Day 9 – Iceland

Today was our one full day here, and we saw everything except the Northern Lights. All day, the skies were so clear that we thought tonight would be a good one, but there wasn’t enough solar activity. We even drove out of the city tonight, away from the lights of Reykjavic, and still nothing. The aurora forecast shows a good chance tomorrow morning, so I may try again then.

We did have a fun day though, driving for all of the 6 hours of sunlight we had. Thrifty Car Rental was great, responding to my emails since I don’t have a phone, and met me at 9 am to give us a new car. Its not often we are up for the sunrise and sunset, but here it was 10:30 am and 3:45 pm. For the one day we had, the Golden Circle was our best option, a 140 mile loop. War on Drugs felt like the perfect music for the drive, the beauty and the pain of the incredible landscapes in the harsh conditions. Not helped by our lack of warm clothes for the short hikes.

  • Þingvellir National Park, site of the oldest parliament, formed in 1000 AD. Viking pride! Even includes the shooting location for Game of Thrones, which I have not seen. And the best view from a bathroom.
    Game of Thrones Locations: Þingvellir, Iceland (Path to the Eyrie and Arya's and Sandor Clegane's journey) img_0282
  • Geysir. The geyser that erupts every 10 minutes.
  • Gullfoss Waterfall.

Iceland is split by the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, which are separating an inch each year. People can even scuba in the snow melt that fills these ravines. There are also ice caves and glaciers to explore, but none of that could fit into one day.

 

img_0296We’ve been looking forward to swimming in the natural, geothermal water. Before we went, I saw this article about pool etiquette that led to just Michele and I going. They have mandatory (and enforced!) pre-swimming showers without swimsuits on. They take their swimming and etiquette seriously here, so just two of us went. The Laugardalslaug pool was great, lots of lanes for swimming laps and several hot tubs, each at a different temperature. The indoor pool was packed with swim teams using all 18 lanes. The shower rules reminded me of my experience at the onsen in Japan, and far worse, the trauma of high school gym class.

Another differences we noticed here is that lack of alcohol for sale, outside of restaurants. I found out that it is only sold at state owned liquor stores and they all close at 6 pm. The tax makes it very expensive. Beer was banned here from 1915 to 1989. I learned too late that the trick is to buy beer from the duty free shop at the airport.

Also, everything is super expensive. A box of pasta in the grocery store is $4, espresso img_0297shots are $5, and I saw a winter hat today for $60. Gas is $7.50 per gallon, when their liter prices are converted to gallons. We bought Subway today to take on our hikes and it was $10 for a 6 inch. Everywhere else, its a minimum of $20 per person to eat. I don’t believe they don’t have an official, legal minimum wage, but it sounds like its customary to pay at least wages that equate to $17 per hour. To be here, it helps to have Iceland wages. And to be able to pronounce their street names.

Today, we saw the sunrise…

…and the sunset.

 

 

And the geyser and heat vents in between.

Day 8 – Travel to Reykjavik

londonOur rental car was leaking gas and almost out, but we managed to pull into a gas station, only to find it was closed. It was only 8 pm on a Sunday, after just arriving from London, and I thought we had a rough night ahead of us. It was already a long day, arriving at the London airport 3 hours before the flight, flying for 3 hours, and taking 2 hours to get luggage and a rental car.

As we drove away from the Reykjavik airport for the 45 minute drive to our AirBnb, the gas was going down much too quickly. It was hard to tell what was going on until it started to smell. We didn’t even know if the AirBnb was for real, since the owner hadn’t responded to my requests for the code to get in. To add to our mess, our internet data wasn’t working, we had no phone service, had no local currency, and the temperature was in the 20s and dropping. Not a great start!

We managed to find the apartment and parking in the congested downtown area, all while wondering when the car would actually run out of gas. While driving, our internet started working and a message came through with the info for the apartment. The store next door even let me use their phone to call Thrify about the car issue.

Day 7 – London

We ended our trip with a shopping mall, Tottenham game, and wedding reception.

It was the first indoor shopping mall we’ve seen. So many people here are wearing

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Canada Goose jackets, a brand I’ve never seen before. Now I see that in Denver, they’re just sold at Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. The girls liked the British stores New Look and Fat Face, plus the Spanish Zara and Pull & Bear.

Wembley Stadium was super cool for a soccer game. Its 90,000 seats is the biggest in the UK, second in all of Europe. The 66,000 at the game today still seemed like a lot, especially on the train training, packed so tight the doors could barely close. We all swayed together on the turns, trying not to cause the dominoes to fall. It was a disappointing draw against a team without a manager, but we did see Kane score a goal. Interesting how there was no food or drink in our entire section. Beer is not allowed in the seats, and everyone was there for the game, not the dipping dots or halftime show (there was none).

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We wrapped up the trip at Jenn’s wedding reception. It was pure coincidence that my co-worker had this planned during our time here, and we met others there who I work img_0271with. Was cool to meet in-person several people I work with over email only. The girls walked Oxford Street on their own while we did this, which seemed similar to 16th Street Mall. I asked others at the reception how safe this would be and they told me about a possible shooting there last night. However, they ended up safe and the scare turned out to be a panic started on social media and people running out of stores, maybe triggered by a fight. After all the recent terrorist acts, people understandably really on edge here.

We wrapped up the past week averaging 8 miles per day. Tomorrow, we head to Iceland and say goodbye to our great AirBnb next to Latimer Road Station.

Gorgeous bright light and large living room area - all brand new. Sofa can turn into King Bed if needed. Lots of window, 40 inch TV with regular TV, Apple TV and Amazon Fire. Books, games and fireplace.

Beautiful large balcony. South facing so sun all day. Has chairs, lights, even a fire for the evening. For looks and warmth. A beautiful space.

Day 6 – London

It was a full day of Melina’s agenda. She did pay for all of our flights, afterall. After img_0240sleeping in and leaving at 10:30 am, we still logged over 10 miles of walking, partly due to some navigation mistakes.

The morning was the girls chance to venture off on their own. They went to 221B Baker Street and then met us at Big Ben. That gave Michele and I chance to try a new app that I can’t say enough about. Detour.  I swear I was talking about an app like this 5 years ago, one that could use your GPS to guide you along historic routes with an audio tour, shared with others using bluetooth headphones. It could work in museums too, instead of img_0042renting clunky headsets. A founder of Groupon started Detour and now its in several cities, though not many in the US yet. We walked the streets around Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and 10 Downing Street. The audio stories and history were perfect, which points out what is on your left, on your right, and waits for you to cross streets before continuing. It knows exactly where you are, which is more than a little ironic when we walked place where Winston Churchill often stayed and the inspiration for George Orwell’s Minister of Truth. We learned about the burials of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin under Westminster Abbey, and walked past the National Heath Service headquarters, which gave free health care to everyone in 1947, despite the immense war debt of the country.

We found the great Indian Street Food restaurant Dishoom for lunch, so highly rated on Yelp we waited an hour at 3 pm on a weekday to eat. Well worth it, for some less common menu options. Street food apparently, though around here every restaurant seems too be street food.

A lost Underground pass meant we had to walk an extra mile to the London Eye. It was perfectly timed for the 4:00 sunset, though I discovered later that my panoramic photos were taken from my camera without a memory card! Phone cameras to the rescue.

After that, I successfully navigated us to the London Philharmonic headquarters, rather than the Royal Festival Hall, where we had tickets to see the Vivaldi Four Seasons. That added 2 miles of walking to our day, but we were still on time. Melina had the seats up front, while the rest of us sat in the nosebleeds. Nice to see a full house, and mixed ages, for their orchestra.

Those were some of mishaps today, but nothing major. Michele’s only transgression was clapping (twice!) between movements. Orchestral movements, that is. Nothing compared to the teenager I saw jump the Underground turnstiles, and then ask the station agent for directions. his reaction was beyond sarcasm, but the kid wasn’t fined or removed.

As the trip winds down, I’ve thought of some more travel tips, mostly for international travel.

  • Detour, the app mentioned above. It could see it being used to learn other languages, since it is multi-lingual. And if it were made into an open platform, local tour guides could provide their own content.
  • Anker Power Bank. You can charge a phone 5 times with this monster portable battery.
  • iPhone for iMessages. Or WhatsApp. We can use only data, not phone and text, but we can still send messages with iPhones.img_0237
  • Offline Google Maps. Download maps of the city while on wi-fi, to keep it available without service. You can’t do directions, but you can at least see where are on the map.
  • In London, Oyster cards for the Underground. Half price Underground rides by using the reloadable card, with discounts for kids. Reload in the station or using the app. Once you hit the daily maximum, the rest of the rides are free.

One last interesting thing I saw today is the Being a Man festival. In the age of mass shootings, terrorism, and sexual assaults, it may be the US that needs public discussions and lectures like this.

 

Day 5 – Lucky Charms for Thanksgiving

We split up today so Melina could visit Cambridge, which I didn’t realize is a university made up of 30 different colleges. And touring is not very easy, as it requires paying for an offiicial tours. Even walking around on your own requires paying a fee. Michele and Melina took the 45 minute train for an official tour and visit to the museum to see the Enigma machine from WWII. Amazing inventors and scientists have walked these halls, including Sir Isaac Newton, who has an apple tree planted in his honor on campus:

This apple tree is a descendant by vegetative propagation of a tree which grew in the garden of Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham, and which is reputed to be the tree from which fell the apple that helped Newton to formulate his theory of gravitation. The original tree is said to have died about 1815-1820. The variety is ‘Flower of Kent’.

After catching up on sleep, Maile and I checked out the street art in the very cool Shoreditch neighborhood. I liked the disturbing image of the girl picking the nuclear flowers the most. It was a good 4 mile walk, including running into a Warner Brothers film set. We believe it’s for Mission Impossible 6. If it is Fantastic Beasts 2, we didn’t see Johnny Depp, one of the few actors I might recognize.

balloongirlIts hard to exaggerate how cool this city is. We can walk for hours seeing new restaurants and shops on very street, from seemingly every country in the world. There are markets everywhere, like Brick Lane and Camden Market, where Maile found some cool Balloon Girl art. I’ve seen this image before, but didn’t know it was created by an anonymous London street artist known as Banksy. Some polls show this to be the favorite artwork among British people.

Best of all, the girls can walk around on their own without fear of crime. The strict gun laws certainly help. I looked up the murder numbers and there were 118 in London last year, for a population of 9 million. New York City, with a similar population, had 335, with nearly 2,000 in recent years. London has never exceeded 200. Those 118 murders in London were 3 times as many as Denver’s 58, for a city 13 times the size. Terrorism is no doubt a big issue here, though police are dealing with moped muggers  more than teenagers and mentally ill dudes with guns.

chinchinAlso in the market we had ice cream made with liquid nitrogen at Chin Chin Labs, where I met a Venezuelan who knew all about the Rapids and MLS. Throughout our 6 miles of walking today, we saw a total of 3 dogs. City living here might be safe, but its mostly dog-free. Maybe because of the already high rent for non-pets plus long hours at work. Only 8 percent of Londoners have dogs, while a third in Denver do (perhaps over half in north Denver!).

One of the stranger places was the Cereal Killer Cafe. I paid £5 for a bowl of Lucky Charms. The La Raclette restaurant reminded us of Anni, who gave us the tradition that now has its own restaurants. And somehow, we couldn’t escape Trump on vacation, but could at least contribute to his impeachment fund.

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I’m thankful for the beer and cider (oak aged!) options here. Not so thankful that Black Friday is celebrated here!

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Day 4 – London

We’re all having fun, though I admit I’m not always a pleasant tour guide. Its still fun putting together the plans and getting around, but today we had to hit everything just right to get the kids to their surprise Harry Potter and the Cursed Child show. But we did it, with 10 minutes to spare!

  1. Catch the 7:30 train leaving Edinburgh, 400 miles from London. Great views through the countryside and along the North Sea coach, where we could imagine Norway beyond the overcast skies. What a deal, 4 one way tickets with free wi-fi for $90 today.
  2. Arrive at Kings Cross Station in London and walk 10 minutes to the Underground Station.
  3. Ride to Paddington Station, walk 10 minutes, then ride to Latimer Road station, walk 10 minutes.
  4. Get the keys to the apartment and leave our luggage.
  5. Repeat 2 Underground rides to the West End to get through security for the show. The good thing is they loved it!

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The play is broken into 2 parts, each 2 1/2 hours. We walked around the area and saw so many good looking restaurants, though maybe not the pigs in the window. The second hand shop had a very used Colorado Rapids jacket on sale for $40!

We found great pizza at Home Slice. Most couples were splitting (and finishing) the 20 inch pies. Looking up things to do for teenagers, I found the perfect dinner place for us all between the plays: Inamo. Decent food, and a fun place to try once for the interactive menu that projects a photo of each menu item on your plate before you order. You can show a live video of the chefs at work in the kitchen. Perfect for a vacation dinner.

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img_0038During part 2 of Harry Potter, we found a half price play with just enough depth (not too much) for our tired brains. Red Lion, about a fledgling semi-pro soccer team. Front row seats in the 100 person theatre (for the price of movie tickets!) kept us awake, being a few feet from the actors on stage. Its amazing how many shows are here, more than in New York City even. We walked 15 minutes back to Harry Potter before it ended to meet the girls and get home at 11 pm. Even being on the train for half the day, we still logged 7 miles of walking.

 

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Our AirBnb is just on the other side of the train from the Grenfell Tower that caught on fire earlier this year and killed 40 people. We saw it as soon as we arrived this morning.

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On the ride home, I saw this in the newspaper. Now I wonder what happens to the Curlywurly here.

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Tomorrow won’t be so tiring.

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Day 4 – Glasgow

We spent the day touring University of Glasgow, seeing the art museum, and shopping on the pedestrian-only Buchanan Street. It seems less touristy and more livable than Edinburgh, at least for those who can handle the darkness and constant rain. An umbrella is barely needed though, since its more of a mist, not the thunderstorms and downpours. Melina may be one of them, as she quite liked the school and area. The school and architecture are impressive, dating back to 1451, with the modern claim to fame of filming Harry Potter scenes here.

Glasgow is proud to win awards for the friendliest city and country, and it sure seems like it.

  • A professor met with Melina for coffee to talk about her goals and interest in UK colleges.
  • The university setup a last minute information session after they saw several prospective American students on the tour.
  • A bus driver gave us all free rides.

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Many buildings are named for Adam Smith, but it seems the entire city is named Kelvin, for the scientist here who invented the Kelvin temperature scale. I was impressed more with the architecture of the Kelvingrove Art Museum than the art.

We learned more details about how focused university students here must be. Its nothing like the 2 years of general study common in the US. Here, you apply to a specific college and take only relevant courses. For a science major, there will be no classes at all in literature, art, etc., and the final 2 years consist of only classes in the specific major. It made me wonder how the students here can know by age 17 what they want to study. I don’t know many Americans who kept the same major, or even related major, for 4 years.

My guess is only the most focused and academically ambitious students in the UK attend universities. The professor even made a generalization about the students here being more serious than those in Colorado. Both the US and UK have similar (and troubling!) high school dropout rates of 20-25%, but a surprising 80% of graduates in the US enroll in college. In the UK, its less than 40%. That may explain it.

We put in 8 miles of walking again today and the 4 hour train ride to London tomorrow  should slow things down. And the AirBnb with space will be nice. This hostel was good enough for a few days, but our room was next to the squeaky elevator and the street where everyone seemed to be coming home from the pub all night.