Archives for posts with tag: Tim & Rhonda

A Tour of Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: A Breath of Fresh Air in the Cotswolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: A trip to London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Sick in Bed & Oxford Punting

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He is,” I said, pointing to Dad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday: Saying Goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hard Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Walk with Simon

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You did?” I asked, somewhat surprisingly.

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

“Oh, well thanks.”

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

I wasn’t quite sure what to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” he asked, turning toward me.

“No, no I didn’t. I was just joking.”

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

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

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

“Ah,” he said, laughing.

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

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

“Oh yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon was quick to respond, and to encourage me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


One of the first things I did after arriving back in Oxford after the holidays was send Walter Hooper an e-mail. Jennifer and I had gone over to his place for dinner before we left and, knowing I’d be on my own for a bit before Jen rejoined me, Walter made sure to invite me over when I returned.

I sent him an e-mail shortly after getting settled in, and it wasn’t long before I received a reply from Walter, welcoming me back to Oxford and inviting me over for tea my first Sunday back in Oxford.

Saturday: CS Lewis gifts from a stranger

When we’re apart, Jennifer and I try to Skype a couple times a day. The whole long distance thing isn’t a lot of fun, but if you can talk regularly, and even see each other, that makes everything a bit easier.

I Skyped with Jen Saturday evening. My evening, her afternoon. And she told me someone back home who knew her Dad, and who had heard about what we were up to, had given me a first edition copy of Lewis’ book The Great Divorce. As well as a complete, early-edition set of The Chronicles of Narnia series.

Apparently this man had heard I was a big fan of Lewis’ writing, and that I was studying here at Oxford, and he had decided to give me these books from his personal collection.

I was stunned. I didn’t even know the guy, but that was an incredible gift.

“You’re building up quite the collection,” Jennifer told me over Skype.

“No kidding,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief of the generous gift.

Sunday: Tea with Walter

After church on Sunday morning, I made my way to Summertown. To get some work done on Greek before the start of the first official week of the term. And to catch up with a friend.

Richard had sent me a message shortly after lunch. Letting me know he was studying from Startbucks in Summertown, in case I wanted to join him. It’s nice to come back to a place half-way around the world and find people reaching out to you. It certainly makes for an easier transition.

I met Richard shortly before leaving to return home from the holidays. He’s a great guy. He and his wife are from California. Beautiful, sunny, southern California. And they had actually just been married before moving here to Oxford, so Richard could start his Doctoral work.

Richard’s background is in Philosophy. He seems young for the job, but he’s been teaching at Biola. Philosophy. His passion, though, is Christian Apologetics. Talking about why Christians believe what they believe. Answering questions about the faith. And that’s something I certainly appreciate. That’s something we have in common, as it’s much of the reason why I’m here, too. So we find a lot to talk about.

We caught up for a while, sharing stories from our holiday vacations over coffee, before picking up our books and getting some studying done.

After a couple hours, I excused myself, telling Richard I had a tea to make. At Walter Hooper’s house. He thought that was pretty great.

Summertown is about a five-minute bike ride from where we live, and Walter’s house is about another five-minute ride north of Summertown.

It was just starting to get dark outside when I arrived. I pulled my bike around the back of his large, condo building and locked it up. Not seeing a bike rack, and not wanting it to get in the way if I tied it to the entryway.

I passed through the two large double doors and rung the bell at Walter’s door. Seconds later I was greeted by his wonderful smile and  a “Why hello there!”

It really was great to see him again. Being at Walter’s home makes me feel like I’m at home, in a way. It’s just comforting.

After we had said our “hello’s,” I handed Walter some canned pumpkin pie mix we had promised him the last time we were over. After he had raved about the pumpkin bread Jen brought over for dessert. He was pretty happy to receive it, and he was quite grateful about it, thanking me several times.

I also brought him one of our Christmas cards. Jen had signed and prepared it for him before I left. It seemed like he appreciated it. I pointed out all the places we had been in the photos on the cards. The Tower of London. Bath. Blenheim Palace.

Walter invited me to sit down and we shared some tea. From that old, comfortable chair in his living room. The one I always sit in. He pointed a plate of shortbread cookies in my direction and insisted I have some. Walter’s incredibly hospitable.

I love sitting in Walter’s living room. Talking. While the fire flickers in the fireplace. There’s always great conversation, and it’s never forced or dull. He always has something interesting to talk about. And, somehow, it always comes back to Lewis.

I asked him about meeting Lewis for the first time, and he shared the story with me in incredibly rich detail. It was like I was right there with him.

He told me how he had shown up on Lewis’ doorstep several days earlier than he was expected, after being told to give some extra time, as Lewis’ home was difficult to find. And, even though Lewis wasn’t expecting him for another few days, he invited him into his home and they ended up sharing three pots of tea just like that. Apparently Walter had come expecting just to stay for the one visit, and maybe to see a bit of England, but that trip quickly turned into the next 45 years of his life. Walter went from being a pen-pal of Lewis’ to being Lewis’ personal secretary.

“I remember thinking, shortly after meeting him for the first time,” Walter told me, “that I genuinely loved this man.” He let his words hang in the air as he looked off in the distance, into the fireplace, and you knew he was replaying these experiences to himself.

“He was so incredibly kind,” Walter said to me after a pause. “He really was unlike anyone else I’ve ever met.”

I asked Walter if he had been homesick after coming here and staying unexpectedly. He told me he had, particularly after Lewis passed away.

Walter’s cat, Blessed Lucy of Narnia, entered the room while we were talking. Walter always addresses Lucy when she’s around, as if she were a person who had just entered.

“Well hello, Blessed Lucy of Narnia,” he said to her. “Are you going to say hello to your uncle Ryan?”

I smiled, as Lucy paced back and forth in front of where Walter sat as he played with her tail.

We talked for a bit longer. He asked about Jen. How she was doing, and if she was enjoying being home.

I asked him a theological question. Something a friend of mine back home had been talking with me about. Something that had been weighing pretty heavily on this friend for some time. About whether or not everyone, ultimately goes to heaven (what’s called “Universalism”), or if there is indeed a heaven for some, and a hell for others.

Walter was quick to answer, and he immediately began by referencing Lewis book The Great Divorce. He asked me if I had read it. I told him I had began reading it at one point, but I hadn’t finished it.

“Oh, you must read it,” he said. “It’s a wonderful book.”

I told him how I had just received a first-edition copy as a gift the day before, and how I now had no excuse.

He began to tell me how he’d respond to this question, that he believed the end of this life would mean great disappointment for many. But that it wasn’t a matter of tastes or opinion. Rather, it was matter of fact. Of truth, referencing Lewis’ book as he talked. He then excused himself from the room so that he might grab a copy from his room and read directly from the book.

This surprised me, as Walter routinely quotes verbatim from books when we’re talking. Not just Lewis, but others as well. And I’m always blown away. I hope I can pull that off when I’m 79.

After a few minutes, Walter returned to the room, his copy of The Great Divorce in hand. He flipped through the pages to find the section he wanted to read from, scanning the pages like he was returning to an old conversation. And, as he read it aloud, I realized he was doing just that. After knowing Lewis, and after working on his books for more than 40 years, Lewis’ words must feel like nothing short of an old friend to Walter.

“I’m often asked if I regret this, having spent all this time studying Lewis’ writing and compiling his letters. I’m often asked if I feel like it’s been a waste,” Walter later shared with me. “And I don’t know how I could. My life is so much richer because of this man.”

Walter was beaming as he finished this sentence.

Staring at this 79-year old man seated in the middle of his beautiful living room, knowing the amazing difference meeting Lewis had meant in his life, I was touched. To know such a man, and to know that, as much as Lewis has meant in my life, he has meant so much more to Walter.

I could feel the joy permeating from him as Walter sat there across the room from me, and I was so thankful for that time together.

Monday: Back in school

It was an odd feeling, returning to class on Monday. Like I had never really been away.

My week began with Greek, which meant I hit the ground running. We spent most of the class time talking about what we would be focusing on this term, and what Rhona expected us to have finished by the next time we met.

Looks of horror spread across the faces of those seated around me, as fingers and eyes flipped through page after page of Greek translations to complete. It seemed insurmountable, more than we could possibly do or know, on top of the rest of our studies. But Rhona spoke of it like it was nothing, of course. I think she honestly believes students can learn Greek by osmosis. By simply looking at the pages for a few moments. I think that’s how she learned it. Fresh out of the womb. She’s brilliant.

Lyndon and I were chatting about the workload as we left class that morning, as we were unlocking our bikes.

“And now I see why the Oxford name carries a certain cache,” he said with a large grin.

“Yeah, no kidding. It’s there for a reason,” I told him as I got on my bike and made my way to the library to get started on my reading list for the week.

Oxford attire

I couldn’t help but take in the different outfits of those passing through the library while I was supposed to be reading. My head lifting up with each passerby. After being away from Oxford for a while, I was reminded how unique men dress here in Oxford.

Very academic, for the most part. Particularly those who aren’t 18 and straight out of high school.

Lots of tweed jackets with v-neck sweaters, dress shirts and ties. Pointed leather shoes. And turtle shell rimmed glasses. Messy hair and scarves. Unkept, not polished, seems to be the Oxford way. Too flashy or showy seems to be very much “un-Oxford.” No whites, or light or bright colors, but dark browns and greys and black earthy colors.

It feels like an escape, in a way. Being here. Into history. Into the classics. And I suppose you can’t help but feel that way, when you study in libraries that are nearly as old as The United States, and when you’re daily walking past buildings that are 800 years old.

Oxford, where young men dress like old men. Where modernity, it seems, is shunned.

Tuesday: Sitting with Felix

Jane told me shortly after I arrived that Beng was away on vacation. I let her know that I was happy to help with anything until she returned, if needed. She thanked me, and then asked if I might be willing to “babysit” Felix Tuesday night. I thought it odd, referring to hanging out with a 12-year old boy as babysitting, but I told her I’d be happy to.

Felix is a great kid, and I was looking forward to getting to hang out with him again. It’s something I’ve wanted to do more, but things here don’t leave a whole lot of free time.

Felix was working on Latin homework at the dining room table when I crossed the hall and made my way into their home Tuesday night. He greeted me with that large, toothy grin of his. It was great to see him again.

Jane and I caught up and talked about our holidays. She asked if the baby had come yet. Jen’s sister’s first. We had been hoping she’d arrive before I left, but we had no such luck, I told her.

“Jen’s getting pretty excited for her to arrive at this point,” I told Jane. “I think everyone is.”

“I bet so,” she said, with that same wide grin that Felix has.

“Oh, I booked our skiing trip today, Felix,” she said. Turning quickly to where he was seated at the table.

“Felix and I are heading to Switzerland for some skiing in February,” she told me with a look of excitement. But nonchalent excitement, like it wasn’t completely out of the norm for them.

It was for me, as I’m sure my large eyes gave away.

“Oh wow. That sounds great!” I said.

She walked over to where Felix was seated at the dining room table working on latin and asked him to sit up straight. He did. I smiled, to myself.

“He might like some pudding later on. Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” she told me. I smiled and thanked her.

Jane went through Felix’s bedtime with me, “Lights out at 9:00,” and she asked me to look over Felix’s work, if I wouldn’t mind. I was actually considering asking Felix to look over my Greek, but I told her I would, not knowing how I would actually know whether or not he had done what was being asked.

After Felix had wrapped up his Latin homework for the night, he told me he needed to go feed his rabits. He asked if I wanted to join him. I told him that’d be great. It was dark outside, and so Felix snagged a pair of goggles from a table in the corner of the room.

“They’re night vision goggles. I got them for Christmas,” he told me, while holding them out to me.” Would you like to try them?

“Cooool…,” I said, like a kid seeing his buddy’s new toy. “Yeah, I’d love to try them out.”

I’m not one to pass up on night-vision goggles. We walked out to the rabbit cage, me holding the goggles to my face, and he told me about the fox they had spotted in their backyard with the goggles.

I considered telling him I had received some pretty great wool socks for Christmas, and how they were keeping my feet nice and warm, but I decided against it.

We played some cricket in the large entryway of their home after feeding the rabbits. Felix ran over the different batting styles of the game. I was surprised to hear it’s still called batting. And not punting or something else, just to be different.

Grizz, their small dog, hated that we were playing with her tennis ball, and she’d constantly try to get it until we finally gave up and tossed her the ball.

“Would you like to watch some Simpsons?” Felix asked me, after throwing in the towel on our game of Cricket.

“I would love to, yeah,” I said. “I haven’t watched Simpsons in years.”

Seated there, in their living room, watching The Simpsons with Felix, I thought about all the studying I needed to get done. All the Greek I had waiting for me. But then I remembered I was being paid to watch The Simpsons with Felix and all of a sudden those studies didn’t seem quite so important.

One of the (three) episodes we watched involved the family going to an apple farm. Grandpa Simpson went with them. When they were leaving, he took his seat in the backseat. Marge quickly asked, “Oh no! Are you sitting on the apple pie?!”

“I sure hope so…” he replied.

Felix laughed quite hard at that point. “I sure hope so,” he repeated to himself, eyes glued to the TV screen.

After one of the episodes had finished, Felix got up and made his way to the kitchen.

“I like enjoying pudding while I watch The Simpsons,” he told me. He really is a smart kid, I thought to myself.

“Would you like some ice cream?”

We enjoyed our dessert, or pudding, while watching a couple more episodes of The Simpsons.

During a commercial break, Felix asked me if I had heard his dad had started another paper. I knew he co-owned two papers in London already.

“No, no I hadn’t heard that,” I told him.

“Yeah, it’s called The I, and it’s a short paper. Just the basics.”

About five seconds later, a commercial came on the TV announcing a new, concise newspaper. “Only what you need, none of gossip you don’t,” the narrator’s voice spoke. It was a great commercial.

“There, that’s it,” Felix said.

I had to laugh. It all seemed quite unreal.

After several episodes of The Simpsons, I told Felix it looked like it was about time to start getting ready for bed. I followed him upstairs and waited outside his door as he brushed his teeth and got changed for bed.

I told him goodnight and turned off the light as I left. “Thanks for watching me tonight,” he said as I left. It put a smile on my face. This kid is a stud; he’s so polite.

“You’re so welcome, Felix. It was a lot of fun.”

Becoming An Uncle

I returned to the living room and pulled my Greek textbook and notebook from my bag. I figured I would get some work done while I waited for Jane to return home.

But I couldn’t. My mind was elsewhere. Thinking about the e-mail Jen had sent me just before I came over to Jane’s. Telling me Leann’s contractions were getting closer, and that they would likely be heading to the hospital that day. That Khloe would probably be arriving soon.

I tried to put my head down on my Greek, knowing I had vocab to memorize for a quiz the next morning, but I couldn’t focus. Finally, I pulled out my laptop to check my e-mail. Hoping I would have an update from Jen, as I had asked her to keep me posted.

Sure enough, Ben & Leann had left for the hospital, and Jen and her parents weren’t far behind. Khloe was on her way, it seemed!

I was so excited. More so than I expected to be. But I was also sad at the same point. I think it took receiving that e-mail to realize this is something I’m going to miss, being here. The birth of my first niece, and I wouldn’t be there to experience it.

Jen had asked Ben & Leann if it would be all right to bring the laptop into the room with them, so that I could be a part of things. Not during the birth, obviously. But before, while they were waiting. And afterward.

It was nearly 11:00 by the time I got back that night. After Jane returned.

I was quick to get online and Skype with Jen and Ben & Leann and Tim & Rhonda. To see them all there, in the birthing room. Getting ready for Khloe’s arrival.

I was so excited Khloe was finally coming, and it was so good to see them. They hadn’t slept much the past several days, apparently, but you could tell they were terribly excited as well.

I stayed up for a couple more hours. Studying Greek for my quiz. And taking breaks to check in with Jen.

By 1:00, Leann wasn’t far from giving birth, they told me, but I was fading fast. I told them I was probably going to need to turn in.

Jen told me they’d Skype in with me after Khloe arrived, if I wanted to leave my computer on. So I did. I turned the volume up as high as it would go and I left it at the foot of the stairs leading up to our bedroom, knowing the wireless signal isn’t strong in our room, and I didn’t want to miss out.

I told Jen goodnight and went to bud, a little past 1:00.

At around 6:00 that morning, a beeping noise woke me from my sleep. It took me several seconds to realize what was going on, but I stumbled toward the source of the noise, with one eye open and one eye still shut.

I spotted my laptop at the foot of the stairs and, even in my sleepy-state, I quickly realized what was going on. Khloe had arrived!

The first thing I saw after taking the call was Jennifer holding baby Khloe, and suddenly I was filled with incredible joy. I sat down on the stairs in my pajamas, held the laptop up close to my face and said, “Oh wow. . .that is amazing. She is so beautiful!”

Jen was smiling from ear to ear at this point. Smiling like I hadn’t seen her in a long, long time.

I couldn’t get over what a beautiful baby she was. Even while struggling to wake up, I was taken aback by her perfect features. Her perfectly round button nose. Her beautiful round face.

“That is so amazing,” I said again.

Seated there, on the stairs that early morning in Oxford, the house still dark and the light of the laptop illuminating my face, I was taken aback by the beauty of this baby. And what an incredible blessing she was to our family in what has been a pretty difficult time. This past year has been full of some of the deepest, darkest pain we’ve ever known, after losing Hayley. And yet, here, before us, was this beautiful baby girl. This gift of light and joy. From God. Almost as if to say, “Here I am. In all the dark and in all your pain, I still delight in giving good gifts.”

I was terribly disappointed I wasn’t there to experience, first-hand, this moment with my family. It hurt deeply. I wanted with all I had just to reach out and grab a hold of Khloe. So that I might hold her in my arms. But I realized I couldn’t. And I realized I would have to wait six months before I could. I wondered if I would one day look at Khloe, after she was several years old, playing by the lake as a beautiful little girl, and regret that I had not been there for this moment. Ben & Lean had said time and time again that they understood I couldn’t be there, after I apologized time and time again. They shrugged it off, saying there was nothing to forgive me for. I wondered if I’d be able to forgive myself.

But those thoughts of disappointment quickly turned to joy. Joy for Ben & Leann, and the beautiful, healthy baby girl they had been blessed with. For the family she was born into, and knowing how deeply she would be loved and cared for. Knowing what wonderful parents Ben & Leann were going to be to her. What amazing grandparents Tim & Rhonda would be. How Jen was going to be the most incredible aunt. And how I couldn’t wait to spoil her as an uncle should. Those thoughts brought me great joy.

Baby Khloe Dawn Van Dyken, welcome to the world. It is more beautiful now that you have entered into it, and we are so delighted to have you. (Click here for a bit of mood music to accompany the photos).

I woke up early Monday morning. Before Jen. Shaved. Showered. And finished packing. I was heading back to Oxford in a few hours. On my own.

Jen’s sister Leann & her husband are expecting their first-born. Any day, at this point. And Jen was going to stick around for an extra few weeks. To lend an extra hand to Leann. And to enjoy her new role as aunt. Baby Khloe’s aunt.

Monday: Tough saying goodbye

I loaded my bags into the car while Jen finished getting ready. I came back through the front door after my second trip to the car just as Jen made her way downstairs. Tim & Rhonda were in the kitchen. Rhonda getting a bowl of cereal before work. Tim struggling to wake up. Earlier than he normally would, to say “goodbye.”

“My shower wakes me up,” he told us with a smile as we gathered in the living room. To say “goodbye.”

Rhonda told me how nice it was to have us home for the holidays. How it made for a really special time. I told her I agreed. And that I was happy we were able to be there.

I hugged them both. Told them I loved them. And we left. It was weird saying “goodbye,” knowing the next time I’d be there it’d be summertime.

“But we’ll see you again in a couple months,” Tim reminded me. “That makes it easier.” Rhonda nodded.

Jen’s parents had just booked tickets to come out and visit us. Along with some of their friends, Monty & Heidi and their two kids. Over spring break. It’d be their first trip to Europe.

“Yeah, that does make it a bit easier. Really looking forward to that time!” I told them as we left.

Jennifer and I stopped into Ben and Leann’s house on the way. To tell them “goodbye” as well. Leann greeted us at the door. We talked for a few minutes. Small talk. Then I told them I was really sorry I wouldn’t be there for Khloe’s birth. They shrugged it off, saying they understood. And thanking me for letting Jen stick around to be there for it. As if I had a choice. I’d rather steal a bear’s dinner than tell Jen she couldn’t be there for the birth of her first niece.

They told me they’d bring the laptop into the birthing room when Khloe arrived. So that I could be there, too.

“But just from the neck up,” Ben clarified. I thanked them both. Hugged them both. Told them both I loved them. And then we left. Making our way to Bellingham, to meet up with some of my family for a “goodbye” breakfast.

It was tough saying goodbye to those two. Ben & Leann. We’ve grown really close over the past year. The four of us. After losing Hayley, in particular. They really are some of our best friends, and it hurt like crazy knowing I wouldn’t be around for Khloe’s big day.

We pulled up to Lee’s about 10 minutes after we were supposed to be there. A restaurant near my Grandpa’s house where we used to eat breakfast when I was a kid growing up. He’d take me there early, before school, and we’d sit near the window as I ate my french toast, and he’d sip his coffee. Black, just like he had at home.

We were late from saying “goodbye” to everyone, so everyone else was at the counter ordering when we walked in. My brother Zach and his girlfriend Vanessa. My sister Lucy. My Mom. My Grandpa. And my best friend Steve, who was joining us, too.

It was great sharing a meal together before I left. I loved seeing Zach order his two plate’s worth of breakfast, and seeing the look on Lucy’s face when she realized she should’ve done the same thing. I loved seeing Mom glow at the image of her three children getting together for breakfast again. I loved watching my Grandpa sip his black coffee, just like all those mornings before. And I loved sitting between my best friend and my wife for the last meal I’d enjoy in Bellingham for the next six months.

Lucy had to head to class before the rest of us left. Zach & Vanessa were taking her, so I walked them to the door and said “goodbye.” I told them I loved them, and I hugged Lucy for a few extra seconds. “I love you, Goose,” I told her. “And I’m so proud of you.”

The five of us talked for a bit longer before leaving. Over coffee and orange juice. Before I said “goodbye” to my Mom. And my Grandpa. My Grandpa’s not much of a hugger, but I hugged him big as we left. My Mom is. And I hugged her big too. Told them both I loved them, and we were on the road. Waving “goodbye” out the driver’s-side window as we pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. A couple quick errands and we were heading to the airport.

Steve and Jen walked me to the airport security line. And we said our “goodbye’s” there, after an hour and a half drive south. I’d be seeing Steve in just over a week, as he would be coming out to Oxford shortly after me. To visit. He was originally planning on coming out with Jen, but he had a speaking engagement come up. So he moved his plans and broke up the three weeks I would otherwise be spending by myself. That was good news in my book. I told him I was looking forward to hanging out with him in Oxford in just over a week, and we said “goodbye” to each other.

I held Jen for a long time before going through security. I eased up on my hug, letting her back a bit so I could look at her. And smile. She told me not to cry. So I fought it. She’s so much tougher than me, and I’m used to it at this point.

I really didn’t want to, but we said our “goodbye’s” and I made my way to the security line, looking back just in time to see Jen smile and wave as she and Steve left. Smiling with that same smile that stole my heart all those years ago from the stage in our high school auditorium. I wasn’t looking forward to being without that smile for the next few weeks, but I was happy to know she’d soon be holding her new baby niece in her arms.

We made a stop in Chicago, and I changed planes on my way to England. Walking the airport hallways, my eyes kept catching young families. A dad walking hand-in-hand with his young son. A young family of four seated, with their backs against the windows, waiting on their plane. And I realized I didn’t want this. Traveling on my own. I’m a married man, and it just didn’t feel right traveling on my own. I didn’t feel complete.

When we got married, our pastor (Craig, a good friend of the family) really emphasized that, when we became married, we went from being two individuals to one, united flesh. He really made a point to tell us that this is what this act meant. And I often use that line, from time to time, with Jen. Mostly when I want to steal something from her plate. “Hey, one flesh, remember?” I’ll say to her.

But that’s how it felt, walking through the airport that night in Chicago, waiting for my plane to board. Like half of a single piece of flesh. And I didn’t like it. I found myself looking forward to the day when we’d be traveling together. With our kids with us. All antsy and excited for the plane ride. And it put a smile on my face, seated there in the airport, waiting to board my flight to England.

Back in Oxford

I landed in London around noon local time on Tuesday, after flying out from Seattle at 3:00 on Monday afternoon. After sleeping most of the way (in complete disregard of the Greek studies I knew I should be working on), I found myself with more energy than I thought I’d have. Which was good, since I still had some traveling to do before I could rest.

I made my way through customs. The man taking my passport asked what I was doing in England. I told him I was going back to school. He asked what I was doing before. I told him I was in Public Relations. He asked what I was studying, as he flipped through my passport. I told him “Theology.” He asked why the change, still looking down. I told him I realized that was what I was passionate about. He stopped, looked up at me with a nod, and then returned to the passport. Stamped it and handed it over.

It was a good reminder for me, as I entered the country. I was here to pursue what I was most passionate about.

I grabbed my bags from the conveyor belt baggage claim and made the long walk through the airport to the bus station. After a short wait, I was on the bus heading to Oxford.

I thought it was funny that the sign leading to Oxford had the city “B’ham” on it, after leaving “Bellingham” a day earlier.

We pulled into Oxford an hour later. And I grabbed a cab for the last leg of my journey back. The driver helped me with my bags as I hopped into the back of the tall, black English cab. He asked where I was coming from. I told him Seattle. He asked if we had snow. I told him not much.

He told me Oxford had been hit pretty hard over the holidays. “About 10 inches,” he told me. “We had to stick to the main roads, and drop people off at the start of the side streets.”

“What’s the weather look like for this week?” I asked him.

“Rain. All week. Just rain.”

“Perfect,” I said from the back seat. “Just like home.”

I paid the driver as we pulled up to 27 Northmoor Road, the house looking just as we left it a month earlier. And he helped me with my bags.

Jane greeted me at the front door. With a hug. And a smile. And a “Happy New Year!”

She pointed to the tower of packages that had piled up while we were gone.

“Christmas packages I presume,” she said. I nodded.

“Yep,” I think so.

I unpacked my bags straight away, knowing I wouldn’t want to deal with it after waking up. It’d also help me put sleep off longer, and get back on the routine here.

I opened up our Christmas cards and packages from Grandpa after unpacking my bags and getting settled in. Don’t worry, I had Jen’s permission.

Even though we had been home with most of these people over the holidays, it was great seeing their smiling faces on the Christmas Cards again. And reading their Christmas wishes.

“We know it will be tough not being home, but we hope it’s a special one,” so many read. And it was a nice reminder of the surprise we were able to give everyone before the holidays. It put a smile on my face.

I opened the package from my Grandpa next. A mix of bike equipment, food and Christmas decor. And a clock. Oh, and two “Sumas, Washington” coffee mugs. (Special thanks to my cousin Matt for those. Only ones in Oxford, I’m sure!)

My Grandpa had just returned from the post office when Jennifer and I surprised him a month earlier. From sending us this package. “Good timing,” I had told him. He looked at me with a smile, still in disbelief that we were there, standing in his living room.

The package also contained a large zip-lock plastic bag. With cards in it. I opened the first one to see that they were Christmas Cards. From my extended family back home. Each one signed to Jennifer and I. Each one with a note inside, telling us how much we were missed. And how the holidays just weren’t the same without us.

“They must’ve been filled out over Thanksgiving,” I thought to myself while opening another. This wasn’t quite what my family was intending when they filled them out, I’m sure, but it was so nice to return to. Thank you all. It means so much.

Pre-Exam Hibernation Mode

Oxford’s breaks between terms are six-weeks long. Which sounds great on paper. But then you realize the amount of work they want you to do in-between terms and realize the word “break” in Oxford means something quite different than it does back home, like so many other words.

Having returned home to the States for the holidays, I took the opportunity to get some work in. The kind of work you get a paycheck for. To help with school. Which left little time for studies. Well, that and trying to catch up with everyone. And preparing a sermon for our home church after being asked.

And so I returned to Oxford feeling totally and completely overwhelmed with the amount of preparation I knew needed to be had before my exams (“collections,” as they call them here) Friday morning. So I put my head down and studied. At home. And at the library. Not even taking time to venture out to the grocery store for several days, but living off anything I could find in our cupboards.

I’m not a fan of soup for dinner. Never been. In fact, I don’t actually consider that a meal. But it was my dinner for three nights in a row while studying. That and oatmeal.

The Day of Collections

I had received a note the day before telling me gowns were required for collections. Not full Sub-Fusc (meaning cap and gown), but gowns were. So I woke up early Friday morning, after staying up until 2:00 a.m. the night before studying, put on my suit, gown and hopped on my bike, en route to collections.

It’s a funny thing, riding a bike in a suit and Oxford gown. I caught several people staring as I rode. Not knowing whether that was because they knew the doom awaiting me on my collections, or if it was just because I looked ridiculous riding a bike while wearing a full suit and gown.

Riding through Oxford again was a weird feeling. Like returning to a familiar dream you’ve had before. Familiar because it’s not the first time you’ve had it, but still foreign because it’s a dream. That’s a bit how it felt, riding through Oxford again, staring up at the large stone buildings that stretched on and on and on into the sky overhead.

I made my way to the library at Harris Manchester and passed through the “Quiet Please, Collections In Progress” paper sign on the door. I was a good 20-minutes early, so I found a seat and took the extra time for some last-minute studies.

About 10 minutes before the exams were scheduled to begin, I realized no one else was in the library. There wasn’t a student in sight. I started to wonder if I had somehow missed out on some critical information, informing me that the collections weren’t being held in the library after all.

I made my way down the stone stairway and found Amanda in the main office. She greeted me and I asked where the exams were being held, as I didn’t see anyone in the library. Immediately she gave me this look like her heart had just sank into her stomach as she thought to herself, “Oh no, I feel horrible for you.”

The first words out of her mouth were, “Don’t panic,” which is never a good sign. She looked up at the clock and, with big eyes, said to me, “You need to be at the Exam Schools, just get there.” Without waiting, I rushed out of the college and hopped on my bike, again, knowing the Exam Schools were several minutes away, and I didn’t have several minutes to spare.

My laptop bag had been thrown hastily over my shoulder, rather than across my body, so it swung as I rode. I approached the final intersection before the Exam schools, squeezing tightly between a line of cars, when my bag struck one of the car’s rear-view mirrors.

“Oh no,” I thought to myself, listening intently for the sound of it to fall and hit the concrete below. Nothing. “It must be okay, then,” I thought to myself.

I was met by a red light, and so I waited to cross the street. The cars turned left (as we would take a free right back home), and I quickly realized the car my bag had struck would soon be passing me. My heart sank.

“Hey!” the man shouted as he pulled up, stopped, rolled down his window and looked at me. “Hey! You hit my car!”

I looked over at his rear-view mirror sheepishly, to see if there was any damage. There wasn’t. From what I could see.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I said, still focusing on making it to the Exam Schools in time for my collections.

“You’re sorry?! You’re SORRY?!” he continued to shout, only several feet from me. I didn’t know what to do, so I just looked ahead, waiting for the light to change.

He ended up speeding off, and I was relieved. I was really hoping to avoid a fight before my exams that morning.

I found my way to the room where my collections were being held and walked through the closed door, just as everyone was turning over their exams to begin. And as I did, everyone looked toward the door to see me walk in late. I quickly realized everyone was wearing their gown, like me, but dressed completely casually otherwise, unlike me.

“Perfect,” I thought to myself. “I’m late for my first collections AND I look like a complete idiot.”

It was like one of those bad dreams that you have, where you’re in front of the class and everyone’s staring at you because you’re either naked or forgot how to spell “the.” Except it wasn’t a dream, and I had an exam to take.

I apologized to the Senior Academic Tutor overseeing the collections and found my seat. Quickly trying to shrug off the rough start and focus on the questions on the paper.

Kicked in the teeth by Greek

The good news is that my first exam of the day wasn’t in Greek. It was my Gospels & Jesus exam. I felt pretty good about the material, and I was fairly confident I had done a decent job after finishing my last essay.

The bad news is that wasn’t my only exam for the day. That afternoon, I took a Greek exam. And by that I mean, I got my teeth kicked in by Greek. I really felt horrible. I had studied the material, not nearly as much as I should have, but I felt like I was seeing the language for the first time. I don’t know if it was the stress of the day, my jetlag fog still setting in, or what, but I was fairly confident someone answering my questions in Spanish would have done at least as well as I did.

I’m not a fan of Greek. Not at all. If Greek and I were to go toe-to-toe in a UFC cage match, I wouldn’t think twice to swinging an illegal, below-the-belt kick to Greek.

Steve told me later that day I probably did better than I thought. I told him if I did better than 50% then I’d be doing better than I thought.

I had spoken with my academic advisor the day before. Telling him I knew my busy holidays were likely to catch up with me on collections. He told me not to worry about it. That collections didn’t actually count for anything, and they weren’t likely to send me home if I did poorly.

“Worst case scenario, we ask you to take them again in a couple weeks,” Dave told me with a smile as we sat across from each other on the leather couches of his office. In the castle-like building of Mansfield College.

I wasn’t excited about the idea of taking another Greek collection again in two weeks, but I figured that wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Riding home after spending most of the day in exams, I was feeling pretty down. Knowing I would have liked to do better. And picturing the look of disappointment Rhona would surely have when she graded my collection. Not quite the way I was hoping to start the term.

It was a sunny afternoon when I left the Exam Schools, so I promised myself a run and some fresh air when I got home. To reward myself for several days worth of hunkering down and studying. And for getting my teeth kicked in.

The sun was beginning to set by the time I got home and changed for a run. Cole texted me and asked if I’d be interested in going to watch a movie (127 Hours) that night. To celebrate having collections behind us. I told him that sounded perfect.

Steve Skyped in with me before taking off for a run. I told him about my day. And that I wasn’t having  such a great time here. He told me he was sorry. And that it would be the kind of day I’d laugh about at some point. He told me to go for a run. And to go watch a movie. I told him that sounded like a good idea.

I ran north. To Summertown. With music playing in my ears. It was dark and people were walking on the sidewalks as busses and cars drove by.

I loved feeling the rhythmic pounding of my feet on the stone sidewalk, and the cool night air on my face. It was incredibly refreshing after the day I had had.

It smelled like garlic bread as I entered Summertown. And I remembered how it smelled like drop-biscuits the first time I ran through the neighborhood, earlier in the fall. And how that smell had reminded me of my Grandpa’s house, growing up. And instantly I was taken back to my Grandpa’s, over the holidays. Into his packed kitchen as everyone filled their plates.

I could see their faces, telling me how nice it was to see me again. To have us home. And suddenly I didn’t feel so far away from home.

Cutting off your arm for a vision

If I was honest with you, I’d tell you it’s been tough since coming back to Oxford. After spending the holidays with friends and family and all that’s comfortable to us. Being able to earn an income again. And then returning to a place that still feels a bit foreign.

If I were being honest with you, I’d tell you there have been several days where I’ve just wanted to head back home, to be with everyone we know again. If I were being honest with you, that’s what I’d say.

Before leaving, I was asked to preach at our church. And so I did. On lessons I’ve learned since going through this process. Saying “goodbye” to a great job and friends and family to go after this dream. And one of the lessons I’ve learned, the lesson I closed with is that the Christian life isn’t a life of comfort. And that’s something I’ve had to remind myself since coming back to Oxford. I’m not here because this is the most comfortable life possible for us. It’s quite the opposite, in a lot of ways. Sure, it’s my dream, but it’s still really tough. But that’s just it. Following after Him, and what He intends to do with your life is rarely the most comfortable plan for your life. It’s something I’ve been learning through all of this. And I’m still learning.

I met Cole at the Theatre Friday night. To see 127 Hours. The real-life story about a man who got stuck while rock climbing, and who ended up cutting off his own arm to escape after several days. After 127 hours, apparently.

We ran into resident Lewis expert Dr. Michael Ward and President of the Oxford Lewis Society David at the theatre. It was good to see those two again. They sat across the aisle from us in the theatre, as we bought our tickets separately.

When you buy your tickets in the UK, you have two choices: standard seating and premium seating. Standard seating is basically the lower-level seating, where you’re looking up at the screen. These seats are also first-come, first-served, as it is in the states for everyone. But premium seating, premium seating seats are elevated, so you’re looking straight ahead at the screen. And they’re reserved, so you know exactly where you’re sitting ahead of time. Anything to make an extra buck, I suppose… Or pound.

The movie was pretty great. Gruesome, obviously, but pretty great. I’m not one for blood. Not in the least. I’ve always said I’d love to be a Doctor if it weren’t for the blood. But this movie was still definitely worth seeing, even for those of us who feel like taking a bit of a nap at the first sight of blood.

Not to spoil it for anyone, but the movie’s climax really stuck with me. Obviously it is incredible to think of someone cutting off their own arm to set themselves free, but what got him through this experience is what really stuck with me.

Apparently, what got this man through, what led him to decide to cut off his own arm so that he could get free was a vision he had.

While pinned there in that canyon, with no rescue in sight five days after falling into this horrible situation, this guy had a vision. He saw his son. A son he didn’t have at that point. He saw his son playing. And he saw himself playing with his son. Carrying him on his shoulders. And suddenly he was so overwhelmed with this vision that he would stop at nothing to get himself out of there, not even at cutting off his own arm with a cheap, dull knife. Because he believed in that vision. And because he wanted the reality of that vision with every ounce of his being. More so even then his own right arm.

And that’s stuck with me even now. That’s why we’re here. Because, long ago, I had this dream of one day studying at Oxford. Like so many others before me. Men who have changed my life with their writing. Men like Lewis. That I might write in a way that changes lives, too. That I might write in a way that helps others see Him more clearly.

It’s not comfortable. Not all the time. But it is a pretty incredible experience. And it certainly beats cutting off my own arm. And I hope, someday, to be able to look back on all of this and say, “There, right there, that is when He carried out that vision He set on my heart all those years ago.” That’s what I hope for all of this.

Thanks for reading.

 

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