Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Well it's about time... announce that we're expecting! Yes, you read that correctly. Ryan and I are excited to announce that we're anticipating the arrival of our first child on September 23, 2015!

Of course, when we discovered that we were pregnant, it brought up a whole host of questions for us. Should we move back to the U.S. immediately, or should we stay in the U.K. as planned? How different is the pregnancy advice given to expectant mothers in the U.S. vs. what women in the U.K. are told? What benefits, if any, would our child receive from being born in the U.K.?

Pretty early on, we decided that staying in the U.K. was probably the best decision. There were a whole host of reasons we decided to stay, of course, but one of the things that did cross our mind was healthcare. If we moved back, one of us would have to ensure that we had health coverage from the day we moved back through our work, find a doctor and a hospital, and pay something in order to give birth to our child. In contrast, if we stayed in the U.K., we were already registered with our General Practitioner, the GP tells you which hospital they work with, and you don't have to pay a dime. It seemed a lot less stressful to stay from that perspective!

On that note, I will pause here to comment on the care I've received thus far. I'm currently 18 weeks pregnant, and I've already had 3 appointments with a GP or midwife and one ultrasound. First baby picture here:

I have another appointment in 2 weeks to do a second ultrasound, and because Ryan was born with a small hole in his heart (it closed on its own, he never needed surgery) the hospital decided to have a cardiac specialist come to the next ultrasound just to make sure everything was developing normally. Thus far, I feel like the care I've received has been quite good and thorough. My only real complaint would just be that I didn't receive any 'new mommy' info until I was about 10 or 12 weeks pregnant, which was a little stressful. Thank goodness for the internet!

However, speaking of looking things up online yourself, (or even talking to your doctor) you will find that the pregnancy advice varies a bit depending on what country you are in. For example, pregnant women are generally told not to eat deli meat in the US, but there is nothing in the UK to indicate that it is anything but safe to eat. This could possibly be because of differences in the health and safety standards in food processing between the countries, but I haven't found any conclusive evidence to support that yet. Another slight difference is the guidance on alcohol. While the official advice is to not consume any, my midwife did tell me verbatim 'We recommend that you don't drink. But if you do, just make sure you limit it to one glass of wine per week'. I think cultural differences come into play here, and I've seen many pregnant women in the UK enjoying the occasional glass of champagne or wine. I think most American women really only do that in the privacy of their own homes.

Finally, I come to the benefits of being born here in the UK. Sadly, there aren't many. As it turns out, the US and Canada are the only developed nations to outright offer citizenship to anyone who is born there. For our child to become a citizen of the UK, Ryan or I would have to be permanently 'settled' here (i.e., free from immigration restrictions) or the child would have to live here the first 10 years of his or her life and then we could apply for them to receive citizenship. Either way, it's unlikely to happen. However, our child will always have that 'fun ice-breaker fact' that they were born in London, and that's worth something too : )

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The British Dentist Experience

It took me roughly two years to muster up the initiative to visit a dentist here in the UK. I don't know what took so long; I probably had unfounded fears about the quality of this country's dentistry.

There's a well-known stereotype that British people have less-than-perfect teeth. Is it true? Partially. The average Briton's teeth are not likely to be as straight or polished as the average American's.

There are a few reasons for this. First off, British people don't care as much about it. It isn't a status symbol to have perfect teeth (nor the opposite), so it becomes a lesser priority. You don't see nearly as many kids with braces in the UK as you do in America.

I have a theory that it also has something to do with the amount of tea people drink and its cumulative staining effects, mainly from the number of times I've seen stains on the inside of teacups.

But to understand a large element of it, you have to think of dental care in the context of the rest of the healthcare system. Brits are accustomed to the NHS, where from childbirth to routine exams to all kinds of surgery, there aren't any out of pocket expenses. I had a minor operation on my eye last year and was astounded how I didn't have to pay a penny for it (NHS taxes notwithstanding).

But dental care largely falls outside of the realm of the NHS. As a Guardian article from several years ago put it,
In Britain today, you can stuff yourself on deep-friend Mars Bars, drink 20 pints a night, inject yourself with heroin, smoke 60 cigarettes a day or decide to change your sex - and the NHS has an obligation to treat you. You might go on a waiting list, but it will do its best to cure your lung cancer, patch up your nose after a drunken brawl or give you a hip replacement. It doesn't charge for operations or beds; it may even throw in some half-edible food. 
But if you have bad teeth, forget it. You may be rolling on the bathroom floor in agony with an abscess, your gums may be riddled with disease, or people may recoil at the sight of your fangs as you walk down the street, but the NHS doesn't have to help you.
To see a dentist, you likely have to pay out of pocket to visit a private practice, which is against the normal habits of Brits with regards to healthcare. Therefore it's not something that many people make a priority to do.

On my way home from work one day, I walked by a private dentist office with a sign out front advertising a 'scale and polish.' I looked it up online and saw it was synonymous with a routine cleaning, so I made an appointment.

A few differences to note: The dentist didn't do x-rays because after a cursory glance, "there was no need." Fine by me. Next, instead of removing plaque with a metal scraper, he fitted me with safety goggles and used an electric scaler. 

This sounded and felt like a drill, so I was a bit uneasy at first. It's a device that uses rapid vibrations to remove stains while simultaneously spraying a mist.

After a polish, there was no flossing, and I was done within about 25 minutes. Altogether I was very satisfied with the experience, and the total cost of £75 seemed reasonable to me.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Italy: It's Everything You Could Hope For And More

Last year, Ryan and I had the pleasure of visiting Italy with Ryan's sister and her husband for 6 days. Our itinerary was fairly aggressive, as it included stops in Venice, Tuscany, Rome, and the Amalfi Coast.

We flew into Venice, and quickly made our way to one of the water taxis that takes you from the airport to the city. Arriving in Venice is like nothing else. You're just riding along in a boat and all of a sudden you start to see buildings just rising up out of the water. The buildings get larger, and you turn down a 'street' where there are hundreds of boats and gondolas going by and the 'traffic' is organized chaos. Just the very nature of having a city coming out of the water is what makes Venice such and amazing place to walk around and spend some time in.

I wish we would have had the opportunity to stay longer, because I really enjoyed how 'different' Venice was from every other place I've visited. Most of our approximately 30 hours there were spent walking around the city, visiting St. Mark's Square, the Doge's Palace, and Rialto Bridge, as well as getting our fill of gelato. One of the things we didn't have the opportunity to do, but which I would definitely do if we have the opportunity to go back would be to visit the glass making island of Murano

We left Venice in the afternoon, and drove about 2.5 hours into Tuscany. We stopped to rest at a lovely bed and breakfast just north of Florence and were able to catch the sunset over the beautiful Tuscan countryside. We even made a point to try a new trick for opening wine without a corkscrew. (Don't try this at home).

The next morning, we continued onto Rome, where we spent the next few days. The first day we visited the Colosseum, and walked by Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forums, and the Monument to Victor Emmanuel II.

We spent a day in the Vatican, where we got to see Pope Francis in the flesh, as well as visit the Vatican museums. A tip for visiting any Rome attraction (or any big attraction in Italy, for that matter) is to buy your tickets in advance! We probably skipped a two hour long line just by having a reservation to the museums. 

The following day we packed our bags and after a quick trip to the Spanish Steps, drove out of Rome and down to the Amalfi Coast. We spent a day basically just relaxing at our hotel and enjoying the view. Another thing to note about Italy, as well as other mediterranean countries, is that if you visit during a time that is not considered their 'High Season' you should be prepared for the hotels to be doing a lot of maintenance work and renovations to prepare themselves for the summer rush. While it is quite baffling to us Americans to not have a fully functioning resort open at all times, this is pretty much the norm in these countries, so don't be surprised if some of the restaurants aren't open or the pool is out of service.

Our final stop during our first trip to Italy was to visit Pompeii before flying out of nearby Naples. I wasn't really sure what to expect before visiting, but I must admit, this was probably one of the most interesting and memorable parts of the trip. It was fascinating to see the ruins of the city and to walk the ancient streets. Another tip: if you are planning a trip to Europe, download Rick Steve's app first. You can download many audio guides to some of the main tourist attractions and follow along to his tours. We did this in Pompeii and it really helped bring some clarity and insight into what we were seeing.

Because there is so much to see and do in Italy, Ryan and I decided to go back for a quick trip just a few weekends ago. We took one day off, and flew into Florence. Again, we rented a car, and quickly drove to Pisa, where we saw the Leaning Tower, as well as the nearby cathedral, baptistry, and cemetery. To be honest, we were in Pisa for a total of about 2 hours, and that was actually plenty of time. There are a few museums, shops, and restaurants nearby which could easily add a few more hours if you wanted to spend a full day there, but for us, 2 hours was just right. 

We continued driving and made it to the town of Levanto, which is just north of the famous Cinque Terre region. The next morning, we woke up and caught the train to Monterroso al Mare, and from there, started hiking through the national park. There are many hikes that connect all 5 towns, and to be honest, some of these hikes are no joke. Again, because we tend to visit when it isn't the 'High Season' the main paths through some of the towns were closed for repairs. Thus, we ended up taking a few trails that were the 'lesser travelled by' but the views were just as breathtaking, I have to imagine. We only spent one day in the area, but again, would definitely be a place I would return to an explore a bit more if given the opportunity. 

Our final day in Italy was spent in Florence, walking around the city and seeing some of the main sights. Again, with the help of Rick Steves, we took a self guided walk through the town, and also visited the Galleria Academia, which houses Michelangelo's statue of David, among other works. We did not have the opportunity to go inside the Uffizi Gallery or the Cathedral of St Mary of the Flower (home to the il duomo, or large dome that gives Florence its recognizable skyline), so again, plenty more to look forward to if we ever go again!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Air Travel, Part II

Continuing on the last post's theme of airports and air travel, I thought I'd go in a bit more depth about what it's like flying in and out of London, specifically.

The first thing to note is that London is served by five airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, and City Airport, listed in descending order by passenger traffic. Heathrow sees more passengers per year than the other four airports combined.

City Airport is the closest to downtown and Heathrow is not much farther out, but the other three are a considerable distance from the city center.

Here's how I would rank the five airports, from worst to first:

5. Luton

Pros: Hard to think of any, really.
Cons: Super inconvenient.

There's no worse feeling than returning home from a weekend trip only to remember that you're on a flight going into Luton. All of the other airports are well-connected to London's transit network. Luton pretends like it is, but it isn't. When you exit the airport, you have to stand around waiting for a shuttle that takes at least fifteen minutes to get to the nearest train station. On Sunday nights, trains aren't very frequent, so you're often in a rush to catch one only to be thwarted by the shuttle. Also, it's quite a distance outside the city.

4. Stansted

Pros: More convenient than Luton, quick to get from front door to gate
Cons: Long distance from the city, only accessible from one central train station

The main knock on Stansted is that you have to access it via London Liverpool Street, and the train ride out there takes close to an hour. The airport itself functions decently well.

3. Gatwick

Pros: Many more destinations than Stansted and Luton, fairly well-connected to downtown, good restaurant options
Cons: Still far from downtown, poor layout, feels a bit dated

Gatwick is the world's busiest single-runway airport. It certainly feels crowded in the main passenger areas, but the gates are very spread out (and a lengthy hike). Also given the congestion and just one runway, we have been delayed getting into Gatwick more often than at the other airports.

That becomes a problem when you have a flight that's supposed to land at 10:00pm but instead lands at 11:45pm. The trains to the city stop running and you're forced to take an hour-plus taxi ride. The last time this happened to us, the taxi fare was £111.

2. London City

Pros: Convenient and quick
Cons: Very limited destination list, only for small planes

The top two airports are leaps and bounds ahead of the bottom three. London City is excellent, first because of its location on the tube network, and second for its size; you can get there quickly, breeze through security, and arrive at your gate in hardly any time at all. It's perfect for the times when you need to travel to one of the European cities it serves, however that list isn't very long. That's because the runway is too short to accommodate heavy fuel loads, so it's dominated by small planes doing short journeys.

1. Heathrow

Pros: Far-reaching destinations, feels incredibly modern, always immaculate, great transport, many dining / shopping options
Cons: Occasional long lines at immigration, expensive to get there by express train

Here's why Heathrow is the best, summarized in one image:

You can get to any of these places on a direct flight from Heathrow - non-stop to just about anywhere in the world except Australia. Watching the departures board is mesmerizing.

A couple other things I like about Heathrow: There are grand pianos scattered around the airport with instructions to "play me", it has perfected the centralized waiting area concept, the multi-level layout is very well designed, and the bathrooms are as spacious and clean as you could ever expect in a public place.

These five airports are constantly discussed in the London newspapers. Ever since we moved here (and I'm sure for a long time before), there's been an ongoing conversation amongst politicians, lobbyists, city planners, environmentalists, and others about the current state of London's airport capacity.

The prevailing idea is that based on population growth forecasts, by 2030 London will need at least one additional runway to handle the increase in traffic. Amazingly, Heathrow somehow handles its current passenger volume (third in the world) with only two runways.

Mayor Boris Johnson's proposal to address the issue - a £50 Billion new island airport in the middle of the Thames estuary - was recently rejected by the UK Airports Commission.

Remaining are three competing proposals, two which involve expansion at Heathrow and one which calls for an extra runway at Gatwick. I am pulling for Heathrow expansion.

The core issue is that two runways simply aren't enough for the number of flights that Heathrow handles - for comparison, Chicago O'Hare has eight runways, Atlanta has five. An extra runway at Gatwick might be useful, but very few people connect through Gatwick like they do at Heathrow, so the benefit wouldn't be realized by nearly as many international travelers.

No matter which option is selected, the expansion isn't expected to be completed for another ten years, so it will be a while before London's airport configuration changes in any significant way.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Airport Travel - US vs. Europe

One of the most obvious differences we noticed after moving to the UK and traveling around a number of times was the 'airport experience'. When we left the US, there wasn't a such thing as the 'TSA Pre-Check' line, but I have had the privilege to be in that line once, so I know that pre-check has improved the situation quite a bit. However, I still feel that as a whole, the European method of airport travel is far superior from start to finish. Here's why:

-Pre security experience is quite nice. If you need to check a bag before your flight, there are boards in the departure area that indicate which lane you need to go to in order to check bags. While this might not seem like much, I remember going to O'Hare once or twice and walking up and down the departure area trying to find my airline's domestic economy class bag check. If there were nice numbered lanes and a board telling me exactly where to go, it might help my stress levels a bit.

In addition, in order to get to the security area, instead of having a person check your id and boarding pass, they have a machine where you scan your boarding pass and then pass through a little gate. It seems like this method has less chance of letting you through unintentionally if you are in the wrong area. And finally, before you even get to the security line, there are nice areas where you can dump out your water bottle, and they provide free plastic baggies for all your liquids in case you forgot yours at home.

-Security lines are much better here. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the conveyor belts on which you need to put your things are state of the art technology. Instead of the trays being collected in little wheeled carts that have to be manually restocked, the trays are on an aptly named 'tray return system' which means that you grab an empty tray from the bottom level, put your things into it on the top level, and when you collect your things after x-ray, the trays all descend one on top of the other back down to the bottom level to return to the front of the line.

So no waiting for TSA agents to hurry up and bring trays, and no having to move other peoples' trays out of your way. It's genius! Not only that, but these conveyor belts are also set up at the back end with two sections. If your bag is flagged as a 'bad egg' it gets pushed over to the second section to get analyzed further, while the rest of the trays come down the main section as normal. There is no need to stop the whole process just because some idiot forgot to take their laptop out of their bag!

Of course, there is also the fact that many of the airports here do not make you take your shoes off at the security line, which of course makes the entire process quicker. One other thing I like is that there is a simple method to provide feedback, just press a button!

-Once through security, most airports in Europe dump you out in a centralized area which contains most of the shops and restaurants. There are very few shops to be found in the outer edges of the terminal. Why? Well, because they do not announce which gate you are to go to until about 10 minutes before they are actually ready to board the plane. I thought this was a bit weird at first, but I've actually become quite used to it now, and actually prefer it. 

There are obvious advantages to this system, which are that you are more likely to relax and have a bite to eat or a drink while waiting, as there is really no where else to go, and there is no need to trek all the way across the terminal to get McDonald's if that's what you are really in the mood for, because all the food is in one location. In addition, they are free to change gates as they please right up until the last minute, really, and there is no need to make the announcement that "Flight 100 is now to leave out of gate B5". Once the plane is at the gate, then they will tell you where to go.

-Finally, there are FAR fewer delays in flights within the European Union. This is because if there are flight cancellations or delays of over a certain time limit, the airline is required by law to compensate the passenger for their inconvenience. This doesn't just include re-booking them, but actually can include a cash compensation of up to 600 Euros depending on the length of the flight and how long you were delayed for. 

Of course, some events, like weather events, do not mean you get cash compensation as those are outside of the airlines' control, but how many times have we all been delayed because of a mechanical problem or because the crew members were over their scheduled hours for the month and they had to find new crew? These types of events would absolutely require cash compensation by airlines in the European Union. I looked up the non-existent rules that US airlines have to comply with, and comparatively, they are appalling. This website has a pretty good comparison for reference.

And with that, go write to Congress about how there needs to be federal regulation to protect passenger rights. And go! Maybe in 10 years we can catch up to Europe.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Leaving Drinks

It's about 10pm on a Wednesday, and I just got home from attending a friend's "Leaving Drinks". This is a concept that is very popular in London.

The idea is that if you get a new job, before you leave your old one you must organize a pub event and pick up the tab for everyone's drinks.

It's a decent idea; you have the chance to say a proper goodbye to your coworkers before you move on, and it's an informal event in a casual setting.

There's another tradition when it comes to leaving a workplace. Coworkers not only organize a card to pass around, but they also put money into a collection which is used to buy a gift for the person leaving. That person is then presented with the gift in the office, as their manager says a few lighthearted words about their contributions and wishes them well.

When I left AIG back in October, I was presented with a "sorry you're leaving" card - on the front, a double-decker bus speeding off - and as a gift a bottle of eighteen-year aged scotch. That evening I hosted my leaving drinks at a pub called Jamie's near St Pauls. I enjoyed the whole experience, it provided a degree of closure as that chapter of my career came to an end.

Moreover, it is quite common in the workplace (and almost expected) to mark all sorts of occasions with food or drinks. People bring in food all the time; many mornings start with an email to the tune of "I brought in cakes for my birthday, please help yourself!" Not just birthdays though; when you're out of the office traveling for more than a couple days, it's an unwritten rule that when you return you're to bring in treats from your trip. One time someone even brought in food to celebrate their cousin's graduation. I thought that was a bit of a stretch.

I've grown quite fond of these occasional morning pick me ups, and I'm sure I'll miss them when I'm working in the US again. Perhaps it's a concept I'll have to bring back with me.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Highlights of Europe's Smallest Countries

Living in Europe has given us an amazing opportunity to not only explore some of the major European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, etc.) but also some of its smaller, lesser known countries as well.

The first small country we visited was the Vatican City, back in May 2014. Vatican City is .44 square kilometers, or .17 square miles. It essentially contains St. Peter's Square and Basilica, along with the Vatican Museum and Gardens. It is considered the smallest country in the world both in terms of area and by population (somewhere around 800 people).  We were lucky enough to visit on a Wednesday, so we did get to see Pope Francis greet the people gathered in the Square before making our way to the Vatican Museums.

The second small country we visited was the country of Liechtenstein in June, 2014. We took a road trip from Switzerland to Austria and Germany, and on the way back to Zurich decided to take a short detour into Vaduz, the capital city of Liechtenstein. 

Liechtenstein is the 4th smallest country in Europe, by area, checking in at 160 square kms, or 62 square miles. Liechtenstein's claim to fame is that it has the lowest amount of external debt of any country in the world. That is likely because it is well situated in the Alps, which brings in tourism, and they also use the Swiss Franc as their currency, which is one of the strongest in the world. 

The highlight of our trip was definitely a 'train ride' tour of the city of Vaduz, where we were able to see the palace of the monarchs of the country, as well as the vineyards and views of the countryside.

In September 2014, we went to the second smallest country in Europe, which is Monaco. Monaco is 2 square kms or about .78 square miles. Monaco is of course home to one of the most famous casinos in the world, as well as one of the most famous Grand Prix races. Therefore, Monaco is also quite wealthy and boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. 

Surprisingly, the local residents of Monaco are prohibited by law from gambling in the Monte Carlo casino. Also prohibited are tourists who try to come in wearing open-toed shoes, hence the reason the picture is taken outside.

Finally, in January, we visited Luxembourg, which is MUCH larger than the other small countries we visited. Luxembourg measures a whopping 2586 square kilometers, or about 998 square miles. While this is still smaller than the smallest US state of Rhode Island, it felt huge compared to the other small countries we've visited. (Also, I swear when I was growing up I was told this was the smallest country in Europe - what lies!! It is the 7th smallest!) We spent the majority of our time in Luxembourg City, which is a very charming old-style European city. We enjoyed walking along the old city walls as well as exploring the city's town square and restaurants.

While collectively we probably only spent a total of 48 hours in these 4 countries, they are definitely worth a visit. The main thing is that they are surprisingly self sufficient, and therefore their residents enjoy an amazing quality of life. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Deep Freeze!

About a week ago, we spotted snow in London for the first time, and I have proof!

Ok, it was barely a dusting, and by mid-day it had disappeared. Two winters and counting, that's the extent of the snowfall London has received.

People almost universally complain about winter weather and Londoners are no exception. The past few weeks, temperatures have dipped below 32° a few times at night, which is colder than usual for this time of year. Almost everyone in my office would arrive and immediately whinge about how unbearably cold it was.

Coming from Chicago, I've always thought these conversations were amusing. If I were commuting this time of year in Chicago, I'd at least be wearing boots, a heavy coat, scarf, earmuffs, and gloves - gore-tex ones if it was super cold. In London, even on the coldest of days all you need is a coat and maybe a pair of gloves.

That's why I tell everyone that I think winter weather in London is fantastic. I walk to work, and I never have to worry about navigating piles of dirty slush water or slipping on ice. Perhaps I'll need an umbrella, but that's about it.

I'd love to see how the city would handle a few inches of snow. My guess is that the public transport would grind to a halt and all the one-liter diesel hatchbacks that people drive would be useless. Salt trucks are known as gritting lorries here, and I don't think there are very many of them to handle all the city roads.

In my mind the biggest downside of winter here is the absence of daylight. At 52°N latitude, London is farther north than Calgary, and in the darkest days of winter the sun sets before 4pm.

That isn't the best for tourists this time of year, as it's difficult to do any sightseeing in the dark. However in the months leading up to Christmas, London is at its most festive with many of the main streets illuminated by Christmas decorations. The city really does go all out for Christmas, making it one of the best times to visit.

So as much as people complain about it, winter here could be far worse!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Hot Cross Buns and Mince Pies - Festive UK Treats

Earlier today, one of my co-workers brought in hot cross buns. I've had hot cross buns before; you can find them year-round in the grocery store. They come in a variety of flavors, the most typical being a white based dough with spices (Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Ginger, Cloves, Allspice, etc.) and dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, currants). Other flavors include apple and cinnamon or orange and cranberry. What I didn't realize, because you can find them these days throughout the year, is that they are traditionally an Easter time treat.

I decided to look into this a little bit more, and there is some interesting history surrounding this pastry. Apparently during Elizabethan times, the sale of hot cross buns on days other than Good Friday, Christmas, or days of burials was forbidden. If you were caught with illegal buns, you had to give them all up and they would be used to feed the poor. I couldn't find a particularly good explanation as to why this was decreed. It may have been because the buns were thought to have religious significance, and given the turmoil between protestant and catholic religions at the time, it was better to just not have them around in order to avoid conflict.

There are many other superstitions surrounding the buns, which include using them for medicinal purposes, warding off evil spirits, and nailing them to the rafters of houses (or pubs). However, it does seem that some old habits die hard, and even though nowadays it is lawful to sell the buns year-round, they are still seen as an Easter treat.

My guess is that this is because a different type of treat dominates the Christmas season, and that is the mince pie. (They also fancy Christmas puddings here, but you see more mince pies in the grocery store.) Mince pies used to be made with actual meat in the 'mincemeat', along with the same types of spices used in hot cross buns. However, these days the 'mince' is made mostly of dried fruits, spices, and some brandy. Some recipes do call for lard to be used, which is the only meat product that goes into the pie.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the mince pie has a similar quirks surrounding it, such as it is bad luck to refuse one, you should only stir the mince in clockwise fashion while making them, and so on.

I suppose when you have a history as long as the UK does, a few oddities tend to show up in festive traditions. Who knows, maybe in 200 years' time, it will be bad luck to eat pumpkin pie without whipped cream on top.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Travel Bucket List: Country #1

When we first found out we were moving to London, a lot of people asked us if there was anywhere in particular we were eager to travel while in Europe. The clear top answer on my list was Norway.

I'd always been fascinated by the country from what I'd read about it. Norway only has a population of five million, but it consistently scores at or near the top of worldwide HDI, democracy, and prosperity rankings, and the scenery is known to be fantastic. This past August over the bank holiday weekend we decided to cross it off our bucket list.

Originally I had hoped to fly into one of the western cities, rent a car, and snake all the way up to Tromso in the Arctic, visiting fjords along the way. The problem is that once you get north of Trondheim, distances become quite vast. Most of the fjords are in the southwestern part of the country anyway, so instead we flew in and out of Bergen and trekked inland. This map shows a rough outline of our route (pins representing where I took pictures):

Getting around Norway by car was interesting. A fair number of the roads that Norwegians would call highways routinely narrowed down to a single lane for modest distances. Most of the time it was fine since the traffic was sparse, but occasionally we found ourselves reversing up a hill to a point wide enough to pass, like in this instance:

The other odd thing about the highways was that they would often reach a fjord and just end. The idea was that instead of going all the way around the fjord, you would board a car ferry to the other side. It felt a bit strange to have ferries entrenched as part of the highway system, but at least they operated every 30 minutes throughout the day.

All around, the scenery was just as spectacular as I had envisioned. There seemed to be fjords, glaciers, and snow-capped peaks at every turn, and we took a ton of pictures as we went along (see my flickr page for more of them). Some of my favorite sights were:

The view from the Stegastein lookout over Aurlandsfjord:

The waterfalls of the Geirangerfjord:

And the remoteness along the Gamle Strynefjellsvegen road:

We spent a little bit of time in Bergen, which had an enormous fish market and some great vantage points, but we much preferred our time out in the wilderness. The people we interacted with were very friendly and seemed to speak impeccable English, German, and Norwegian.

I would highly recommend visiting, and I might try to make it back myself. One last observation, no matter where you go, Norway is very expensive!