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!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Somewhat Comprehensive List of People I Hate on Public Transport

Some of my British friends say that 'having a good rant' is one of their favorite past times. So while this post can really be applicable anywhere, not just here in London, it is with that spirit in mind that I share the following rant with you all. I call it "A Somewhat Comprehensive List of People I Hate on Public Transport". I call it 'somewhat comprehensive' mainly because I'm sure someone will do something even more idiotic tomorrow.

The London Underground system, or "the tube" as it is commonly referred to here, is by far one of the best ways to get around the city. It comes every 2-3 minutes during rush hour, you can get practically anywhere on it, as the length of the system is over 402 km (250 miles), and now that they've introduced contactless payment, it's easier than ever to use. In fact, about 1.265 billion trips are taken on the London Underground annually. That's almost 3.5 million rides per day. And with that many people on the train, it is almost inevitable that you come across these public offenders on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

Number 1: The person who doesn't move out of the doorway to let people out

This happens in London more often than anywhere else I've ever visited or lived. You try to exit the train, say excuse me, and the person just stands there. In your way. Doesn't move. So you have to push your way past, tripping over the next person's backpack in the process.

Number 2: The 'blocker of open space'

Quite similar to offender #1, this person doesn't move down the car during rush hour to make more room for passengers to get onto the train. If the train is empty, or there are still seats available, fine, stand where you like, but by God, if 3 people get off at the stop, 3 people should be able to get on. So MOVE OVER.

Number 3: The leaner

This person thinks that the pole in the middle of the train (you know, the one that most people stand around and hang on to) is there for their own personal comfort. They stand next to that pole and lean on it so that no one else can squeeze a hand in to hang on. My personal favorite passive aggressive attack on this person is to shimmy in there and hold on with my left hand. When the train jerks backward, his back will be digging right into my engagement ring. Lucky for me the diamond sticks out quite far. Not so lucky for offender #3.

Number 4: The loud headphones guy

I say guy, because I notice this more often in men, but there are some women offenders too. These people, I kid you not, are going to be deaf by the time they are 40. If I can hear your music over the sound of the train in a tunnel, it is too loud. In fact, if I can hear your music at all, it is too loud. Maybe if you turned it down you'd hear me say 'excuse me' when I try to get off the train.

Number 5: The newspaper reader

Stand next to this person, and you'll constantly be brushed in the back, arm, or face by their newspaper. Or, they will back into you as much as they possibly can in order to have space in front of them for their newspaper. In London, these people especially bother me because 99 out of 100 times the newspaper they are reading is free, handed out to them as they come into the station. So it's not even like they went out of their way to get this paper and really want to read it. They are just reading it because it's there. (Side note here: in London it is also very common for people to leave said paper on the seat when they leave the train. Therefore, you also have about 50 papers laying around during rush hour.)

Number 6: The backpacker

If you are still wearing your backpack while riding in the train car, you are doing it wrong. Take the backpack off, and put it between your legs. This will allow one more person to get on the train. It also means you'll stop hitting that lady sitting down in the face with it. Granted, I'll probably trip over it when trying to exit the train, but that's not the point.

Number 7: The person who is afraid they are not going to be able to exit the train in time

Clearly, clearly, this person does not usually ride the tube during rush hour. If they did, they would understand how stupid it is to stand up well before the train gets to the station to try to make their way to the door. I am LITERALLY touching the person next to me because we are all crammed in like sardines. Where exactly do you expect me to move to so that you can get closer to the door?

The above are people on the train. What about the people in the station?

Number 8: The person who is reading a book/newspaper/something on their phone AND walking

Seriously? Their book is THAT good that they can't put it down to get out of the station? And here I thought they were just reading it to pass time while riding on the train. Well, in case you haven't noticed, offender #8, you are walking about 5 times slower than EVERYONE ELSE. Get your nose out of your phone, quit texting, and get moving.

Number 9: The person who cuts you off

I sympathize with you, #9, because I also see that offender #8 is close ahead, and you want to get out of here as fast as possible. But don't cut me off when there clearly isn't room for you to get around both me and #8. Because now, not only am I mad at #8, but I'm also mad at you. And thanks for kicking my heal as you tried to pass, I really enjoyed that.

Number 10: The person who doesn't have enough money on their transit card, but still tries to go through the gate 5 times before stepping aside

I've never hear of 'the fifth time's the charm' have you? I will give you the £2.30 you need just to GET OUT OF MY WAY.

Number 11: The wrong-way walker

The sign says "Keep Left". What part of that is difficult to understand?

Number 12: The abrupt stopper

The person in front of you just realized they started walking the wrong direction when they exited the train. Or maybe they just got to a junction and have no idea which way to go. But instead of moving to the side, they just come to a full stop right in front of you and give you a big smile as they start walking the other way. Never mind the fact that you just about spilled your coffee on yourself.

With all the negative above, I thought I'd end this rant with something positive. In London, there are noticeably fewer people in the stations playing music or begging for money. So at least there's that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What I Miss (And Don't Miss) About America

Over the fall I traveled to the US on three separate occasions - once for a work conference, once for Thanksgiving, and once for a wedding and baptism. It had been about a year since I'd last set foot on American soil, so the subtle differences between the US and UK became a bit more apparent once I was there again in person.

I began to jot down the small things that I noticed I missed about the good ole USA. Now obviously I miss having the opportunity to see family and friends on a more regular basis, and I miss being in a place where I thoroughly understand the cultural norms, but I was more keen on noting the little things that make up part of daily life that just aren't the same. And while at it, I also noted the things that I definitively did not miss. The list went something like this:

Things I Miss:

Car horns in city traffic
New York was great for this. A light turns green, and if someone sits idly for more than 0.2 seconds everyone behind them is swearing at them and blaring their horns. In my mind it is a critical component of city noise - it so perfectly exemplifies the hustle and bustle of a city. Oddly, you very rarely hear any horns in London. There are a few obnoxious bus drivers that use them, but that's about it.

Temperatures in Fahrenheit
Like all other American ex-pats I'm well versed at converting back and forth from °F to °C, but Celsius just doesn't feel natural. I suppose it's not so bad in London because the temperature is almost always between 0° and 20° (32°F and 68°F), but I have to imagine that using Celsius in Chicago would be quite depressing.

Paper money that fits in my wallet
As you can see, there's a bit of a height disparity between dollars and pounds. I love my money-clip style wallet, but it looks ridiculous with paper overflowing on each side.

Starbucks every 30 yards
Not that there aren't coffee shops all over the UK, but very few of them serve a simple filter coffee. Instead you have to order an Americano, which is watered down espresso and tastes like shit.

The occasional sound of country music
Is there anything more quintessentially American than country music? I'm no country aficionado, but I do enjoy hearing it every now and again. There was a country band playing outside the Steelers / Jets game, and I realized I missed the sound of it. Sadly you never hear it in Europe.

Consistently good service at restaurants and bars
Over here there isn't a direct incentive for waiters and bartenders to provide good service, as they don't rely on tips for wages. The difference in service quality is truly striking.

The normalness of ordering food during a night out
British people just don't get in the habit of doing it. Eating is cheating, you know.

Dryers that actually dry clothing
One upside of the washer-dryer combo units in the UK is they save space, but that's about it. They are very small, and even an hour's drying cycle still leaves your clothes quite damp.

Food / drink items
A few that I encountered and realized I missed desperately: Gatorade, hex-shaped multi grain chips, artificial grape flavored everything, Rold Gold pretzels, Vanilla Coke, etc.

Encouragingly,  the competing list of things I noticed I did not miss about America was much shorter, though there were a few that clearly stood out:

CNN / Cable News
This one is two-fold: The caliber of cable news itself, and the ubiquity of it in public spaces. For instance when you're in the airport waiting at a gate, CNN is just on, as a default, as background noise. Compared to the quality of BBC News, it is REMARKABLY bad.

ATM Fess
I'm sorry, I'm withdrawing my own money. Why do you warrant a $3 cut? This would never fly in Britain.

Price listed ≠ price you pay
In the UK if a coffee is listed for £2.50 you pay £2.50 and that's that. I strongly prefer this to the American way, where $2.50 becomes $2.71 after tax and you're stuck receiving a handful of odd change.

Dry continental air
And the havoc it wreaked on my skin. After a few days the back of my hands felt like sandpaper. I've grown a bit accustomed to the moisture-rich maritime air over here.

Waiting forever for trains (especially outside)
I suppose I've become spoiled. London Underground trains arrive every two to three minutes at all times of day. Waiting ten minutes for the Brown Line outside in Chicago in November and December just felt cruel.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

New Year, New Philosophy

Hi Everyone!

As you may or may not have noticed, it appeared for awhile as though Ryan and I fell of the face of the Earth, at least in terms of our blog. My main reason for not writing was because whenever I sat down to write, I felt as though I could not say anything that was as meaningful or as powerful as when I wrote about our experiences in Greece. Everything I thought about writing just felt so silly and pointless next to a posting like that.

Case in point: A few months ago I actually got separate emails from both the man and woman in my story. They are American and they have a fairly similar experience to Ryan and I (transferred to a different country for work, doing a lot of traveling while abroad, excited to make the most of the opportunity, etc.) They emailed me to let me know that they are recovering from what happened and that they are ok. I was very thankful to receive those emails, as I had kept that man and woman in my prayers and thought about them quite often since Easter Sunday. However, it never really crossed my mind when writing the post that those people would ever read it. A bit naive, perhaps, in this day and age, but what surprised and humbled me the most about their emails was that they thanked me for sharing my experience.

After awhile, I started thinking more and more about the blog, and I realized that I was being a bit selfish by not writing. I wasn't writing because of how I felt, but I didn't give much thought to anyone else who might stumble across these posts and find them useful, or comforting, or funny, or in any small way might want to keep reading about our time abroad. In other words, I was no longer sharing my experiences, and that seemed like a bit of a disservice.  

So with that, and with the start of the New Year (it seemed an appropriate time to start writing again) I say Hello! And welcome back to the English channel.