clumped around the spout where the luggage all comes out. They are all convinced that suitcase thieves lurk amongst them. If you literally walk about 12 feet down the line, your suitcase will still come to you and you won’t have to fight people out of the way to reach it before it does another lap.

Queueing: Anyway, you’re going to have to queue. Be prepared to queue. As a non-UK, non-EU citizen, you’ll find a queue that usually just says something like “All Other Passports.” Depending on the airport, it’s awesome being an Other Passport as the wait will be non-existant. Sometimes though, you’ll get stuck behind someone from a country that the UK isn’t overly fond of and find yourself waiting ages while the poor soul is interrogated to the ninth degree. In this time, you should be digging up your passport and ticket again. Also, you should have been given/offered a customs card of some sort when you were flying in. If you haven’t already filled this in, do so now. You can’t pass through without it. If you don’t have one, there should be more floating around the customs area. On it they’ll want basic information like your flight details (both ways), your passport number, your full name, and the address of where you’ll be staying. Put this card with your ticket at the front of your passport where your photo is when you hand them your details at the desk.

What You’ll Be Asked: These people are similar to the TSA, in that you shouldn’t be funny with them. I’ve never had anyone be anything but courteous, but don’t worry if they seem a little intimidating. You’re likely going to panic and forget your name or something silly. It happens. Once when we were coming back in from a holiday they asked me where I was studying and how I was liking it to make sure I was legitimately going. I was exhausted and just dramatically sighed and said something about essays and they laughed and let me through. If that’s not a real student answer, I don’t know what is. :p For you though, they’ll just ask standard things like why you’re here, for how long, and sometimes what you’re planning on doing. Super easy, no stress. After that, they’ll dramatically stamp your passport and you’re in!

Be Free: At this point, you’ve survived the process and are now ready to see what wonders England has to offer you! Public transport is generally plentiful, and if you’re feeling particularly ambitious/mad you could always hire a car. The opportunities are many!

Safe travels!

— Kate

 

queue gardens amusement park

 

Americans Traveling to Norwich

As it gets closer, I have been spending plenty of time wedding planning. It has begun to creep into the fabric of my being. On top of it, I’ve also been planning and explaining travel options to my lovelies back in the US. As I’m aware that many of these lovelies already follow the blog, I thought I’d post some of this information here. Even if you aren’t coming to see us any time soon, I imagine it will give you some ideas for any future travel plans you might have for the UK outside of London. Long story short, international travel is going to eat a half a day coming in and another half coming out. Be prepared. Also, unless you’re going to be in the city your flight leaves from the night before, it is almost guaranteed to be a sleepless ordeal for you to get to said airport.

The majority of people will be flying in to Heathrow and leaving Heathrow, although I realise that some may also opt for Gatwick on one leg or another. There are even some intrepid souls who will choose to forgo both options and fly to Europe and then double back and fly right into Norwich Airport. I’ve chosen to explain flying in from Heathrow and then out from Gatwick to maximise usefulness, as getting back to Heathrow basically means doing the same thing in reverse. The same can be said of getting from Gatwick. Keep in mind, like all things, the price of transport will rise the longer you wait to purchase the tickets. Anyway, we shall begin!

From Heathrow
Bus – National Express
Your simplest, though not as pretty option. You’d literally catch a coach (read: bus) outside of the terminal that would take you straight to Norwich Bus Station. If you’re looking in advance, I’ve managed to pull up a sampling of options just fiddling with the website, leaving you plenty of time in case of late planes or long queues at customs. It stops at other places along the way, which is what will always give you the 4.5 – 5 hour journey. It is a viable option if you’d like to very briefly see Cambridge, Newmarket, Mildenhall, and Thetford – or try and sleep for a bit. Norwich is really in the backwaters in terms of flights. Also, the super cheap (~ÂŁ15-ÂŁ20) trip can require you to get off at a bus station and reboard another bus in the middle of London. The bus drivers will be helpful if you ask for any advice on this, but I’ll leave it up to you how good you think your mental faculties will be after a long flight.

Train – National Rail

This one could be a bit more of a challenge, as it’s not so simple as jumping onto a bus. In this case, you’d have to get through customs and then follow the signs that lead you to the Underground (it’ll probably read Heathrow Terminals 1,2,3). Once there, you’ll need to purchase an Oyster Card from one of the lovely humans at the desks if you don’t already have one. This is the reloadable card and by far the cheapest way to travel in London. It’s good for the Underground, the bus, and the river transport. It’s also good forever, so as long as you don’t lose it, you can come back any time and your money on it will still be good. (Speaking of, I should probably see what I have on mine!) It costs a grand ÂŁ3 for the piece of plastic and I think they make you pre-load it with a set amount, but you should be able to put ÂŁ10 on it and just be charged a grand ÂŁ13 for a really handy piece of plastic.

From there, you’ll go to the barriers that you’ll see people streaming through with the little green arrows lit up. With your new toy, you just need to tap it on the little blue circle at the top of the barrier and it’ll let you straight through. Be prepared and have your Oyster ready, as Londoners are notoriously grumpy about people who hold up the traffic whilst digging for their card. They may even tut and sigh. Also, there will be a luggage-friendly barrier that you may want to use. If you aren’t quick, the barrier likes to hug your bags and you have to fight them out.

Your only option will be to take the Piccadilly line towards Cockfosters. I will be ashamed if you don’t giggle at the name when they announce it. It is hilarious. Fight your way to a seat as soon as you can and ignore people giving you evil looks for having a suitcase. They are jerks. You will then just ride deeper and deeper into central London past 20 stops that should take about 50 minutes of travel. You should then get to Holborn, where you need to get off the Piccadilly line. If there’s a crowd that won’t move, just push your way to the front and mutter sorry sparingly. They’re used to it. It should be pretty dead when you’re riding it though, unless somehow you’re on the Tube during morning or evening rush hour. After you’ve gotten off the carriage head towards the exit signs until you start seeing options for other lines. You’ll be looking for a red coloured line called Central Line, and you’ll want to be going East on whichever one comes first. Don’t worry about whatever ‘via’ line it is. That one you’ll ride for 4 stops or about 5 minutes until you get to London Liverpool Street (sometimes just labeled as Liverpool Street) in which case you jump off and follow the exit signs. Do not shorten the name and ask how to get to Liverpool Station. You will be laughed at and told you’re in the wrong city. Once through the barriers (in which you’ll need to have your Oyster ready to tap again), just follow the signs for Liverpool Street Station, or the little red rail logos with white arrows on them.

At that point you’ll be directly in the station. We’re assuming you’re a clever person and have booked your tickets in advance, which means you just need to go to one of the machines all over the middle of the station, put in the card you paid for the tickets with, punch in the code they’ll have emailed you, and follow the instructions to have them printed. Hold on to all the tickets it prints. Sometimes you’ll need them for inspection on the train. With your tickets now in hand, you need only to look at the giant board overhead that will read places and times. Find the one that matches the place and time of your ticket and wait for it to say what platform you will need. Since it’s an advance ticket, you have to get on the time you chose, not before or after. Once it has a platform number, head to the platform and feed your ticket through the barrier. Grab it when it pops back up and head to the train on that platform. Chances are that you’ll have a reserved seat because you bought an advance ticket, so look at the tickets and they should have a Coach and Seat written on them. You have like a 90% chance of being in Coach C, and that it’ll be at the very far end of the platform. If you can’t be bothered to walk that far, you can get on any Standard Coach and sit in any seat so long as they don’t have a reserved ticket on the top of them. There will be luggage racks at either end of every coach, and some overhead and under seat room as well.

From there, you just need to get cosy and sit there for a good 2 hours. Sadly, Greater Abellio don’t have a trolley service, so you’ll have to get up, grab your purse, and walk to the buffet coach (they’ll announce which one that is at the start of the journey) if you want any snacks or drinks. Even better is that you’ll be riding the train from end to end, so there’s no panic of missing your stop and ending up in Edinburgh. You can sleep if you want and they’ll wake you up to check your tickets and/or tell you the train is in Norwich. You’ll likely discover you have a magically ability to wake up right before pulling into every station along the way. You’ll get off the train, through one last set of barriers with your ticket (you can toss them at this point if you want), and you’ll pop out in good old Norwich!

Last I looked we were still about 2 weeks too far ahead to book train tickets in advance, but based off figures for a random Tuesday in November you’d be looking at about £9 or £13 for your ticket. Anyway… Now for the way back! I promise the rambling will be much shorter. Maybe.

To Gatwick

Bus – National Express
This is all under the assumption that you’ve likely got a flight back Monday morning. In that case, both the train and the bus options are grim. Because you have an international flight, you want to be there with 3 hours to spare. With the bus, you’d either want to get a hotel and stay the night Sunday night close to the airport or be prepared to leave at late hours and kill some time in the airport. And it’ll be a 5.5 – 6 hour journey either way. If you wanted to stay near Gatwick Sunday night, I’d recommend the Best Western Skylane that is currently advertising ÂŁ44 a night and has 24 hour complementary shuttle service to and from the airport.

Train – National Rail
This one could be just as awful, depending on what you want to do. Really, international travel is a righteous pain in the bum. Again, you’ll have the option to go down Sunday evening or go super early Monday morning. Looking at staying the night Sunday evening, you can catch a couple different trains ranging from early afternoon to evening times for an estimated £20. Again, if you wanted to stay near Gatwick Sunday night, I’d recommend the Best Western Skylane that is currently advertising £44 a night and has 24 hour complementary shuttle service to and from the airport. There may be other hotels worth looking at, but that’s probably a similar price no matter where you end up, and these have a guaranteed ride.

If you want to go in the wee hours of the morning, there are early trains (pre-5:00 even) that will cover your travel all the way to Gatwick and includes the Underground fares. You’d get your tickets from the machine in Norwich, then take the train from Norwich to London Liverpool Street and go back to the Underground entrance. Do not throw away any tickets! Instead of using your Oyster card this time, you would feed your train ticket into the barriers. You’d get on the Central Line again, but this time going West for only one stop. You’d jump off at Bank, then look for the Northern Line (a black line instead of red) going South for one stop. You’d get off at London Bridge (of rhyme fame!) and head upstairs towards the London Bridge Train Station. From there, you’d do the whole song and dance of finding your train again. This time though, you won’t be going end to end. It’ll likely say to Brighton or similar, but underneath will be a list of all the stops along the way. As long as the time is right and your stop is on that list, you’ve got the right train. This can be explained much easier at the station help desk if you’re a bit lost. Get on that train, then keep an ear out for the conductor who will say when your stop (Gatwick) is coming up. Or just watch the time. For instance, this one should get you there at 8:24, so if you felt antsy you could gather all your belongings and stand at the door by 8:20. From there, you’ll hop off the train and should be within shouting distance of Gatwick.

So yes, there are some options. A common theme I am seeing is that a lot of folks don’t realise that just because the UK is smaller than the US, doesn’t mean that it’s small. Please plan accordingly, so you don’t miss out on any of the wonderful things there are to see and do!

— Kate

I'm good. I haven't slept for a solid 83 hours, but yeah. I'm good.

Incoming!

I’ve made it in mostly one piece to town! All said and done, it took about 25 hours of travel from my parents’ front door to getting my keys in Leicester. The problem with leaving a teeny tiny town like my folks’ is that although it has an airport, it consists only of puddle-jumper planes that get you to your next major airport. Generally, these flights are not cheap when tacked on to an already existing flight schedule. Instead, I took the 4 hour bus ride to the airport and flew out from there. The fast-track lane for security seems to be gaining traction, though why they sent me through it I don’t know, because I ended up having to go through the backscatter machine anyway. Yay for failing the metal detector? At least I didn’t have to take off my shoes, by god.

IMG_2800
Don’t have to fight for the charging point when you get in early.

Caffeinated and charged, I got on the plane with my window seat view. Oh yeeeeah. It was a pretty uneventful flight for the first leg, but the view was gorgeous. There’s nothing quite like the Rocky Mountain chain. Also, I’m not sure which airplane gods took pity on me, but the leg room was amazing. It almost felt wasted on my shortness.

 

Once in the second airport, I grabbed a sandwich as I was regretting not getting one beforehand and got to pay Starbucks $7 for a ham and swiss. Highway robbery! Waited around and charged up my phone some more and finally got on the long haul flight. I thought British Airways was actually flying this one, but it was American Airlines again. Not a bad flight, but the movie and TV choices were limited at best. Tossed and turned and maybe slept 3 hours of the 9 hour flight before giving up, utterly defeated by my seat.

(At this point, my phone had a fit and ate all my photos between the plane and the next morning. Sorry!) Once off the plane, you have to go through the UK Border checkpoint and it seems they’ve decided to try something new for the incoming students with our own special queue. If you are coming over as a student, be prepared to wait an hour or so in this special queue as the regular entrance queue breezes past you. We all watched a few students get fed up waiting that then jumped into the regular queue and seemed to make it through, but the border guards were not people that any of us wanted to cross so we stuck it out.

Out of the airport, it’s a very easy trip to Leicester. The Underground has stations at each terminal, so you just get on with your luggage and go. The train that terminates at Cockfosters (go on, get the giggles out) means you can get on and ride for about 15 stops to the King’s Cross/St Pancras exit and then come up into King’s Cross and walk across the street to St Pancras. From there it was a brief trip to the toilets to wash my now grey hands and then upstairs to the East Midlands trains.

The train ride was uneventful, but mostly because I kept falling asleep in my seat. Having a table seat was wasted on my sleepiness. Be sure you keep your train ticket with you when you’ve gotten past the barriers, because they’ll check it when you get moving! We pulled in to Leicester and I could see my tower building from the tracks, so myself and my two suitcases hopped off and started walking to the flat. Ahead of time I had made a Google Streetview/Maps note where I had screencapped major points along the way and then attached the directions to them, figuring it would save me from eating the data on the pay as you go SIM in the phone. This helped IMMENSELY. Unlike the US, there is not always a street name marker on every corner, not are they as visible. Don’t even ask about blocks – there are no such equivalents.

While it would seem logical that the tall buildings in town would make for good visual markers, they really aren’t that helpful. For whatever reason, when you’re down on the street you can’t always see the tall buildings until you are right up on them.

Anyway, I made it in, signed my paperwork (Thank you Katt!) and dragged myself up the elevator and straight into the shower. The place looked like a tornado came through with the suitcases basically flipped to find the shower stuff. Ahh, clean feels so good. After that, it was a quick run to the nearest shop (in this case Tesco) for the absolute bare basics. From there, I fought sleep until I ended up falling asleep with Skype open. (Sorry about that!)

So this morning, the world was not such an overwhelming thing with adequate sleep. Started off with a thick fog, but it was mostly gone and only cloudy by the time I left for the city centre. The humidity though… That will take some re-adjusting to. I’ve done it before, but it’s been a few years.

 

IMG_2791
Also saw some pithy little graffiti nearby.

From there I stopped into the Newarke Houses Museum, which is this awesome mixture of Elizabethan houses with history ranging from the 1500s to WWI. Will definitely have to go back sometime.

Getting hungry, I started to walk more into town. I ended up stopping at a McDonald’s out of curiosity and convenience, and the cheeseburger and fries/chips taste exactly the same. Once in town, there was plenty to see, and this is only a tiny bit of it!

I didn’t take many photos downtown as I was trying to get a feel for where places were, but I’ll try to on further trips. After all this, I had a stocked bag full of flat supplies so I walked on home. Apparently DMU is having a Con of some kind, because I ran into what can only be described as anime coming off the screen.

So here I am now, writing this up after walking past this silliness back to the flat. It’s late here now, and I’m exhausted, so I will speak again in the next few days! Hopefully will be on the right time zone soon enough.

 

— Kate