Archives for category: travels

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.

After spending most of the day at Blenheim Palace last Saturday, I had to crank down on some homework. I spent most of Sunday punching out an essay that was due the next week. Got about halfway through before turning in for the night. Felt pretty good going into a new week ahead of the game after having a great trip to Blenheim Palace. Which made Monday morning even worse.

Monday: Bad news…

I woke up Monday morning and flipped open my Macbook before studying a bit of Greek and heading off to class. I was a little curious when my screen didn’t flicker on, but stayed black instead. Tried a couple different things. Checked the power cord. Tried to restart. No dice. My computer was dead. Not a good way to start the week.

I visited the Oxford University Computer Services offices after Greek. Hoping they’d have some good news for me. They did. And they didn’t. They told me that this was probably a known issue. Failure of the graphics board (of course). Which should be covered by Apple’s warranty. That was the good news.

The bad news was that they wouldn’t be able to get to this for about a week. Best case scenario. Which meant the the work for the essay I had managed to get about halfway through, the one that was due that afternoon, would be worthless to me. That and my five-days worth of reading notes that were saved on my computer. Perfect.

I spent the next seven hours seated at a computer in the library trying to piece together my essay from memory. Which would probably work better for someone with a memory. I managed to put something together and send it off just before my deadline, though. Part of me felt like maybe I could do this more often and save myself five days’ worth of reading. But I figured that’d probably not be such a great idea.

Thursday: My experience with Computer Services and An American explaining Thanksgiving

I was happy to get an e-mail Thursday morning, telling me I could bring my laptop in to get checked out. They don’t let you just drop it off when things go down. “We’d have computers piled up everywhere,” I was told.

I dropped it off Thursday afternoon. After my lecture that morning. I figured I’d just go in, drop it off and I’d be out of there. But that wasn’t the case. I told the lady at the front desk I had received an e-mail from Darren and I was here to drop my computer off with him. She looked at me suspiciously, like I was trying to pull one over on her. They must get a lot of people wanting to pile up broken computers around Darren. And she was having none of it.

She asked me if I had filled out the paperwork and paid my £30 deposit for repairs. I hadn’t done either. “Well come over here and you can fill that out,” she said, directing to me to a table on the opposite side of the room.

“Perfect,” I thought to myself. After 15 minutes of navigating their online payment system, tracking down my computer’s serial number and filling out the paperwork, I made my way back to this sweetheart of a lady’s desk to hand off my computer to Darren. If she’d let me.

“Oh, it looks like he’s gone to lunch now,” she said with a look of feigned disappointment. “If you’d like to come back in a half our or so, he should be back then.”

I didn’t want to go anywhere. All I wanted to do was leave my computer. 30 minutes, I figured I could get some studying done here just as well as the library.

“I’ll just have a seat over here and study some Greek, if that’s okay?”

“Yes, of course,” she said with a smile. “He should be back around 1:00.”

An hour later, Darren made his way out of the back room and asked if he could help me. I was pretty glad to see him. I was beginning to develop a twitch at this point.

I brought my computer to him as he looked at my paperwork. He asked if I had paid the £30. I told him I had. He told me it didn’t look like I needed to, that it was covered under warranty.

“Awesome,” I said.

“Well we’ll check it out and get you a refund if that’s the case.”

Darren was a nice guy. I could see why more people would want to take the time to stop in and pile up their laptops around here.

An American Explaining Thanksgiving

We went to small group at Church Thursday night. We’ve really enjoyed getting to know the folks there.

They have dinner beforehand, and we usually end up sitting by people we don’t know. So we get to meet new people that way.

We found a seat by Martin this week (Martin’s from Scotland). And an American girl. From DC. She’s studying here for a term. A guy from South Africa sat down at our table shortly after us. He looked like Dirk Nowitzki‘s doppleganger. Although about a foot shorter. It was quite the international bunch.

The American girl asked us if we had any plans for Thanksgiving. We didn’t, we told her. She lives with 40 other Americans, so it sounds like they’re bringing Thanksgiving to England in full force. She was pretty excited.

Martin asked what was so great about Thanksgiving.

“Everything,” she said, with big eyes and a smile, looking to us for support.

“Yeah, I mean, if you like food, family and football. American football. It’s a pretty great day,” I said.

“What exactly is Thanksgiving all about, again?” Martin asked the girl beside us.

“It’s about celebrating the fact that we won!” she said loudly.

“Oh my,” I thought to myself. “This isn’t going to be good.”

The guy from South Africa seated across from us didn’t seem too impressed. Turns out he wasn’t.

“That surprises me,” he spoke up. “In South Africa, I don’t think we’d joke about something from our history like that.” He wasn’t smiling in the least.

The blood drained from this girl’s face. It was obvious what she had meant to communicate and what had come out were two totally different things.

“I’m sorry. I was just joking. I’m really sorry if I offended you,” she said to this guy from South Africa with a look of sincerity.

“Oh, no, you didn’t,” he said with a look of half-sincerity. “Well, maybe a little.”

He cleaned his plate and made his way back to the kitchen for some second helpings.

The girl looked over to us with a look of horror. Martin smiled.

“Who exactly did you beat, by the way? The Indians?…”

“That’s totally not what I meant…” she confessed. “I’m totally fulfilling the stereotype.”

I told the girl I was going to pick up a “God Bless America” t-shirt the next time I was home. And wear it around Oxford. To compete with her impression of Americans in England. She laughed. Jen shook her head.

Friday: Ruining God’s plan and a pink laptop in the library

Lyndon told me after Greek Friday morning that he was going to be preaching at his old church in London in a couple weeks. And that he was going to have to get started on that over the weekend.

I asked him what he was speaking on.

“Deuteronomy 22,” he said. “The scene where Abraham pretends Sarah’s his sister, and not his wife. So the King wouldn’t kill him and take her for himself. To protect himself.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked, with a scrunched brow. “So what’s the application?”

“The application is great,” he explained to me. “First, it reminds us that no one’s perfect. Abraham is seen as this great figure, and here he is doing something completely foolish.”

I nodded. Seemed like a good reminder.

“But also, it reminds us that no matter how bad we mess up, God is in control,” he continued. “Jesus was to be a descendant from Sarah, in order to fulfill his role as the Messiah, and Abraham’s foolishness threatened that. He very well could’ve messed it all up, but God carried out His plan. And He still does so, in spite of our shortcomings.”

It was a good reminder, to be sure. Particularly for someone like me who constantly worries I’m going to fall flat on my face and ruin all of this. That I’m totally going to spoil God’s plans for my life. For our life. By some huge failure on my part. Or lack of faith.

It’s good to be reminded that God is bigger than my failures.

A pink laptop in the library

I spent most of the day Friday in the library. My laptop wasn’t back from the shop, and I had to take down some notes from the books I’d be reading, so I resorted to borrowing Jen’s laptop for the day. Her pink laptop. I may be colorblind, but this was still a tad outside of my comfort zone. Unfortunately, I had no choice. Pink laptop it was.

I managed to get through most of the afternoon without thinking too much about it. Plugging away on my reading and jotting down some notes. I was feeling pretty good about myself, and shrugging off the few glances I got from time to time. Though I was pretty happy to be wearing a wedding ring at this point, just to avoid any confusion. I thought about putting up a sign over the desk I was working from that read, “It’s my wife’s…”, but I decided against it.

I always listen to music while I’m studying. Even when I’m reading. It helps me focus and zone out any other noise. Weird, I know. But it works for me.

At one point while I was reading, I realized a Taylor Swift song had come up on my playlist. “What in the world,” I thought to myself, quickly switching to the next song.

“That’s just what I need,” thinking to myself, “for my music to somehow switch from my earphones to my external speakers and start blaring Taylor Swift from my pink laptop in the middle of the library…”

It was about halfway through the afternoon when I noticed a woman in her 40’s working across from me. With the same pink laptop. She was looking over at the computer I was working from.

“Perfect…” I thought silently.

I received an e-mail from the Computer Services just a few minutes after that awkwardness. Telling me my computer was fixed (under warranty, no less). I didn’t waste anytime photocopying the rest of the reading I had to do and getting out of there.

I arrived at home earlier than Jen had been expecting me.

“You’re home early,” she said with a look of surprise on her face.

“Yeah, well, I was a little uncomfortable working on a pink computer in the library. But sitting across from a woman with the same pink computer was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.”

She rocked back her head and let out a loud laugh.

Saturday: Pembertons take a Trip to Bath

Vanessa got a hold of Jen earlier in the week. To let her know she was going to Bath with some friends and their spouses this weekend. And that they’d love to have us join them, if we wanted. Jen had a look at some photos of Bath online and she was sold.

Rob and Vanessa are the couple from Seattle who had us over for dinner a couple weeks back. Rob’s doing his MBA here at Oxford. Vanessa was a nurse at Children’s hospital before coming over. They’re a lot of fun, and we were excited to take this trip with them. And excited to see Bath.

We woke up early Saturday morning, booked a couple bus passes and we were on our way. Vanessa scooted onto the full bus with a couple girlfriends shortly after we had boarded and found some seats several rows ahead of us. Rob had a rowing race that day, so he would not be joining us. I was one of two “spouses” on the trip, but it was a blast anyway. I was very happy to go and see the city. It was much better than the library.

Bath is a great city. It’s about a two-hour’s drive west of Oxford. Southwest, I believe. And it’s built in a valley, which means it has beautiful, 360-degree views of hills. And there’s a river that runs right through town. It’s pretty picturesque.

The City is quite old. The Romans were stationed here at one point in their conquest. And they ended up building these incredible Bathhouses up around the natural hotsprings that are found here in Bath. Thus the name.

We got off the bus and found our way around town, armed with several iPhones. There were nine of us. None of us had been to Bath before.

Jen noticed this storefront sign and made me stop so she could snap this photo, in light of my pink laptop experience.

I was less than happy about it.

One of the first places we stopped at was Bath Abbey. A very old church built in the city center. Near the Roman bathhouse. It was an incredible church. With a huge wall devoted almost solely to stained glass windows.

We were handed an information pamphlet as we entered the church. We didn’t know anything about it, but apparently it’s a pretty popular tourist spot.

I couldn’t believe how high the ceilings climbed when we walked in. I quickly found my jaw dragging on the ground behind us.

The information packet pointed out different points of interest in the church. And it spoke a lot about Jesus. It put a smile on my face.

I found myself walking through this incredible building, built more than 500 years ago, with my nose in this information pamphlet. Reading about Jesus. I had to pull myself away from the yellow, photo-copied tri-fold to take it all in.

The stained glass windows on the far side of the church portray something like 70 different scenes of Jesus’ life. It was terribly impressive.

Jen snapped this photo in a mirror in the middle of the church to show the ornate ceiling architecture.

I found myself wondering what it’d be like to worship here week in and week out. And how long it’d take to get so used to it that you didn’t even think twice about what an incredible building it was.

Our next stop was the heart of the city. The Roman Baths.

The entrance to the Bath houses was very modern. The decor was pretty impressive, with lots of white, ornate crown moulding and dangling chandeliers.

We paid our admission fees (of course), and began our tour. We were handed small radios we were to hang around our necks. The digital display would be used to punch in numbers according to each location along our tour, which would correspond with the appropriate informative tour guide segment. British accent and all.

The Baths were great. It felt like we were traveling back in time.

You enter the bathing area and quickly feel the warm air wafting off the hot springs, contrasting with the cool outside air. I can only imagine how great a place this would have been in its time. Crowded with people fighting to get a good spot.

The Romans built this bathhouse around 70 AD, the audio tour guide told us. Around the same time Luke penned his Gospel account. Crazy.

I thought about the history of the bathhouse as we walked along the stones lining the pool. About the fact that the Romans had enjoyed lounging in this place around 2000 years ago, and now we were here. It was pretty wild.

I asked one of the staff members who was standing nearby how many people they had to pull out of the pool on a given month.

“More than you’d think,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s mostly on accident. People taking a photo and stepping backward into the waters. And kids getting too close mostly.”

I had to fight back a serious urge to cannonball into the pool most of the time we were there, which subsided after hearing about the tests they had to run on anyone who went into the waters. To make sure they didn’t pick up any bacterial infection.

Vanessa was kind enough to snap photos of Jen and I throughout the day. So we didn’t have to bug other people. It was a nice change of pace.

We snapped this photo of Vanessa (on the left) and her friend Camille from back home.

They loved the Baths, as well. Camille said she just wanted to sit by the waters for a while.

It really was great. The Romans had it figured out.

We found these bathing instructions posted on the way out. Even though we couldn’t actually use the baths. Seemed a bit like false advertising to me.

It was after 2:00 by the time we finished touring the Baths houses. We were all pretty hungry. We looked for a place to eat for some time before settling on an Indian place.

“You guys like Indian food?” they asked us, making sure we were okay with the choice before going in.

“Never had it,” Jen replied.

“You really are from Bellingham,” Camille laughed.

It was the first time Jen and I had Indian food together. (I had had it once before and wasn’t a fan). But the food was great. So many flavors… And colors.

Somehow we got on the topic of cheese during the meal. One of the gals was talking about how much she loved it.

“Except for Goat Cheese,” she said. “I can’t do it.”

“Me neither,” I said. “The smell does me in every time, and the taste isn’t any better.”

“Not me,” Vanessa chimed in. “I love Goat’s Cheese. I could make out with it.”

Everyone laughed. We were the only ones in the Indian Place. It was huge, too, which made it seem even emptier than it was. It had large, vaulted ceilings, and large windows that overlooked the alleys below.

Indian music played over speakers hidden somewhere in the restaurant. Music that seemed to put me in a trance. I felt like I was in a dream state. It made the great food sit even better than it would’ve otherwise, I thought to myself. Rocking me like a lullaby.

Bath was strung up with lights in preparation for Christmas. It was beautiful.

Vanessa snagged Jen’s camera as we walked through the city center streets. Doing her best paparazzi impression. Peeking out from behind street vendor displays to steal photos of Jen and I.

I’m not sure who’s idea this one was…

We walked around the city center for a couple hours before making our way to the bus station to board. Bath is a beautiful city, to be sure, and we’d love to go back.

We were more than satisfied with our Saturday as we took our seats aboard the warm bus. The lights inside the bus dimmed as we pulled away from the city center. Careening through the country roads, we quickly found ourselves slipping away into a comforting, late afternoon nap. The high-back bus seats holding us in a hug, the roads rocking us slowly to sleep.

Pembertons at the Palace

Jen has been looking for different things to see and do here in Oxford since arriving. Other than hang out in the library with me.

One of the spots she found early on is Blenheim Palace, and we decided to take a trip to the palace this past Saturday. How funny does that sound? “We took a trip to the palace…”

Blenheim was pretty easy to get to, and not too far away, actually. We caught a bus about a five-minute walk from where we’re living, and about 15 minutes later we were at the Palace.

It’s set in the countryside, just outside of Oxford. A small village has been built up around it. But the Palace itself sits quite a ways off the main road, secluded from traffic and the general bustle of modern life. You really feel like you’re traveling back in time as you enter the main gate.

A young man and woman greeted us after we walked through the front gate. She asked if we had just arrived. I told her we had. She smiled and asked us to step against a green wall so she could take our photo. I should’ve seen that one coming.

Later on, in the gift shop, we were greeted by a wall of photos. Of couples photoshopped in front of Blenheim Palace. And there we were, right in the middle of the sea of tourists. I thought about asking if they could photoshop us somewhere a bit more exciting. Like the moon. Or a pirate ship.

The funny part is that we came here to Blenheim Palace and they had to use Photoshop to take our photo in front of the Palace. They should bring their green screen to Oxford’s city center. Sure they’d be making bank with all the tourists here. “Save yourself a trip to the Palace,” they could say.

After our photoshoot, we turned to see the front of the palace. It was incredible. And enormous. It makes you feel so small. The photos hardly do it justice.

The front of the Palace looks out over a beautiful view of the farmland and countryside, and a large, gravel courtyard provides the barrier between the grassy fields and the palace entryway.

We took a tour inside the Palace after snapping these shots. It was pretty incredible. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take any photos once indoors. So we’ll have to explain it to you. Here’s my take on it (Jen will give hers later)…

A look inside Bleinhem Palace

You step through the front door and the ceiling climbs up and up and up. The ceiling is covered in incredible paintings. And the stone and marble floor beneath your feet stretches throughout the entire palace.

The state rooms are beautiful. Each one unique, except for the fact that all are furnished with a large fireplace in the middle of one wall. The kind of fireplace you could lay down inside, it’s so long. Large, incredibly ornate tapestries hung from several of the walls. So detailed you’d mistake them for paintings. There were ten of these tapestries in all. And they took eight years to make, we were told.

Walking through the state rooms, Jen told me she wanted to live here. I agreed. I remembered that scene from Cool Runnings. The one where one of the Jamaican guys tells the other guys on the bobsled team his dream. How he wants to live in a palace someday. And he holds up the picture of Buckingham Palace, without realizing it was Buckingham Palace. That was Jen and I. Although we realized it was Blenheim Palace.

Marble busts of men sat on columns throughout the halls. Large paintings of Dutches and Dutchesses hung on the walls. Some of them by themselves. Others with their children, together. I wondered how they managed to get the kids to sit still long enough to paint such incredible portraits… The paintings were larger than any I’ve ever seen.

We saw the bedroom where Winston Churchill was born. I touched the large, copper bed frame dressed in white linens. Several framed photos of him as a young boy hung on the wall, as well as a  lock of his hair taken from when he was just five years old. Seemed a little creepy to me. Several rooms were made up as a shrine to Churchill. With pictures of him from his youth. And letters he had written as just a boy. He’s a pretty big deal here in England.

Then there were photos of Churchill’s military days and later as a leader. One photo in particular caught my eye. A photo of him along with Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt at a dinner event.

They took us into the formal dining room, which was amazing. The entire ceiling was painted of people looking down on the dining room. A large fireplace sat along one wall, and huge columns were in each corner of the room. The table was fully set, complete with china lined with silver and gold.

One large oversized setting sat at the end of the table, which we were told was in tribute to the fact that Gulliver’s Travels had just finished filming there at the Palace. Apparently Jack Black is starring in the lead role. You can see several scenes of the Palace in the movie trailer. Looks pretty funny, and now we’ll have to see it.

We saw the Palace library (the second longest room in England, we were told), which held books from as far back as the 1500’s. We were told it was Churchill’s favorite room in the Palace. The floors were white marble. And the ceiling seemed to climb into the clouds. Large windows provided views of the countryside just beyond the Palace. An enormous organ sat at one end of the room, and it must’ve stretched 50 feet into the air. It was incredible. I could’ve spent years in that library and not felt bad about it for a moment.

I thought about grabbing Jen’s arm and hiding out until after everyone left. Perhaps under one of the beds. And then running around like we owned the place. Getting dressed up in the old royalty attire. I’d wear a long, white, curly-haired wig. Jen would wear one of those dresses that stuck out like an umbrella. With powder on her face and a wig that stretched about three feet beyond the top of her head. We’d sit by the light of the fire and talk in our fake English accents. She’d mention something about what the help had prepared for dinner as she crocheted, and I’d complain about the colonialists as I smoked my pipe and stared off into the flames. It’d be great.

But the Palace had loads of security guards. And tour guides. And even though 90% of them may have been around since the palace was built, I’m fairly confident they would’ve sniffed us out. The last thing I need at this point is a free car ride in handcuffs.

(Okay, now I’m going to have to turn in, so I’m going to let Jen take it from here. Make sure she tells you about the pumpkin pie she baked me…)

Jen’s take on Blenheim Palace

So I have been wanting to go to Blenheim Palace the since first week I arrived. I sort of have a facination with Palaces and Castles and decorations and clothes that are centuries older than me. I’m weird, I know! Needless to say, I’ve been very patiently waiting to go the Palace.

When we arrived and went inside the Palace, it took my breath away. All the paintings on the walls and ceilings, how beautiful everything was decorated, all the history, and how everything done throughout the palace was so detailed and ornnate. I couldn’t help think how plain our houses are these days.

I was upset camera’s weren’t allowed in the Palace. There was so much I wanted to take photos of. The thought crossed my mind of sneaking in a few pictures, but since I have a nice, big camera I knew it would be hard to pull off.

The first thing we did was look at the Winston Churchill exhibt. Winston was born at the palace so that is pretty cool. They have his curls and first baby gown on exhibt. The next thing we did was take an “Untold Story” tour of the palace. Lady Mary, who was the maid to Sara Churchill, gave the virtual tour. A virtual tour, with a Sarah’s projected image telling us about the history as we passed from room to room.

It was interesting to learn about all the history of the Palace. There was a little girl on our tour who had to be about 7 or 8 years old, and she kept looking at the animatronic figures along the tour as they moved. At one point, she tapped Sara Churchill’s shoulder, expecting her to turn around. Of course she didn’t. It was quite funny. Ryan and I both laughed to each other.

We saved the best part of the palace for last: the State rooms. There were amazing! Again, I was thinking how I could sneak out my camera. Knowing nobody would believe what I was seeing.

I told Ryan as we were walking through the rooms that I could live here. I could see myself enjoying the palace life. My favorite room was probably the formal dining room. It was so elegant and well done. Ryan’s favorite room was the library, of course. There were books all over the walls; it was incredible.

By the time we finished touring the inside of the palace, it was dark outside. We were wanting to tour the gardens and the Palace grounds, but that wasn’t going to happen in the dark. Just means we have to go back there, which is fine by me!

(Sorry to interrupt. Ryan here. Looks like Jen didn’t mention the trip home, so I thought I would…)

A small road led us away from the Palace, along the river as the sun went down beyond the hills. It was beautiful. I asked Jen to snap a picture. I told her it felt like we were in a Jane Austen novel. I’ve never read Jane Austen, but that’s what it felt like.

I felt so fortunate to be here, taking all of this in. It was just incredible. It felt like we were in a whole other time and place. It felt like we were being given a look into the world that has birthed all of the classic literature we think of when we think of England. Austen. Shakespeare. The Wind in the Willows.

Like somehow we were being invited to a behind the scenes look, and how it made sense that such ideas would come tumbling out from them. Growing up surrounded by all of this. Growing up with this incredible canvas to work from.

We made our way out, along the narrow road, toward the lights of the village. The skeletal trees reaching up into the night sky made me feel like we were walking through a scene of The Legend of Sleepy Holllow. I half-expected a man on a horse to come rushing at us. With a pumpkin for a head.

We passed through a large, arched stone gate that led us into the village. Walking along the stone sidewalks on our way to the bus, I told Jen I loved it here. The history. The people. The culture. The accents. All of it.

We must’ve just missed our bus when we arrived at the bus stop, as we had about a 25-minute wait. It was quite cold. Our breath swirled in the air as Jen quizzed me on my Greek flash cards. We were relieved to step out of the cold and into the warmth when the bus arrived. Pulling away from the Palace and into the night, leading us back home. I was happy to be heading toward our warm home. And toward dinner.

(Okay, back to Jen. Sorry for the interruption…)

When we got back home I made a pumpkin pie for Ryan, which he has been craving for a while. His grandpa was nice enough to send us all the ingredients we would need for the pie. Thanks Grandpa Bud! We wrapped up the night with Ryan studying, me reading and enjoying a piece of pumpkin pie. It was a mighty fine day!

So I flew out of Seattle at 2 p.m. on Friday. By myself, as we hit some snags with the visa process. Saying goodbye to everyone and leaving on my own was easily one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. As I sat by myself at the terminal waiting to board, looking out through the glass windows at the tarmac, I realized this decision, this day, was going to change the rest of our life.

Jen plans to come out at the end of October (and we’re trying to talk my best friend Steve into making the trip with her). I cannot wait. I’ve always said Jen is my home, and wherever she is, I would feel at home. Even if it’s half-way across the world.

I booked the trip as soon as I heard my visa had been approved, which was only two days earlier. As a result, my trip was a bit complicated. First to Chicago (3 hrs, 40 mins). Then to Poland (9 hrs, 20 mins). Yes, Poland. Then finally to London Heathrow (2 hrs, 30 mins). Then, once I made it to London, I’d take a 90-min bus ride to Oxford.

All in all, my travels were pretty smooth. I sat over the wing on my long flight to Poland, which was amazing. I had just as much leg room as if I were in first-class. So I took full advantage of that and slept like a baby for most of the flight. The lady next to me was from Poland, but she’s been living in the states for the past nine years. She was very nice, and easy to talk to. She put salt in her tea instead of sugar, by accident. I told her I’d tell everyone back home that’s how the Polish enjoy their tea. I told her all about my wife, and how Jen worked with a lady from Poland.

I told her all about what I was doing. How C.S. Lewis had turned me onto Theology after reading Mere Christianity during my sophomore year of college. How I left home, a great job, and the most amazing family and friends for Oxford, to follow a dream of writing in a way that helped others see Christ more clearly. How I kind of thought it was crazy, but I also knew I was going after what I was passionate about, beyond anything else. She said she was so excited for us. And she was incredibly jealous. She had an eye cover she wore while sleeping that said, “Do Not Disturb.” I was jealous of her for that.

London Heathrow was a bit complicated, but not as bad as I had heard. I had some pretty heavy bags packed, which I threw on a trolly and pushed through the airport. They fell off. Several times. I was that guy. I laughed at myself and put them back on again and again. But I made it to my bus and was even able to fire off some “I’m here, safe and sound” e-mails before leaving. The bus driver was great. Big guy. Funny. I sat in the front seat (best view), and he asked me if I wanted to drive. I told him I’d let him take the first half of the drive, and then I’d finish. He nodded and took his seat.

It was raining (of course), so I watched the rain beat down on the windshield of the bus on the freeway as we made our way north. Driving through Oxford, my jaw was on the floor the entire time. I’ve been here before (last summer), but I was still blown away. The university is basically a bunch of colleges interspersed throughout the city of Oxford. And most of the colleges are incredibly old. They look like castles. We even drove by Magdalene College, which is where C.S. Lewis studied and later taught. Unbelievable. I couldn’t believe I was actually going to be studying here…

The town was actually surprisingly busy, for this time of night (around 9:00 or so). Lots of people out. Walking around. Eating. I was dropped off at Gloucester Green, the bus station, and I quickly grabbed a cab. It was less than a mile drive to where we’ll be staying. 27 Northmoor Road (OX2 6UR, Oxford, UK). Very pretty neighborhood. Lots of big trees and big homes. I may have actually started singing the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song in my head at this point. That’s kind of how I felt.

I was so happy to finally arrive. There was a note on the door left by the family I’ll be living with (they were out at a dinner), welcoming me to Oxford. It was rainy, of course, so the words were a bit smudged.

Our living space was built only a couple years ago. They refer to it as the Annexe. It’s basically an attached mother-in-law suite. It’s totally furnished, and it has everything we’ll need (kitchen, bathroom (complete with walk-in tiled shower and bathtub), washer and dryer, living room, office, bedroom…). Jane (the mother/wife of the family where we’re staying) stocked the kitchen with some staples for me so I had food when I arrived. Orange Juice. Milk. Cereal. Eggs. Bread and bagels. Peanut butter and fresh jam. Made me feel at home. Well, almost.

I took a hot shower, grabbed some tea and fired off some e-mails before Skyping with Jen. It was so nice to see her again and talk a bit before turning in.

Like I said, this is easily one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I’m excited. There is so much unknown in store. I feel like I just picked up a book I thought I knew, only to find the next chapter was a complete surprise. Something I had never seen before. I have no idea what’s going to unfold in this next chapter, but I am excited to dig in.

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