It’s crazy how fast time flies and how things progress.

Honestly, I pay for this domain name. I need to stop abandoning it for long stretches. Also, if I keep it alive this year it’ll be a 5 year old blog. I don’t think I’ve ever kept a plant alive that long.

So. Anyway.

When last we spoke, it was the beginning of a long, dry, hot summer in the UK. We didn’t see rain here in Essex for over 50 days. It normally rains here at least once a week if that gives you an idea of how crazy it was. Ah, but ignoring the parched earth it was glorious. We roamed the local country park a few times both with and without picnics. We went to Mersea Island and played on the beach. We even accidentally came at high tide and had to drive through the sea a little bit. Don’t worry, the Mini did fabulously.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this summer was the need to leave the windows open as much as possible, especially at night to try and drop the temperature in our bedroom from 29º down to 25º (if we were lucky). During the daytime we mostly had to chase flies and the occasional rogue wasp out of the living room because of this, but then the Flying Ant Day Accident occurred.

Flying Ant Day is a strange British phenomena. Normally, these pavement ants do not have wings and are happy to live their lives underground. However, there is a point in the summer that they reach breeding season and all seem to grow wings and fly en masse. (Apparently it’s not just a single day and happens across the UK all summer long, but it’s still an impressive swarm when it happens near you.) This type of swarm is like midges or gnats, but much larger. They don’t really do anything to you other than get in your face, but in a swarm it’s awful.

HOWEVER, they do seem to like the light, very much like moths. And we have a streetlight outside of our bedroom window. “Well that’s a bit creepy to watch, but surely no harm right?” you say to me. Oh but wait. One of us accidentally left the bedroom light on when we’d gone up to open the windows and then shut the bedroom door so the cat couldn’t get out of the house.

Perfect. Storm.

M was still having a glass of water and otherwise getting ready for bed downstairs whilst I came upstairs to sort out my clothing for work the next morning, only to be confronted with something that looked like a scene out of a horror film. HUNDREDS OF FLYING ANTS ALL OVER THE ROOM. They were in the windowsill, the curtains, the lampshade, the bedding, the laundry, and all over the floor. They were crawling the walls and ceiling. Honestly, the photo doesn’t do justice to the horror of it.

My initial reaction was just to stare at them and then scream for M to bring up the fly spray. (Why I thought a can of fly spray would fix this I don’t know.) I stood, riveted in the doorway, somehow thinking that if I took my eyes off of the swarm that they’d all come down the stairs and into the rest of the house. Thankfully, M came up and had more common sense in how to deal with the scene.

Long story short, M emptied an entire can of Raid in our room and half filled a Dyson vacuum with flying ants before we went to bed two hours later, sleeping in the guest bedroom. Everything in the room that could be washed was washed, including the bedding that I had just changed that afternoon. 😥

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Plagues of ants and drought aside, nature decided to just get a bit rude in general. The heat spiked to new and exciting levels, and the train network is not currently equipped to deal with weather so extreme. This had happened last year and there was about a week that it was nigh on impossible to get on a train into or from London.

This year they did try to do some things to help with the heat. A lot of the rails in the stations had their sides painted white in an effort to drop the heat whilst the trains were at the platforms and prevent the tracks from buckling and warping. However, when the weather stations starting predicting a heat spike so intense that it could make new records, the train companies just decided “sod it” and preemptively cancelled trains at about 9:30 the night before. Awesome, right? At one point they could only run a train an hour from Colchester to London, and I’m amazed those trains didn’t get stopped more from overcrowding and overheating inside of them. It was insanity.

Supposedly, Greater Anglia is getting new trains out in 2020 and they’ll all come equipped with blessed air conditioning. Why do I feel like the seats are going to be even smaller though?

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When I was able to get into work, I was able to work on my last project as staff at the NHM. We’ve already processed all the Toxodon fossils that Darwin sent back from South America on his Beagle journey and posted them online, but the chance came to reunite two portions of a Giant Ground Sloth skull that haven’t been together since Darwin cut them into two pieces. Not only did I get to witness the event, but I got to scan said pieces! It was all very cool, and a fitting way to end my work.

You see, I had applied and been accepted to do a PhD at UCL whilst working alongside the NHM. But we’ll get back to that later!

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FINALLY, we got rain in Essex again. It took weeks for the grass to go back to green and the cracks in the earth to heal, but it was amazing to have it back. We joked that my mother in law is apparently a water spirit, as every time she comes to Essex it rains. If we’d have known, we’d have had them over much sooner!

Towards the end of the summer it was finally beginning to cool down, and the Heritage Open Days EU project kicked off, opening access to historical places that are either usually closed to the public or paid entry only. Most everyone went to the castle, but I had a list of some of the more obscure and usually closed buildings that I desperately wanted to see, and a husband with an infinite sense of patience for my love of all things old.

We were only able to do one of the open days, but in that day we went up and down Colchester and managed to see the inside of the Anglo-Saxon church (the oldest in town), the facade that houses the archaeological discovery of a Roman theatre (you can easily walk by it), the interior and the view from the upper floor of the old abbey gate (the only thing still standing of the abbey), and most of the structure of Tymperleys, home to William Gilberd, scientist and physician to Elizabeth I (and now a place with most excellent scones).

Autumn began to creep in with cooler weather, and with it came the time to go back to school again. I could have sworn I was never going to do a PhD, but here I am. In fairness, my future predictions have been pretty wildly off the mark so far, so it’s not exactly surprising.

Before the official start of term, all of us in the SEAHA program (Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology) convened in a village outside of Brighton for an induction into the way of things, and a chance to get to know and bond with our fellow students. I am so, so glad they did this for us, and not just because the hotel was amazing. Getting to know everyone in advance really helped make the first few weeks much easier.

One can’t stay in opulent hotels forever, and after the weekend retreat we were ready to begin lectures. Of course, this is SEAHA and we are anything but standard, so they included a trip to Stonehenge halfway through the first module, so we could write up a presentation in the second half about what we would do to modify the current A303 Stonehenge tunnel plans to make them better, using our mixture of experiences. It was more of a challenge than expected, but we ended up with new friends out of the experience and I can now tell you far more about the proposed tunnel project than I ever thought I could.

With autumn also came the harvest season, and this year I was feeling crafty. There are shedloads of sloe berries and growing on the side of a quiet road near the fields I jog past, and eventually I got up the idea to go harvest them and attempt a batch of sloe gin. You aren’t supposed to pick them until after the first frost, but the hot summer had rather killed a fair few of them, so I just picked them and froze them in the freezer at home to make up for it.

They were then added into a jar with obscene amounts of sugar, and of course, some gin. We left them to infuse until just before Christmas, then strained and decanted them out. Some have been given as little Christmas trinkets, with the firm advice that they’ll be better if they’re left until about mid-January to drink. I for one am excited to try ours out, perhaps mixed in with some prosecco, or even by making a proper sloe gin fizz!

As it does every year, my birthday snuck up on me. This year is the last year of my twenties. M thought it amusing to get a tiny cake and put 29 candles on it, so I brought out the fire extinguisher just in case. (Did you know you can buy fire extinguishers and fire blankets on Amazon Prime? Best late night purchase M’s made in some time!)

I didn’t really have any grand goals to achieve by the end of this year, and I’m still not sure what I want to do for my 30th birthday party. On one end, I could have a bunch of people around and make a big do of it, or it could just be the two of us on an adventure somewhere. I should probably sort it out before springtime.

Regardless, this birthday was a fabulous birthday, with cake, a new coat I’d been lusting after, and an evening out in the lovely medieval section of Colchester. 🙂

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Classes back in swing, birthday survived, and coats brought out of storage, we trundled into the cool autumn air. Except this time, I had friends from the US coming around with me! As is the Great American Tradition when coming to the UK, we managed to traverse across a wide swathe of the country in a little over a week. The two of them even carried on into Wales, but alas, I had to get some work done for the module. We did try to give them a weird and wonderful ride through bits of the country that not everyone goes to see on a typical tourist tour, but some things you’ve just got to see – like Stonehenge!

It’s always so exciting when people come to the UK, whether or not they’re coming to say hello. Being on an hour’s ride into London means it’s usually easy to catch up with people, schedules permitting. It was hard to part ways, but back to the States they eventually had to go, and the cat finally decided to come out of hiding and take up her roost in the living room again.

Module one was completed with much grumbling and typing, but completed successfully. I’m now at the tail end of module two, which had a bit of a twist to it this time. We had the option to do a basic laboratory procedure in the lecture hall, or we could liaise with our supervisors and do one elsewhere that might further relate towards the PhD. Needing to learn how to run an SEM and process photogrammetric data anyway, I opted to go back to the NHM. Over the course of two weeks I have learned how to dehydrate a specimen, coat it for SEM, run the basics of an SEM, and process photogrammetric images! It all sounds rather fancy for staring at a fly face for two weeks. I’m currently tweaking the write up of my experiment, and it goes in for submission next Monday. Looking forward to what the next module will hold!

In between modules, M and I left the country again. My parents were going to see one of our exchange students and her family, and they were kind enough to invite us to stay at their house as well. We took them up on their generous offer and ended up with an absolutely unique experience of the Netherlands that one could only get from a local, and got to see my parents! I would definitely like to go back to the Netherlands, but perhaps when it’s a bit warmer. Those winds coming off of the ocean have nowhere to go but straight into your bones.

Whilst there, we took a train over for a day trip into Germany as my mom had never been. It’s fascinating to see the sharp difference between the Netherlands and Germany, seemingly just across the border. We’d hoped to see the Christmas market in Dusseldorf, but arrived a little too early. It wasn’t a lost trip though, as we got to see the famous Rhine River and a painstakingly redone Altstadt, built back up after the war.

Christmas showed up soon afterwards in a big way. When not covering our house in tinsel and Christmas cards, we were out and about and enjoying the festive spirit of it all. Got the chance to pop into Paycocke’s House and the Grange Barn out in Coggeshall for their special Christmas hours. It really did feel like going back into Tudor Christmastime, and I only wish I hadn’t gone by myself as it seemed like it’s really meant for company to come along.

Getting closer to Christmas, we managed a long weekend journey up to York to catch up with our Northern friends. I probably should have known better than to go into the Christmas Markets in York, but we braved the crowds and found some fabulous little trinkets and all kinds of snacks! Even managed to score a table with seats in The Three Tuns at peak pub hour in the rain, of which I was far too proud. Finally, late into the evening, we saw the Shambles quiet and then took ourselves back to the AirBNB for the night.

And then before we knew it, the last few weeks had passed and it was Christmas! We went up to Manchester to celebrate at M’s big sister’s new home. It’s a gorgeous new build with a massive back garden. Their days of househunting really paid off. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of it, as I appear to have caught food poisoning off something just before we arrived. Thankfully the sickbed was comfortable and M made sure to keep a steady supply of Sprite, so it could have been far worse. Other than that hiccup, it was really good to see everyone, especially our ever growing nephew of whom nobody can rival in Marvel knowledge. Honestly, I’d call that kid first on any game show.

We got back home for New Year’s, had a quiet night of it, and then slowly dragged ourselves back into the real world.

So here we are, a lightning trip into the present. Now that I’m not on the trains for 4 hours every day, I should hopefully be a bit better about popping in every now and then. Until we see each other next, hope you’re having a good one. 🙂

 

— Kate

Running on Emergency Power

So yes. I have survived February. But you know what? It was pretty rough.

I know it’s ironic that someone who goes on about how taking care of your mental health is important went and let herself slip, but there we are. I went off my medication in November because it wasn’t working (I thought). I thought it was just the winter blues. I thought if I ploughed through it would get better. Then February hit, and with it a new wave of job insecurity and I just couldn’t anymore.

So I got help. I went back on my medicine, I dropped back on work projects, and I hunkered down. Now it’s a few weeks back on medicine and a holiday starting this weekend and I think the worst of it has passed and the sun is both metaphorically and literally coming back out. In the meantime in between though, it is very much like running on emergency power. You eat, sleep (somewhat), get dressed and go to work. You try not to be a monster to the people in your life. You have to remember that it DOES get better.

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Having lunch in the park with some sun does help lift the spirits a bit.

Life does continue on around you in all this, and I’m glad I was dragged out into the public on occasion and made to talk to other humans. Some cool things did still happen. In the lab I got to see a 14,700 year old human skull that they think was used as a ceremonial drinking bowl.  Some days this job is unreal and I love it.

Some more of the things I’ve been working on are finally being made public, and that’s pretty nifty. (Even if the photos of myself are a bit naff.) The cetaceans project is still in progress, though on the back burner to the Toxodon one. Also, they finally put a 3D model of Hope the Blue Whale online! On one hand, working on high visibility projects is an honour and is amazing work. On the other hand, working on high visibility projects is ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING if something goes wrong. And just a behind-the-scenes secret – something will always go wrong. You just have to hope the time you budgeted in for the snafu is enough. And that it doesn’t snow.

And snow it did! The Beast from the East came through Britain and froze everything. Normally it’s just the north that gets the snow dump, but this time around, Colchester and the surrounding East Anglia got an absolute blizzard on and off over four days. Trains were cancelled, buses weren’t running, and grocery stores ran out of random food supplies. It was a wild week, and then just gone by Monday. It felt like being back in Idaho for a bit.

Outside of work, M and I went down to Brighton to visit friends in the month. It was rainy, but it was really cool from what I did see. I’d love to go back in the summer sometime. On the way home we also found a display of Roman remains dug up in a motorway service station, displayed between the toilet entrances and the fast food seating. Truly an English phenomena. Snuck a bit of America in though. Five Guys are opening up in all the major towns and cities here in the UK, and I think I’ve gotten M hooked on the new Colchester one. Bwahaha.

Also in Colchester – did you know that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star was written here? The house is still privately owned, but you can see the plaque on the front of it. That and the Pizza Express down the road has conspicuously themed their restaurant around the rhyme.

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We may have walked by at like 10 at night, humming the tune like creepers.

If the pizza didn’t give a hint, any plans of my Year of Monthly Challenges hit a complete standstill when Depression snuck up. Snacks were eaten when snacks were offered. Somehow I still managed to lose another 1.8 kg (3.9 lbs), so that’s nice. However, February was survival mode, and March is healing mode, so we’ll just jump back on this 30-Day Challenge Bandwagon in April when I’m a functional human being again.

Anyway, I’m off to see my family and friends in Tennessee for nearly three weeks, and I’m so excited! I imagine that’ll likely be when you hear from me next, so speak soon. 🙂

— Kate

 

February, aka WHY IS IT STILL COLD Month

Right, so. Survived January, only just. I will have you know that the Dry January was under hilariously loose terms and that I only drank eight days out of the entire thirty-one. I have excuses at the ready and everything. There were two days with leftover champagne or prosecco, and we all know that it’s a travesty to pour these things down the sink. There was one Really Long Week that was rewarded with two pints of cider and a tot of rum. Our wedding anniversary was of course accounted for, and there was a birthday celebration in there at work.

Basically, my “dry” January should really be what the rest of the year looks like. I’m aiming to continue only indulging when there’s actually a social event and not just because I’ve made it to the weekend. My sleep is a much better quality, and weight loss is actually much easier to achieve. Shocking, right?

I tried starting up doing some jump rope this last weekend, but it was still raining/snowing and COLD AS ALL GET OUT. I did have plans to start with the new year, but I then managed to fall down a flight of steps at Liverpool Street and shredded my knee, so had to wait for that the heal up. Then the office head cold hit and I sat/slept on the sofa most evenings and complained bitterly about my lack of breathing out of my nose.

Final results at the end of the month: 1.7 kg (3.7 lb) lost

So what else happened this month?

Well, we discovered the BBC Big Cats programme was on, and Ophelia was ALL ABOUT IT. We’ve had to save the download as she loves watching it so much. Guys, we’ve turned the cat into a TV addict. We’re bad cat parents.

As mentioned earlier, our two year wedding anniversary came up! It’s hard to believe it’s been two years, but hopefully it always stays that way. We had a great week of festivities, and even managed to somewhat stay in the anniversary present tradition of cotton for the second year. Though I think really we ended up getting wool for each other. Eh, clothing. We’ll call it good.

Dippy finally went live on the museum’s website, so I’m finally allowed to talk about the 3D scan and print we did of him. Honestly, the print has been sitting in our office window for months now. He’s very popular to take selfies with. Been doing lots of scanning on another two projects in the meantime, which hopefully will be hitting the airwaves soon so I can tell you all about it. Needless to say, they are Pretty Cool.

In Boring Adult Life, we got a new IKEA wardrobe for the spare bedroom, and M heroically put it together over a Saturday afternoon. Slowly, our house is looking less like a visible hoarders home. Just don’t look under the beds or in the wardrobes. It did make a huge improvement to the room though, and has now banished all the cardboard boxes from the house except for the in the office. That will be the final frontier in our house for making a massive storage difference I think. All the remaining cardboard boxes need a sort through, and we probably need another bookshelf. After that though, the remaining piles of stuff around the house should evaporate. From there, we might even consider proper decoration of the walls and things. Heady times.

I suppose I’ll round it out with the weather, being an English institution and all. It keeps snowing and upsetting everyone, except children of course. So far the snow has gotten me stuck at home for two days because the trains were so bad, and ended up with a cancelled driving lesson. Even the cat is having none of this weather and has basically given up on any major adventures into the back garden at the moment. Storm Fiona came breezing in towards the end of the month and caused absolute havoc with all the London commuters, knocking down multiple trees, blowing cars around a bit, and gusting with such force that one had to walk with a forward lean to get anywhere. If it were in America, Jim Cantore would have been spotted nearby, reporting the current conditions to the Weather Channel.

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Finally though, it looks like there may be a hint of spring once this current frozen week ends. The daffodils and snow drops are sprouting, and the trees are showing a slight hint of buds on the tips of the branches. As of 10 February, the sunset won’t begin until 5 PM, meaning I may actually get to leave work with sunlight again. Definitely not counting down or anything (I am totally counting down), but by mid-March the sun won’t set until 6 PM and I might even get to see scenery on my train ride home!

So, this month is the No Snacks month. Wish me luck. Actually, wish me impressive weight loss. That would be much more useful than luck. Hopefully will write again before the end of the month!

 

— Kate

New Year, but not new resolutions as such.

I think I did New Year Resolutions like twice when I was a teenager and they always fail by March at the latest. Writing down something major to change and then just expecting to stick to it through the year is a hilarious and depressing way to start a year. Heck, I’ll be struggling to remember it’s 2018 and not 2017 until April. Why would I expect major life changes to stick so easily?

Instead dear readers, I’ve decided to do a year of 30(ish) day challenges. If I can make it through a month and it sticks, awesome. If not, it’s only 30 days, and that’s something worthwhile in itself. I won’t lie, I’ve done some of these challenges because I wanted to fit it neatly into this blog. Also, I realised a lot of the original challenges were weight and diet related and it looked a bit bleak. Whilst weight is a big issue for me, I don’t want it to take over my life for a year!

There will be some things that overlap and some overlying things that runneth over. For starters, actually sticking to my calorie target for bare minimum weight loss will be in the background this year, particularly in this first quarter of the year, which I have termed the Diet Quarter. Speaking of which, the other three quarters have been named as well – the Willpower Quarter, the Mental Health Quarter, and the Exercise Quarter. Why is exercise at the end of the year you ask? Well for one, M would graciously let me attempt all the cooking over Christmas, but we all know that would end poorly. Secondly, enjoying nature for 30 minutes is much more pleasant when you aren’t cold and being rained on. Also, I’ve got grand ambitions for starting jump rope as an overlying thing that will runneth over throughout.

So here below is the approximate plan for the year:

The Diet Quarter

 

January

A traditional Dry January, with some provisos. Our wedding anniversary is right in the middle of the month, and I want to celebrate it with something more than Diet Coke. I do not want to hear about your mocktail ideas instead. Just let me have this. It won’t be as strict as my Sober October challenge was, as I’m not raising money in my name. If you feel so inclined, I’ll leave a link for one off donations to the UK eating disorder charity Beat throughout the first three months as part of the Diet Quarter. Be healthy in what you do and all that, yeah?

February

No snacks. Sounds easy, will likely be very hard. Having tracked my food throughout the year, I know full well that snacks are the main reason I am not back at the weight I want to be. Mercifully a 28 day challenge, but hoping this one will stick.

March

Mindful eating and all that jazz. Mostly just retraining myself to eat small, slow bites and not eat meals like a starving animal. I’m halfway tempted to buy one of those forks that vibrates if you’re eating too quickly, but may just eat everything with tiny cutlery for children over the first fortnight. That would at least bring humour into the situation. This is also a good challenge to gear myself up with for the next quarter as well.

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Sweet dreams are made of this.

The Willpower Quarter

April

The no-money month. Okay, okay. Obviously some money will be spent, but on things that absolutely have to be had – food, toiletries, train tickets – those kinds of things. Again, looking back over bank statements over the last year, I am guilty of buying snacks at the station, ordering takeaways when we had food we could make, and buying random toys and clothes under retail therapy that while used didn’t need to be bought. It would be really nice to be able to take all that money saved and throw it at some debt.

May

No mindlessly checking my phone when I’m at home. We all do this, and I think we all know it’s not great (especially around other people). So for the month of May, if I’m at home my phone will be allowed to roam the house with me and I can answer calls and texts, but will have to be left in pre-decided Phone Homes where I can’t readily pick it up and scroll out of boredom/fidgetiness. I married a great guy, and I should be using the limited time in the day to actually see and talk to him, not just show the poor soul the latest internet memes. He’ll just get those while I’m on the train. 😉

June

Rolling into the mental health of the next round will be finding something nice to say about myself every day. Listing general good things about the world is much easier than being kind to myself, and that’s incredibly messed up. So to push myself into a new mindset, let’s use all of this newfound willpower to start thinking nice thoughts.

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The cats of the internet will have to wait.

The Mental Health Quarter

July

Spend at least 30 minutes a day outside in nature. Like proper nature, not just a walk around the block or a stroll from one museum down Exhibition Road and into another. I’m setting down the rule that the 30 minutes have to be walking on something unpaved. I’m debating if listening to podcasts whilst wandering is acceptable. We shall see. Regardless, getting out every day and getting some sun while this country actually sees any is going to be important.

August

Taking over cooking. I should explain. I am physically capable of cooking. I have actually cooked things successfully. I still cook occasionally when M is on night shifts. Generally though, he does the cooking and I’ll help out occasionally and otherwise clean up the leftover mess. It works, and we both like the roles we have. However, everyone always tells me that it’s therapeutic to cook, and that it’s good for the soul and all that. So I thought I’d give it one more go and see if by the end of the month I too have achieved the chef’s nirvana I hear rumour of.

September

Easing out of the mental health months will be a month-long project of writing down the different aspects of my life that I am thankful for. These always start off easy, then get cheesy, then get downright ridiculous before being abandoned somewhere around Day 16 at most. This time, I’d like to finish a full 30 days. It’ll be interesting to see where I end up delving towards the end, and also finding out if there are any themes that emerge.

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See? There’s some greenery.

The Exercise Quarter

October

Actually getting 10,000 steps EVERY DAY for a month. Usually if I’m on a work day, I get all the steps. However, any holidays or weekends are usually atrocious. Right now post-Christmas, my FitBit says I have an average of 5,998 steps per day if that gives you an idea of it. I’d like to add a monetary challenge to this to incentivise myself and make it hurt if I don’t reach it, but I don’t want to give money to some Evil Organisation. Also, if it goes towards something like a gadget for M that would drive me crazy, he’ll likely try to hamper said efforts. I’ll need to think about this one.

November

Stairs only. I will regret this with every fibre of my being with any deep line tube travel. I will definitely regret it with the fact that I currently work on the 5th floor (US 6th floor) of the building. But if this challenge doesn’t fall under exercise, I don’t know what would.

December

Finally, I want to end the year with some extra space in my clothes so I can eat ALL the cheeses. I’ve finally stopped lying to myself and telling myself I’ll run in the winter. Instead, I’ve found a few indoor 30 minutes or less routines. I’ll pick one closer to time and subject myself to it for the month. I may even convince the Significant Otter to join in. Maybe.

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Okay, these stairs could get a pass on grounds of health and safety.

So there we are – game plan for the year laid out. Now to see what madness comes of it, and to see if only taking little steps of 30 days at a time makes it any easier for things to stick. Wish me luck?

 

— 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