Archives for category: Visitors from home

Spring is an incredible time to be in Oxford. After a long, gray winter, the air begins to feel warm, and the smell of fresh, blossoming flowers floats through it like notes to a song. The sound of children’s laughter can be heard around town, as they flow through the streets like a stream, dressed in matching school uniforms.

Couples float down the River Cherwell in punts, one reclining in the middle of the boat, smiling up at the other, who is standing at the rear, propelling them forward with a long pole. The sky in Oxford is a pale blue in the spring, with strokes of white clouds and trails from airplanes, leaving the scene overhead to look like a new painting set up on display at the start of each day.

Spring is also typically a great time for Oxford students, as it tends to be less busy, academically, than the rest of the year. With more time on their hands, students take advantage of a relaxed schedule by playing croquet in their college gardens, enjoying garden parties and Pimms, and cheering on their college’s rowing team during the Summer Eights.

There are, of course, two rather significant caveats to this whole affair.

The first of which is if the weather doesn’t actually cooperate, and if the rainy, gray weather of winter just happens to stretch into the spring months. Such was the case this spring, when typically warm, blue sky spring days were exchanged for the rainiest spring in Oxford in well over a hundred years.

The second caveat is if you’re a finalist (an undergraduate in the final year of your degree), in which case your term is spent preparing for your final exams at every possible spare moment.

Oxford is the only university left in the world, I’m told, that has kept their particular finals system, which is such that the only thing that actually counts toward your degree are your final exams. Everything before that was just practice. Each student sits a series of three-hour final exams for each of their particular papers (“classes), and so they spend several spring months preparing for what will be, in most cases, the biggest tests of their life.

My degree gives me a total of seven three-hour exams. All essay-format. All handwritten. In just six days.

Both of the above caveats were true for me this spring. Which meant it felt a lot less like a proper spring in Oxford, and more like a winter that just wouldn’t relent. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps it’s best to begin at the beginning

Becoming Myself Again

Hilary (winter) term was easily one of my busiest terms for school work since I first arrived in Oxford. While many other finalists began looking ahead to finals and started working on their revisions, it was all I could do to keep up with my weekly essays. There were several nights when my workload that I started the day before would keep me up until moments before the sun rose the following day. I’d regularly collapse in bed in the early morning hours and close my eyes for a few hours before waking up and doing it all over again.

And so, when my first Saturday of spring break arrived, I avoided setting my alarm, and I allowed myself to wake up when my eyes came open, instead. Turns out that time didn’t come until 2.30 in the afternoon. And it felt great.

It felt so great, in fact, that I did the same thing the following day, not waking up until half of Sunday had already come and gone.

When I finally awoke, I got up, threw on some clothes, and then headed to the gym. It was the first time in ages, and it felt great to do something more physically demanding than flipping pages in a book. After a shower and a shave, I made my way to the Kilns’ kitchen to make something to eat, when I ran into Debbie.

“Wow, you look like your old self again!” she said with a look of shock.

“Thanks, I feel like my old self!” I said.

It had been the first time I had seen Debbie in some time, as the house was typically already asleep by the time I would make it in at night, and often I was out the door before the rest of the house was up. It was great to see her again, and good to begin to feel like a person again.

When My Plans Came Crashing Down

I started off the first week of spring break with a tour of the Kilns for a small group of people who had come to visit the house. And it went great. One of the women on the tour came up to me afterward and mentioned to me just how much she appreciated it.

“I’ve been here several times over the years, with different groups, and this was the best tour I’ve ever had,” she said, with a smile and a handshake. “Very good job. Thank you.”

I smiled in return. And her thanked her for coming out.

I always enjoy giving tours, but those kind of responses make it that much better. I was walking on air when I returned to my room, only to sit down at my computer and receive the news that came like a punch to the stomach, taking away any joy that had been built up over the past couple days of sleeping in and this woman’s response from my tour.

I had received an e-mail from the Oxford Graduate Studies Committee, writing to inform me that I had not been offered a place for the following year’s Master’s program here at Oxford…

And all of a sudden it felt like the plans I had made, and the world I had imagined for our future, were crashing down all around me.

Waking up to a Nightmare

I woke up Tuesday morning with a terrible feeling in my stomach, as I realized this news hadn’t been just a bad dream. As I realized that I had actually been turned down, and a wave of uncertainty washed over me as I struggled to gather my strength to get out of bed and face the day.

I felt like a failure. I felt deflated of all the renewed energy I had after a restful weekend. I felt like throwing my fists into the air and shouting, “Why?! What’s the point?!?”

I had worked so hard to get here, I had put in so many hours on my studies since I had been here, and then this?… It just didn’t make any sense to me.

I felt like a failure. I felt as though I had let all of my community back home down. “What would they think?” I wondered.

I had considered applying to another school back in the States during Michaelmas Term (Duke), as there were several scholars there I had come across who I was really interested in working with (Stanley Hauerwas, Lauren Winner, Richard Hays, Jeremy Begbee, and others), but the term was so busy that I just didn’t make the time for it.

I had been so sure that this was where we were supposed to be, spending another year in Oxford, and now I felt so foolish for not making alternate plans in case things didn’t come through. I had been too confident, I thought.

I found myself wondering what all my friends here in Oxford would think. I thought about all those friends of mine who were here doing Graduate Studies, and suddenly I felt on the outside of this great University I have been so proud to be a member of. I felt as though it had turned its back on me. I felt as though the news had finally come out: I didn’t belong at Oxford. I couldn’t actually cut it. And they wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. I felt as though I had been banished, and now I was standing on the outside, in the cold, looking in.

I felt like a failure with nowhere to go. I missed the arms of my wife, who was still back with our family in the States, and who was now nearly halfway through the pregnancy of our first child. I hurt, and I still felt lost and alone.

I had written a note to Philip the day before, my supervisor from Michaelmas Term, who is the director of Undergraduate Studies here at Oxford, and who had served as one of my references for the Master’s program. I wrote to explain my surprise at this news, and to ask his thoughts on the likelihood of my being given an offer in the second round (Oxford has two rounds of applications: one in January, and one in April). But my note to Philip from the day before was replied to with only a short note of consolation, encouraging me to try not to worry too much, and a friendly reminder that he wasn’t the appropriate person for this note, as he wasn’t on the Graduate Studies Committee.

I had also e-mailed Dr Michael Ward, who supervised my thesis, who’s also a longstanding member of the Oxford University CS Lewis, and a close friend. We had planned on meeting this week, to discuss my plans for the future, and some ideas I had for future studies, but I wrote to him shortly after receiving this news to explain what had happened. I thought I’d let him know, in case he no longer wanted to meet, or at least in case he wanted to put our meeting on hold until I found out for sure if we’d be returning. He wrote me back the next day to say he still wanted to meet, without even mentioning my rejection letter.

I shared the news with Debbie. I hadn’t planned to, but I had been short with her that morning, and I knew she could tell something was up, after I had finally seemed like my old self again after a few days’ worth of rest.

“Oh, Ryan…,” she said with a sympathetic look, that told me she was both sorry and surprised to hear this. “I’m so sorry.”

We talked for a few minutes, in quiet voices from the kitchen. She encouraged me that God was in control, that He still had His hand at work in my life, and that He was going to use this. I thanked her, knowing she was right, even though her words felt thin and frail, and I left the house, still feeling alone and hopeless. Feeling like I had just lost a fight. A fight that left me with nothing left to give.

And, yet, somehow, in all of it, in my feelings of loneliness and despair, I felt like He was reminding me that there wasn’t supposed to be anyone for me to seek refuge in, in this pain, apart from Him.

That Which Costs Nothing is Worth Nothing

I was catching up with my buddies Rich and Max in town for a meeting with Professor John Lennox that day. Even though I hardly felt like going, I had been incredibly excited for the opportunity.

Professor John Lennox is a rather brilliant mathematician here at Oxford, in his seventies, who, at the end of his academic career, now spends most of his time speaking on his Christian faith. He regularly travels all over the world to speak and to debate (with men like Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens). At Ivy League schools in the US. Across Europe. And in Australia and elsewhere. He’s an incredible man, and it was to our surprise that he said he’d be happy to meet with a few theologians who are studying here at Oxford to share some of his knowledge and experience with us.

We went into our meeting with a rough outline of a few questions we each had for Professor Lennox. After noting them, he began sharing a bit of his own experience with us. As theologians. And as men.

“First priority,” he said to us, in his booming, Irish accent, “You must get to know Scripture!”

Rather pointedly, he told us he thought today’s theologians spend too much time studying the work of other men, and not enough time in the Word.

“And secondly, you will learn, gentlemen, that which costs nothing is worth nothing.”

Professor Lennox talked a lot about courage, and the need for models. And you could tell, by the smile in his eyes, and the grey hair on his head, that he knew what he was talking about.

He Who Would Be  a Leader Must Be a Bridge

I had my meeting with Dr Michael Ward shortly after we met with Professor Lennox that day. I met him at his rooms at St Peter’s College, in the city center. His rooms were warm, even though it was cold and gray outside, and he prepared some tea for us both as we talked.

Dr Ward encouraged me to not get down on myself. He made the comment that the undergraduate program is the most competitive at Oxford, and that it was very likely I would still get an offer from Oxford for the MSt program.

But then he went on to ask me about why I wanted to return for another year. I explained that the program had been so busy that I was looking forward to spending another year in the city. To experience it just a bit more before returning to the States.

I told him I planned to apply to Duke, and he asked me a bit about that. He had supervised my thesis, and he told me he thought Duke would be a great fit for my interests. Perhaps even a better fit than Oxford, he told me, given the current Theology faculties at both schools.

He asked me what I would do if I applied and was accepted to Duke, and then I heard back from Oxford with an acceptance offer. I told him that was a humbling thought, and that I had no idea.

Then he went on to tell me, rather pointedly, that he didn’t think my place was in academics. He told me he thought I would likely end up somewhere in the middle. Not completely academics, not completely public ministry, but somewhere in the middle. And he talked about the importance of such positions, albeit the inherent difficulties.

“He who would be a leader must be a bridge, Ryan,” he told me, speaking in his thick, posh English accent from his spot on the sofa across from me in his college rooms.

“It will be difficult to feel pulled in different directions, but those are the most important people. They are the channels between academics and the public.”

I thanked Dr Ward for his time, and for his very encouraging words, and then I left, making my way to the Harris Manchester library for a bit of work before calling it a day.

The Lesson of New Life

I made it home to the Kilns after 9.00 that night. I had a Skype call with a friend from back home, and then my good friend Tom popped by around 10.00 that night, as I was heating up some leftovers for dinner.

He and Debbie and I sat on stools in the middle of the kitchen, sipping the tea Tom prepared for us. I told him we needed to have him over more often, as he made great tea.

He told a story about going to the States for his Master’s degree, and then leaving just six months later because of the frustrations he experienced with the US educational system. He talked about returning home, and continuing on with his degree through an online distance-learning program. He talked about how being back here, in his own home country, opened up the door to get involved with some opportunities and a mentoring relationship he wouldn’t have otherwise had. And he told me about how those opportunities led him to what he’s doing today, to a job he loves.

“And so,” he said, looking as though he was thinking carefully about his words, “Sometimes you don’t realize it at the time, but good things come out of rather disappointing experiences.”

He turned to me with an encouraging smile as he finished his sentence. Debbie smiled too, looking from Tom to me.

Tom and I wandered down to the pub, after I finished my late-evening supper, and we took a seat in two large, overstuffed leather chairs and talked about work and school and ministry. He shared several bits of advice with me that he had received from others, and which he had found particularly helpful along the way of his own journey.

After talking for a couple hours from the pub, with the football game on in a corner of the room, and a group of men gathered around the screen, interrupting the announcer with a loud cheer every few minutes or so, Tom and I slipped out the door and made the short walk back to the Kilns in the late evening air.

He let it slip that he and Caroline, his wife, would soon be going in for their 12th week “scan,” for their second child, and that they planned to find out the sex of their baby, as well (which the English typically like to make fun of us Americans for always doing).

I congratulated him on the news, and pointed out that, as Jen was currently in her 20th week, our children would actually be quite close in age.

“When that baby arrives,” Tom said, turning to me with a more serious tone as we walked, “it will totally humanize things for yourself. These goals and ambitions will not seem nearly so important, and you’ll learn so much about grace.”

I nodded, with my eyes glued to my shoes as we walked, and, looking up, I thanked him for his words.

When we arrived at the Kilns, Tom asked if it’d be okay if he came in and we had a time of prayer. I told him I’d like that. So we found a couple seats in the library, after flipping through some old 19th-century encyclopedias that had recently been donated to the Kilns, and we spent some time in prayer.

It was so good. It was good for my soul. And it was encouraging.

I thanked Tom, as he left, for his friendship, for his prayers, and then I wished him a smooth ride home in the cold night air, just after midnight. And I found myself thinking, even in the valleys, or perhaps particularly in the valleys, how thankful I am for friends like that.

A Meatless Dinner Conversation

The following evening, after a full day’s worth of finals revisions work from the college library, I returned to the Kilns to have dinner with Debbie and Melissa. Melissa is a former Warden here at the Kilns who would be staying for a few weeks while Debbie visited her son in Japan. She’s from North Carolina, where her husband is a doctor. She’s petite, and she talks proudly of home, in a voice that sounds like she’s from the South. She wears red Toms brand shoes, and she has as much energy as anyone I’ve ever met.

Melissa had very kindly offered to make us all dinner that evening. Even though she’s not a vegetarian herself, she made us meatless spaghetti, knowing Debbie is, along with garlic bread and salad. We enjoyed it from the dining room over conversation.

Debbie made a comment over dinner about the increasing appearance of sharks on the beaches along the east coast, due to climate change, and Melissa told us she didn’t think man was “big enough” to cause climate change. I found myself wondering how we got on this topic as I ate my spaghetti, wishing it had meat in it.

The Best Thing I’d Seen in a Long Time

After helping clean up, I excused myself and made my way back to my room for a very important call with Jen. She was scheduled to go in for her 20-week ultrasound that day, and I wanted to talk with her before she left the house. Before we found out whether we would be having a boy or a girl. And I can’t remember the last time I saw her so happy.

She didn’t stop grinning during the 20 minutes we talked. And seeing her so happy made me happy. I told her I had really been missing her, and she told me she agreed.

She told me that when she finds herself missing me, she tries to look forward to this summer, when we’ll finally be together again. How she looks forward to that day we’ll see each other again for the first time after six months, in the airport. How she looks forward to celebrating our six-year anniversary, in the San Juan Islands. And how she looks forward to our baby’s arrival, and raising it together.

I smiled. I told her those were pretty great things to look forward to, but that I still missed her.

About an hour later, my mom pulled me up on Skype again. This time from the medical office. Jen was seated beside her, still beaming. A couple minutes later, our niece Khloe showed up with Jen’s sister Leann and her husband Ben, and she was blowing me kisses. Khloe that is, not Leann.

My sister, Lucy, was there, too, as well as Jen’s parents. It was quite the family affair, and I was glad to be there, virtually, to join them.

My Mom carried the laptop with her as they were all led into a dark room for the ultrasound, and soon I could just make out the baby’s head and spine, in splotches of white against the monitor’s black background. And I smiled and laughed outloud as soon as I could see it.

The medical technician said the baby was being stubborn, and Jen claimed it as her own. I agreed.

After a while, everyone was asked to leave the room, and Jen and I were left alone with the medical technician, to find out the baby’s sex. Jen took the latop from my mom, and she held it so that I could still see the ultrasound monitor.

The technician admitted she didn’t even know whether we’d be having a boy or girl, yet, as the baby had insisted on keeping its legs together. Then, a few minutes later, she asked if we were ready, and we both said “Yes,” simultaneously, even though we were 6,000 miles apart.

“Well… You’re having a baby girl!”

Immediately, I began clapping and laughing, in my room at the Kilns here in England, as tears of joy warmed my cheeks. Now it was my turn, and suddenly I couldn’t stop smiling. Jen turned the laptop to face her, so that I could see her and her reaction, while the technician looked through photos. Jen was still beaming.

“Congratulations, hun,” I told her, laughing with excitement. “We’re having a baby girl.”

“Congratulations to you, too,” she said to me, in that beautiful smile, with only a sliver of her eyes showing in her joy.

And then, a second later, we lost connection, and I was left holding my tear-soaked face in my hands, sobbing uncontrollably as I wept in a mix of overwhelming gladness at the thought that I would soon have a little princess to father, while, at the same time, hurting with all I had for not being able to be there with Jen for this moment.

I was glad Jen couldn’t see me as I shook and wept, in the face of this incredible news. Never did I think I’d find out like this.

Growing up, you don’t picture yourself 6,000 miles away from your wife when you find out you’re having a baby girl. But that’s how life goes, it seems. It really is full of surprises.

I rushed to the kitchen to share the news with Debbie. She smiled in anticipation as I described watching the ultrasound, and then she raised her hands in the air with a “Yeeeeah!” when I told her we were having a baby girl.

“Aunt Debbie,” she said with a smile, after celebrating.

I knocked on Jonathan’s door, and even though he was in bed, as it was now nearly midnight, I entered and shared the report with him anyway.

“That’s great news,” he said in his rich English accent with a smile, peeking over his covers. “I can picture you as a great father of a little girl.”

I rang my Dad, and I shared the news with him. Even though the rest of the family was asked to wait a few days for us to announce it at a party Jen was hosting with friends and family for the occassion, I figured it’d be okay to share it with him, as he was several States away and wouldn’t be able to be there.

“Well, are you ready to be a grandpa to our baby girl?” I asked.

I heard the sound of crying and laughter on the other end of the line for several moments, before he finally told me “Congratulations, Ryan.” And it was then that I realized just how much we’re alike, my father and I.

I wrote my Grandpa, after that, and told him how I wish I could put into words how overwhelmed with joy I felt at that moment. And as I went to bed that night, I remember feeling as though there’s no way I could ever deserve something this great.

Life is Full of Surprises

A couple days later, I found myself sitting behind a desk on the second-story floor of the Harris Manchester College library. The library was empty on this particular Saturday morning. Term was now over, and most students had returned home, to see family and friends. And to catch up on sleep before the next term began.

The library was empty and quiet on this Saturday morning. Except for the clicking of my keyboard as I worked on revising for final exams, which were only a couple months away.

Other students at college regularly tell me they are amazed by the hours I put into my studies. I tell them I wouldn’t put in so many hours if I didn’t have to. And that it just takes more time for some of us.

I also mention the fact that having a career before I arrived here probably helps. I often think of my studies as my new job. And sometimes this job requires me to put in some long hours. Actually, it usually requires me to put in some long hours.

The birds were chirping in the trees beyond the large, arched windows, on this morning, and I found my mind trailing off to the recent Skype call I had with Jen just a few days earlier.

I heard the nurse’s voice tell us we were having a baby girl… I saw Jen’s beautiful smile… And I remembered what it felt like to know, for the first time, that we would soon be welcoming our very own baby girl into this world.

I never imagined that when my wife finally became pregnant with our first child we’d be experiencing this new phase of life from 6,000 miles apart. But that’s just how it goes, it seems. Life is full of surprises.

Sometimes your job requires you to work from the same office every day, returning home in the evenings to share a meal with your family and catch up on your day. Sometimes your job requires you to be away during the week, only to return home on the weekends and enjoy a couple days with your family. And sometimes, just sometimes, your job requires you to revise for finals from a quiet library in Oxford on a Saturday morning, while the birds chirp beyond the windows, and you find yourself picturing how you’ll one day explain to your daughter what it felt like when you first found out you were having a baby girl.

She’ll ask why you were so far away from her mommy, and you’ll explain it was your job. You’ll tell her you never imagined that’s how you’d find out, but that she’ll learn, one day, life is full of surprises.

I did my best to return to my reading and writing, taking notes for my Old Testament paper. And every so often I’d have to stop because I couldn’t shake a picture of myself finally seeing Jen again. I pictured us meeting at the airport after six months of being apart. I imagined what it would feel like to hug her again. My mind wandered to the thought of feeling the touch of her hair in my hands. Seeing her smile. And feeling her pregnant belly for the first time. I’d pause from what I was doing, hold a knuckle to my mouth, and begin to feel my eyes well up.

Where is he?

I decided to work from the Kilns on finals revisions one day the following week, after giving a tour, when I received a Skype call from Jen and Khloe in the afternoon. And it was then, just before my picture came up on Jen’s computer, that I heard Khloe ask, for the first time, “Where is he?”

I remember being here, in Oxford, more than a year ago, when I saw Jen holding Khloe for the first time, shortly after her birth. And now, to hear Khloe put together that question, it just seemed unreal to think how quickly she was growing up.

We’d talk, Jen and I, while Khloe would peak in and out of the screen, playing “peek-a-boo” with me, which I taught her. I’d look surprised every time. And she’d laugh.

After a while, Khloe leaned over and gave me a kiss. Right there on the laptop monitor. And after she did, she pulled back and held her hands to her mouth, smiling in embarrassment. And that’s when my heart melted in my chest. It was all I could do not to reach out and hug her / my computer.

“It really is amazing to think how much has changed in the past year,” I thought to myself, as I said goodbye to Khloe and Jen, and returned to my studies.

A Rude Awakening

A couple weeks into the spring break, a good friend of mine from home, David, arrived in Oxford. David and I did our first degrees together, and he was visiting England for the first time. In fact, he decided to skip his Master’s degree graduation to make it out, which meant a lot.

David likes old things. Like me. Books. And buildings. So there was plenty to see and do as I showed him around Oxford. And he loved it.

After several days of showing off where I’ve spent the past year and a half or so, we visited Bath, a beautiful city that’s home to some incredible Roman architecture and original, ancient Roman bathhouses. We also spent a day touring around London. But then, one evening before David left, I had a pretty rude awakening that came just after 4.00 in the morning.

I had been sleeping when I heard a low, moaning sound. I was still half asleep at this point, so I did my best to ignore it, hoping it’d go away. But it didn’t.

And in my semi-conscience state, I began to wonder if it was an animal, just outside my window, making this terrible sound. I hoped it was. Again, trying to ignore it, the terrible noise continued, unnerving me every time.

Finally, when I realized it wasn’t going to go away, I began clapping, and shouting, as loudly as I could, in hopes of scaring whatever it was away.

“No, no! Don’t! Go, go!” I shouted.

But the noise continued, and now I realized the noise was not coming from outside my window, but from inside my room. If I wasn’t scared before, I most certainly was now.

Getting out of bed in a hurry, I flipped on the lamp that sits on my nightstand and I threw on my glasses.

“David?… Is that you?!” I shouted, as I circled my bed, with my eyes still struggling to adjust to the light.

“Nooo…,” was all I heard from David in the next room, who at this point had to be completely confused by the noise and shouting he was hearing from my room next door.

And that’s when I saw it: a grey cat, huddled up on the wood floor, on the opposite side of my bed, with its mouth open wide, and hissing a terrible hissing sound in my direction.

“Oh, ____!” I shouted. “It’s a cat!”

Still dressed only in my boxers and glasses, I ran through the library to the back of the house to open up the back door so as to create a way out for this cat, only to find the door locked. With my heart now racing at full tilt, I ran back through my bedroom, doing my best to avoid the cat, and I entered the room where David was staying, who was now standing in the middle of the room with a look that begged to know what was going on.

“The back door’s locked,” I explained in a frantic voice. “I’ve got to get my keys.”

I opened the wardrobe doors, found my keys, and I went back to the dark library to open the back door, only to realize the cat was now hidden, somewhere, in the pitch black library.

I turned on the lights and I could feel my heart beating rapidly in my chest as I looked around the room for several minutes before finally finding the cat tucked away in a small corner of the room. I opened the back door, revealing the darkness outside on this 4.00 morning, before returning to the cat and doing my best to stay a safe enough distance while shooing it out.

Like a dart, it finally ran out, escaping into the darkness. With a sigh of great relief, I closed the door, locked it behind me, and returned to David’s room, only to find him laughing out loud.

I shook my head in a mixture of laughter and racked nerves. At 4.00 in the morning, the last thing you expect to wake up to is some strange grey cat you’ve never seen in your life hissing at you from the side of your bed.

“I heard you shouting, ‘No, no; Go, go!’, and I thought you were dreaming,” David said to me, in-between laughs. “But then when you asked if I was doing that, I knew someone was in there with you, and I had no idea what was going on!”

I wasn’t sure who among the three of us was most scared that morning, but my money was on me.

I said goodnight to David and crawled back into bed, hesitantly. I removed my glasses, turned off the lamp on my nightstand, and closed my eyes. But I could hardly go to sleep that night, even with the nightlight on.

The Arrival of Olli & Salla’s Baby Boy

The week after David visited, another good friend of mine from back home visited, Matt, and we enjoyed the week together catching up around Oxford and London. And after saying “goodbye” to Matt, it was back to my revisions. Officially. As there was now nothing between my exams but about six weeks in which to prepare. The pressure was now on, in full force.

I was working on finals revisions from the Kilns late one evening when I began receiving a series of regular updates from my good friend Olli. He and his wife are from Finland, and they’ve been like family to me while Jen’s been back home. Olli is doing research here in Oxford at the moment, and his wife, Salla, had been having painful contractions with their second child for well over a month now. They had been hoping he’d arrive and give her some relief for some time.

I was very happy to hear from Olli that Salla was finally going into labor that evening. He asked me for prayer when it looked like they would be taking Salla into the hospital theater for surgery. So I did. And then I waited. And then I got another message. Salla was now in the recovery room, it seemed. And the baby was just fine.

My phone rang a minute later. It was Olli.

“Congratulations!” I told him. He laughed.

“Thank you,” he said, in his Finnish accent.

“That sounded pretty exciting,” I told him.

“Yes, much more exciting than we were hoping for,” he told me. “It looked a bit like Kill Bill in there for a while.”

I laughed out loud. I told him that didn’t make me feel good knowing our first one was arriving in just a few months, and he reminded me that every one was different. And that the birth of their first son, Elias, was much easier than this. I told him I was just glad to know both Salla and the little one were doing all right.

He told me they asked if he’d like to cut the umbilical cord, and he said he told them he would let them do what they do, and not get in the way. I thought that was wise, and I told him I was looking forward to meeting the little guy, and to let me know if there was anything at all I could do to help. And then I thanked him for the call. I was so thankful, at the moment, for their friendship.

A Challenge from Home

I was working from the library at college the next day when I received an Instant Message from a friend back home. We hadn’t talked for a while, and he was checking in to ask how things were going. I told him things were going all right. That I was just plugging away on finals prep, but really missing my wife.

He didn’t realize we had made the decision for Jen to stay back home while I prepared for and finished my exams. Both Jen and I knew how much time my studies would take, and that I’d hardly be around to care for her and look after her, were she here with me. We both knew the first several months of her pregnancy were incredibly difficult on her. She had lost 20 pounds almost immediately, and she needed quite a bit of help from her family.

If anything were to happen to her, and if she needed to be looked after again, we knew it’d be best for her to be there, rather than here. Even though it was easily one of the most difficult decisions we’d made. Knowing we’d end up being apart for nearly six months, during our first pregnancy. And even though we both made this decision with tears in our eyes, over Skype.

But it was during this Instant Message conversation with my friend from back home that I was challenged on our decision. He told me that it would be my decision to neglect my wife over my studies, if she were to return. And I really struggled with that comment. Seated there in the library, surrounded by my books, his comment made me think maybe I had made the wrong decision.

I was anxious to talk with Jen when we caught up later that night on Skype, and she reminded me this was something we were in agreement on, and that she thought this was what was best, even though we both wanted to be together, and even though it was incredibly difficult. I thanked her for her reminder. And for her encouragement.

She smiled at me, with that beautiful smile, and we talked a bit longer before I told her “goodnight,” and continued on with my studies, well into the early morning hours.

Words of Encouragement from a Stranger

I gave a tour of the Kilns a couple days later, for two American teenagers and their mother. They were from Wheaton, Illinios, and they were thrilled to be visiting the Kilns for the first time.

When they were getting ready to leave, after the tour, the mom, who had asked if I was married earlier on in the tour, and who I had told about Jen being pregnant and back home, turned to me and said something that took me completely off guard.

She encouraged me to not let what other people might say get to me about our decision to stick it out here, and to have Jen stay there, as I prepare for my finals. I thought this was strange, because I hadn’t mentioned to her that anyone had even said anything about it.

This woman encouraged me to not worry what others say, as long as Jen and I were in agreement, and that what I was doing here was really important.

Before leaving, she turned to me and said, “You know, your daughter will never know that you weren’t there during this time. If she were 10, then that’d be much more difficult.”

I was struck by the timing of her comment, and I was so encouraged by it.

Easter Sunday: Waking up the World

Easter Sunday came just a few days later. And I’m not sure why, exactly, but I had really been wanting to take part in a sunrise service here in Oxford, and late the night before I finally managed to find one. It started at 6:00 in the city center, which is a 20-minute bike ride away. So I set my alarm for 4:30 the next morning.

When my alarm went off at 4:30, just four hours after going to bed, I begrudgingly picked up my phone and went to reset it for 15 mins later, so I could get a bit more sleep, but then I felt God calling out to me, saying “Idou!” (Greek for “Behold!” or “Look!”), “I am doing something new here! Come see!”

God doesn’t usually speak to me in Greek. So I figured this was probably important.

And it was bizarre, but even though I had been struggling to find the strength and motivation to get out of bed only moments before, I suddenly found myself excited to get up and to go celebrate this day.

I showered while the house slept, dressed, and then stepped outside into the still dark-morning. The birds were chirping as I climbed on my bike, and it was as if all of nature was waking up and attesting to this new thing God did on Easter Sunday.

As I rode to the city center in the dark, chilly morning air, I remembered the scene in the Bible when the women went to the tomb that first Easter Sunday, to pay their respects for Jesus, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they had heard the same thing that morning. I wondered if God had woken them up and said, “Look! Come and see what I have done!”

And it made me so happy, to think that somehow, 2,000 years later, I was taking part in the same celebration.

I smiled as I rode past Magdalene Tower, remembering how packed High Street was on May Day around this same hour last year. When students stumbled out of their colleges, many wearing only their underwear, and carrying with them the last remnants of their alcohol from the party that had begun the night before.

I thought about the crowds that gathered for this May Day event, and I wondered where they all were on this Easter morning.

“How can you possibly be sleeping at such a time as this?” I thought to myself. And I felt like He was telling me, “The world is asleep, Ryan.”

About a dozen of us gathered at the top of the oldest tower in Oxford early this Easter Sunday morning. There were mostly gray-haired couples, dressed warmly with thick jackets, but there was one younger couple, around my age, as well as a 30-something father with his young son.

There was also a man who smelled a bit like alcohol, and who went pale when he arrived at the top of the tower and looked out across the high, 360-degree view of the city’s rooftops and steeples. Looking about, he turned around and went back down stairs, before finally returning about five minutes later, deciding to brave it.

We listened as verses 1 to 10 were read from Matthew 28, we sang several hymns, we prayed, and then we took communion, tearing pieces from an unsliced loaf of french bread, and drinking from a gobbet of red wine.

By the time we were done, the sun had just risen, casting light on the formerly dark city, and we left the church tower with smiles as the city woke up. And I couldn’t help but felt like we all left carrying with us light and joy and gratitude for this Great News. I couldn’t help but think, as I climbed back on my bike and made my way home, if the tomb really was empty that morning, if Jesus really is risen, then that’s got to change everything.

The world may very well be asleep, I thought, but we are called to wake it up.

Saturday: A trip to London with Rob

Saturday morning I hopped on a London-bound train in Oxford and enjoyed the meandering, snakelike ride through the English countryside to the gentle noise of the train shuffling along the train tracks. It was a rainy morning, which meant my two-mile bike ride to the train station from our house in north Oxford was less than enjoyable. I hoped by the time I’d arrived in London my clothes would somehow, perhaps miraculously, be dry. They weren’t.

An hour later I found a seat in Paddington Station, the large train station in London. The air was cool and crisp that morning, and it seemed to seep in from somewhere, even though the station was covered with a high-rising, glass roof. I was waiting on the next train from Oxford to arrive, as Rob and I would be attending a conference in the city that day, and he had booked his ticket on the train after mine.

After 15 minutes of listening to my iPod and people-watching, I spotted Rob in the crowd walking toward the spot where I was sitting. He’s just tall enough to stand out, but he also dresses in a way that makes him blend in with the English crowds. You’d never know Rob was an American if you didn’t know already, passing by him in England. The first time I met Rob, at a talk at the Mitre Pub in Oxford, I described him as much more Oxford than me, with his scarf and long hair. On this particular morning, Rob wore a tweed flat cap, with his long, dark hair curling out the back. He’s still more Oxford than me.

“Hey, how are you?” Rob asked, greeting me with a handshake and his broad grin. Rob’s also studying at Oxford, in the MBA program. He’s the kind of genuinely nice guy who instantly puts you at ease, and who you know will go far, be it in business or otherwise.

We were in London first thing on this Saturday morning for a men’s conference. Mark Driscoll, a pastor from Seattle we both appreciate, was in town, speaking to a group of men at the Royal Albert Hall. I had never been to the Hall before; nor had Rob. He peeked at his phone from time to time as we crossed a large, expansive park filled with trees and people on walks, peering at a map on his small screen leading us in the direction of the Hall.

About 15 minutes after leaving the train station, we spotted the hall: a giant, domed building looming just beyond the edge of the park. It was an incredible structure. Massive and beautiful. We made our way in through the double-doors and took an elevator to the third floor to find our seats. Walking down the hallway that bent along with the curve of the building’s exterior walls, I took in the pictures that hung on the walls, showing off the many performances that have taken place in the hall over the years. Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Hendrix and the Beatles. Coldplay, Rihanna and Bono. Amazing.

Rob and I slipped into a row of seats on the top-most level balcony and found our seats. The morning’s worship service had already begun when we arrived, so we joined in. The day included several speakers, all talking about man’s ministry in different aspects of life. At work. In the church. And at home.

Mark Driscoll spoke about man’s ministry in the home. He mentioned that he’s currently working on a book about marriage, along with his wife. And that this process had given him a lot of fodder for the day’s talk. If you aren’t familiar with Driscoll, he’s known for his in-your-face, blunt teaching style. He’s well known for his conservative theology (man as the head of the household, speaking out against homosexual marriages and abortion) and his more liberal presentation (he’s more likely to preach in jeans and an MMA t-shirt than a suit and tie).

Mark’s also known for yelling, particularly during his messages aimed at men. And as this was a men’s conference, with a hall filled with thousands and thousands of men, I was just waiting for him to erupt. But he kept things pretty tame. Only bursting out in a yell on one occasion, recounting for us a time he was counseling a father and daughter, and having to set a father straight for not taking better care of his daughter, and allowing her to get caught up in a relationship that ultimately ended in her being physically abused. In this case, the yelling seemed well deserved.

But one of the things Driscoll said that day, from his point on the stage in front of thousands and thousands of men, one of the things that stood out to me most was about how men ought to respond to their wife’s needs. He talked about what women want most out of their husbands. How they want someone who will be there for them. Someone who will be present and who will just listen to them when they need to talk. How they want their husband to be their best friend.

“How are you doing at being your wife’s best friend,” Driscoll asked from the front of Royal Albert Hall. And I left that day pondering this question, all the way to Paddington Train Station, and I continued to chew on it for the entire duration of my train ride back to Oxford.

It was an incredible, convicting question. “How are you doing at being your wife’s best friend?” And as simple as it might seem, I felt like the day’s trip to London and the price of my ticket to the conference was all worth it for that one question. And it was a great chance to hang out and catch up with Rob, too.

Tuesday: Greek, Prawn & Mayo sandwich, and the new President

Tuesday was my second time sitting in on the Greek reading class since the start of the term. My first experience with the reading class, unprepared as I was, was a bit of a wake up call. My lack of time spent practicing Greek over the spring break showed, and I wasn’t about to let that happen again. I put several hours worth of time into my translations for week two so that I would be able to translate my Greek text without being embarrassed when it was my turn in the spotlight.

I left Harris Manchester after working from the library Tuesday morning and made my way across the city to Campion Hall, stopping for a few minutes at the Bodleian Library to say “hi” to Jen and Karli. I pulled my bike off the street and walked it to the front of the large, stone stairs that lead into the Bodleian on Broad Street.

Karli is a friend of Jen’s sister from back home, and she was in Europe doing some traveling. She had stopped over for a night in Oxford when she first arrived a couple week’s earlier, and she was now on her way back to the States, stopping over in Oxford a day early to visit with Jen again.

“How is your panini?” I asked Karli, spotting her chicken pesto panini. Both Jen and her were enjoying lunch from their seats on the large, stone staircase.

“It’s really good!” Karli said, in-between bites of her hot sandwich.

“Good, I’m glad you like it,” I told her. “It’s nice to see other people from back home enjoy the chicken pesto panini as much as I have.”

I asked if Karli would be joining us for the C. S. Lewis Society meeting that night, and dinner beforehand. She was. And then I continued to make my way to Greek, along High Street, a left turn on St. Aldate’s, past Christ Church and Tom Tower and then a sharp right onto Brewer Street, a narrow lane, which is home to Campion Hall.

I locked my bike up outside the large, stone-structured hall and made my way into the dimly lit, library-looking room where the reading class is held. I took my seat at the large round table where we’d be reading from, along with only a handful of other students who were there at this point. I was a bit early, which was already an improvement on my first week.

The reading class is meant to be an informal time and, since it’s held at 1:00 in the afternoon, people generally eat their lunches during the hour. 1:00 is the traditional lunch hour in England, which always seemed a bit late for me when I first arrived, but now I find myself eating after the reading class, as I have too much to get done beforehand, and I’m too nervous to eat during it.

The girl next to me was working on a sandwich when I took my seat. “Prawn and Mayo,” read the sandwich packaging that sat on the table beside her notebook.

“Wow…,” I thought to myself. “Prawn and Mayo . . . That’d be a pretty hard sell in the States!”

The English tend to use less euphemisms than we Americans do, I’ve found. For example, where we call tuna fish sandwiches, “Tuna Salad” or just “Tuna Fish Sandwich,” the English call it “Tuna and Mayo.” Same thing for “Chicken Salad;” the English call our “Chicked Salad” sandwiches “Chicken and Mayo.”

For us, in the States, we don’t want the word “Mayonnaise” in the title of our sandwich. Even if it is the first ingredient. No, we want it to be called “Salad.” That sounds much healthier.

I tried not to stare too much at my neighbor’s “Prawn and Mayo” sandwich as I settled in and unpacked my Greek papers for the class. Soon, Nick King, our silver-haired, sharp-witted English tutor for the reading class, took his seat at the table, setting down his own lunch, asking if everyone had a chance to grab some coffee, and then asking the poor guy to his left if he’d mind starting us off. Then, very quickly, we were off, rounding the table reading the Greek text aloud, and then sharing our translation with the class.

I didn’t feel nearly as nervous this time around, having spent several hours preparing. When it came to my turn, I found myself much more confident in my reading of the Greek text, and sharing my Greek translation. There was no need to ask for help with any Greek vocab that stumped me this time around, and I was soon passing the baton off to my Prawn and Mayo sandwich eating neighbor.

Leaving Campion Hall that afternoon was a completely different experience from the week before. Having prepared, I actually found myself enjoying the hour of Greek reading from Matthew. Well, as much as one can enjoy reading Greek indoors on a sunny spring day in Oxford.

Dinner with Walter & My First night as President

After a bit more studying at Harris Manchester, I hopped back on my bike and headed across town to Little Clarendon Street, with cobblestones underfoot and stringed lights overhead. A handful of us were meeting with Walter Hooper for dinner at Pierre Victoire, Walter’s favorite restaurant in Oxford, a small, family-owned French restaurant, before the C. S. Lewis Society meeting.

I was the first to arrive, so I gave the host our name and he showed me to our table. It was long, and it sat in the front window of the restaurant. Not long after, Walter and Cole came in, along with David. Soon, Jen and Kari arrived, along with Melissa, the temporary Kilns warden.

We had a great time, laughing and talking over dinner. Walter kept asking if I were having the escargot, and I assured him I was not.

Over dinner, Walter shared with me about an article he had recently read in the paper. It was about an interesting trend in which more and more English women were marrying Muslim men. One of the primary reasons for this trend according to the article, Walter shared with me, was that these Muslim men are more confident in what they believe in than their English counterparts.

“Hmmm…,” I said, pondering Walter’s recount of the article. “I think there’s probably a lesson for us all in there.”

When we had finished with our dinner and dessert, and when the bill was taken care of, we made our way down Saint Giles Street, toward Pusey House, where the Society meets each Tuesday night.

The second-story room was full by the time we arrived, with small groups of people gathered around the room, talking with each other. I quickly made my way to the front of the room, as we were already a few minutes past our normal starting time, having waited a while at the restaurant for our bill to arrive.

“Hello and thank you all for coming,” I said with a smile once I had everyone’s attention. “I’m Ryan Pemberton and, in case you don’t know me, I am the new President of the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society.”

The sound of clapping filled the room, echoing off the second story walls and pouring out through the open glass windows into the cool spring evening air.

It was one those unreal moments in life where time itself seems to slow down a bit, just enough for you to look around and take in the reality of which you never thought you’d ever experience. Introducing Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis’s former secretary as the evening’s speaker. As President of the Society. And yet, there I was. Doing just that. The smile on my face was more than an obligatory “welcome to our little society” smile, it was a pure, unadulterated reflection of the joy that was tumbling out of me in that moment as I reflected on the incredible things God had done in our short time here in Oxford.

President of the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society . . . Introducing Walter Hooper as the evening’s speaker, a man who was not only C. S. Lewis’s former secretary and friend, but now a good friend of mine. It was all so unreal, and I stood in awe of it all, in awe of God’s goodness and His incredible gifts, as the sound of clapping filled the room. My eyes caught Jen’s, just for a moment, from her spot sitting in the crowd, and I felt as though I simply could not be more happy than I felt in that moment.

“It really is a pleasure to be here,” I said, as the clapping quieted. “Thank you for joining us, and it is my pleasure to introduce tonight’s speaker, my friend, Walter Hooper.”

The sound of clapping once again filled the room.

Wednesday: Goodbye to one, Hello to two

I took a break from the Harris Manchester Library on Wednesday morning to meet Jen and Karli at the entrance gate to the college gardens. Karli was on her way to the bus station, as she’d be flying back to the States later that afternoon.

They arrived with hot chicken pesto paninis from the Alternative Tuck Shop in-hand, as well as Karli’s luggage.

“Well I’m really glad you were able to stop over and see us,” I told Karli before saying ‘goodbye.’ “Say hello to your family for us.”

“I will,” she said with a smile. “They’ll all be jealous.”

I turned and walked back toward the front doors of Harris Manchester, passing a guy with earphones blaring a Taylor Swift tune as I went. He was singing along as he walked, quite loudly, too. It made me laugh. And it reminded me of the time in the Bodleian Library when I opened my laptop and I couldn’t get it to stop blaring out Barlow Girl’s “I need you to love me” lyrics. At least this guy was outside, I thought to myself. And completely oblivious.

I returned to the library for a bit more reading, before stopping for lunch myself. I also wandered down to the Alternative Tuck and grabbed a sandwich for lunch, like the girls. After finishing my sandwich from the comfortable leather chairs of the Junior Common Room, I made my way back up the wide, stone staircase to the library for some more studying.

Passing through the wooden double-doors, I had a funny feeling that I had forgotten something. I began patting my hands on my jean pockets, hoping to jumpstart my memory. Katrina, the librarian, was standing behind her desk when she saw me and asked, “Forget your keys?”

Her question apparently did the trick, as it was just then I realized what I had forgotten.

“No, tea,” I said, looking back at her. “I was just remembering I need some tea.”

“Oh, and you thought of that when you looked at me? Why, because I’m English?” she said in a joking voice.

Without missing a beat, I replied, “Yes, that was a racial stereotype,” to which she replied by rolling her head back and laughing out loud. In her library voice, of course.

A few minutes later, I returned to my second story, window desk seat in the library with my hot cup of tea in hand. Now I was ready to return to my studies. I love hot, slightly sweet English tea after lunch on a cold, UK day.

It wasn’t long into my afternoon studies that I heard from a friend of mine from back home. Brandon, a guy I used to work with. We catch up from time to time. He to ask how life in Oxford is going; me to ask how life at the firm and in the Northwest is going.

On this particular afternoon, we found ourselves Instant Messaging each other, talking about a renewed thirst for His Word I had recently experienced. He was excited to hear this, and he asked me if I had read a book called “Crazy Love” by a pastor out of California by the name of Francis Chan. I told him I hadn’t, but that I planned to. And that I’ve really enjoyed his ministry and teaching.

me:  the thing i love about Francis Chan is that i feel like he has his priorities straight, in a way that is biblical, but completely counter-cultural

Brandon:  Dude, he’s killer

me:  he hurts for the poor and the non-believers

Brandon:  Jesus lover for sure

me:  and i feel like that’s what we need, more leaders like that

G.Brandon:  Thats because he loves Jesus

Saying “hello” to two more

That afternoon, I left Harris Manchester and met up with two family members at the train station: my cousin Noah, who recently graduated from the University of Michigan, and his dad, Randy. They’d be traveling around Europe, and London was their first stop. They arrived that day, and they took the train from London to Oxford to stay with us overnight before continuing their journeys.

I met them at the train station, with a hug and smiles all around. They wore large, hiking backpacks, which held all of their belongings for their trip. They looked surprisingly awake, considering the trans-Atlantic trip they had just made. They asked if I’d like a coffee before we made our way back to the city center. I thanked them but said, “No thanks,” and then we were on our way to meet up with Jen. We found Jen on Cornmarket Street, in the middle of the city center. Noah and Randy said “hello” to Jen, and then we began showing them around Oxford. They had never been before, so it was fun to show them all the old buildings and sights.

They took lots of photos as we walked. Of the 400-year old Bodleian Library, and of Christ Church and Tom Tower. We walked along the old city walls that run along the perimeter of Magdalen College and then walked back through the city center, stopping at the Eagle & Child for dinner. It was their first pub experience, and we were happy to share it with them.

After cleaning up several plates worth of bangers & mash, Noah and Randy replaced their large backpacks on their backs, and we made our way north to our home. By the time we arrived, they were happy to unload their backpacks, remove their shoes and settle in for the night.

Business at Hotel Pemberton was booming this week.

Thursday: Essay day and dinner with Jen 

I awoke Thursday morning to say my “goodbyes” to Noah and Randy, wish them safe, fun travels as they made their way around Europe, and then I was off to the library. I had an essay deadline that evening, and so I would be spending the next 10 hours typing away frantically to hit it and get my paper submitted in time.

Essay days are always a bit stressful. Making sure I have understood the question, finished all my background reading, and finally put together a semi-coherent essay that argues my point. But submitting my essay makes Thursday evening’s one of the most enjoyable evenings of the week. By this point in the week, I’ve normally been working nearly non-stop on my reading and writing, often not even stopping on essay days for lunch, so I’m always ready to relax in the evening and enjoy some time with Jennifer.

This particular Thursday evening was no different. We stayed in and made dinner. The perfect way to relax and spend some time together.

Jen had made a cake to help celebrate Karli’s birthday when she returned to Oxford earlier in the week. We had enjoyed it when she was here, but there was still several pieces left, even after Jen had brought some to the Kilns to share.

“You should clean up that cake,” Jen said, motioning to the cake that was sitting on the kitchen counter around 10:00 that night.

“I will. But I have to eat my dinner first,” I told her.

Truthfully, I was finishing my second dinner. Okay, honest truth, I had to finish seconds of my second dinner. And then I’d get to the cake. What can I say, I’m a growing boy.

Friday: My 2nd European Reformation Tutorial

My European Reformation tutorials for this term are held on Friday mornings. At 10:00 in my tutor’s offices at Wycliffe Hall, just a short, five-minute bike ride from where we live. If the weather’s nice, I like to start off these mornings with a run. I normally don’t have time, but with a 10:00 a.m. tutorial, it seems to work out as a good filler.

John, the other student in my tutorial, had recommended at the end of our first tutorial that we include each other in our e-mails when we submit our essays for the week, that way we have an idea of what points and arguments the other has made before we meet. I thought that seemed like a good idea. I pulled up his essay on my laptop while I ate a bowl of cereal standing in our kitchen that morning and I began reading.

Right away, I found myself in awe of his work. While I found him to be rather intelligent and on the ball during our first tutorial, I was completely shocked at just how good his essay was, particularly in comparison to what I had submitted.

“John uses big words,” I found myself thinking while eating my bowl of cereal as the morning sunlight poured in from our living room window. I wondered if I should bring color crayons along with me to our tutorial to go along with the essay I had produced.

Our second tutorial went great. John met me at the front door to the building at Wycliffe where we meet, wearing a large grin and his brown, floppy hair. Andrew, our tutor, welcomed us into his office when we arrived, and he stood so we could squeeze in and find a seat amongst the boxes and books piled up in every spare inch of the small room.

Andrew asked us to, briefly, share the key points we sought to make in our essays, before running through the week’s question and his thoughts. I felt good about my summary, but the feelings of embarrassment after reading John’s essay still haunted me. Thankfully, the thing about the English is that, no matter what they might think, they’re not likely to actually tell you to your face. This allowed me to enjoy our time together, and devour the conversation, taking notes of all of Andrew’s points.

An hour later, John and I were walking back down the spiral staircase from Andrew’s office, and walking back outdoors into the sunny Friday morning air. I was off to the library to pick up my books for the following week’s essay, and John was off to work with his rowing team, which he coaches. Clearly, he had things figured out. I thanked John for the conversation, wished him a great week, and then rode off toward the city center on my bike in the warm, sun-filled air.

The last thing I expected to see in England

I spent the rest of the day gathering books for next week’s essay, and working on my application for my proposed extended essay topic; a dissertation which would replace on my of elective classes. I planned to submit an abstract and bibliography for a proposed essay on the topic of C. S. Lewis & Christianity, looking at how he defended the faith after becoming a Christian. In particular, I’d be looking at how Lewis defended Christianity against those alternative ideas he previously held as an atheist, and later as a theist (who was drawn to the pagan myths of a dying god). I was excited to be working with Dr. Michael Ward, a Chaplain and member of the Theology Faculty here at Oxford, who has written a book on Lewis and the Narnia series that has received a significant amount of attention recently.

I felt honored to have Dr. Ward agree to sign on as my advisor for the paper, as he’s not only a good friend (through our similar interest in the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society), but he’s also brilliant (having graduated from Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrew’s universities), and the man N. T. Wright declared the world’s foremost expert on C. S. Lewis. This will both work in my favor, and against me, in a way. Because of his incredibly deep knowledge of the topic, Dr. Ward will be able to help me with any questions I might have as I worked through this paper. On the other hand, his expectations will also be sky high. All the same, I’m both happy and honored for the opportunity.

After spending most of the day working from the Harris Manchester Library, I rode to the Starbucks on Cornmarket Street, in the city center, to meet up with Jen. She was on her way back from her day spent working at the Kilns, and we were going to meet up to grab a cup of coffee and figure out what we’d like to do for our date night in the city that evening.

I parked my bike just around the corner from Starbucks and, as I did, I saw something I never thought I’d see: a guy around my age wearing a “Les Schwab” jacket . . . In case you’re unfamiliar with Les Schwab, it’s the name of a chain of tire centers from our home in the northwest corner of the States.

Of all the things we’ve seen in England since arriving, this, more than anything else was a complete surprise. Suddenly, the world felt very small, indeed.

Saturday: London the day after the Royal Wedding

This was Steve’s third time visiting us in England since we moved over. Steve had never been to London before, and we hadn’t made a trip there on either of his two previous trips. His fiance, Jamie, is an avid traveler, and, having been to London, she insisted that he needed to go.

I was sure Jamie would strangle him if I sent Steve back without a trip to London yet again. I didn’t want my best friend to be strangled, so I decided we’d better make it happen. (I’m just kidding, by the way. Jamie’s great. And I don’t think she actually strangles people.)

So Saturday morning Steve and I hopped on a bus and headed to the city. As we pulled out of the bus station, the driver came on the intercom and welcomed us. He told us about how long it’d take to get to London, and after a few minutes of chatter, he told us to make sure our seatbelts were on. I thought this was funny, because the seat in front of me was taller than I was, which I figured would make sure I wasn’t going anywhere in the event of an emergency stop. Steve obediently put his on, while I looked out the window at the countryside passing by on this sunny morning.

“Do I need to go tell the bus driver the guy next to me isn’t wearing his seat belt?” Steve joked, turning toward me. I laughed. “Yeah, actually,” I replied. “I’d love to see how that goes for you.”

I asked him what, in particular, he was hoping to take in while we were there. He told me he wasn’t a big sight-seeing guy, and so a lot of the typical sights he could probably do without. He said he would be interested in seeing Westminster Abbey, though, as it was the day after the Royal Wedding and all. I told him I’d take him to Harrod’s, too, as I figured he’d like to see that.

My eyes grew heavy as we talked and soon I found myself drifting into a bit of a nap while the bus scooted smoothly along the freeway, leading us through the countryside and toward London.

We picked up a map shortly after arriving in London. I found Harrod’s on the map and soon we were off in that direction. Walking past Hyde Park. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the park was interspersed with people enjoying being outside on this particularly nice afternoon. Some with their dogs. Some with their kids. A handful of couples.

We passed a small men’s clothing store along the way. With a window full of ties on display. Steve wanted to step inside to see if anything stood out to him for his wedding, so we did. There was a long table in the middle of the store overflowing with ties in neat rows, organized by color. Steve picked through them while I made my way around the store, glancing at ties and suit jackets.

The owner of the store came up from a staircase that led downstairs and asked us if we needed any help. Steve told him we were looking for some ties for his wedding, and so they talked for a bit. He ended up finding a tie he liked. For himself. So he picked it up for his wedding.

As we were checking out, I asked the shop owner what the previous day had been like for him. The day of the Royal Wedding.

“Slow,” he said. He told us this side of town, even though it wasn’t far from Westminster Abbey or Buckingham Palace, was just empty. That it was a bit of a ghost town. Because people were either at one of those two locations for the big day, or watching it on TV.

We thanked him for the tie and continued to make our way to Harrods. When we finally arrived a couple miles later, we took in the store’s window displays, filled with different designs of Royal Wedding cakes. Some were big and extravagant, others were more modern and simple. Some were covered in great displays of the Union Jack, others were a bit more subtle. After taking in more than 30 Royal Wedding cake designs, we walked through the large double doors and found our way around Harrods.

We passed through the watch selection in the jewelry department, with glass cases filled with rows of watches that cost as much as a small home, before entering the market and restaurants section of Harrod’s first floor. Steve found Laduree, a small, french bakery known for its macaroons, and bought a small box filled with a variety of flavors. He shared with me that Laduree was the creator of the French macaroon. He was happy.

We continued upstairs, passing through the men’s department, filled with suits and ties, and we noticed the opera music playing over the speaker system. Or, at least, that’s what we assumed we were hearing. We rounded a corner only to find a woman in a gown with a white shawl over her shoulders standing on a balcony and singing. “Much more impressive than a speaker system,” I thought to myself.

After we had enough of Harrod’s, we made our way across West London and found our way to Westminster Abbey, the site of the Royal Wedding the day before. I had been to Westminster Abbey several times, but I had never seen it so busy. There were people lined up around the entire block, waiting to get inside for a tour. The lawn in front of the large church was filled with people as well. We snapped a couple quick pictures and then escaped from what felt like a mob scene.

Across the street from Westminster Abbey is Parliament and Big Ben. Since Steve hadn’t been before, we made the short walk around Parliament’s expansive building and halfway across the large bridge that crosses the River Thames so we could take in the view. The view from Westminster Bridge, with Parliament and Big Ben on one side, and the London Eye on the other, is my favorite view in all of London. It’s really quite something.

From there, we made our way back across town and walked around Buckingham Palace, which wasn’t nearly as busy as Westminster Abbey, but it was still full of its fair share of tourists snapping photos. City workers were still working on tearing down large platforms and scaffolding, which we assumed were used to house the media from all around the world on the big day. Most of the chairs had been removed, it looked like, but a few stragglers gave a hint as to just how big this event had been.

When we had snapped some photos in front of Buckingham Palace, we walked along St. James Park and made our way back toward Marble Arch, where we had been dropped off by our bus earlier that day. Neither one of us had eaten since that morning, and it was now nearly 5:00. We found a pub along the way, thanks to a young British guy in a top-hat and tuxedo standing in front of a hotel, and we both ordered large burgers at the bar when we arrived. It was a nice end to Steve’s first time in London, sitting there in the wood-covered pub, with something like five different TVs all playing video and running commentary of the previous day’s wedding events. We clinked our water glasses together and dug into our burgers when they arrived, wasting little time in our hunger.

The Marble Arch bus stop was only a short walk from the pub and we were soon speeding northwest on the M40, the large bus scooting along smoothly in the evening air.

Sunday: 1 Year Later & Roses on the River

Sunday was a tough day. We knew it would be. May 1 was the one-year anniversary of saying goodbye to our sister, Hayley. We knew it’d be made extra difficult being away from our family. Being so far from home. Neither one of us were looking forward to this day. But we wanted to use it to remember Hayley. In a special way. I had picked up a bunch of roses. Pink. Hayley’s favorite color. Two days earlier. And I had a plan on how we could use them to make sure Hayley was honored, even from here in Oxford.

Steve was gone when we woke up that morning. He left for the city center, wanting to give us space. It wasn’t expected, or even suggested, but he’s thoughtful that way.

We slept in a bit and, when we both were up, I made us breakfast. We took our time that morning. And when we were finally ready, we left the house and made our way toward the river. To the Cherwell River Boathouse. I carried Hayley’s pink roses in my hand. And Jen’s hand in my other.

Walking down a gravel lane about a half-mile from our home, the small pebbles crunching beneath our feet, we came up to the boathouse. A long, wooden building with a low roof that sloped toward the river. Several tables were spread out on one side of the building. And there was an open door halfway down the front of the building, facing the river, where you could rent boats. I handed the man behind the desk my debit card, a guy around my age, with tattoos on his arm and large, circular earrings. He asked how long we wanted it for, and I told him an hour would do. He pointed us toward the next room over. A large, open garage. And told us to grab our punting pole, seat cushions, and a paddle and then head to our boat. Anyone we wanted. So we did.

Jen got in first. I handed her the pole and the cushions and the paddle. I untied the rope that fastened the punt to the dock and then hurried to enter the boat before it gently scooted away, out into the smooth-surfaced river.

“You want me to go first, to get us out of here?” Jen asked me, standing at the rear of the boat with the long pole in her hand. “That way you can see how to do it and then take it from there?”

“Sure. Yeah, that sounds good,” I said, taking a seat in the center of the boat as we glided softly into the middle of the river. Jen used the long pole to straighten us out and then, just like that, we were moving north along the river. Floating as the boat rocked ever so gently from side to side.

“You really know what you’re doing,” I told Jen, from my seat in the boat, she standing several feet behind me. “I could get used to this.”

There were a handful of other boats on the water that day, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly busy. It still felt a bit like an escape. It was still relaxing.

“Okay, are you ready to take it from here?” Jen asked me, after we had made it a ways from the dock. And the other boats.

“Yeah, yeah I can do that, I guess,” I said, somewhat hesitantly. I was enjoying my seat. And the ride. But I also definitely wanted to give punting a shot.

Jen and I traded spots, her now sitting in the middle of the boat, and me now standing at the rear. I used the pole to push off the bottom of the river, and quickly noticed it wasn’t nearly as easy as Jen made it look. The bottom of the river was quite muddy, which meant the pole would stick with each shove. It took some getting used to, but soon we were moving again.

“Use your pole to steer us,” Jen told me. “Like a rudder. Let it float and gently move it from side to side.”

When we had made it a ways further, and when there were no longer any boats around, Jen opened the bouquet of roses. And handed me one. I let the pole rest gently in one hand, and took the rose in the other. I shared a memory of Hayley. Jen smiled. Then I laid the rose softly on the surface of the river. And watched it float along the side of the boat, with tears in my eyes, before trailing behind us.

When it was a ways off, I returned to punting, taking the pole in my hand and pushing off the bottom of the river. We moved along a bit further and then Jen took a rose for herself. She held it in one hand, turning it over and over while sharing a memory of Hayley. One that meant a lot to her. Before reaching her arm over the side of the boat and placing the pink rose on the river. Then, slowly, it was floating along behind us.

We continued along the river. Sharing memories. And dropping roses. Until all that was left was a string of roses. And a string of our memories. Of Hayley. Of our sister. Who left us long before we thought she should.

When all our roses were gone, I said a short prayer. Thanking God for the gift of memories. And for the gift of the time we had with Hayley. Time we wouldn’t trade for anything. For, even though this pain seemed so deep that afternoon while floating along the river, the joy of those memories was deeper. And even though we floated along with tears in our eyes, we also floated along with joy in our hearts. From each memory. And from the knowledge that, where her pain once resided, now there was only Light and Joy and Peace.

I was thankful for that time with my wife. We had not been looking forward to this day. But it turned out much better than either one of us imagined. We ended it with a night of worship at St. Aldate’s, dinner at Tom’s Thai pub, and ice cream at G&D’s. And laughter. Around a table full of friends.

I’m learning that’s how it seems to go. Life. We fear so much. And then, time and time again, He shows up. Bringing with Him light for the darkness we so fear.

That’s how May 1 was for us. Where we thought we’d find only pain and hurt and darkness, there was joy and laughter, even amongst the tears. He is good. Even in the valleys, He is good.

Tuesday: Saying ‘Goodbye’ to Steve, Saying ‘Hello’ to Greek

Tuesday was the day we said ‘goodbye’ to Steve and I said ‘hello’ to my first official day of Trinity Term, my last term of my first year at Oxford.

We called a cab for Steve and I rode with him back to Gloucester Green, along the same route we had walked so many times before. Back and forth between the city center and our home on Northmoor Road. We had had another great time with Steve here in Oxford, and I told him how much we appreciated him taking the time to come visit us.

The cab driver let us out at Gloucester Green, in a circle of large buses coming and going. I said ‘goodbye’ to Steve before he boarded one of the large buses himself and made his way back to London. Back to the airport. And back to the States.

It’s rare to have a friend who’s willing to travel so far to visit, I thought to myself as I made my way across the city center. To cross the Atlantic several times, as Steve has for us. What an incredible gift, I thought to myself. But soon, those warm thoughts were lost in a feeling of being completely overwhelmed by my return to Greek.

I wouldn’t be taking Greek this term as I had the two terms before. Not three times a week, with regular quizzes and translations to submit. Instead, I’d merely be sitting in on a translation class, where we’d walk through the text together and take turns reading and translating the text verse by verse. Much better than the nightmare I woke up to three times a week the previous terms, I figured.

Rhona had sent out an e-mail telling us about the different reading classes available to us this term. One by her, and another by another tutor, Nick King at Campion Hall. I had met Nick before. He’s a very nice, older British man. With a head of silver grey hair, neatly kept, and a sharp witted sense of humor. I chose Nick’s class for the term, not merely for his humor, or for a change, so much as because he would be covering the text I would be tested on as part of my final exams the following spring. That seemed to be the most obvious choice for me.

In her e-mail, Rhona said there’d be no need to prepare for our first day. So I didn’t. Entering Campion Hall, I made my way into a large room with a group huddled in a circle around a group of tables that had been squeezed together to form a large rectangle. Books were piled up in the middle of the table, and the group had just begun reading a passage from Matthew. In Greek. I took a seat on the right side of the circle and quickly noticed two good friends from Rhona’s class: Emily, on one side of the circle, and Lyndon on the other. Lyndon gave me a smile and a gentle wave.

Quickly, I realized everyone in the room was quite proficient in their Greek reading and translation, moving through the text at a dizzying pace. The reading didn’t scare me, but it was the translation that made me rather nervous. Soon, it was my turn. I read aloud my verse and then gave my best at translating, stumbling through a series of unfamiliar Greek words. The fact that I had hardly looked at my Greek over the two-month long vacation certainly didn’t help.

I soon found myself stuck on a word I was completely stumped on. I shook my head and confessed to Nick, who was seated across the large circle from me, that I had no idea what the translation was. The circle of students around the table were quiet, eyes on Nick and myself. He told me it was very similar to the Latin word of the same meaning, thinking surely that would be of help. It wasn’t. It was, instead, merely a reminder of another word I don’t know, and a bit like pouring salt in an open wound.

“Sorry,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “I don’t know Latin.” Someone else piped in with the answer and soon we were moving quickly back around the circle.

I felt horrible. Ashamed at how atrocious my Greek was, particularly in a group of students who were so proficient. I was quickly reminded Oxford attracts some sizable brains.

Before packing up and leaving for the afternoon, I noticed the students to my left and my right had notes on the text. From the looks of it, they had walked through the Greek and written out their translation in English.

“Well that would’ve saved me some embarrassment,” I thought to myself as I packed up my things. I caught up with Emily and Lyndon outside of Campion Hall afterwards. First Emily, then Lyndon. Emily seemed to share my sense of being completely overwhelmed with the return to Greek, which I appreciated, as I iced my wounds from the embarrassing scene. Lyndon fared better than us both, but he, too, shared in our sentiments when he caught up with us. Particularly with Nick’s attempt to use Latin to spur on my Greek.

“Don’t you love that?” Lyndon said with a smile and a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

It was an embarrassing first showing, to be sure, but it helped to know that, at least some of the others, had prepared in advance. I’d make sure I did the same come next week.

Wednesday: Open Forum & Atheism

I spent most of Wednesday working on my essay for the week, which was due Thursday evening. It was on the European Reformation. A topic I’m not well-versed in, which meant I needed to sink extra time into my reading just to get up to speed on the topic.

Wednesday night provided a break from the essay work, though, as it was our first Open Forum evening of the new term. We decided to change things up a bit with the Open Forum this term, choosing to have one worldview represented each week. We’d invite someone from a particular background, be it Atheism, Buddhism, Catholicism, etc., and give them 10-15 minutes to talk about their beliefs. After that, we’d spend the rest of the time in Q&A.

For our first night, we invited Alex to talk about Atheism. Alex is the president of the Oxford Atheist Society, so he was a perfect choice for the evening. And he did a great job.

Alex shared with us why he thought “Atheist” is a fair title, even though many in his camp tend to take issue with it. He explained their point, that we don’t have to carry a title because we don’t believe in fairies, yet we do when we don’t believe in God. He explained that many Atheists take it for granted that anyone would believe in God, but Alex said this is the case anytime you aren’t in the majority. And Theists have always been in the majority. Alex is a smart guy. He’s young, still in his early 20’s, and I appreciate his reasoning.

He talked a bit more about his own personal beliefs before we opened things up for questions. Jen was joining us this evening, along with her friend and co-worker Melissa from the Kilns. Jen asked Alex about the path that had brought him from Catholicism to Atheism. He had shared this story with us on a previous occasion, but Jen hadn’t been there. He gave us the condensed version, and then fielded some more questions.

I asked Alex something that had been on my mind, while listening to him talk. I asked him how his beliefs impact his life or the lives around him on a daily basis. In a practical way.

He looked almost confused by the question. Scrunching his eyebrows behind his glasses as he thought about the question for a few seconds before answering.

“It doesn’t,” he said, looking toward me. “But I don’t think we should look to such beliefs to do that.”

We wrapped up the night on that note, and I found myself chewing on his comment as we left the meeting. I agreed, we certainly shouldn’t “choose” our religion based on what it does for us. Or others. We should believe something because it’s true, and not for what it does for us. Which is why I believe the Christian account.

But Christianity does more than that. More than merely accounting for creation and our role in it, this faith reminds me I’m not the center of the universe, a reminder I often need. Christianity calls me to die to myself, to serve others and to love God with all I have. Christianity warns me against spending my short time on this earth worshipping myself or created things, which comes so easily to us. And I think that makes a difference, both in my life and in the lives of those around me.

I compared this with Alex’s response to my question: “How does your faith impact your life and the lives of those around you?” . . . “It doesn’t.”

How sad, I thought to myself, as we made our walk back north to Northmoor Road. And, as we made our way back home, I was wondering if Alex was thinking the same thing about his beliefs.

Thursday: Senior Tutor Mtg

Thursday morning I was scheduled to sit down with the Senior Tutor and Principal at College. To review my academic progress, and make sure everything was going okay. Everyone at Harris Manchester has this meeting at the start of the term, which means these meetings are super short. Only five minutes or so.

I made my way out of the library Thursday morning and up the wooden staircase leading to the Principal’s office for my meeting. Principal Waller met me at the door with a big, beaming smile and a warm, British, “Hello.”

He asked me if I wanted a cup of tea, and I thanked him but said, “No thank you.”

Lesley, the Senior Tutor, was seated at a desk near the window with some papers in her hand. My tutors’ reports, I assumed. She looked up from them as I entered and welcomed me.

Lesley is pretty straightforward, which I appreciate, so there was little small-talk. I had plenty of work to get back to in submitting my first week’s essay, and I’m sure the fact that they had plenty of other students to see helped, too.

“Well, we’re very happy with your work,” Lesley said, looking from her papers to me with a warm smile. Principal Waller looked at me and smiled as well. I thanked them, and I told them I was very happy to hear that. And then I let their words set in while they continued to talk.

It’s just that, it’s still a little unreal for me to hear that. That Oxford is happy with my work . . . Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d hear that.

After several minutes, I made my way back down the stairs leading to Principal Waller’s office, down the hallway and up the stairs leading to the Harris Manchester library. To wrap up my essay, which would take up the rest of my day.

Friday: My first European Reformation Tutorial

I made my way to Wycliffe Hall Friday morning for my first tutorial of the term. Wycliffe Hall is one of the few evangelical schools at Oxford. It’s where Lyndon is a member. My tutor for this paper teaches for Wycliffe, which is why my tutorial was there, in his office.

Walking up to Wycliffe, I met my classmate for the term. John Ash. I had met John during my first term at Oxford. When I had come to Wycliffe for lunch with another John I knew. From Greek class. John’s a tall guy. Maybe 6’2″. With dark brown hair and an athletic frame. I found out later he’s a rower.

“Ryan, good to see you again,” he said, greeting me with a smile. “I thought I recognized your name,” he commented, referring to the e-mail our tutor Andrew had sent out to us both before the start of the term.

We entered through a tall door and climbed a wooden, spiral staircase. We found Andrew’s door at the top of the stairs and, knocking, heard him answer from within.

“Hello,” he answered, in his low, British accent. “Come in.”

We did. Andrew stood up from his seat in the middle of the cramped office space. Cramped because it was not only small, but because it was filled to the brim with books and boxes. Bookshelves lined the walls of his triangle-shaped office, climbing high up into the ceiling. And boxes sat around the office’s floor, stacked on one another, leaving just enough room for three chairs.

Andrew is a younger guy, with close-shaven hair that’s nearly as long as the scruffy beard on his face. He has big, attentive eyes, and he welcomed us as we entered the room.

“Hello,” he said, greeting us. “Squeeze in and find a chair.”

I turned my shoulders and did my best to squeeze around him and into the chair on the opposite side of the small room. Taking my seat, Andrew and John did the same before he welcomed us.

We talked briefly about what brought us here to Oxford, and what we’ve been working on up to this point. Andrew then opened with a short prayer, which I’ve never had in a tutorial before, and I thought was great. A moment later we were launching headfirst into the paper we had submitted the night before, in response to the question, “Why did the Western Church prove to be so vulnerable to the critique of Reformers from the second decade of the sixteenth century?”

As I said, the European Reformation is a topic I’m almost completely unfamiliar with, and, even after my week’s reading, it showed. John took the lead on most of the questions, and I filled in the gaps where I could. It was the first time I had been outnumbered in my tutorial: both Andrew and Jonathan being British. Andrew works at a nearby church, when he’s not teaching, and John’s Dad is apparently a well-known Christian writer in England, on top of working in churches around the country. They have a lot in common, and very quickly I felt I was playing the role of outsider. I wondered, to myself, if they noticed.

Soon, our hour was up, Andrew was wishing us a good week, and John and I were making our way back downstairs and out into the open air courtyard behind Wycliffe Hall. It was a sunny day, and I was now officially done with my first week of the term. John and I chatted for a bit from outside Andrew’s office. He told me he and his wife were in the process of buying a home, and so he had his hands full of that when he wasn’t working on this paper.

“I’ve recently inherited a chunk of money, and so we found a very small home nearby,” he explained to me. “It’s going to take a lot of work, but we’re excited.” Listening to John talk about his home remodel project, I realized I had absolutely no excuse not to find time for my paper in comparison.

I told John it was great to see him again, and that I looked forward to our conversation the following week before saying “goodbye.” Hopping on my bike and leaving Wycliffe Hall, I shook my head at the thought that I only had seven weeks left before the end of my first year at Oxford.

“Nearly there,” I thought to myself as I rode toward the library to find my books for the following week’s essay.

Easter weekend in Oxford was an incredible time. Jen and I agreed, it was one of the most memorable Easters for either one of us. Even though we didn’t actually make it to church . . . I know, I know. Horrible. And I’m not proud of it. But here’s what happened . . .

A South of the Border Easter Brunch

We had plans to go to church at St. Aldate’s that evening. At the 6:00 service we’ve so been enjoying. And so we started off the day with a brunch at Rob & Vanessa‘s place. They were throwing a Mexican-inspired Easter Brunch. Vanessa makes some of the best Mexican food of anyone I know. And, considering the fact that I’ve only experienced her Mexican cooking here in Oxford, where the variety of Mexican ingredients is about as deep as the Spice Girls’ greatest hits album, that’s saying something.

Jen and I made the 20-minute walk to their place, carrying bags of fresh fruit for a fruit salad we’d make up once we arrived. We were the first ones to make it to their place, and we came across Rob as he was in-between the common room (where we’d be eating) and their apartment when we came strolling up the lane. We dropped off our things in the common room and made our way to their apartment. Vanessa was still working away in the kitchen when we arrived. Their apartment felt like a sauna, with the warm away rushing out of the door to greet us. We could tell she had been working hard all morning. And it smelled amazing.

After chatting with them both for a few minutes, we let Vanessa get back to wrapping up her work in the kitchen, and we excused ourselves from the sauna to go prepare our fruit salad in the common room kitchen. Not long after we began cutting up fruit, many others began showing up. Lots of people we hadn’t seen for a while. Friends who had been away during the break. Like Tyler & Lauren.

“Hey guys!” Lauren said with a big smile as she found us working away in the kitchen. Jen washing the fruit, and me cutting it. Tyler & Lauren had recently taken a cruise. Through Greece. They actually just got in the night before. So they were still a bit tired. We asked her how they found it, since neither Jen nor I had ever been on a cruise. She said they loved it. And that she’d have to take back all those bad things she said about Royal Caribbean over the years.

We wrapped up our fruit platter just in time to join everyone in the common room, and to bow our heads as Rob led us in prayer. There must’ve been between 15 and 20 people there for brunch. Lots of Rob & Vanessa’s friends from the MBA program, mostly. And us. The spread of food was amazing. Vanessa gave us all the rundown before inviting people to come dish up.

The main event of the spread was definitely the migas. If you’ve never had them before, migas are basically a mexican scrambled egg dish made with tortillas and salsa and cheese. They’re mazing. I had only had migas once before, but I loved them. My old roommate at Seattle Pacific introduced me to migas. Ryan. At one of my favorite breakfast spots back home. I take that back. It is my favorite breakfast spot back home.

But that wasn’t all. No, in addition to the migas, Vanessa had made a french toast style casserole. Homemade cinnamon rolls. And loads of other brunch goodies. I hopped in line and quickly went about the business of filling my plate to the point of overflow. Carefully balancing my paper plate, now full of fresh fruit, migas and homemade cinnamon rolls, I made my way out to the back garden and took a seat at one of the large, wooden, round tables where Rob had just found a seat and had begun working away on his own plate.

It was a beautiful, sunny day that Easter. And it was so nice to be able to enjoy this brunch outdoors. A few minutes later, Jen and Vanessa made their way outside, plates in hand, and joined Rob and I at the table where we were sitting. It was great to catch up with them both. They had both been back in the States over the break, and so it was nice to hear about their trips. Rob was visiting several companies back on the West Coast. And Vanessa had been back in Seattle helping out with several friend’s pregnancies and deliveries.

We enjoyed the delicious food and conversation from our seat in the sun, as others filed out of the common room and took their seats at several of the tables in the back garden. The food really was delicious. And, even though Vanessa was pretty disappointed that the cinnamon rolls came out fairly undercooked, Rob and I didn’t seem to mind. Even going back for seconds and helping ourselves to the warm, gooey cinnamon mess. It seemed to embarrass Vanessa, as they were clearly not in any sort of “roll” form at this point, but they were genuinely delicious, so we didn’t mind.

After a couple hours, Jen and I said our “thank you’s” and “goodbyes” and we made our way to the bus stop. I had nearly forgotten about our Easter commitments at the Kilns that afternoon after I filled up my second plate of brunch, but I didn’t actually mind too much.

Easter at C.S. Lewis’s home

We arrived at the Kilns around 2:00 that afternoon. Melissa greeted us at the front door when we arrived. Melissa is from the States, and she’s filling in for the full-time Kilns warden who’s currently back in the States dealing with some visa issues. She welcomed us in and we met up with the rest of the group in the kitchen. Dan, who lives at the Kilns, was working away on preparing the afternoon dinner, while a married couple who we didn’t know sat at the kitchen counter, preparing something that involved very small eggs.

“They’re quail eggs,” the guy said, turning to us with a smile.

“Ah,” was my response. “I’ve never had quail eggs before.”

“Well, they taste like eggs, but smaller,” he joked, in his British accent.

Dan introduced us to his two friends. He a nurse. She a youth worker in a local church. They both seemed really nice. He was tall, with spiky hair and glasses. She wore a cardigan and a pearl necklace.

We enjoyed getting to know them a bit while Dan finished preparing the dinner (lamb with all the fixings) and they finished arranging the salad on several plates (quail eggs and asparagus). It wasn’t long before we were all winding down the hallway toward the dining room, trying to find room among all the plates, glasses, flatware and food. The table was literally overflowing.

“Right, well, who’d like to say grace?” Dan asked, taking a seat at the head of the table, with his back to the window where the afternoon sun was pouring into the home.

“I’d like to hear an American blessing,” said Dan’s friend, with a smile. Laughter rounded the table.

“Sure, I’d be happy to,” I said. “Unless you’d like to,” I said, turning to Jen.”

“No, that’s okay,” she said, somewhat sheepishly. “I’ll let you go.”

So I did. And then we dug in. Starting with the quail eggs and asparagus (he was right–they do taste just like eggs, only smaller) before moving on to the main course: lamb, potatoes, yorkshire pudding (which isn’t actually pudding…) and broccoli. It was amazing. All of it. We filled our plates several times, and emptied them several times, before leaning back heavily into our chairs and talking about our plans for the Easter egg hunt.

Dan had the idea of having an Easter egg hunt around the property. Just the six of us “adults.” I thought it was a great idea. We all brought our own chocolate eggs, which we’d be hiding. Everyone else brought these gigantic chocolate eggs, whereas Jen and I brought these small chocolate eggs. We called it strategy.

After a bit of deliberation around the dining room table, as to whether we should have it indoors or outdoors, we decided we’d hold the Easter egg hunt out in the nature reserve, in the woods around the pond just a short walk from Lewis’s house. A pond where he used to swim and take his punt out regularly.

We left the dishes and headed up toward the pond, with our chocolate eggs in hand. We split up, two at a time, and we had several minutes to run and hide our eggs. Then, just to make it interesting, we decided to write up hints to help people find our egg on a small piece of paper, which we’d draw from a hat. This was all very complicated, I know. But that’s what happens when you get a bunch of adults having their own Easter egg hunt around C.S. Lewis’s home.

We all took several minutes to scribble down our clues before tossing them in a hat of Dan’s. I made mine rhyme. And then we took turns drawing the clues. Puzzled looks all around.

“All right, let’s go,” Dan said with a wide grin.

And we were off. Dan was the first to find his egg, running back to where we started with great excitement. It felt just like a normal Easter egg hunt. Only we were a bit taller. It wasn’t long before I found the egg that went with my clue. Hidden under a small, wooden footbridge. Dan and I stood at the edge of the pond, chocolate eggs in hand, and waited for the rest of the group.

Turns out I hadn’t been completely fair in hiding my egg. Well, I take that back. I hadn’t been completely fair in hiding my egg for anyone under seven feet tall (it was on top of a downed tree, which I could reach, but was a bit out of sight for the five-foot friend of Dan’s who was trying to find it). So I helped her.

About 20 minutes later, we were all walking down the hill toward the Kilns, chocolate Easter eggs in-hand. It was only then that I glanced at my watch and realized what time it was. Already much later than I thought, and too late for us to catch the bus back to the Oxford city center in time for the 6:00 church service at St. Aldate’s that we were planning on going to. I felt horrible . . . It was Easter, after all. I should’ve been paying better attention.

Realizing there was no way we’d make it to the service in-time, we took Dan up on his offer to take a seat in the front garden with everyone and enjoy the beautiful evening. It had been a perfect day. Warm. But not too warm. And blue skies.

Dan brought out his pipe. He explained that Jonathan had just given it to him as a gift. Jonathan is one of the other scholars in residence there at the Kilns.

“A lot of times we’ll go up to the pond and have a smoke from the bench where Lewis used to sit,” Dan shared with us, while fiddling with the pipe and tobacco. Removing the pipe from a small box.

Dan’s friend, the nurse, gave him a hard time. About how bad it was for his health. How foolish he was. And how there’s no way he’d ever do that. He was pretty relentless.

I always associate pipes with my Grandpa. In the evenings, after working on projects around his house when I was growing up, I remember watching him light up his pipe from his reclining chair in the living room. With one eye closed. Focusing as he puffed on the pipe to get it going. Then shaking the match in one hand to put it out. And, to this day, the smell of pipe tobacco makes me feel like a young boy, sitting in my Grandpa’s living room. After a long day of working outside with him. On projects around the house.

“Would you like a pipe?” Dan asked, looking across the garden at me. “I have an extra one.”

“Uh, sure, yeah,” I said. Realizing I’d never actually smoked a pipe before, and that I had no idea what I was doing. Except for that old picture of my Grandpa in my head.

I remember telling Jen I wanted a pipe one evening when we were going to bed shortly after moving here to Oxford. Because I liked the smell of them. She told me “no,” because they are bad for you. I told her she was confusing pipes with cigarettes.

I did my best to arrange the stringy tobacco into the pipe, without looking too much like I had no idea what I was doing, but realizing it was quite clear I had no idea what I was doing. Then came the lighting. Dan threw me a box of matches. Bracing the pipe between my teeth, I struck a match and did my best to light the pile of stringy tobacco sitting in the bowl of the pipe.

Without realizing it, I had become quite focused on this process. Crossing my eyes to focus my gaze on my match and the pile of tobacco in front of my face. Dan’s friend, the nurse, began laughing at me.

“I’m sorry,” he said, with a bit of a restrained laugh. “I don’t mean any offense, but you don’t look very intelligent right now.” That was his British way of saying I looked stupid.

Everyone else turned to see my face and began to laugh. And I realized he was probably right.

I gave it a couple more attempts before throwing in the towel and resorting to taking in the smell from Dan’s pipe, which, as it turns out, might actually be better than the real thing. I realized I should probably stick to the sidelines when it comes to smoking a pipe. But, at least I gave it my best. We were at C.S. Lewis’s house after all.

We enjoyed pudding with the group, a wonderful berry shortcake dessert Jen had brought, before saying our goodbyes and heading off to catch the bus. As we passed through the metal gate that sits between the green hedges in front of the Kilns, the sun beginning its descent just beyond the house, Jen turned to me and said, “You know, I think today has been one of the most memorable Easters.” And I had to agree.

Monday: Steve’s Return to Oxford

My best friend Steve was arriving that Monday. The day after Easter. He actually flew out the day of Easter. After going to church with his mom and fiance. And grabbing brunch with them both.

I was excited to see him again. It had been several months. But it felt like a lot longer. Both Jen and I were glad he was making the trip out.

I met him at the bus stop that afternoon, taking my Bible with me to prepare for my collections (exams) at the end of the week. I arrived about 10 minutes before Steve’s bus was scheduled to arrive, so I found a seat under one of the bus canopies and read while I waited. Not long after that, I saw Steve come walking off a bus with his luggage in tow. He was dressed really sharp, as he usually does, which made me self-conscious. It was another beautiful, warm day, so I was wearing a t-shirt, shorts and sandals.

“Hey bud, it’s great to see you!” I said, greeting him with a smile and a hug. “Let me take one of these for you.”

We crossed the courtyard beside the bus stop and climbed into one of the cabs.

“27A Northmoor Road,” I told the driver as we got in.

“So how are you doing, bud?” I asked, turning to Steve.

“Yeah, good. Glad to be back. It’s funny, everything is just how I remember it. It feels like I was just here,” he said as our cab pulled through the city center.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I remember feeling the same way when I returned.”

I asked him about his Easter. Then he asked me about mine.

“Uh . . . Well, we had a great Easter, but we didn’t go to church . . .” I said, in a voice of embarrassment.

“You didn’t go to church?! . . . But it was Easter?” he said with a voice of shock.

“Yeah, no, I know. . .,” I said, preparing to explain myself. “We were at a dinner and then we had an Easter egg hunt and we lost track of time,” I said, trying to keep my voice down, hoping the taxi driver wouldn’t hear. I didn’t want him judging me.

Thursday: Exam Preparations & Jen’s Departure

I had exams on the Friday following Easter. The Friday several days after Steve arrived. I was to be tested on my classes from the previous term. That’s how Oxford does it. They give you a six to eight week long break, but then test you afterward, which kind of spoils the fun of a “break.”

Because of all our travels, I had made very little time for my exam preparation. Certainly less than I had hoped. Which meant that the week following Easter included a lot of time in the library for me. Going over notes and preparing. I ended up typing up more than 120 pages worth of notes in preparation for my two exams. They’d take six hours in total, and I wanted to make sure I was ready.

That Thursday night was the night before the Royal Wedding, which Jen would be attending with several of her girlfriends. Originally, they had planned to camp out just outside of Westminster Abbey, which I was less than excited about. Fortunately, they found someone–a friend of a friend–at the last minute who had a spare room, just a short walk from Westminster Abbey. I never thought that would happen, the night before the Royal Wedding. But it did. Which made saying goodbye to her that night much more doable.

So, we said “goodbye” to Jen and had a guy’s night in her absence, Steve and I. It was great. Having him in town again. And catching up.

But Jen had a pretty great time herself. I’ll let her tell you all about it. Here’s Jen . . .

The Night Before the Royal Wedding

My friends Vanessa, Lauren and I started our journey to the Royal Wedding by taking the train from Oxford to London on Thursday night (the night before the big day).

Once we arrived in London (about an hour later), we took the Tube (subway) and we got out at Big Ben and Westminister Abbey. We walked by the front of Westminister Abbey and the sidewalks packed full of people who were all ready camping out.

There was a vibe in the air and everyone was so excited.

We walked around for a while and took in a lot of the sights on the eve of the Royal Wedding. It was a really exciting place to be.

After a while, we decided to eat dinner at a Sushi restaurant. Then we went and got a Chinese back massage for 12 minutes before enjoying some Snog (a sugar-free, fat-free frozen yogurt). It has a different taste but it is really good. After our Snog we walked by Buckingham Palace and then back to Westminster Abbey.

Lauren had bought a mask of Kate before the wedding. We had so much fun going around with her wearing it. Lots of people were saying, “Look there’s Kate!” or they would ask Lauren how she was feeling the night before her wedding day. But as we were walking to dinner we found “Prince William” and, of course, we had to get a picture of Kate and William the day before their wedding!

We got to the apartment where we were staying that night after midnight. We had a lot of fun in London, but if we wanted to get a good spot at the wedding the next morning, we would have to be up early.

Friday: The day of the Royal Wedding!

We woke up a little after 4:30 Friday morning, which is way too early! That is why I was so happy to get coffee before doing anything else.

We got to our spot in front of Westminster Abbey at 5:30 and met my friend Melissa there. Melissa is from California, and she worked at the Kilns with me for a while this spring.

We had the perfect view of the front door of Westminister Abbey from where we were standing, where all the royalty would be going in. Vanessa and Lauren were at the back of the sidewalk where there was a wall and Melissa and I were in the middle of the sidewalk.

When all was said and done I counted that I was five or six people back from the front row of people looking on, which gave us a great view of everyone entering. Like the Queen . . .Prince William and Prince Henry………

And the Royal couple themselves . . .

After the ceremony, Lauren was interviewed by BBC because of her Kate mask.

We all were very excited and even though we ended up waiting for nearly five hours that morning, it was very much worth the wait!

After the ceremony we walked back to the apartment where we stayed the night. Along the way we saw several people who had attended the Wedding, including who we thought was Posh Spice (aka Victoria Beckham), which was pretty cool.

Once we got to the apartment, we turned on the TV and watched the Royal Couple come out at Buckingham Palace and greet everyone. That is where they shared their first kiss. Being there in London that morning with these girls for the Royal Wedding really was an experience I will always remember.

Ryan’s Royal Wedding Day of Exams

While Jen was at the Royal Wedding in London, I was in a room at Harris Manchester here in Oxford full of other students frantically scribbling down their essays. I had two exams that day: Old Testament in the morning, and Patristics (early church fathers) in the afternoon. Each three hours long. By the time I was finished, my brains felt like my mush. And I realized, walking out of the room, I actually couldn’t feel my index finger and thumb. The ends of each finger had gone numb from writing with a pencil so frantically all day!

I wandered out of the room and, as I was heading up to the library to gather my things, I saw Steve seated on a bench at the end of the hallway. After six hours of essays, I was pretty happy to see him seated there.

“Hey bud!” I said, turning mid-step form the stairs leading up to the library to turn down the hallways leading toward him. We talked for a while from his seat there in the front entryway of Harris Manchester. About our plans. We decided a trip to The Trout would be a good way to celebrate the end of my exams, the preparations for which had taken up nearly all my time since he arrived.

I grabbed my things from the library and we headed home. Hoping to catch up with Jen, as she had only just returned from London, and bring her along with us to the Trout. I kept telling Steve how much of a relief it was to have my exams behind me, after studying non-stop for them for so long. I’m sure he got tired of hearing about it, but it was an incredible weight off my shoulder. We got nearly halfway home before I realized I was without my bike, which I had ridden to exams at college that morning. I apologized to Steve and we headed back to Harris Manchester. I told you my brains were mush.

Jen was home when we finally made it back. I found her lying in bed upstairs. She was exhausted.

She told me all about her time in London. How close she was to the wedding. And how much she enjoyed hanging out with the girls. But she was beat, having hardly slept, and walked all over the city. Her feet were killing her and she was really looking forward to just lying down and getting some rest. Which made telling her our idea of going to The Trout for dinner to celebrate tough.

She was hesitant at first, and so I told her we could just do it another night, but she insisted she was up for it. I’ve said it here before, and I’ll probably say it again, but she’s tough as nails.

We made the three-mile walk, across several footbridges, through a small village and around the countryside, and soon we were sitting around a small table in the dim, low-ceilinged pub. It’s an amazing place, first recommended to me by Walter. Apparently it was built as an inn back in the seventeenth-century, right on the water, and today its this incredible pub, with the river slowly flowing by the windows.

We placed our orders and all of a sudden I could exhale. Seated around this table with my two best friends. Laughing like I hadn’t laughed in a long, long time. It was the perfect ending to the week, and I was so thankful to have that time together.

A Tour of Oxford

When we returned to Oxford from our time in Rome & Paris, Jen’s parents returned with us. They’d be spending a week with us here in Oxford before returning home. We were excited to show them around our new hometown. We were also looking forward to a bit of a low-key week, following the European, jet-setting lifestyle we had been living.

Jen returned to work the morning after we got back in. What can I say, I married a workaholic. So the three of us–Tim, Rhonda and myself–spent the day touring around Oxford, showing Tim & Rhonda all the highlights this city has to offer. We started with a look at some of the more famous Oxford architecture, including the Bridge of Sighs.

I pointed out the 400-year old Bodleian Library, and the Radcliffe Camera where I often study. As well as the large, University Church of the Virgin St. Mary that stands just behind it, reaching high into the sky.

We stopped inside to have a look around when we found a small orchestra practicing in the front of the church, as if just for us. We slid into the back row of pews and sat there, for several songs, enjoying the wonderful music in this beautiful old church, before continuing our tour.

From there, we made our way down to Cornmarket Street, full of shops and lots of sidewalk performers. Like this guy, who plays the violin while balancing on a tightrope with one foot.

After restraining myself from heckling this guy to see just how good his balance was, we wandered down to Christ Church, just a short walk away. I flashed my student ID and they porter at the front gate let us wander in, snapping photos of the wide, green lawns along the way.

We crossed the coutyard and entered through an arched doorway before climbing a wide, stone staircase leading to the Great Hall. The dining hall where Harry Potter and the gang shared meals while at Hogwarts.

It was a beautiful, sunny spring day, so we grabbed some ice cream after walking around the inside of Christ Church and we took a walk around the college meadow, a beautiful, park-like setting beyond the building’s high walls.

The park butts up against a river that runs along the eastern edge of Oxford. There were several people punting on the water, laughing as they haphazardly made their way down the water. Lots of first-timers, from the looks of it.

Leaving the Christ Church gardens, we walked back across the city and met up with Jen as she got off the bus, returning from her day of work at the Kilns. Her wide smile told us she was excited to see us sitting there, waiting for her to arrive, seated on a bench along High Street in the afternoon sun.

After a short stop into the market to pickup a few things for dinner, we made our way back home. Apparently it was the mens’ night to prepare dinner, which Rhonda thought was pretty great. Laughing, she snapped a photo of Tim and I together in the kitchen.

“It’s not every day you see this,” she said with a grin as she took the photo.

That night, I went to bed with a bit of a sore throat. I was hoping nothing would come of it, but that hope was all for nought. Not only did I wake up the next day with my sore throat still lingering, I also woke up to a stomach flu. Yeah, not a good combination.

That one-two punch had me in pretty bad shape for most of the remainder of Tim & Rhonda’s time with us here in Oxford. Not exactly how I wanted to spend that time.

Friday: A Breath of Fresh Air in the Cotswolds

Still, we did manage to see quite a bit over the next few days. On Friday, we rented a car and drove to the Cotswolds, introducing Tim & Rhonda to some beautiful, old English villages. I drove…

Our first stop was Bourton on the Water, the small Cotswold village with a quiet stream running through its center.

From there, we drove to some of the other, smaller villages in the area. All of the Cotswolds are connected by rather narrow English country roads. Only wide enough for one car at a time. Which means you spend most of the time hoping that you don’t find yourself face to face with another car going the opposite direction.

At one point, we came across this quaint little farm in the middle of, well, nowhere really. In-between villages. The home was beautiful. Built entirely out of this ancient stone.

It was surrounded by stone fences and fields. And in the field closest to it, there were loads of sheep. Including several young sheep, prancing about.

We ended up stopping the car and just watching these little guys run around for a while. It felt a bit surreal, standing there on this one-lane-road in the middle of the English countryside, seemingly untouched by humanity for hundreds of years, watching these sheep run and play with each other. But it was beautiful. Like a breath of fresh air.

Saturday: A trip to London

The next day, we took Tim & Rhonda to London. They had never been, so there was a lot to show them. We took a ride on the London Eye, a giant ferris wheel that sits right on the river, looking out over Parliament, and much of the London city center.

It was a pretty impressive view, as we climbed to the peak of the Eye, rolled its crest and looked out across the city.

After our trip on the Eye, Jen took a walk along the river with Tim & Rhonda. To go see the London Tower. I was feeling pretty worn out, as I was still a bit under the weather from my cold  / flu, so I sat this one out. Choosing instead to find a spot in the grass beneath the London Eye and try to nap in the sun.

Apparently along their walk, they stumbled across a sandcastle building contest along the shores of the Thames…

The Tower of London is a pretty good walk from where we parted ways, at the London Eye. And I think Jen had underestimated how long it takes, but, after a while, they finally made it to the Tower, and it made for some great pictures.

After taking in the sights of London Saturday, we made our way back to the carpark so we could head home. Except things didn’t go nearly as smoothly as planned.

We ended up getting lost and we walked much longer than we probably needed to. But, by around 9:00 that night, we had finally found our car. We were all feeling pretty tired from walking around London all day, and so we were looking forward to getting back to Oxford. Unfortunately, even after we found our car, we still weren’t out of the woods just yet.

We ran into a bit of a snag in the car park. For some reason, the ticketing system and arm that lets drivers out after they paid stopped working, just as we were trying to get out. After phoning up the operator, we were told that they couldn’t do anything about it from where they were, and that they needed to send someone out to have a look at the machine.

“No big deal,” we thought. We pulled our car over to the side of the parkade, out of the way of the gate, and we waited. But we weren’t the only ones wanting to leave that night. Soon, there was a long line of cars waiting to get out. All growing increasingly impatient, and all taking turns calling up this operator and letting her know their great frustration. Each time, the operator apologized and let them know there was nothing they could do to get the gate open from where they were, and that someone was coming to take a look at it.

Lots of shaking heads and crossed arms. People got out of their cars and began trying to lift up the arm of the gate, to see if they could somehow force it up.

Finally, after about 45 minutes of this scene, a man got on the phone and told the operator that he was going to call the fire department if someone was not down here in five minutes to get this gate open. Like magic, the gate arm that the operator said could not be opened so many times before now was lifted. Car engines fired up and took off in a hurry, full of drivers and passengers anxious to get out of the parkade that had held them like prisoners for nearly an hour.

Not exactly the perfect end to our day in London, but at least now we were finally making our way back home.

Sunday: Sick in Bed & Oxford Punting

On Sunday morning, we all woke up and went to St. Aldate’s together, the church Jen and I have been attending here in Oxford. We were excited to share it with Tim & Rhonda. It was a great service, and it was really nice to be able to show Tim & Rhonda our church home here in Oxford.

Afterward, we wandered through the city center in search of a good place for a post-church brunch. We ended up at Giraffe, a place I knew served pancakes. It was another sunny day, and it shone through the large restaurant windows, warming us as we browsed the menu.

We placed our orders and talked about what we wanted to do for the rest of the day. We had been discussing whether or not we wanted to go see one of the nearby castles. I think we were all in agreement that it’d be a lot of fun to go see–Jen and I hadn’t been–but my illness was now in full gear, and I just didn’t have it in me. After lunch, I retired to my bed, in hopes of sleeping off this cold and flu that was sucking all my energy.

While I slept, Jen and her parents made their way over to Magdalene College to try their hand at punting. I was sorry to miss out on the fun, on such a beautiful, sunny day, but I was not doing well at this point.

Since I wasn’t there to join in, I thought I’d ask Jen to share a bit about their first punting experience. Here’s Jen:

Of the three of us, Dad was the brave one who decided to go first. Although it helped that I volunteered him when the guy who was working that day asked who was going to be in charge of punting.

“He is,” I said, pointing to Dad.

We came across a small bridge shortly after we got started, and we all had to duck really low. This did not go well, though, as it made us go against the bank where there were lots of tree branches. So, we he had to continue to duck down low, but we still found ourselves getting hit by all the branches.

Dad looked so funny trying to stay balanced while having to crouch down so low. Mom and I were laughing so hard we literally felt like we were going to pee our pants. Dad was frustrated with us for laughing at him, and for not helping him. But there was no way we could help until we got ourselves under control!

I am happy to say that Dad did get used to how the pole worked, and then he was able to move us along quite quickly.

And then it was my turn. I had the advantage of going second, which meant I was able to watch Dad and figure out what not to do. It turns out I’m a natural at punting. I may not have been the fastest punter, but I could move us along without running into things. Unlike some people…

The problem, though, is that you can’t always control what others around you are doing. At one point, we came across a more narrow part of the river and there was a teenage boy who clearly didn’t know what he was doing. He managed to get his punt horizontal, across the river, which meant I had nowhere to go and ended up running us into the bank. Again, where lots of branches were sticking out. I seriously thought the branches were going to shove me off the platform of the boat! Thankfully it didn’t, but I did receive some nice, deep scratches on my arm.

We made sure Mom got into the action as well. Anytime I can have a good laugh at my parents’ expense is always nice. Mom did pretty good as well, but she was a little unsure of what she was doing at first. Soon, though, she got the hang of it, and she caught on fast enough.

We had a great time, full of lots of laughs, and we considered our first time punting a success.

Monday: Saying Goodbye

After our time with Jen’s parents in Rome, Paris and now Oxford, we were sad to see them go. We had been looking forward to their arrival for some time, and our time together had been pretty amazing. Not just because of all the things we had seen and done over the course of those two+ weeks, but it was just nice to have them with us again. It made it feel like we were carrying a piece of home with us again.

But Monday morning we got up and prepared to see them off. We’d be driving them to London to catch their flight, but not before Jen made us some homemade scones to start the day. I found Justin and Dan (Justin & Jane’s oldest son) next door, and I asked if they’d mind snapping a photo of us before Jen’s parents left. Dan was happy to help.

When we arrived at the airport, we had trouble checking in. The machine we were using didn’t want to accept their travel information, which I found rather odd. So we found an airline staff member and asked for his help. He tried his hand at the machine, doing the same we did, only to find the same failed result we did. He punched in a few numbers on another monitor and told us that, unfortunately, it looked like their flight had been overbooked, and they might need to catch a flight out the next day.

Rhonda’s jaw about hit the ground at that point. Tim remained cool as the young airline employee told us we needed to walk down to the customer service table at the end of the hall and they would let us know what was going on.

We followed his directions, commenting on how bizarre it is that you can buy something several months in advance and then show up the day of only to find it’s not actually yours.

After talking with a guy who looked like he had been dealing with similar problems all morning, and who was a bit frazzled, we learned that the flight had indeed been overbooked, and that several passengers would be asked to fly out the next day in exchange for £1,500. It didn’t seem like a bad deal to me, but Rhonda was planning on being at work the next day, and she was trying to figure out how she could ask someone to cover for her, even though she loved the idea of staying an extra night with us.

You could see the wheels turning in Tim’s head, thinking how that money could be put to use in helping cover part of their trip. I was with Tim; that sounded like a good deal to me.

After about an hour of waiting, and being told to wait some more, Tim & Rhonda found out they would in fact be flying out on their plane, as originally planned. It was a bit of a rollercoaster departure, preparing to say goodbye, then thinking they might not have to say goodbye just yet, then realizing that, yes, this really was goodbye.

It was tough to see them go, after such a nice time together. We were just thankful to have them. It meant the world that they both crossed the Atlantic for the first time to visit us. It was a quiet ride home, that afternoon. Jen staring out the window for much of it. I patted her knee from time to time, and let my hand rest there. Encouraging her with a smile as she turned her head to me.

A Hard Message

The Sunday before we took off for our trip to Rome and Paris, Jen and I had attended the evening service at St. Aldate’s. The pastor who typically speaks at that 6:00 evening service is a guy by the name of Simon. His background is in Theology, and so I appreciate his meat-and-potato style of teaching. Simon is British, and he’s quite funny. His sense of humor rounds out his solid teaching quite well, often making jokes about his large size, or his rather casual attire (whereas most pastors here tend to get quite dressed up for their role).

This evening he spoke, though, this Sunday evening before we left, he had a rather interesting message. He began by explaining that he had actually spent about 20 hours preparing a message that week on Romans, which we had been studying, but as he was sitting there, prior to speaking, he felt led to preach on a totally different topic. He explained to us that he really felt like God was telling him that He had another message that needed to be heard by someone tonight. And so, at the last minute, he jotted down some notes and took the stage for an impromptu message. I was intrigued.

Rather than speaking on Romans that night, Simon focused on the period directly after Jesus’ baptism. When he spent the 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. Simon started by pointing out that, what most people don’t realize in looking at this story is that Jesus was actually led by the Spirit when He went out into the desert for this time of temptation. That Jesus was not just experiencing this great trial, but that God was the One bringing this time of difficulty about for His Son.

Simon explained that he didn’t like to think about it that way. That it’s tough. But, he pointed out, that’s what we’re told happened. And so, Simon talked through what this means for us, for those of us going through a tough time.

He talked about how, a lot of times these difficult times come, and we just want to throw in the towel and give up, without realizing that God actually wants to use such experiences to grow us, so that He can use us in a way He couldn’t otherwise.

He was right. It was a hard message. But I appreciate preachers who teach what they believe they need to teach. I appreciate preachers who teach what the Bible says, whether it’s hard or not, without feeling the need to soften the blow by watering it down.

Simon shared several stories with us that night. To help with the lesson. He told us about a pastor who had received a wide amount of success, as a speaker, but who had been struck with Tourette syndrome at the height of his ministry. He told us how this pastor went from blessing others with his mouth, to not being able to stop using that same mouth from spouting off horrible obscenities at the most inappropriate moments. He told us how this pastor was literally put up in bed one day, because he could no longer serve as he had before, and just asking God, “Why in the world would you do this to me?…”

Simon explained to us the answer that pastor said he felt he received from God, in that moment. After asking, he said he felt God telling him, “This is what you would be like without me.” Simon told us how God had led this man through an incredibly low valley only so that this man could be brought to a place where he was fully reliant on God, and where he knew he could take no credit for any amount of success he had.

Simon also shared with us from his own experience. From some of his own trials. He talked about how he  had made plans to leave the UK as a young, “strapping”, 20-something. To go join up with Vineyard Ministries in the States, as a speaker. Only to be pressed down upon with the great realization that, as much as he wanted this, he felt that’s not what God wanted for him and his wife. Instead, he felt God was telling him to go to school. To go to seminary. And to go work in the Anglican Church.

Simon shared with us how this, all of this, was the opposite of what he wanted. How he spent years in school, in great depression, while his wife went to work, earning an income so that they could get by, rather than starting a family, as she wanted. He talked about how incredibly trying this was, but how, ultimately, he came out the other side with greater confidence in how God planned to use him to share His good news with others.

And so, before we left for Rome & Paris, I had fired off an e-mail to Simon. I told him his message really resonated with me, and I’d love to chat with him a bit more when we returned. I was happy to hear back from him right away, and we scheduled a time to get together when we returned to Oxford.

A Walk with Simon

I met up with Simon on a sunny Tuesday morning after Jen’s parents left. I met him in front of St. Aldate’s, and we walked down the lane toward Christ Church meadow. He was dressed in his usual, informal outfit: cargo shorts, t-shirt, a brown, leather waistcoat (which I’ve never seen him without) and sandals. Simon has broad shoulders and he walks heavily, swinging his arms as we went.

“How do you feel about ice cream,” he said, turning toward me as we walked.

I laughed to myself, slightly, checking my watch to make sure it was still in fact 10:30 in the morning.

“Sure, yeah, that sounds great,” I said.

We stopped into G&D’s, we each grabbed a cone of ice cream (custard for Simon, strawberry for me), and we continued toward Christ Church meadow.

“So I read your blog,” he said, without turning to me, as we crossed the street and entered through the large metal gate.

“You did?” I asked, somewhat surprisingly.

“Well, I looked at it,” he clarified, admittedly.

“Oh, well thanks.”

“You’re a writer, and a thinker,” he commented. “That’s rare.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say.

“I mean, lots of people write. Lots. But lots of writers aren’t actually thinkers. And we have a lot of thinkers, but they don’t tend to write much,” he said, clarifying again.

“Yeah, well thank you,” I said, still unsure of what to say.

“You know, Harry Potter was filmed here,” he said, pointing toward the wide open fields in front of us, and to the side of Christ Church, quickly moving along in conversation.

“Yeah, I had heard that when I arrived,” I replied. “Pretty amazing.”

“It was a big setup,” he continued. “They had massive tents and trailers. You could see it all going on from where we were,” he said, motioning over his shoulder to St. Aldate’s not far behind us.

“They asked me to be in it, you know. But I told them ‘Nah… I have too much to do already,'” he joked.

“It’s funny you say that,” I said, without missing a beat, “Because when I first saw you, I thought to myself, ‘he looks just like Harry Potter!'”

“Really?” he asked, turning toward me.

“No, no I didn’t. I was just joking.”

“Oh, well I haven’t seen it, or read it, so I didn’t know.”

I almost felt bad, for my joke that had totally missed the mark.

“Yeah,” I said, trying to explain, “Harry Potter is a small, teenage boy with glasses, so pretty much nothing like you.”

“Ah,” he said, laughing.

We continued walking, making our way toward the river and along its edge, enjoying our ice cream cones as we walked.

“You know, I’m the most American Brit you’ll meet,” he told me, with a half-look of pride.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Well, at least, that’s what I’m told.”

“I could see that,” I told him. “You tend to wear your heart on your sleeve a bit, like us Americans. You tell it like it is. I appreciate that.”

“I do, yeah,” he said in agreement. “I used to be a butcher, you know. And a meat salesman. So I’m pretty to the point. ‘You want this cut, it costs this much,’ he said aloud, as if to replay a scene from his former life as a butcher / meat salesman, and to show me where it came from.

We passed several people on our walk. Most of whom Simon seemed to know, and who knew him. Lots of smiles and “hello”‘s.

He asked if I minded if we took a break about a half hour into our walk. I didn’t, so we did. We took a seat on a bench that overlooks the river, and we sat there watching the water tumble slowly by. It really was a beautiful day, and this was an amazing spot to take it all in.

“So you contacted me a bit ago to talk about something,” Simon said, narrowing our conversation, and recalling the e-mail I had sent him several weeks prior.

“Yeah, it was about your sermon, where you talked about how sometimes God leads us into the wilderness, to help form us into who He wants us to be. So that He can use us.”

“Ah, yes,” he replied, looking off into the distance, recalling the message I was referring to.

I shared with him how this message had really resonated with me that night. I told him about how we had picked up and left home to come here to Oxford, because I really felt God wanted to use this experience to help prepare me to share Him with others, even though I wasn’t totally clear on what that was supposed to look like. I told him how it had been pretty tough to leave home behind and come here, even though this is such an amazing city.

I shared with him how, even though this is a dream come true, in so many ways, it is also one of the most difficult things either one of us have ever done. To come here and start over, as it were, investing literally all we have into this, with no guarantee of anything waiting us on the other side.

I also told him about how we had lost Jen’s sister, Hayley, shortly before leaving home, and how that had only made this time all the more difficult.

He hung his head low at the news, shaking it as if to share in our pain.

He told me he was so sorry for our loss. And then he asked several questions. About coming here. And he asked how Jen was doing with it all.

I told him this had not been easy on Jen. Not at all. But that she had been incredibly strong through it all. And supportive. And that there’s no way I could have done it without her.

Then he asked me what I wanted to do, at the end of our time here in Oxford. I’ve been asked that question a lot since arriving, and so I was prepared to answer.

“Well, when I first came over, I figured I’d just go the PhD route and work to eventually become a professor,” I told him. “I knew I wanted to write and speak, so I figured that’d let me do that on the side.”

“But, since coming here,” I continued, “I’ve begun to think maybe that’s not what I want to do. I really enjoyed speaking and writing in my former job, so I know I’d love to do that. But I think I’d like to do that for a more general audience. Not just for academics. To help everyday people see Him more clearly.”

“I know it sounds like a pipe dream, but if I could do that, if I could write and speak to help others with that, that’s what I’d be doing.”

Simon was quick to respond, and to encourage me.

“We need both of those things, Ryan. Writing and speaking. And there are a lot of people who don’t want to do those things. I enjoy speaking, but writing is a chore. If you can do both of those things, then I don’t think that’s a pipe dream.”

I nodded my head. I was thankful for his encouragement.

We left our spot from beside the river and continued on our walk, heading back toward the gate through which we had entered the meadow.

Simon shook his head again, commenting on our loss. And the recent difficulties.

“You know, Ryan, you have to gain this knowledge, you have to get this degree, to do what you want to do. And this is a great place to get it,” he said, staring off at Christ Church in the distance. “But I think you’ll realize, afterward, that God brought you here for more than just a degree. He’s teaching you both through all of this, and you might not know how until much later.”

“Hmmm…” I said aloud, allowing his words settle in.

I thanked Simon for the ice cream, and for taking the time. I told him I really appreciated his thoughts and wisdom.

He’s a pretty humble guy, so he quickly brushed off any idea that there was wisdom in his words. He told me we’d have to do this again some time. I told him I’d like that, and I made my way toward the city center. Back to the library to study, still chewing on Simon’s words.

Monday: Touring the Louvre & a sunset from the top of the Eiffel Tower

We had a big day planned for Monday, our third day in Paris. First, we’d start out taking a (very brief) tour of the Eiffel Tour, and then we were heading to watch the sunset from the top of the Eiffel Tower, before rounding out the day with a late night river cruise through the city. I was quite excited about being able to squeeze all three into the same day.

We scheduled a tour guide for our time at the Louvre, knowing without one we’d end up lost and probably miss most of the big items we were hoping to see. We took a bus to the Louvre first thing that morning…

…and we waited for a few minutes before our tour guide met us at the front entryway.

He was a nice guy. A bit quiet, but nice. He told us he was from San Francisco, and that he was studying art here in Paris. At the university. He had been here a couple years, and he had started leading tours of the Louvre short after he arrived, he explained.

“Even after a couple years, though,” I still haven’t seen every wing of the Louvre.”

Apparently, it’s a pretty big place…

Our tour guide led us through the stone archway that led into the Louvre, and we took several escalators that led us further and further under ground. After several minutes, we were standing under the large glass pyramid we had seen aboveground. From this view, though, we could see the inverted pyramid now stretching downward from the ceiling above us. It was pretty impressive.

Our tour guide mentioned a few things about the architecture before continuing the tour, and leading us toward, what he explained as, the oldest part of the Louvre. He explained that the Louvre actually began as a fortress that was built in the 12th century.

He pointed out the old, original stone walls as we walked, and mentioned all the restoration work that had been done. It’s not everyday you see the foundation from a 900-year old fortress; it was something else. You can see the old, original brick foundation in the wall of the marketing firm I worked at back at home in Bellingham, but somehow I’m thinking it wasn’t quite this old…

From there, we headed to the wing of the Louvre that housed the ancient Greek and Roman statues. We had seen quite a bit in Rome, but their collection was still quite impressive.

We walked up several long, wide staircases to get to this wing and, once we did, our tour guide led us into a long hallway full of ivory-colored marble statues. One of the first of which was of Cupid, embracing a girl by the name of Psyche, as our guide explained.

Apparently, the story is that Psyche, the most beautiful woman in the world, has fallen into a lifeless sleep. And she would have remained that way, had it not been for a kiss she received from the god of love, Eros, or Cupid, which revived her. The moment of that embrace, the embrace that brought her back to life, is captured in this statue: Antonio Canova’s  “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss.” I thought it was a pretty powerful piece.

I had never seen the next statue our guide pointed out to us before, but I was taken aback by it. At first, it just looked like a woman seated in the windowsill, but then our guide told us a bit more about it.

He told us this statue was of a beautiful nymph who had just been stung by a scorpion. Not only is she dealing with the painful sting, though, she is quickly coming to the realization that she will soon be dead.

The thing that stuck with me most is the look on her face. It was more than just a look of pain. It was a look of anguish. She knew her death was coming, and there was nothing she could do about it.

I think really good art, the kind that sticks with you and makes its way into your conversation long after you’ve experienced it, is the kind that approaches life. The kind that, even though you know it’s not real, creates an emotion with you that feels real.

And I think that’s what this statue accomplished. It was almost as if you could feel the anguish of death and grief in her face, as the reality of her pending death set in like a surprise visit from an unwanted guest.

We turned from these two statues and continued walking down the long hallway full of other figures.

About halfway down the hallway stood these statues: the Dying Slave and the Suffering Slave. Both works of Michelangelo.

Our tour guide told us that the Louvre had the most pieces of Michelangelo’s work outside of Rome. We told him we had just come from Rome, and so we had actually seen quite a bit of his work there.

Apparently these two pieces, the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave, had been seized during the French Revolution and brought here to the Louvre. I’m sure those in Rome were pretty happy about that…

We continued to make our way through the long hallways, noting the colorful, painted ceilings along the way. The ceiling artwork reminded me a lot of our time at the Vatican Museum.

We rounded a corner and entered into another long hallway full of more ivory-colored statues. In the middle of this room stood a tall, armless statue, one we immediately recognized: the Venus de Milo.

Our tour guide told us the statue had been carved sometime around 100 BC. He told us that, even though it wasn’t carved by a famous sculptor, like some of the others in the hallway, it was easily the most famous in the room.

Apparently its fame is due largely to an act of propaganda by the French to get people to the Louvre to see it, which dates hundreds of years back. However, those who to this day hold up the de Milo as a true work of art say it is the epitome of feminine beauty.

Our tour guide asked us for our thoughts on the statue, and I told him it seemed a bit tall and exaggerated, as if its torso was longer than it should be. He told us that was actually done intentionally, as a way to exaggerate her features. Again, as a picture of the “ideal” woman, and not necessarily the most realistic.

I may be a little biased, but, personally, I prefer mine with arms.

In the next room, our tour guide had us stop at another, similar statue. This statue was actually created by a more famous artist, and it was done quite literally, as opposed to the exaggerated features of the de Milo (in the background).

“You can see,” he said, turning toward us, “the de Milo really is more beautiful.”

We continued walking through the long hallway of statues, stopping at the end of the room to take in a very tall statue of another woman wearing, this one wearing a soldier’s helmet.

Before wrapping up our time with the statues, our tour guide led us down a large staircase and asked us to stop at the landing to take in a headless statue. It was Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.

Standing on the landing look up at this large, winged figure, our tour guide pointed out Victory’s robe, showing how it really did look as if it were blowing in the wind. An illusion the statue was famous for.

At this point, we traded statues for paintings, and we entered a long, darkly colored room with different-sized paintings on the walls.

Some of them were quite large, including this painting of Napoleon’s inaugurating his queen (Note the Pope standing by and watching, signifying Napoleon was even more important than the Pope. This painting was obviously done by a Frenchman).

Not far from this portrait hung a painting of King Leonidas, whom, as our tour guide told us, we probably knew of from the movie, 300.

The painting, he explained, was meant to represent the celebration that would have taken place on the eve of their battle with the Persian empire, which the men would have surely believed to be their last night alive.

We passed through an arched doorway and entered another hallway of art. Our tour guide pointed out what he referred to as one of the most famous French paintings, that of “Liberty Leading the People.”

The painting was meant to speak of the French Revolution, and the different parties involved (the older man in the top hat on the left representing the older generation, and the young boy on the right with two guns representing the newer generation), both of whom were fighting for the people’s freedom, led by Lady Liberty, a mythical figure. Interestingly, he told us, this figure was likely the model for the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to the US.

Oh, and you might also recognize this painting from the cover of the Coldplay album, Viva la Vida.

From this hallway we took a right and entered the largest room we had seen for some time since entering the Louvre. The ceiling rose high into the air as we entered and, even though there were paintings on all of the walls, it looked as though there was only one wall that was gathering everyone’s attention, the wall holding the Louvre’s most famous painting: the Mona Lisa.

Our tour guide told us quite a bit about the Mona Lisa, as the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd pushed and shoved, everyone trying to get a closer look at the painting. He told us that the portrait hasn’t always been so famous, but it was liked very much from early on. Apparently Napoleon liked it so much he had it hanging in his room, but the woman in his life didn’t like that and it was soon removed.

Later, an employee of the museum was so enamored by it that he decided to leave with it one day, and he actually managed to keep it as his apartment for something like eight months before anyone found out. Hard to believe. But now, you’d be hard-pressed even to get within 10-feet of the painting.

The crowd was quite tight, but we managed to squeeze our way to the front and snap a handful of decent photos.

Brock asked our tour guide if he thought the photo was originally a self-portrait Da Vinci had painted, and then later changed into a woman. He shook his head and said he was sure that was just a myth. Instead, he told us the woman was probably someone of very little significance, but whom Da Vinci wanted, for some reason or another, to paint. Maybe not even someone he knew very well.

After wrapping things up at the Louvre, we hopped on a bus and headed back toward the Eiffel Tower. We were had plans to take in the sunset from the top of the Eiffel Tower, and I couldn’t wait.

I didn’t realize it, but apparently Brock is not a fan of heights. Not in the least. In fact, when we got off the bus at the base of the Eiffel Tower, he declared that he’d wait for us at the bottom. Monty & Heidi must have done some smooth-talking, because Brock joined us as we huddled together with a large group, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a small elevator with glass walls, climbing up toward the top of the Eiffel Tower.

The elevator doors opened a few moments later and we stepped out onto the metal platform, hurrying to the edge of the railing to take in the 360 degree view of the city.

“Wowwww…”, I said with my mouth hanging wide open, hands gripping the railing.

I knew Paris was a beautiful city from what we had seen already, but taking it in from the Tower was something else entirely. It really was a spectacular view.

On one side of the tower, you could see the River Seine, and boats floating by, along with everything on that side of the city. On the opposite side of the Tower, you could the the large park that stretched its green, tree-lined lawn on and on and on. Along with all of the old architecture of the city, pieced together like a miniature model. It was a beautiful view. 

It was a sunny afternoon when we made the climb up the tower, but it was still quite cold from this height. Even with our jackets, there was a bit of a breeze that seemed to cut right through us.

We stood near the railings and snapped several photos, while Brock did his best to remain near the inside core of the tower, not caring to venture toward the railing and peer over at the city below.

From time to time, I’d brace myself, making my eyes really big, and look over at Brock as if to say, “Did you feel that?!” He’d smile, barely, and look away. Jen would hit me and tell me to knock it off. Mean, I know. 

The Eiffel Tower has two platforms for guests. Two different levels. The elevator you get on at the ground only takes you up so far. If you want to go up to the peak, you have to buy another ticket at the lower level. Which we did. And I’m so glad.

Another short elevator ride and we were now at the very peak of the Eiffel Tower, looking out over the city from an impressive height. The view was stunning.

I kept finding myself hunched over the railing, looking down at the ground so far below.

“Wow… that’s amazing,” I said aloud to myself. “I just wish there was a good way to show…” And I stopped myself, mid-sentence. I had an idea.

Jen and Heidi both had their cameras with them. They have the same camera, but they were using different lenses. Jen was using her high-powered lens to snap far-away shots close-up, while Heidi had her standard lens, which allowed her to take wider photos of the city.

“You mind if I see your camera real quick?” I asked Heidi. She looked a bit unsure of the question, but hesitantly handed it over.

“Thanks,” I said, taking it from her. Then, extending my arms as far as I could reach, I raised the camera over my head and snapped this photo of the view below…

Our plan was to stay at the peak until the sun went down, that way we could take in the sunset from this beautiful view. We found a perfect spot in a corner of the platform, near the river side of the city, and waited. We had some time to kill, so we snapped several photos.

They even managed to talk Brock into (carefully) walking to the railing for a family photo. I was impressed.

There was a very small door at the top of the Eiffel Tower, with a young guy inside. He was selling wine and champagne to those who wanted to celebrate the view with a drink.

I was getting hungry at this point, and so I joked with Brock that we should see if he had any burgers in there. Brock laughed. He told me I should. But I chickened out. America doesn’t need any help looking stupid in France, I figured.

The clouds soon began getting dark, and we could tell the sunset wasn’t too far away, casting rays of light from behind the clouds that did their best to hide its brightness.

It grew increasingly cold as the clouds hid the sun, and several of us began to shiver. But we decided to stick it out and take in the view. It shouldn’t be too much longer, we figured.

And we were right. Soon, the entire sky turned a burnt orange color as the sun began making its final descent behind the skyline.

We took the elevator down to the lower level just in time to see the sun make its final appearance before dipping below the horizon, leaving the Parisian skyline to grow dim, as if someone had just hit the light switch.

It really was an incredible view, and I was so thankful for the experience. As we made our way down the tower, I told Jen we’d need to take in this view on New Year’s Eve one year.

A wide grin spread across her face at the suggestion. She nodded her head in agreement.

“Yeah, that’d be beautiful.”

When we reached the bottom of the tower, we had some time to kill before our river cruise that evening. It started at 10:00, and we had about an hour and a half, so we grabbed some dinner at a nearby restaurant and snapped a few more photos of the tower, all lit up in the night sky.

After a warm meal, we boarded the river cruise. Behind a group of, what looked like, American high school students. One of the boys wore a sweatshirt with a giant, yellow “O” on the front, and I wondered if the group was from Oregon. It’s always a weird feeling seeing references from so close to home when you’re so far from it.

We took our seats toward the rear of the boat, near the windows, and played with, what looked like giant, metal remote controls. Apparently, they’d be playing the audio tour during the river cruise. The metal was cold as you held it to your ear.

Before we took off, Heidi told us all to look up, just before snapping a photo of us.

While the view of Paris from the top of the tower was amazing, this was something else. You couldn’t see nearly as much from our spot on the river, of course, but, as we floated along, slowly, and it was almost as if we had been invited to a secret, night-time tour of the city. The river was quiet and calm, and it reflected the buildings we passed, floating through the old parts of the city.

Our audio tour guide pointed out points of interest along the way and, when the recorded voice stopped, a woman in the center of the boat would make comments about the area over a loud speaker. First in French, then in English, and then in about six other languages. All from the same woman. It was pretty impressive.

I wondered, to myself, if she knew all of those languages fluently, or if she had just recited the scripts for each. Her accent made me think it was the former.

The group of American high school students were spread out across the boat, as well as a number of other guests. I thought it was funny that almost all of the guys from the group of students sat on one side of the boat, and the girls sat on the opposite side. Apart from three of the more athletic looking guys and three of the girls, who sat huddled together in the center aisle of the boat.

About 20-minutes into our tour, a group in the front of the boat began hollering and the sound of clapping soon filled the boat. Someone had just proposed and, from the clapping, I assumed someone had just said, “Yes.”

It was a beautiful view of the city, from this quiet spot on the river, and it seemed like the perfect way to wrap up an already amazing day in Paris.

Tuesday: Saying “goodbye” to Paris and great friends

On our last morning in Paris, we walked down the street from our hotel, rounded the corner, and found a small, open air cafe with a red canopy to enjoy breakfast. I made sure to order the croque madam, following Jennifer’s lead. And I was not disappointed.

Several others ordered the croque madam as well. Jen was a breakfast trailblazer, it seems.

From there, we hopped on a bus and headed back toward the Notre Dame. We had heard that the chapel held some ancient relics, including the crown of thorns from Jesus’ crucifixion. It seemed pretty hard to believe, but that’s what they said…

While there’s no charge to get into Notre Dame, there is a fee to enter the room holding the chapel’s relics. We paid an older woman standing behind a small desk and entered a long, dark room with loads of relics behind plates of glass. Lots of jewelry. And crucifixes. Finally, after several minutes of looking, we noticed a photo of the ring that holds the purported crown of thorns that sat on Jesus’ head during his crucifixion. That’s right, a photo. Apparently they only take out the real thing on the first Friday of every month.

“That would’ve been good to know before we came in,” I said aloud as we left, feeling a bit like the kid who spends his allowance on a pair of x-ray glasses only to find out they’re not good for seeing through anything.

From there, we saw a bit more of the Parisian architecture we hadn’t had a chance yet to see, including a tall, long building with water fountains that seemed to dance in celebration before it.

Around noon or so, we decided to go our separate ways: the women to their shopping…

…and the men to their war museum.

The war museum was housed in a huge building with a square courtyard in the center, an expansive green lawn with cone-shaped bushes spread out across the green grass, and rows of cannons standing in front of, what I assumed to be, an old moat. 

The many manicured bushes that stood up in rows around the lawn reminded me a bit of a scene from Edward Scissorhands.

We entered through the large archway, crossed the courtyard and made our way into the first room of the war museum. They had several exhibits, displaying room after room of knights in armor, old swords and guns, and more. It was pretty impressive just how much they had on display.

After about an hour or walking through the war museum, we wandered around to the rear of the building and entered a large, dome-shaped room: home to Napoleon’s tomb. The building that housed his tomb was breathtaking in both its size and architecture. The entire place appeared to be built out of marble, with columns and arched-ceilings that climbed high into the air.

A large room to the right of the entryway was home to an incredibly large tomb, the largest I had ever seen up to this point. It was the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, and it was housed in a beautiful room, with large windows that allowed the outside light to come pouring in over it.

The ceiling of the room that housed Napoleon’s tomb was painted with several scenes and an incredibly ornate border. It was terribly impressive.

But then we walked back into the main room, where we had first entered, and stared down at a tomb that made Napoleon’s tomb look not quite as large as it had first seemed.

This tomb belonged to Napoleon II, Napoleon Bonaparte’s son. While Napoleon I was known for his military conquests, Napoleon II was known for investing his energies into Paris itself. Into the city. And the people loved him for it, as his tomb showed.

His tomb really was incredible. It stood nearly 20 feet in the air, including its marble base, and it must’ve stretched nearly 10 feet long, if not more. It stood in the epicenter of the building, with the large domed ceiling staring down at it. It was encircled by something like 15 statues, all of them nearly 20-feet tall. I wasn’t sure what the significance of the statues were, or who they were supposed to be, but the whole scene was just stunning.

Standing there, staring at this tomb, at this monument, really, I found it hard to believe this was built to remember any one man’s life. But it was.

And it was there, while taking in this scene, I was reminded of a quote I heard many years ago. A quote I love, and that sticks with me to this day. It came from a Pastor I like to listen to by the name of Alistair Begg. He’s from Glasgow, and he has this incredibly rich Scottish accent, even though he’s been in the States since the 80’s.

And it was then I remembered his Scottish accent saying, “The best of men are men at best.” And I found it fitting, staring at this tomb. This tomb that was now home to only bones, where before there had been life.

By this point, we realized it was nearly time to meet up with the women for lunch before grabbing our things from the hotel and heading for our chunnel ride back to London.

We had a bit of a walk, past several markets, through a handful of neighborhoods, with their beautiful, ornate balconies…

Thankfully we made it just in time. And thankfully, the women were shopping, so we figured, even if we were a few minutes late, we’d probably still be okay. We were right.

We met up with them at a restaurant in a beautiful neighborhood just down the street from the Eiffel Tower. We had eaten there the night before, and it was amazing. We figured we’d take advantage of it one last time, for our last meal in Paris.

As we made our way down the final street toward this restaurant, we came across two parked Vespas. One white, one black. With a large apartment building in the background, it felt like the perfect Paris scene. The kind I’ll recall years from now, when we talk about our first time in Paris. Hopefully it won’t be the last.

After another amazing meal, we grabbed our luggage from the hotel and made our way to the chunnel station. The two hour drive provided plenty of time to think about our trip, and our time in Rome and Paris. It was hard to believe it was all coming to an end.

Two hours later, we were sharing hugs and saying “goodbye” to Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy. We’ve been through a lot with these guys. They’ve been there by our side through some of the most painful times we’ve known; it only seemed right to now have shared some incredibly joy-filled experiences in Rome and Paris as well.

With tears and smiles, we said our “goodbyes” as they prepared to return to the States and we made our way back north to Oxford. Jen’s parents had yet to see Oxford, and we were excited to introduce them to it.

Leaving Rome and heading to Paris was quite the adventure. First, we had an hour-long bus ride from our hotel to the airport. Once at the airport, we had a couple hours to kill before our flight took off, which I put to good use…

Jen always tells me she doesn’t understand how I can fall asleep anywhere. I like to say it’s my spiritual gift.

We flew out of Rome just as the sun was setting. It was a beautiful view, the clouds in the burnt orange skyline waving goodbye as we left the city of scooters, breath-taking architecture and the Pope.

We landed in London a couple hours later. After a bit of a run around with our shuttle driver (we called one and got three, go figure), we were on our way to our hotel and tucking into bed for maybe four hours of sleep, if we were lucky.

Saturday: Our first day in Paris

Our alarm came early Saturday morning. The clocks had just reached half past 4:00 when they began buzzing persistently, pulling us from our dreams and soft pillows and demanding we get going. Our channel ride from London to Paris left first thing that morning, so we had to make sure we were all packed up and out the door before the break of dawn.

We snaked our way through the early morning London streets with our luggage in tow. The streets were littered with broken bottles and food wrappers, signs of the fun that was had only a few hours before. Strings of young adults stumbled out of buildings closing, past bouncers, and toward what I hoped was home after a long night out on the town.

Not long into our walk, I turned around to see Brock booking it back from the way we came, with Monty taking up his luggage.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Where’s Brock going?”

“He forgot his painting at the hotel,” Monty told me with a look of disbelief (referring to the spray paint art Brock had picked up while we were in Rome from the sidewalk performer).

We made it to the channel station with not a minute to spare (with Brock catching up to us at full-spring just before we arrived). Seeing the size of our group, a staff member ushered us into a newly opened line and helped us make our train on-time. We were relieved to have our things safely stowed away and take our seats. The late night and early wake up call provided little time for sleep, but the two-hour train ride would make up for some of it.

We pulled into a large, open-air station a couple hours (and a short nap) later. We pulled our luggage from the train and made our way to the entrance. Our shuttle driver was waiting to greet us as we reached the front of our train. He was a nice guy. He only spoke a bit of English. But he was very friendly.

By the time we arrived at our hotel and got situated in our rooms, we were all feeling a bit tired after all the travels and lack of sleep the night before. I lied down on the floor, tucked myself up into the fetal position against the wall and got some shut-eye while the others talked about plans for the rest of the day. Not long after, the others followed suit, sneaking in a bit of a nap themselves.

It was still very early in the afternoon by the time we shook the sleep from our eyes and decided to wander out to have our first good look at the city. None of us had been to Paris before.

Our first stop was to find something to eat, as we were all pretty quite hungry. We found a small cafe on a street corner with a large man in the front door dressed in a black shirt and black pants. He had a thick, deep-voiced French accent that paired well with his thick frame. He promised us he had crepes (which Heidi said she had to try while we were in Paris), so we followed him inside and took our seats. Turns out he did have crepes, but not yet. Apparently they weren’t served until later in the day.

Looking over the menu, the options seemed rather narrow. Sandwiches and omelettes seemed to jump out at us. All served with french fries (go figure). Jen was the lone person to venture out from the bunch, which almost never happens. She ordered the croque madam, two pieces of toast with ham and parmesan cheese in the middle, served with a fried egg on top.

When our plates were brought out to us, the bright orange sunny-side-up egg on Jen’s croque madam almost seemed to be taunting me for my choice of an omelette. Heckling me for such an uneducated choice.

“Mmmm… That’s good,” Jen said, biting into her sandwich.

Next time I’d be ordering the croque madam, I promised myself.

While we may not have been totally impressed with the state of our hotel (the floor we were on was currently being remodeled when we arrived), the location was great. We were only a short, two-minute walk to the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower overlooks the Paris city center, but it also looms high over the River Seine. I love being by water, so this was a welcome surprise for me (I didn’t realize how close the tower was to the river before arriving).

Seeing as how it was a Saturday, the Eiffel Tower was buzzing with visitors. People were everywhere beneath its large base, waiting in line to take a ride to the top. We’d be doing so at some point over the next several days, but for our first day, we thought we’d see a bit of the city.

Jen had really been looking forward to our time in Paris, before arriving. Whereas I had more been looking forward to experiencing Rome. I had been really excited to see the Coliseum, all of the old churches and the museum in Rome, and there just wasn’t a whole lot I had been excited to see in Paris. I had also heard my fair share of horror stories about Americans being treated really badly by the French citizens who weren’t too keen on the American tourists. I’m not big on going places I’m not welcome, and so I just hadn’t really been looking forward to this leg of the trip.

But, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Paris. It was more green than I was expecting, it had a river running right through the heart of the city, it didn’t seem quite so frantic as Rome, and the people were actually great to us. I really did love it there.

I think one of the things that surprised me was how green of a city it is. It seemed like there were trees everywhere. Lining the streets. Bunched up into small forests in the many parks scattered throughout the city. Freshly  blossoming trees welcoming spring were everywhere, and, since I am from the land of trees (the Pacific Northwest), I think it felt a bit like home in that regard.

We crossed the River Seine and caught a bus that brought us to one of the shopping districts, Champs Elysees. Champs Elysees is French for “Elysian Fields,” and supposedly its one of the most beautiful avenues in the world. Shops, cinemas and restaurants line each side of the road, some brand names recognizable and others not. The avenue is just over a mile long, and it climbs subtly uphill from the gardens on one end to the the Arc de Triomph on the other.

We waited on a red light for traffic to stop just long enough for us to step out into the median of the road so we could snap photos of the tall archway. Apparently you can take an elevator to the rooftop terrace where a restaurant serves food. The people at the peak of the arch looked like ants staring down at us.

After an hour or two along Champs Elysees of shopping and tucking in and out of foot-traffic of the large crowds that streamed down the sidewalks, we made our walk back toward the Eiffel Tower, stopping in several neighborhoods along the way for photos. Again, I wasn’t expecting it, but the architecture here was really beautiful. Maybe that’s the thing, maybe I just wasn’t expecting much… Either way, Paris is beautiful.

We came to one neighborhood, in particular, that surrounded a small tree-lined park. The streets here were quiet. There was hardly any foot traffic, and no cars were flying by. All seemed so calm, compared to the hustle and bustle of the Champs Elysees we had just left behind only a few minutes before.

I told Jen I could live here. In Paris. And here in this neighborhood in particular. It even included a view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

It was just getting to be dusk by the time we made it back to the Eiffel Tower. And it was beautiful. It seemed to be glowing with the many lights hidden within its metal framework.

The River Seine, which runs through the city, right in front of the Eiffel Tower, was quite the sight by this time. With its many bridges lit up in lights and river tour boats floating along, casting waves of light on the surface of the water.

The street lamps on the river’s shore formed a row of floating orbs in the night sky, marking off the borders of the river. It was an amazing view.

From where we stood, it was just the bridge separating us from the Eiffel Tower, lighting the night’s sky.

Street lamps, all lit up, formed a line starting at one end of the bridge and advanced toward the Eiffel Towers’ base before stopping abruptly on the other side of the bridge. Like a small child running toward something in great excitement, only to stop just long enough to turn back and wave you along with his arm, as if to say, “Come on; come check this out!”

Before crossing over the river, we took the opportunity to snap a few photos. First one of Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy…

Then one of Tim & Rhonda and Jen and myself.

By the time we made it back to the Eiffel Tower on Saturday night, it was hopping. Crowds of people poured out of the elevator after their tour, and the vast green lawn that seemed to stretch on and on behind the tower was filled with people streaming this way and that. It was a busy place, on a Saturday night. And I loved it. I loved the energy of it.

A handful of food and ice cream vendors filled the air with smells of chocolate and freshly baked waffle cones. And crepes. Which we were happy to see. Several of us put in an order for ice cream or crepes (or ice cream in a crepe), and we made our way back to our hotel. It had been a great first day in Paris, and we were looking forward to seeing more of it after a good night’s sleep.

Sunday: Snow in Paris & Notre Dame

We woke up Sunday morning and started our day with a trip to the boulangerie. The small, corner bakery was filled with freshly baked pastries and croissants. We ordered enough for breakfast, and made our way toward the bus stop. We would be riding the double-decker bus around the city that day, stopping at several spots along the way.

We boarded at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, and we were handed cheap, red-colored headphones as we did. The headphones plugged in to an outlet beside our seat from which we could listen to an automated tour guide as we drove through the city. The woman’s voice pointed out the different sights as we drove, mentioning interesting facts along the way.

From time to time, when she wasn’t looking, I’d switch Jen’s language from English to Italian or French. “Rrrryan!” she’d say. And I’d laugh. I’m a little kid, I know. I often tell Jen she’s going to get a gold star beside her name in heaven for having to put up with me.

We turned around the backside of the Eiffel Tower and the woman’s voice pointed out Napoleon’s Tomb as we did…

…along with the military museum, with rows of cannons at the edge of its expansive green lawns.

I made a mental note to make sure we saw both the tomb and the military museum before the trip was through.

We crossed over the river and made a quick stop beside its edge to pick up some more passengers. Rows of artists and their work lined the sidewalk. Trees provided a border between the river’s edge and the street. Along with a 20-foot drop.

As the bus began to move forward again, I noticed the cotton balls falling in the air. And it brought back memories of driving with my grandpa back home as a young boy.

I remembered, every spring, when the cotton wood trees would begin blooming, casting off thousands of little “cotton balls” into the air, like large snowflakes. They’d pile up along the side of the street, and it’d almost look as if it were snowing as we drove. I remember my Grandpa would say, “When the cotton balls stop falling, that’s when it’s time to open up the pool.”

My Grandpa has an outdoor, in-ground swimming pool behind his house back home, a rarity in our neck of the woods in the Pacific Northwest. But for a few months each year, that swimming pool was my favorite place to be. As a young boy in the just-hot-enough Washington summers.

And so, whenever I saw those cotton balls falling in the air, I knew long days of floating, swimming and playing in the pool on hot summer days weren’t far away.

And it put a smile on my face, remembering those times growing up, even as we made our way through Paris. It brought back memories of long, warm summer days and running around barefoot. It brought back back memories of my Grandpa teaching me how to do the dead-man’s float and smells of Coppertone sunscreen.

“What?” Jen asked, turning and seeing me smile to myself. “Why are you smiling?”

“Oh, I was just remembering something,” I told her.

Our first stop of the day was at Notre Dame. I’m not sure I’d seen photos of Notre Dame prior to our time in Paris, which I’m embarrassed to admit. Or maybe I had and I had just forgotten. Either way, even if I had, I’m not sure they’d do it justice.

I was blown away by how enormous this cathedral was. Even after coming straight from Rome and seeing places like St. Peter’s Basilica, Notre Dame was incredibly large.

I jumped into Lacy’s photo in front of Notre Dame at the last minute and gave my best attempt at a Quasimodo impersonation for this shot…


…which, as it turns out, might be the worst Quasimodo impersonation ever.

We made our way into the Cathedral after snapping a handful of photos of the building, and it is just as amazing inside as it was outside. The long stone hallways, columns, arching ceilings and hanging chandeliers made it all seem as if you had just stepped back in time.

The Cathedral’s stained glass windows seemed to amplify the hints of sunlight streaming in from outside, casting it to dance across the stone pillars and walls inside the building.

Spotlights helped to create the effect, pouring rays of light over the stage in front of the church.

The high-arching ceiling seemed to climb up and up and up, as if someone had grabbed the Cathedral from above and stretched it after it had been completed.

A woodcarving along one side of the Cathedral told the New Testament story of Jesus’ life, from birth to resurrection.

Even though the building was full of others, tourists, taking photos, it still seemed quite reverential. There were several spots where people could stop and pray. There were confessional booths, which were made available at certain times throughout the day. And there were even spots where people could light a candle for a lost loved one.

A man with an accent that I could only identify as being from somewhere in Africa was leading a service at the front of the Cathedral. Many people were seated, listening to him, while many others were simply walking by, snapping photos along the way.

Notre Dame really was stunning. Like so much else in Paris, it made a mockery of my expectations.

We’d be visiting the Louvre the next day, one of the few places in Paris I had really been looking forward to. And it did not let me down.

Wednesday: Visiting the Pope and his museum

We had plans to visit the Vatican and the Vatican Museum during our trip, but we hadn’t figured out which day we’d be doing that before we arrived. After hearing that the Pope would be making an appearance on Wednesday morning, we decided that’d be the best day to make our way toward the Vatican, which we did.

For those of you who don’t know, the Vatican is actually it’s own country. But you wouldn’t necessarily know it were you to visit unknowingly. There are no border crossings, but there were security checks when we visited, and I’m sure it had to do with the Pope’s planned appearance.

You’d also find these guards, dressed in colorful uniforms, standing around the Vatican. Along with these poofy shirts, they wore what looked like striped MC Hammer pants. Not terribly intimidating, but I’m sure they know what they’re doing.

The Pope would be making his appearance in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, so that’s where we headed. St. Peter’s Basilica is a giant church (with the largest interior of any church in the world), said to have been built on the remains of  Peter himself. St. Peter’s Basilica is surrounded by these massive columns, circling what’s known as St. Peter’s Square, and it has a giant fountain in the middle. At the top of all these columns that circle the square sit statues of each and every Pope who has ever served in the Catholic Church. It’s a rather incredible place, actually, and it was filled with people the morning we arrived, all lining up to get their view of the Pope when he appeared.

About 45 minutes after we arrived, out came the Pope. In his Pope mobile. He waved and smiled at the crowds as his driver pulled in and out of people, doing circles around the square. A large screen in the far corner of the square displayed the scene with close-up views of the Pope, for those who couldn’t manage to get close enough to him themselves for the crowds.

We cut our visit at the Pope’s appearance short, not waiting around to hear him address the crowds, as we had an appointment for a tour of the Vatican Museum that we had to make. I felt bad leaving and missing out on what he had to say. The Pope’s not one you usually have the opportunity to hear from first-hand, but we had a tour reservation to make, and we were not going to miss it.

We met up with our tour guide just outside the front entrance to the Vatican Museum. He was holding an umbrella in the air to identify himself. His name was Jimmy, and he is a red-headed Irish guy who studied art. He knew his stuff, and he had a particular affinity for Michelangelo, which made him a perfect fit for this tour of the Vatican Museum, home to most of his works.

Walter had told us that if we ever had the opportunity, we must take a tour of the Vatican Museum. He was right. The place was amazing. It was simply incredible all of the art they have there. But the entire place is just breathtaking. Each domed room has these amazing painted ceilings, and room after room has an amazing display of original artwork that you’ve grown up seeing copies and pictures of.

I recognized one statue, the Belvedere Torso, from Justin & Jane’s home here in Oxford. I had never seen it before visiting their home for the first time, but they have a full-size replica in their front entryway, and apparently it’s quite famous. Michelangelo’s own work was influenced by it, we were told. At one point, the Pope asked him to go about the work of replacing the arms, legs and head that had been lost over the years, but he refused. He said it was just right the way it was, and he wasn’t about to mess with it.

One of the things I found particularly interesting on the tour was this…

It’s a giant bathtub. From Emperor Nero. Jimmy told us Nero was insane, with an ego that might remain unmatched to this day. He thought of himself as God, and he ruled as such. He had a good amount of his own family killed, and when things got so bad that he was going to be assassinated himself, he decided to commit suicide. Only he didn’t know how. So he ordered one of his servants to commit suicide in front of him, before following his lead.

So, anyways, Nero had this bathtub constructed for himself out of an incredibly rare stone called Egyptian Marble.This marble is the rarest in the world, and it’s worth a ridiculous amount of money. Apparently it only exists in a handful of places in the world. Here, in the Vatican Museum, is where you can find the largest amount of it.

One of the only other spots this Egyptian Marble exists is back home, actually, in the Pacific Northwest. It’s sitting on the desk of one of the world’s wealthiest men: Bill Gates. He bought some, a while back, for $250,000. Probably just because he could, Jimmy told us. You know how much of this Egyptian Marble that $250k bought him? Enough for a paperweight…

We saw a number of other incredible painted ceilings along the way, and statues. This statue, the Laocoon, is another rather famous piece of artwork I wasn’t familiar with before our visit. Apparently it was created by several Greek slaves. Not famous at all, but just incredible artists. Jimmy pointed out the level of detail given to this sculpture, and how well they knew each and every muscle and how it would’ve reacted to each movement. Apparently this statue, too, was one Michelangelo admired.

Jimmy told us that, from a very young age, Michelangelo knew he wanted to be an incredible artist. One of the best the world had ever known. And so he set out to be just that from a very young age. He knew that, in order to accurately portray the human body, he would have to have a very intimate knowledge of it’s inner-workings, which found him cutting into cadavers at the age of just 14 years. Apparently it paid off, as Michelangelo’s work is world-renowned to this day.

Obviously one of Michelangelo’s works that you cannot miss if you ever go to Rome is the Sistine Chapel, and it was breathtaking. It’s hard to put into words just how massive this painting is. It took Michelangelo three years to complete his painting of the 12,000 square foot ceiling. And by the time he was done from it, he was nearly blind, Jimmy told us. Working so closely to this massive painting for so long, with paint regularly dripping directly into his eyes, it took quite the toll on him physically.

Needless to say, he was happy to be done with it by the time he finished. But he was also a bit resentful of the process, after being hounded by the Pope to hurry up and finish it so everyone could enjoy it, but him in particular (this Pope was aging and in poor health, and he wanted to make sure he got to see the final product). Michelangelo later painted himself into the Final Judgement, another painting that was commissioned later on and that hangs on the far wall. In the painting, one of the characters is seen hanging onto another man’s skin. That man is Michelangelo, thus portraying himself as literally skinned alive by this process the church had put him through, and for all the years he devoted to these paintings.

Jimmy filled us in on all the ins and outs of the Sistine Chapel before we entered, because, as he explained to us, you’re not allowed to talk or take photos while you’re in the chapel. I was surprised to find so many people when we entered, though. They’d talk in whispers, but if you get enough people in a room, even whispers can become quite loud. And it was distracting, I thought, while taking in the massive painting.

Every once in a while, two security guards standing at the front of the room would let out a loud, “Shhhhh…”, but it’d only do any good for a few minutes, and then the whispers would grow loudly again.

These security guards would also clap their hands and say, “No pictures!” whenever they spotted anyone trying to take a photo. I even saw one of the guards approach a woman after seeing her take a photo. He asked her to scroll through her photos and delete those he found. I was not about to try my luck at snapping a photo, but I would’ve liked to have had one to share.

I was surprised when I found out why people aren’t allowed to take photos of the Sistine Chapel. It’s certainly not what I expected to hear. Apparently Fuji Film Corporation financed a cleaning of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling back in the 1990’s. As part of the deal, they were given copyright of the Sistine Chapel, and they decided they didn’t want anyone taking photos of it. Crazy, right? I’m sure the Vatican hasn’t gotten any flack for that one.

After showing us all the ins and outs of the Vatican Museum, Jimmy told us “goodbye” and sent us off to St. Peter’s Basilica, where he told us we had to see the Pieta: Michelangelo’s famous depiction of Mary holding Jesus’ lifeless body.

Jimmy had warned us that the Pieta would be behind glass, and it was. But apparently it hasn’t been this way for long. The reason it is now protected is because a man from Australia came here, to St. Peter’s Basilica, and, in broad daylight, began attacking this statue with a hammer. Apparently he did a good amount of damage to the statue before the crowd finally pulled him off of it. Jimmy told us the man was lucky to escape alive, as the crowd was about ready to tear him limb from limb. I certainly wouldn’t want to mess with an angry mob of Italians, and destroying their prized artwork seems like a good way to do so.

Jimmy told us a bit about the Pieta, before sending us off to see it for ourselves. He said to pay particular attention to the size of Mary and of Jesus. He said you’ll notice, if you’re looking, that Mary is actually quite a bit larger than Jesus, and that was intentional. He told us Michelangelo was depicting here Jesus as Mary’s child, but fully grown, and after his crucifixion. Apparently, what Michelangelo was wanting to communicate with this statue is the realization Mary would have had after receiving the news that she would give birth to the Messiah, and all of the pain and grief that she would experience as a result, as a mother. That she would one day see her child experience a horrific death, as the Savior of the world. That is what Michelangelo set out to show with this statue, Jimmy told us, and I thought it was beautiful.

Jimmy told us that, if we looked close enough, we could find Michelangelo’s signature on the Pieta. It was carved into a strap that goes across Mary’s gown and over one of her shoulders. Sure enough, if we looked close enough, we were able to see it. Jimmy told us that this was actually the only statue Michelangelo ever signed. He was in his early 20’s when he completed the piece, and he was told he was not allowed to sign it (because he was too young and hadn’t established himself as an artist).

Well, Michelangelo was deadset on getting his name on this piece, after overhearing several people comment on it, and wonder who’s work it was. He wanted to make sure no one else got the credit for his work, and so, sneaking in one evening, after everyone had left, he carved his name into the sculpture. Apparently he felt pretty bad about it afterward, because that was the last sculpture he ever signed.

St. Peter’s Basilica itself was beautiful. Just massive, with incredibly ornate architecture and paintings. It was breathtaking, really. With all the stone, the massive interior of the church building stayed quite cool, and so it was also a pretty refreshing place to be. It was a welcome break from the hot air outside.

After seeing the inside of St. Beter’s Basilica, Tim, Monty and I climbed to the top of the church. Well, we took an elevator halfway up and then climbed what seemed to be an endless number of stairs to get to the top. The stairways were very tight, and circled on top of each other, stretching up and up and up. But, once we arrived at the top, and we were able to look out over the Roman skyline, it was worth it. It really was an amazing view.

Looking down at St. Peter’s Square from this height, where we had gathered with the crowd earlier that day to see the Pope, the people looked like tiny little ants scurrying around. And the statues on the top of the Basilica, looking out toward the Square, which stood as giants before, now seemed so small. It really was an amazing view, taking in the city from this height.

Thursday: Getting outside of the city center

We didn’t have anything scheduled for Thursday, so we took it as an opportunity to wander around the city, and to see parts we hadn’t seen yet. After seeing a handful of famous tourist spots that every visitor is supposed to see, such as the Spanish Steps (below), we made it outside of the city, which may have been my favorite part of Rome…

I loved getting outside of the Roman city center. The city center in Rome actually feels quite modern. Full of lots of scooters flying around the city, and lots of Smart Cars. Lots of restaurants. Like any big city, today, I guess. But this part of Rome, outside of the city center, it was different.

We took a bus that led us beyond the hustle and bustle of the city, into a smaller, more intimate neighborhood that felt more like Italy as I’ve always imagined it. Wooden shutters on the windows. Vines on the sides of buildings. Laundry hanging from clothes lines between buildings. Cobblestone alleys. It was beautiful, and it felt like Italy.

We found a nice little place for lunch outside, on another sunny day. Tents lined the building, and there was plenty of room for our rather large group at several of the tables underneath.

We were shocked when we saw their menu. Rome is not a cheap place to eat. Not in the least. But this place was surprisingly reasonable. We found four-course lunch specials for the same price we were paying for a single entree in the city center. Needless to say, we were all pretty happy about this spot.

“We need to come back here for dinner!” someone said as we perused the menu.

And the food was amazing, too. So good. If you like Italian food, you would’ve loved this place. Several of us ordered the Lasagna, which made you want to cry a bit after biting into it. It was that good. Several others ordered the roast chicken, which was also really, really good. I ordered the spaghetti, just to try something traditional. It was right up there with the best spaghetti I’ve ever eaten. And a couple other people ordered  the house pasta, which was a creamy, corkscrew pasta that came with peas. Jen’s not a fan of peas, but even she loved it.

For dessert, Lacy and I ordered a slice of berry pie, while Brock and Jen ordered a caramel dish. It turned out the caramel dish was actually flan, and it also turned out that those who ordered the caramel dish aren’t fans of flan. Which meant I ate three desserts. After my own first three courses. And I did so with a smile on my face.

We were pleasantly full of some rich, tasty Italian food at this point, and we wandered the neighboring alleyways next, taking in all the sights of this beautiful little piece of Rome on a sunny afternoon.

It was an incredible spot, and it really actually felt like we were in Italy, more so than being in the Roman city center. I loved it.

It seemed like the locals in this part of town were proud to be off the beaten path. So was I.

There was one tourist attraction along the way, though. A person dressed up like an Egyptian statue, who would only move when coins were dropped in their donation jar. I challenged the statue to a staring contest; I did not win.

After wandering through these cobblestone alleyways for a couple hours, we crossed back over the river that cuts through Rome, and we returned to the city center, to snap a few more photos of  some spots on our last night there.

One of the spots we walked to was the Trevy Fountain, another beautiful piece of architecture, and a very popular tourist spot. Back to the crowds we went. . .but it really was an amazing sight.

This was another spot where those selling anything they could get their hands on flocked to. More of those little squashy balls being thrown on the ground. More camera tripods. And a bunch of guys selling knock off purses.

At one point, we saw a group of these guys running down an alley with their arms full of purses. There must’ve been close to 10 of them, and they kept looking back over their shoulder as they ran. We had no idea what was going on, but it looked like they had just run through the crowd and stolen each and every purse they could get their hands on. Turns out, these guys must’ve not been allowed to sell these purses where they were putting up shop (in the alley), as we came across this several times.

They had these purses set up in several rows along the ground, and one of the men would be on watch for any police walking through. As soon as a police officer was spotted, these men had their purses on their arms and they were running. It was quite funny to watch, actually, and we began joking that we should just shout “Police!” as we walked by.

Along with the street vendors were several performers. One guy was painting incredible pictures with a row of spray paint cans. He was crunched low to the ground, leaning on one knee, and he was covered in paint. He worked fast, grabbing this can for a quick spray, returning it, and grabbing another for another quick spray.


After 10 minutes or so of using spray paint cans in more ways than I could have ever imagined, he’d hold up an amazing picture of a waterfall set against a forest. Or the Coliseum set against a massive skyline.

It was really impressive. Brock ended up buying a piece for 10 Euros. I was more entertained just by watching him work.

Friday: Our final day in Rome

We were scheduled to fly out of Rome late Friday afternoon, which meant we had most of the day to take in any last-minute sights we hadn’t seen so far.

We visited one last church, called “St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs,” which was set in another circular square with a fountain in the middle. The church itself had a pretty inconsequential exterior, but the setting was impressive.

Inside, the church was just massive. It really is hard to put into words how tall some of these churches are inside. It’s amazing. And their walls are covered by these large, incredibly detailed paintings. I loved it.

I was taken aback by one of the paintings in particular. And I spent a number of minutes taking it in, with my neck cranked looking up at it, because of how large it was.

It was a painting of Peter, and he was hanging upside down. A crowd had their hands on him, and he was being fixed to a cross. And I remembered what I had heard long ago about Peter’s crucifixion experience. About how, after being condemned to death by crucifixion, he refused, and he literally begged not to be crucified. But, the interesting thing about this is that it’s probably not why you’d expect.

Peter wasn’t against being crucified, per se. He knew he was dying a martyr’s death for his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and he wasn’t about to try and argue his way out of it. But he was against his own death by crucifixion in the traditional sense, because that’s the death Jesus died. And he didn’t see himself fit to suffer in the same way as his Lord. He didn’t think he deserved to be punished in this way, because it would have been too honorable a death for him. Instead, Peter made the rather odd request to be crucified upside-down, and his request was granted.

I’ve always been stunned by that story. And that’s what I thought about as I stared up at this large painting hanging there in the church that afternoon. About Peter’s humble death on the cross, and how, even in his final moments, this man was completely in awe of the death Jesus had died before him. I could just picture him, being confronted with this death sentence, and replying, “No, no, no. You cannot crucify me like that. That’s the way my Lord was crucified!”

After seeing everything on our list, we realized we still had a few hours to kill before it was time to leave for the airport. We were all hungry, and so we decided to find a place for lunch. At this point, though, after eating pizza and pasta all week, no one was too excited about finding yet another Italian spot. I know, I know, it sounds really bad, and this is the point I’d be shaking my head at myself if I were in your seat reading this, but we all wanted a bit of a break from the Italian food. We all wanted something different.

So, while walking back toward our hotel, we spotted a Hard Rock Cafe, and we were all sold on the idea of some good old fashioned American food. Which is funny because, on our first night there in Rome, Brock and I had been cracking jokes about how lame the Hard Rock Cafe is as we walked past it. But, at this point, we had no shame. After eating pizza and pasta and bread all week, we gladly ordered burgers and pulled pork sandwiches as our last meal in Rome before our flight back to London, and before continuing on to Paris. Don’t judge me…

A couple weeks into my spring break here, we were visited by some good friends of ours from back home. Monty & Heidi. And their son Brock and daughter Lacy. Monty & Heidi have been good friends of Jen’s parents since way back when, and we always have a great time with them.

Their daughter Lacy is graduating from high school this year, and she’s been wanting to take a trip to Europe for, well for a long time, from the sounds of it, so they decided to make a trip out of her graduation gift and see us along the way. Jen’s parents, Tim & Rhonda, had been planning on visiting us in the spring, so we all decided to take a vacation together. Starting in Oxford and then moving on to London, Monty & Heidi would spend a few days touring around the UK before Tim & Rhonda arrived several days later and we all continued on to Rome and Paris.

Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy arrived here in Oxford on a Thursday afternoon. It was their first time in the UK, and so Monty had a lot of fun driving their rental car (a stick shift) on the wrong side of the road for the first time. They all looked happy to be out of the car when they arrived.

“We hit six curbs getting here,” Lacy said with a wide grin shortly after they arrived.

“Only six?” I asked. “Well that’s not so bad.”

We helped them unload their luggage from the rental car and showed them around Oxford. I was impressed by how much energy they had after all the travels.

We showed them my college. We walked past Eagle & Child and I pointed out where Lewis, Tolkein and others used to meet every week. We showed them Christ Church, and we rounded out the evening with a trip to the Gourmet Burger Kitchen. I ordered the Sydney burger: served with beet, pineapple and a fried egg.

Lacy asked why I liked egg so much (after hearing about the ham and egg pizza I had ordered at the pizza place across the street). I shrugged my shoulders while finishing chewing a big bite of my burger.

“Because they’re good,” I replied, after finishing chewing. “And good for you.”

A trip to the Cotswolds, the Kilns, and Eagle & Child

The next day, we took a drive to the Cotswolds, stopping into Bourton on the Water first. It’s a beautiful little village with a wide, shallow stream that runs through the middle of it.

Wide, green lawns provide plenty of space for families to walk, kids to run, and couples to play frisbee. It’s a beautiful place, particularly on a sunny day.

A handful of ducks floated softly along the surface of the water the afternoon we were there, as walked on the cobblestone sidewalk in front of the store shops. Jewelers, clothing boutique shops, and small game stores rounded out the village.

We ordered lunch at a place on the edge of the village with sweeping lawns and a large willow tree. We ate outdoors, as it was a sunny afternoon, and most everyone ordered the fish and chips. Except for Lacy, who ordered the chicken nuggets. Everyone liked their fish, but most were not big fans of their side of mashed peas. Which meant I had loads of peas to go along with my fish (I’m one of the few people I know here who’s a fan of mashed peas).

We looked at a handful of shops after finishing our lunch and, before leaving Bourton on the Water, we stopped at a small ice cream shop. The cool ice cream was a welcome treat on the warm afternoon.

For our next stop, we visited another small village, called Lower Slaughter. This village is even older than Bourton on the Water. It really makes you feel like you’ve traveled back in time when you’re there. Like Bourton on the Water, Lower Slaughter is also built right on a stream, and there are small footbridges that make a path to cross it throughout the village.

Two young girls were seated on one of the footbridges when we walked past, kicking their legs in the air hanging over the stream and smiling in the sunlight.

The large, wooden water wheel at the end of the lane was flowing, turning over and over as the water flipped it round and round.

The homes in Lower Slaughter are amazing. The kind you would expect to see in a Thomas Kincaid painting. One after another after another. Stone homes, with thatched rooftops, and low, wooden gates at the front of each walkway leading to the front door.

After a walk around the village, we climbed back into the rental car and made our way back to Oxford. We pulled into town just before 5:00 that afternoon, and we decided to pull up to the Kilns for a quick tour before heading home. They were leaving for London the next morning, and they were hoping to see the Kilns before leaving. I called Deb and made sure she didn’t mind us stopping by. She was in town doing a bit of shopping at the time, but she told us to go ahead and stop in, that one of the scholars in residence would likely let us in. So we did. It was fun showing them around, where Jen and I work, and telling them about the house.

By the time we finished and made it back to our house, it was dinner time, so we walked to the city center and introduced them to their first pub experience, at the Eagle and Child. Monty and Brock followed my lead and tried their luck with the bangers and mash. They were not disappointed.

A poorly-timed trip to London and Addison’s Walk

The next morning, Jen prepared some freshly baked scones before seeing Monty & Heidi and Brock and Lacy off to London. They’d be spending the next two days there before we all flew off to Rome.

Unfortunately, when they arrived in London, they were met by hundreds of thousands of protesters. There’s no way they could’ve seen this one coming when they had booked their trip, but apparently the people of London chose this weekend to stage a massive protest over the recent government cuts. It was the largest protest in London since the 1960’s, and they all found themselves square in the middle of it.

People were climbing buildings and shouting. Others were throwing paint on shops and breaking storefront windows. Apparently it was peaceful for the most part, but others decided to take it as an opportunity to cause some ruckus. After getting their phone call to tell us they couldn’t do anything they had planned because of the protesting, we turned on our TV to see it all unfold. Sure enough, there were hundreds of thousands of protesters; it looked like quite the mess. We felt horrible for them, and told them they were welcome to return to (protest-free) Oxford if they liked. They decided to stick it out, and they made it safely back to their hotel. It really was terrible timing.

After seeing Monty & Heidi off, we met up with Rich & Christine and Max & Michelle. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Oxford, and Rich suggested we take advantage of it by going to Magdalene College for a walk. Magdelene College is where CS Lewis taught here at Oxford, and it’s famous for its beautiful gardens. I had yet to go take it all in, so I was quick to take Rich up on his suggestion.

We met up with the rest of them just outside the large, stone college walls, and we walked through the massive courtyards before making our way to the back of the college and into the college gardens.

Oxford really is a beautiful place to be in the spring time. All of the trees have transformed their previously skeletal-like frames into these amazing, blossoming towers that seem to reach out at you from every corner, as if to hand you a bouquet of freshly blossomed flowers. Seemingly out of nowhere, flower beds have sprouted up, spreading fields of bright colors where there was previously only greens and browns. The entire city smells amazing, like it’s all just coming awake from the long winter and it has put on it’s finest, flower-scented perfume.

Addison’s Walk leads visitors along the river that runs through the Magdalene College grounds, and beside Deer Park, aptly named for all the deer that call it home.

C.S. Lewis loved being outdoors. He loved going for long walks, and he often did so here at Addison’s Walk. But, what makes this walk particularly meaningful for those interested in Lewis is that this is the trail where he first seriously began rethinking the Christian Faith. Thanks to a conversation with a good friend of his by the name of J.R.R. Tolkein, as well as another friend by the name of Hugo Dyson, in 1931, C.S. Lewis gave second-thought to this idea of God writing Himself into our story, to pay a death on behalf of His own creation, so that they might be made right with Him.

It was the kind of story of myths and fairy tales, which, as a Professor of Literature, Lewis loved. But, as Lewis’ friends described to him that afternoon on their walk, this was one myth that was more than myth, it was historic fact. Of this conversation, Lewis later wrote to his best friend Arthur Greeves,

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: and again, that if I met the idea of god sacrificing himself to himself…. I liked it very much… provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels… Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with tremendous difference that it really happened…. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) that this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths; (b) that it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly sure that it happened….”

Monday: flying out to Rome

Jen and I woke up Monday morning to wrap up the last of our packing before heading off to the airport. We would be meeting Tim & Rhonda there before flying out to Rome, while Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy would be flying out that morning. We’d meet up with them at our hotel in Rome.

We arrived at the airport at the time Tim & Rhonda were scheduled to land. But they didn’t come walking out of their gate until nearly an hour later. The anticipation of seeing them mounted as we waited, and I told Jen this is what it felt like waiting for her to arrive that first time her and Steve came out last fall.

Finally, after nearly an hour of waiting, Tim & Rhonda came wandering out of the arrivals gate looking relatively well rested. I was impressed, and it was great to see them. We exchanged hugs and made our way to check in for our flight to Rome.

We had a bit of a wait before our flight, so we grabbed lunch at a restaurant in the airport. A pub. It was great just to talk and laugh with them again. And it was a weird feeling, thinking we were actually in England with Jen’s parents.

We made it into Rome around 9:00 that evening. We hadn’t eaten since lunch, and so we were all quite hungry. Having landed ahead of us, Monty & Heidi told us they had found a great restaurant not far from our hotel. Sounded good enough for us.

We were greeted at the airport by our shuttle driver, and he whisked us along the Roman freeway to our hotel, about a 40-minute drive away. He pointed out things along the way in his thick Italian accent.

“Here are the walls to the old city. The Coliseum is that way… The Vatican is that way…” he said, pointing as he drove.

It seemed so unreal. Being here, and having things like the Coliseum and the Vatican pointed out. I was excited to see it all, but particularly the Coliseum.

Lots of motorcycles pulled in and out of traffic as we made our way to the hotel. Our driver acted like it was perfectly normal. The city felt alive, even though it was nearly 10:00 at night.

We met up with Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy at the hotel, dropped off our things in the room, and made the short walk to the restaurant for dinner. It was 10:00 by this time, but, strangely, it didn’t seem too late to be eating dinner. Other people were at the restaurants we passed along the way. And this restaurant, too, had a handful of other people eating. 

It was a nice-looking restaurant, and we were lead to a large, round table in the back of the room by a waiter dressed in a white shirt with slicked back hair. I ordered a pizza with eggs and ham. Lacy and the others laughed. It sounded good to me, I told them.

I was surprised to find it not quite how I had expected it when it arrived, though. The eggs were served hard-boiled and halved, and four of them sat perched atop my pizza alongside thinly cut pieces of pancetta (thinly cut, salted pork belly). Again, not quite what I was expecting, but I dug in anyway.

After ordering water with our dinner, we were surprised to find that it’s impossible to order “tap water” in Rome. At least it was for us. Instead, you end up paying for still, bottled water. About 3 euros a bottle (or well over $4). Crazy.

We thanked our waiter for the dinner, paid our bill, and made our walk back to our hotel. It had been a long day of traveling, particularly for Tim & Rhonda, and we were all anxious to get a good night’s rest before taking in the city the next day.

Tuesday: The Coliseum and ancient Rome

Waking up in Rome on our first full day in the city, I was surprised by how warm it was. It must’ve been close to 80 degrees out, which feels like summer for those of us from the Pacific Northwest. You add palm trees to the mix and you can put money on the fact that I’m g0ing to be taking full advantage of the opportunity to dust off the shorts and flip-flops. When we went to Cabo after our wedding, I did my best to wear just my swim trunks and flip-flops to as many places as possible. I could gladly be that guy the rest of my life.

But the funny part about this is that the Italians are the complete opposite. It’s 80 degrees outside and they’re wearing full-length coats and scarves. I didn’t understand it. In the Pacific Northwest, we’re known for people wearing socks with their velcro sandals, so clearly we don’t come from a place that values fashion over function.

Our first stop for the day was the Coliseum. A short walk and a subway ride away. I had been looking forward to the Coliseum from the time I first found out we were visiting Rome. Jen and I watched Gladiator just before coming, so we were well-prepared for it.

And it was something else. Just huge. As you’re walking up to it, it completely consumes your view, making you feel so incredibly small as you stand beside it.

We purchased some sort of tickets in advance, which meant we didn’t have to wait in the (long) line to get in. I was quite happy about that. There were loads of people there they day we visited. Tours, classes and families filled the walkways that led in and out of the enormous ruins.

The Coliseum has not aged well, either. Sure, it’s been a couple thousand years, but it looks it. The stone frame is broken all over the place, and it literally looks like it’s been through a storm. Apparently the Coliseum used to be covered in marble, but it was later pulled apart and much of it went toward the construction of the Vatican Museum (which we’d be visiting the next day). But, I don’t know, I think that’s part of the appeal, too. It wouldn’t seem quite so ancient if it were all shined up.

Like I said, it was a beautiful, hot day when we were there at the Coliseum, and the big blue skies provided quite the backdrop to take it all in.

We didn’t take a guided tour of the Coliseum; we just showed ourselves around instead. I listened in to one tour guide for part of the time; he seemed to know quite a bit about the place. I’m a little bummed we didn’t take a guided tour of the Coliseum, actually, as I think there is a lot I would’ve liked to hear about it, but didn’t.

I did read a few plaques along the way, though. I read one story about a famous gladiator who fought and killed a bear, a lion, a rhino and a number of other animals all in one day, with his bare hands. I thought that was something else. The Coliseum had on display a rather large collection of animal bones that they had found during their excavation work. From animals that had been killed as part of the entertainment at the Coliseum. It was rather remarkable how many different kinds of animals they had brought in there. Everything from exotic animals like elephants and giraffes to violent predators like lions and bears.

We snapped a group photo before wrapping up our time at the Coliseum, and I couldn’t help but wonder how successful the Coliseum would be if they still put on such shows today.

When we left the Coliseum, we were barraged by men trying to sell us things. There were men dressed up in Roman gladiator costumes trying to sell photo opportunities with them, and there was a seemingly endless amount of men dressed in black jackets and jeans trying to sell those passing by everything from camera tripods to Coliseum post cards and refrigerator magnets. Others were selling these squishy little figures in the shape of a ball that they would throw on the ground. When they hit the ground, they’d squish down flat, but then quickly reform themselves into a ball.

Guys were lined up on the sidewalk, one after another, for miles, trying to get you to buy these things, right outside of the Coliseum. I wasn’t a fan. It seemed like a good way to ruin this incredible place. To cheapen it.

And these guys were persistent. They’d walk right up to you, shoving whatever it was they were interested in selling directly into your face, and then ask you to buy it. Over and over again. And they wouldn’t leave you alone. They’d follow you, long after you had told them you were not interested in a camera tripod.

The next place we visited after the Coliseum was the oldest part of the city, the ancient Roman ruins. Apparently the oldest part of the city used to be built on a hill just across from the Coliseum.

We walked up the hill to take in the old city ruins. The walking path was lined with these trees that reminded me a bit of Dr. Suess. They shot up high into the sky, and they didn’t have any branches until they reached their highest point, before spreading out wide into an umbrella-like figure. I really liked the looks of those trees. I’ve never seen anything like them. Apart from these trees, there were loads of old city ruins, which made the Coliseum look pretty good in comparison.

After a short hike along a trail that wove back and forth with several switchbacks, we made it to the top of the hill, and we found a pretty spectacular view of Rome. It seemed like we could see for miles, looking out across the city. It was a great spot to take it all in. Homes and hotels were built in a more modern architecture, and they were interspersed among lots of incredible, older buildings. It really was a beautiful sight.

We took the opportunity to snap a few photos here, including one of ourselves.

Not long after we reached the top of the hill, dark clouds began rolling in, bringing a deep stroke of grey to an otherwise beautiful, blue skyline. It created a rather ominous scene, there from the top of the hill. One of the buildings, with winged angels on chariots at its peak, looked quite apocalyptic.

With the dark clouds came a bit of rain. And wind. Soon, I found myself standing in my shorts and flip-flops wishing I were the one wearing a full length coat and scarf. Maybe those Italians know a bit more about their weather than I give them credit for.


Steve and I woke up Saturday morning and headed to the city center for a workout at the gym. I went to grab my gloves on the way out when I realized they were nowhere to be found…

The same gloves that had been reunited only days before when my missing glove mysteriously appeared in my mailbox were now missing. Both of them. They weren’t in my bag pocket, where I had left them.

“They must’ve fallen out somewhere in the city center, again,” I told Steve as we left the house.

I had to laugh at the irony of the situation. Maybe both will show up in my mailbox next week with a sign that reads, “This is the last time!” I thought to myself as we walked along Banbury Road to the city center.

Sunday: Introducing Steve to Walter’s Home

When I visited Walter for tea shortly after returning to Oxford at the start of the term, I had told him that Steve would be coming out to visit the following week. Steve had met Walter when we first visited the Kilns last fall, and Walter regularly asks how Steve is doing. Walter’s good about things like that. He’s always asking questions that shows he cares.

After hearing that Steve would be in town, Walter said it would be nice to see him again. I suggested the three of us find a time to get together for dinner, perhaps. Walter liked that idea, and he invited us over for dinner that Sunday evening Steve would be in town. I had mentioned the idea to Steve over e-mail before he arrived, and he loved it. After hearing about our time with Walter, he was looking forward to seeing him again, and to someday seeing his home. I told him he’d love it.

So that’s what we did. After church that morning, and working away from the house that afternoon, Steve and I ventured north to Walter’s house. Stopping briefly in Summertown to pick up something for dessert. I told Walter we’d take care of dessert, since he was preparing a meal for us. He didn’t seem to mind that idea.

We made it to Walter’s home just after six that night. He greeted us at the door, with that huge, warm smile of his, and big eyes behind his glasses.

“Hello,” Walter said, welcoming us and inviting us in. “Let me take your coats.”

I greeted Walter with a hug and handed the dessert to him, explaining that it’d need some time to bake.

“Of course,” he said. “I’ll take it into the kitchen; I’m sure my French chef Benoit will know what to do with it.”

I smiled. I had never heard of “Benoit” before.

Before leaving the front entryway, I pointed out a picture that hung on the wall to Steve .

“Walter with Lewis,” I said.

“Oh, wow.”

Walter returned from the kitchen and pointed out by name all the people in the photos that hung on his walls.

“And this, this is a view of the Kilns before the house next door to it that you saw was built,” Walter explained, helping orient us to the photo.

“They had quite a bit more room back then, from the looks of it,” I said.

“Well come into the living room,” Walter said, waving us along to follow him, which we did.

“This is great,” Steve said as we entered the room.

Walter’s living room has quickly become my favorite place in Oxford. It’s so incredibly comfortable. With the fireplace and large, comfortable chairs seated around it. With the books stacked high along the walls. And not to mention that Walter always has a hot pot of tea and some sort of treat waiting.

Walter showed Steve around the room, pointing out different things along the way.

“This statue shows how movement was first introduced into sculptures,” Walter explained, pointing toward the life-size statue in the corner of the room.

“Prior to this, you didn’t see this kind of movement. The Egyptians, for example, created their statues so that their arms were at their side and their legs were straight. But, by raising this leg just so, you create this movement in the rest of the sculpture.”

Walter continued the tour, pointing out the small table in the corner of the room that had been Lewis’ when he was a young boy, and the small humidor that used to be Lewis’.

“This isn’t his tobacco, though,” Walter explained, as he held it up for us to smell.

He pointed out the illustrations on the wall. Illustrations from the Chronicles of Narnia series. The original illustrations. Crazy. And then he asked us to excuse him while he returned to the kitchen to check on Benoit. His French chef. To make sure everything was coming along okay.

He invited us to have a look around, and to help ourselves to anything. So we did.

I found my way to Walter’s book shelves and allowed my eyes to read over the titles and authors.

“He really did a great job with the colors here,” Steve said. “Even in the entryway. The green works great with the photos of the house and the grass.”

“Yeah, he knows what he’s doing, for sure,” I said from across the room.

Walter’s second passion, to literature and all things Lewis, is sculpture. And he has a fair share of it spread throughout the room. As well as several pieces of art hanging from the wall.

“Here’s a picture of Walter with the Pope,” I said, pointing to a framed photo on the wall, beside one of the framed pieces of art. Walter’s a pretty big fan of the Pope.

Walter returned from the kitchen to tell us Benoit had everything under control, and that dinner would be ready shortly.

Steve told him he had done a great job decorating. And how much he liked the color choice.

“Oh, well thank you. I’m so glad to hear you like it,” he told Steve.

They talked for a while about the particular colors, and why they were chosen. A conversation which I, as a colorblind guy, didn’t appreciate nearly as much as they did.

Walter invited us to take a seat beside the fire. He helped us to some tea, and he held out a plate full of puffed pastries.

“They’re sausage rolls,” he told Steve. “Have you had one before?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Well surely you have,” Walter said, turning toward me with the plate.

“Yeah, yeah I have. They’re really good, but we don’t have them back home,” I said, taking a bite. “Probably the closest thing I can think of would be pigs in a blanket, but they’re not quite the same.”

We talked for a while over tea and sausage rolls, while “Benoit” finished preparing dinner. Walter asked us what we had planned for Steve’s time in Oxford.

“Oh, well, we’re not quite sure yet,” I told him.

“I just enjoy being here and hanging out, really,” Steve piped in. “I love Oxford, but I’m not much of a tourist.”

“Have you made it to the Trout yet?” Walter asked, turning to me.

“No, no I haven’t, but I remember you telling me about that before. Still haven’t made it.”

“Oh, well you absolutely must go.”

The Trout is an old inn that has been turned into a restaurant, which sits right on the river. Walter had told Jen and I about it the last time he had us over for supper. But we had yet to make it there.

“Yes, you should go early in the day, before it gets dark, so you can take a walk beside the river,” Walter encouraged us. “It’s a nice walk, and I know you’ll enjoy it.”

“We’ll have to do that before you leave,” I said, turning to Steve.

“Yeah, that sounds great.”

We finished our tea and Walter invited us into the dining room, informing us that “Benoit” had finished preparing our dinner.

And he did a great job. Benoit, that is. A nice ham, some potatoes and broccoli. It looked really good.

“Why don’t you sit here in your spot,” Walter said, pointing to the chair where I had sat the last time Walter had us over for dinner. “And Steve, you can sit here.”

We fixed our plates and Walter asked me if I’d bless the food for us. I was happy to.

The meal was really good, and we had a great time, talking over the food. Walter’s a keen conversationalist, and he kept the questions coming. Never pressed or forced, but just good conversation.

We returned to the living room after supper. Stomachs now full. We sunk low into our chairs and picked up the conversation again.

He asked each of us how much we had traveled around Europe. Neither of us have much at all. He told us we needed to go to Rome someday. And Italy. He told us he loved Italy, and that he had just recently returned from visiting there. I told him I’d love to see both places someday.

He told us he was happy to see us having this time together, Steve and I, even while I was so far from home.

“It must be difficult to keep a friendship going while being so far apart,” he said, with that look of serious concern on his face.

“Yeah, it is,” I said, “but it definitely helps when this guy flies out to visit like this,” I said, motioning across the room to Steve.

Walter told us he had never seen a friendship quite like ours. And he was thankful for it.

“It’s rare to find a best friend, you know?” he told us.

He also told us we needed to read C.S. Lewis’ book, The Four Loves.

“Have you read it?” he asked us.

“Yeah, I have,” I spoke up.

“I haven’t, no,” Steve said.

“Oh, you must read it,” Walter insisted. “It’s a wonderful book, and Lewis writes about the love shared between friends. He contends for such friendship in it.”

Walter explained how he thought the Feminist movement and a lot of the other changes in the middle of the last century deconstructed such friendships (I love that Walter doesn’t bother with being P.C, by the way; it’s refreshing). He talked about how men don’t share friendships like they did before that time. He talked about The Inklings, about C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein and others, about their weekly talks, and how these men spurred each other on to do great things.

“I hope you fight for this friendship,” he told us with a look of seriousness on his face. “And if you don’t, then come talk to me, and I will for you.”

We had a great time talking with Walter that night. He’s such a genuinely kind and sincere man.

At about half past 10, we thanked Walter for a wonderful time. We told him to give our compliments to “Benoit” for a great meal. And we asked him if he’d mind taking a couple quick photos. He as happy to oblige, as long as we signed his guestbook. It was a fair trade.

We thanked Walter again for a great time as he found our coats for us. And we promised to check out the Trout before Steve left.

Skyping with Jen: We’re going to Rome!

I Skyped with Jen when we got back to the house. To tell her about our time. And just to catch up. She told me they had just talked with Monti and Heidi about their trip out to see us (Monti and Heidi are great friends of our family back home, and they’re coming to visit with their two kids this spring).

“So it sounds like we’ll be going to Rome,” Jen told me with a big grin over our Skype call. “They just booked a place.”

“Oh yeah? That’s awesome!” I told her. “And kind of funny. Walter was just telling us we need to visit Rome someday.”

I told Steve it sounded like he needed to make a trip out this Spring, too.

Wednesday: Clive’s help with a wedding suit for Steve

I was working on some Greek at Starbucks on Wednesday afternoon when Steve stepped away to go walk around town for a bit. He returned about a half-hour later with a big smile on his face.

“I think I found suits for my wedding, man.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked, not realizing that’s what he had been up to. “That’s awesome.”

Apparently he had walked into a place across the street and he told one of the guys there he was getting married in October. And that he had been looking at suits back home. Not long after that, he had a suit picked out for the wedding.

“I’d love to check it out,” I told him.

“Yeah, that’d be great.”

I packed up my things and we headed across the street. We had looked at suits at a couple places back home before I left to return to Oxford, but he hadn’t settled on anything. I was curious to see what he had found.

A stocky british guy with a thick english accent and shortly shaved head by the name of Clive greeted us as we walked in. “Steve, good to see you again.” He seemed like a real English man’s man. Like the kind of guy who would be out playing rugby for the first part of the day, and then come to the shop and tell you all about suits the next.

He led us upstairs and handed Steve the suit he had picked out. It ended up being a bit different than what we had been looking at back home, but it was great.

“I like it a lot, man. Yeah, it’s really sharp.”

“You should try one on,” Steve insisted, “to get your size right.”

So I did. Clive snapped a photo of Steve in his suit first. And then one “with the best man,” as Clive said.

I’d love to share the photos with you, but apparently it’s something of a secret.

“I don’t get to see her wedding dress until the day of, so she doesn’t get to see our suits,” Steve said. “That’s fair, right?”

Wednesday: A Trip to the Trout

We were serious about taking Walter up on his suggestion to make it to the Trout before Steve left, so we made plans to venture north to the restaurant on Wednesday afternoon. In the late afternoon, but not too late. Before it got dark. So we could still take in the sights.

It was a bit of a cloudy day, and it had been drizzling off and on earlier, but we lucked out and it seemed to hold off for our walk.

And Walter was right, it was a great walk. About three miles north of where I am living here.

A couple miles into the trip, we came to a bridge that crossed a river that runs through the western border of Oxford. The river had these small boats on one side, which I had been told people live in year-round.

After crossing the bridge, the view opened up into this beautiful English countryside.

Several small ponds were scattered throughout the fields, and a group of ducks skimmed across the top of the water as we passed.

Walking a little further, we came into a small town. With this little market. And all of a sudden I was reminded how very far we were from home. In this small English village miles even from Oxford. It’s funny. I hadn’t felt that way. I had just kind of gotten used to being here. But, for some reason, walking through this little village reminded me I was in a foreign country. I a beautiful foreign country.

Most of the homes in this village were old and built of stone. With little space from one house to the next. The roads were narrow, and we walked on them. Taking photos along the way.

This thatched roof home was seated on the corner of a bend that opened up to reveal another expansive field, which it looked like people were taking full advantage. A couple was walking together. And a man was walking with his dog.

The road narrowed again as it turned into another bridge, crossing another part of what I took to be the same river, bending just so.

After crossing this second bridge, we spotted a tall sign with a fish on it.

“That must be it,” I said to Steve, as we walked past what looked to be a small, communal garden in the center of a handful of older-looking stone homes.

The Trout was just as Walter had described it. An old stone inn that had been reconverted into a restaurant. It was great.

Randomly, a peacock was wandering by the front entryway. “Must be the bouncer,” I thought to myself as Steve and I both snapped pictures.

Entering the old stone building, we ducked our heads a bit for the low entry ceiling. The restaurant was amazing. I was immediately surprised by how modern it looked. Everything was very sleek and minimal. Lots of wood throughout. Dimly lit. And it looked out over this beautiful view of the river.

We passed right through the restaurant and onto the back patio to take in the sights, before finding our seats inside.

The river was rushing pretty swiftly as we stood on the patio, taking it all in. Large umbrellas provided for the seating area, which I’m sure must be great during the spring and summertime.

A long, narrow wooden foot bridge led across to the other side. It really was a great spot.

We made our way inside and found a table in the corner of the room that looked out across the river.

It was still a bit early for dinner, so we ordered a couple drinks and started journaling.

Steve and I had been talking a bit about our dreams. And we wanted to find a time to do that before he took off. To share with each other what we wanted to accomplish. And to pray for each other. So we did.

Steve’s the kind of guy who dreams big. Unlike anyone I’ve ever met before.

Before I met Steve, I always figured dreams were a bit for people who don’t actually do anything with their life. But, instead, for people who simply “dream” of doing something big. Someday. And then someday never comes.

But that’s not the case with Steve. not at all. I still remember the first time I shared with him about my dreams to one day study at Oxford. And to write in a way that helped others see God more clearly. I hadn’t shared this dream with anyone at this point. Apart from my wife. And so I did so somewhat sheepishly.

But he told me I should go after it. As simple as that. Without laughing at me or telling me that sounded like a pretty lofty dream. Just that I should.

That was just over two years ago. It was only the second or third time we had hung out. And now here I am. At Oxford. Studying Theology. Like I had dreamt of for so long.

Needless to say, that’s something I appreciate greatly in Steve. He’s the kind of friend who’s always encouraging me to dream big, and to go after those dreams. He’s the friend who always believes in me.

Having someone like that in your life. . .well, that’s priceless.

“I figured, rather than just sitting down and writing out what we want, maybe we should start with some of the ways God’s blessed our life up to this point,” Steve suggested. “That way, we’re reminded about all of the times God has shown up and provided when we doubted whether He would.”

I loved that idea. So we did. Each journaling to ourselves.

We shared them with each other after a while. All those ways God has shown up. In each of our lives. It was really encouraging to hear those times in Steve’s life, and it was good to remind myself of all those times He’s shown up in my life, even amidst my doubts.

After a while, we decided to order some food. We’re both burger guys, so we went with two of their burgers.

They showed up on these cool, wooden serving trays. Very unique.

After burgers, we talked a bit about what we wanted to set out to accomplish in life. Short-term and long-term. And then we prayed for each other. Lifting up these dreams to God, just like we had done all those years before. With Oxford. From just outside of Oxford.

So thankful for that time. So thankful for a friend who still dares me to dream big and who encourages me to go after them.

A second dinner: Hussein’s Kebab van

We made it back to the house kind of early. As we had taken an early trip out to The Trout.

Both Steve and I had been wanting to make a trip to the kebab vans in the city center before he left. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something so appealing about eating food from a truck. I think it’s unique to men, though, as neither Jen nor Jamie are big on the idea.

Steve told Jamie we were going to go grab a second dinner from the kebab van. She told him to be careful they didn’t serve us rat. Or pigeon.

Jamie used to work in New York. And apparently there was a case where some sidewalk vendors got caught for selling pigeon. So, her fear isn’t completely unfounded, I guess.

Neither Steve nor I were swayed, though. We were dead set on ordering food from a van before he left.

Around 10 o’clock that night, we made our way to the city center. And we found “Hussein’s Kebab Van” in his old familiar spot. On the corner near the Ashmoleon Museum. Where Cole had surprised me with that first-edition copy of Mere Christianity last December.

One of my favorite parts about Hussein’s is the menu. They have everything. From pizza to burgers to kebabs… They even have tuna pizza. I dared Steve to order it, but he decided against it. Choosing to go with the chicken kebab instead.

It was a cool night, but we found a spot nearby to eat our kebabs. Under a large statue in the city center that sits between two lanes of traffic. It’s where Jen and I had eaten our kebabs before seeing Romeo & Juliet last fall.

It was a cool spot to eat. With oncoming headlights cutting through the night air, as though they were going to come straight for you, before finally turning.

The kebabs were great. Messy, but great. The hot chicken was a warm welcome in the cool night air.

It was a great time, sitting there with my best friend. Late that night in the middle of Oxford. Thankful for those times. And memories.

Thursday: Paninis & celebrating Steve’s engagement

Steve’s a big fan of the Alternative Tuck paninis here in Oxford. As am I, obviously. So we enjoyed quite a few trips to the panini shop while he was here. We’d normally meet up there halfway through the day, make our way through the long line, and head down to Harris Manchester, warm paninis in-hand, to find a place to sit and eat.

Steve snapped this one of me unexpectedly. But, as you can see, I wasted little time. That panini didn’t have a chance with me.

We worked away from the Harris Manchester Library for a few hours that afternoon. Me on my papers. Steve on his business. And on wedding plans.

Celebrating answered prayers

I had told Steve I had a surprise for him that night. Before he left. I don’t think he had any idea what it was. I told him we’d take off a little after five for it.

About a quarter after five, we left the college and headed back home. I asked Steve if he had packed any dress clothes for the trip. He hadn’t.

“Hmm… well, maybe you can borrow a pair of mine.” I suggested.

“Actually, I bought another suit with my wedding suit,” he told me. “Not sure if it’s tailored or not, but maybe it’ll work.”

After getting ready at the house, we stepped out and headed back to the city center.

“Well, bud, I felt bad we weren’t able to celebrate your engagement when I was back home,” I told him, “so I wanted to make sure we got to do that before you left.”

“Oh, thanks man.”

There’s a restaurant here in Oxford that always catches Steve’s eye. Gee’s. It looks a bit like a green house. With white trim and loads of windows. It has chandeliers hanging just above the tables inside.

I told Steve I had tried to make reservations for us for Gee’s for the night before he took off, but that they were booked out for an event.

“So, next best option: The Old Parsonage.”

The Old Parsonage is a hotel / restaurant in the city center. It’s supposed to be a pretty nice place. And apparently it’s owned by the same folks as Gee’s.

“That sounds great, man. Thank you so much,” Steve said, turning toward me as we walked. “That really means a lot.”

“Of course.”

The Old Parsonage is a really cool old stone building with lots of vines growing on the exterior. And large hedges along the road, blocking the view from traffic.

The front door is an old, castle-esque wooden door.

We made our way in to find a small room with several people seated with drinks and smiles. A young guy behind a desk wearing a dark suit and a tie greeted us. I told him we were looking for the restaurant.

“Just around the corner,” he told us, pointing us in the right direction.

The small room opened up to a slightly larger room after a couple steps. The room’s walls were plastered in framed art and portraits.

It was a really elegant place. And just a handful of other tables with people at them.

There were two older men seated with a woman at one table, and an older couple seated beside a window at another who talked in french to each other the whole night.

A Porsche pulled into the gravel driveway as we sat down, and I watched as a guy in his late 50’s stepped out, wearing a suit and scarf.

We were clearly the youngest ones in the restaurant.

Opening up our menus, I think Steve was taken aback a bit.

“Oh, wow. Man, we can go some place else if you like.”

That’s just the kind of guy Steve is. He gives other people the world, and yet he expects so little in return.

“This really means a lot, man, but I seriously would’ve been happy just being treated to ice cream or something,” he told me from across the table.

“Ice cream? Had you known me when I got engaged, I know there’s no way you would’ve taken me out for ice cream to celebrate.”

A sheepish grin spread across his face as he looked off. He knew I was right.

When I received the news that I had been accepted to Oxford, Steve treated Jennifer to an umpteen course meal at one of the nicest restaurants in the area back home. Certainly the nicest restaurant either Jen or I had ever been to. And will probably ever go to.

We had an amazing time that night, celebrating my being accepted to study here. And I wanted to do the same for Steve.

“Well thanks, man. It really means a lot.”

“Of course.”

The food at The Old Parsonage was pretty incredible. I ordered the ox. Because I’ve never had ox. And Steve ordered the cod.

Both were great. My ox tasted a bit like the best roast beef you’ve ever had. Falling apart with the slightest touch of a fork. And mashed potatoes to top it off.

We had a great time. Talking about Steve & Jamie’s big day. And remembering about all the times we had spent praying for Steve’s future wife. Over coffee at Wood’s back home. Now the big day was just months away, and I was happy to celebrate that with him.

After cleaning our plates, I slid around the table so our waitress could snap a photo of us. Celebrating just another way God has shown up, in a very big way, and answered the prayers of our hearts. The wife of Steve’s dreams.

Thanks for a great trip, my friend.

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