Monday, May 28, 2018

Blogging Our Europe Trip: Days One and Two -- Travel and Arrival

For the next three weeks or so, I will write about the trip my wife, two youngest daughters, and I have taken to Europe.  People who know us and others can keep up this way.  It will also stand as a sort of diary or journal.  You might find it interesting.

I write this in an area of the UK, called the Cotswolds, in the countryside around Cirencester.  It's 5:55am, and I noticed my tablet says 9:56pm, California time.  This is the first time I've been overseas and the time difference does wreak havoc with sleep. Keep that in mind.  It's just the way it is.  I slept from 11pm to about 3:30am, UK time, and woke very awake.  The body just doesn't cooperate.  I ran into my youngest daughter in the hall way here at our airbnb and she couldn't sleep either, so maybe it isn't age.

Our church scheduled an early evening service like we often do this time of the year -- from 2:15pm to 3:20pm after a church potluck.  We were packed, but we quickly changed at home and left there at 4pm, arriving at SFO at about 5pm.  Our flight was supposed to leave at 7:35pm.

We traveled light for the first time of any trip in my memory.  We put nothing underneath.  This prepares us for two other short flights in Europe and some train rides:  four very small suitcases for overhead and then a little under seat bag each.

After entering the airport, we walked straight to security.  If you haven't done it before, it's worse than domestic.  They look at your passport and they opened three of our suitcases to check what was in them.  It took us at least an hour even with skipping the check-in process.  Check-in online is more involved, because the airline asks passport related questions.

When you walk into a British plane, and we flew Virgin Atlantic, it is like you have already entered the UK.  The flight attendants are British, the instructions are British, a lot of the people are British, the language is British, and the food is British.  The pilot is British.  I envisioned former RAF.

I'm just reporting, but Britain is diverse in ethnicity.  A lot of them on the plane were Indian, some kind of Middle Eastern, and African.  British colonies were all over the world.  It's white people are different.  We're all human beings, but they're not the same as Americans.

My family and I, all four of us, sat in a middle row about 3/4 back.  We were next to two bathrooms either side, which is not a good seating situation, I'm telling you, for an overnight flight.  People use the bathroom and the door opens and closes and the toilet flushes a lot.  The good news is you can get right there if you need it and I was so tired that it didn't affect that much.

I'd never taken a ten hour flight.  The most was cross country many times.  It is a significant time difference.  You feel like you missed a day.  I watched The Darkest Hour, the film on Churchill.  It's not something I would normally mention, but it was free on the backseat entertainment screen with Virgin Atlantic.   It was very well done and a representative British film.  I teared up a few times with his speeches during the darkest hours of World War II.

When we landed, we walked quite a ways at Heathrow to the passport area.  It's a huge area, gigantic room, split between the UK and EU travelers and everyone else. Everyone else is a lot slower.  It's like waiting for a popular ride at an amusement park, moving through a maze.  In Britain, you have to fill out a card with your passport with even more info, that perhaps helps the process.  I thought we got through fast.  What is actually customs is nothing.  You can walk right through that area and then you are on to whatever transportation.

For us, transportation was the underground.  That's what they call it there.  Some call it the tube.  It's not the subway.  The underground around London is very complex. In addition, you have a giant train scene there.  There are options at Heathrow, but we bought four oyster cards with 30 pounds apiece on it, and took the Picadelly line to the Circle line to the Central line, which got us to where we got a rental car at a shopping center.

Getting around, you have the police in a kind of traditional British outfit with the unique hat.   Everyone who talks to you is entertaining because it's coming in brand new accents and unique personalities.  When we left the underground, I stopped at a bank and used an atm to get British pounds.  I have a bank account for the trip with no foreign transaction fees.  The pound is worth more than a dollar, something like 10 to 8 or so, and the money looks a lot different.

We rented a car nearer to our airbnb in London in order to drive out to the Cotswolds and Bath before returning on Wednesday.  Getting the car wasn't a problem.  I have a credit card that has no foreign fees.

One of the major issues is driving.  The cars are different.  You drive on the right of the car and on the left of the road.  I had a manual transmission, so the stick was on the left too.  I happen to drive on the left for the first time in a busy area with narrow roads and an amazing number of turnabouts.  I don't think there is anything that you can do to get yourself ready for this right away.

Before we left, I downloaded on my phone an offline map, and that was a lifesaver, because our phone gps doesn't work there without cell phone.  We've planned to get a sim card, and didn't because the store, a Tesco, closed early on what was a bank holiday, something British.

It is freaky to drive on the left.  You can't get out of your mind that you are not going to run into ongoing traffic.  You've got to tell yourself you are OK.  The tendency is to drift left away from the middle line.  Don't do that.  You are next to the line on the right as a driver and just stay close to it.  Numbers of times my left tire was hitting curbs on these narrow country roads.

The drivers are unhappy in England.  The do not suffer bad driving.  They honk and they give you gestures.  Since you travel on the left, if you've got multiple lanes, the right lane is fast, just the opposite than the U. S.  Many times I found myself stopping the speedy traffic in the slow lane that was really the fast lane.  Don't do that either.  Keep that right lane open for speed.

I can't tell what the speed limit is in the UK.  It's not posted, at least not on M4, which I found they call the motorway.  Rental places are car hires.  The toilet is the lou, or something like that.

The roads in the countryside off the main road are narrow, not for two cars.  We left the motorway for supper at about 6:30pm.  In these villages, there are a lot of little quaint local restaurants.  I had fish and chips at one, and it was amazing.  Fantastic.  We talked to locals.  One older lady had just visited London for the first time in her life the previous week.

In these little places to eat, the people are very friendly and some are talkative.  Others just stare.  We told the owner that it was the best English fish and chips ever in our lives, which isn't much of a compliment, because it was the only in our lives.  That got laughs from customers.  They laugh.

We got to our airbnb and it is a cottage in the country.  Perhaps I'll have more to say about these airbnb later.  This is a first for me, and I do like it so far.  It's staying with people you don't know with more for your buck.  You also get local flavor.  These people a really, really British.

Today we're going out into the Cotswolds, and I'll tell you what that's like, Lord willing.


Joshua said...

Hey Pastor,

Having just visited England a few years ago, a lot of this is pure dejavu. Here are my tips.

1. You don't need an oyster card if you have a contactless credit card. Just swipe the credit card on the tube at both ends and it bills you automatically.

2. To get used to driving, the thing that helped me the most was this thought - "put my passenger in the gutter". If the person you are driving in the passenger seat is hard against the side of the road as you drive, and if you're aiming to get them there as you go around corners, it helps greatly. I drove around in a country on the "wrong side of the road" muttering "passenger in the gutter" over and over as I drove and it helped.

3. The poms are very easy on speeding - In Australia if you are 1km/hr over they get you. In England there are barely any speed signs, and it actually doesn't matter if you are over the speed limit on highways. As our guide said - if you are 5 mile an over the officer might frown. If you are 10 miles over they might pull you over and ask you to be careful. If you are 20 miles an hour over they might stop you and take you to the station.

4. I went to Spurgeon's church on a Wednesday night and the message was excellent, but it was in the basement. I asked a guy to take me up the top to see the auditorium, and he did take me, but it was bombed in WW2 and there is nothing original there from Spurgeon's time.

Have a great time Pastor!


Jonathan Gleason said...

Wow, Kent. I never realised you'd never been here before.

Ok, some advice, some of which is too late, but maybe it will help other people.

If as an American you are coming to the UK and you've never driven over here before (or only done so on holiday -- not "vacation", by the way, "holiday"), book in advance and specifically request an AUTOMATIC. Do not tell yourself that you know how to drive a manual transmission. Of course you do -- an American one. There are SO MANY THINGS TO THINK ABOUT that you don't want to be thinking about shifting with the left hand. Please read what Kent said and trust me on this.

That's for everybody else, since it is too late for you.

A little more about driving here.

Speed limits: Unless otherwise posted, 70 mph on motorways (M4, M25, M1, whatever). 70 mph on "divided carriageways" (what you'd call "freeway" or 4-lane). 30 on streets in town, unless otherwise posted (we're getting more at 20 up here, probably down there, too). 60 on roads outside of town. In-vs-outside is generally defined by whether there are street lights. But again, many roads do have a limit posted.

A speed limit sign is a round white sign with a red border and black numbers. See the "50" sign on the wikipedia page. There are also white/light gray signs with a black slash across them (also pictured on that page). This means national speed limit and you will see it in the countryside or when leaving town. 60 or 70, depending on the lanes. Note the picture on the page, it has national speed limit on a single track road -- you certainly would NOT drive 60 on that road. Speed limits are not intended to supersede sanity.

Single track roads -- they have passing places. Please take it easy on these roads, and be alert to oncoming cars. Sometimes someone has to back up to the nearest passing place, so it is better to stop for one if you can see the need coming.

If you stop at a passing place, and it is on your side of the road (left), you pull into it. If it is on the right, you do NOT pull into it. You stop across from it and let the oncoming car use it to past you.

I recommend you make a sign to put in your back window that says "American tourist". :) Have someone remove it before you park, though, so it won't be seen when you are parking, and you certainly don't want it visible when you leave the car. There are those who would assume you have valuables and target your car. But if you are driving with a sign like that, people will be more patient. They don't mind idiots who have an excuse, it's the people they think are idiots without excuses that make them honk their horns, etc. Instead of being angry at you they will laugh when you do something stupid, and tell their friends about it. This is good for international relations.

I'm going to hit the limit for this comment, so will do another one.

Jon Gleason said...

More on driving -- roundabouts.

Roundabouts. The person coming from your right has the right of way. If you can't clear where he is going before he gets there, do not get in front of him. If he does not hit you, he will at least get angry and make gestures, and he may not see your "American tourist" sign.

Busy roundabouts are difficult. They are not as bad if you understand the signalling. When you approach a roundabout, you signal as if it were a normal intersection. If you are going straight out the other side of the roundabout, you do not signal as you approach. If you are leaving it to the left, you signal left as you approach and get in the left lane. If you are leaving it to the right, you signal right as you approach and get in the right lane.

Leaving a roundabout -- when you know where you are going, you want to signal to the left as you are passing the PRIOR exit. That way, people know you are leaving at the next exit of the roundabout. (Obviously, if you are leaving to the left, you were already signalling left when entering the roundabout, so no problems there.) Do NOT signal left unless you are leaving -- people will assume you are leaving and will go out in front of you.

If the roundabout is very busy, it can be hard to get into it. But you do not need absolute clearance to go. You either need clearance or you need to see, by their signals, that the oncoming cars are leaving before they get to you. Watch their signals and you will quickly learn how this works.

PRO TIP: If you don't know where you are going, or which exit you are supposed to take, signal right, get in the right lane, and go all the way around the roundabout, signaling right, until you figure it out. I have gone around a roundabout three times before I saw the sign I was looking for and left it. It is much better to look dumb going around a couple times than to go several miles out of the way.

Roundabouts are nice if you need to make a U turn.

Narrow roads. This also is important to understand -- the middle line is not a law, it is a guide. People will cross the middle line even as they are driving towards you. They will expect you to do the same. If there is an obstruction (parked car, whatever) and there is still two car-widths between the obstruction and the side of the road, those two car-widths will be used. People will come into your lane to get past the obstruction and expect you to move over close to the kerb to give them room. Do NOT think that "my lane is my lane." If your lane is wide enough to share and they need it, you will be expected to share it.

If someone flashes his headlights at you, he is doing one of two things. He might be telling you, "Go ahead." This can happen at an intersection or on a narrow road with passing places. If you drive on those roads, you may wish to flash your lights when you are stopping at a passing place, so he knows you are stopping.

The other thing he might be doing is warning you of a hazard on the road. If you are going along and someone flashes and it isn't a case where he's telling you, "go ahead," he may be letting you know there is an accident, a speed trap, a sheep on the road, whatever.

Have fun, stay safe! See you soon, Lord willing!

KJB1611 said...

Dear Bro Brandenburg,

May you and your family have a wonderful time in Europe!

Last year when my wife and I went to Rome and Britain I surprised her and we flew first class. There are ways to use miles and points to do it for a cost comparable to what people pay for economy (in cash 1st class is totally unreasonable). We had a fantastic flight and were perfectly well rested with no to almost no jet-lag upon arrival.

Jeff Voegtlin said...


I'm sure everyone else has told you everywhere that you MUST go to while in Great Britain, so I'll refrain. Annette and I really enjoyed our trip there for our 10th anniversary. I laughed several times in your blog-journal. Especially the driving parts, I've been there too. Once we went around a roundabout three or four times before we could figure out which road to take out of it. That was before the days of digital maps. It brought back many memories. I'm sure you'll have many to share with your family for a long time.

Best wishes,

Terry Basham, II said...

I say don’t go...