Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Two Years in England

I had a delightfully English experience as I washed the dishes the other night. I was rewatching the final episode of season five of Downton Abbey, where the Crawleys attend a shooting party at the fictional Brancaster Castle. I was scrubbing a frying pan and suddenly had to lean in to get a closer look at my phone, because on the screen was a decorative wall chock-full of several-hundred-year-old pistols and swords arranged in swirling patterns at the entrance to the castle. You know, just your average wall of weapons to welcome your guests to your home. As you do in England. 

Downton cast in the Alnwick Castle library

Except that this was no mere set for a TV show–I had seen this very same wall only a few hours before when we visited Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. Built in the 11th century, Alnwick (pronounced “Annick”) Castle is the second largest inhabited castle in England after Windsor Castle, where the Queen’s family lives. The Duke of Northumberland and his family live at Alnwick, and it’s very strange to see current family photos and squashy bean bag chairs around a flat-screen TV juxtaposed with the centuries-old portraits and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the library. The castle was also used as the Hogwarts castle in the first two Harry Potter films, so go back and re-watch those if you want a sense of the grandeur of the place.

Castle visitors taking a broomstick flying lesson
Back to Downton Abbey. As the Crawleys walked up the stairs from the weapons wall and into another lavishly decorated room, I recognized two black and gold cabinets that Rory had pointed out to me earlier that morning. He told me that the absurdly ornate cabinets were purchased for the castle a few hundred years before from the palace at Versailles; they were apparently considered tacky and out-of-date, which is why the French royalty were keen to sell. Naturally, an English aristocrat bought them. I would have loved to delve further into the fascinating history of the castle and its many curiosities, but our tour through the place was at a very brisk pace, owing to the need to keep toddler hands off of priceless works of art.

Little bulldozer enjoying the castle grounds

It is experiences like these that highlight one of the many charms of living in the UK. Namely, that history is at our fingertips. One need only drive a few miles before a medieval castle pops up. And closer to home, the house that we bought in December is one hundred years old, which is fairly typical here. We were amused to find that in the original deed to the house, it said we weren’t allowed to build stables in the back garden or there would be a five pound penalty, which really dashed our hopes of opening a ranch. And a little ways down the street from us is part of Hadrian’s Wall, which was built by the Romans nearly two thousand years ago. We haven’t stopped to look at it properly yet, as it’s next to a busy road near the highway. And also, it’s just a pile of rocks. Historically significant, sure, but not all that interesting. Nonetheless, living in England gives us the opportunity to engage with history, even ancient history, in a very real way that wasn’t part of my upbringing in America. 

Speaking of ancient history, it has already been more than two years since Rory and I moved our family from Hawaii to England. The anniversary of our early-pandemic 7,000 mile journey came and went without me even noticing it this year, perhaps because I’ve grown so accustomed to living here, or more likely I just forgot due to my motherhood-induced brain fog. But now that this country is coming out of the pandemic, I’m beginning to see it in a new light. We’re able to travel around more and visit fascinating places, and we’re finally getting to know our neighbors and make lasting friendships, all of which make this foreign land feel a bit more like home.

In less than a week, however, I’ll actually be going home. We’ll be making the trek back to the United States to visit my family in Washington and Oregon, most of whom I haven’t seen in three years. It will be our toddler son’s first transatlantic flight and his first time meeting his aunts, uncles, and cousins in person. And our nearly six-year-old daughter has been in England so long that she has no memory of America, so I can’t wait to see what she thinks of the place. Fingers crossed for a smooth and joyful trip back to the land of the free.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Thanksgiving in England

Thanksgiving has been billed as the end of an era in my family this year. My parents are hosting the family dinner in their Oregon home for the last time before they sell their comfortable, spacious house and downsize to a one-level place. At least, that’s what they keep telling us. Speaking from recent experience, I can confidently say that buying and selling a house takes longer than you think it will, and knowing my parents, I wouldn’t say with certainty that they’ll be out of theirs before next November. Still, that’s the plan, so my three brothers and their spouses, my six nieces and nephews, plus my two cousins and their two kids will all make the journey through the evergreen forests to converge on the warm and cozy Huntington Drive house this week with silly amounts of delicious food to share.

I won’t be there. The home I lived in from ages thirteen to eighteen will be filled with everyone in my family except me. But I’ve been to enough Lindsley family Thanksgivings that I can envision how the event will go. The dining table and card tables will be set up with elegant autumnal table cloths and centerpieces. The natural wood buffet table in the kitchen will be laden with an indecent number of pies of every variety imaginable, including a “mystery pie” designed to test the taste buds. Scents of sweet potato casserole browning in the oven, fluffy potatoes being mashed, and a huge smoked turkey sizzling away will permeate every corner of the house and make tummies rumble.

The absurdly long remodeled kitchen will be bustling with my mom in an apron and some variety of her daughters-in-law, with the occasional appearance by my brothers. My dad will be as far away from the action as he can manage, likely outside in the shop. The younger kids will be chasing each other around the downstairs, or playing music on the drums and xylophones, or playing games, while the tweens are ensconced in the squishy tan sectional that borders the family room, staring at their phones and ignoring the world around them. My siblings and cousins will be catching up with each other’s news. Despite all living on the west coast, they don’t see each other that often, and they will be sharing how jobs are going, how the kids are doing in school, and what new sewing or DIY house projects they’re tackling. It will be pleasant and comfortable, with only a light dusting of chaos, now that most of the grandkids are older and that my two rambunctious children, one and five years old, won’t be there.

My son, a toddler with a sense of humor and his own agenda, has never been to that house. Born a few months into the pandemic, and shortly after we moved from Hawaii to England, he was eleven months old before he even met my parents in person. He has never been on an airplane, has never been outside of the UK. My brothers and their families are just moving pictures on a screen to him.

In contrast, my five-year-old daughter has been on about thirty airplanes in her short life, traversing oceans and continents, and last visited my parents’ house two years ago. But Covid and time have obliterated those memories for her. Even her previous home of Hawaii is more of a feeling than a memory now--just warmth, fragrant breezes, and contentment. Oregon is a foreign concept to her, just like the holiday of Thanksgiving itself. She doesn’t remember her last Thanksgiving in Oregon as a three-year-old, drawing pictures on the kitchen chalkboard with Grandpa, who made it down onto the floor with her. Or reading If You Give a Mouse a Cookie with Grammie in the floral armchair. Trying to emulate her big cousins who were very sweet and patient with her. As etched into my memory as those events were, the relevant synapses in her brain have already been pruned and discarded. So this week I’ve been trying to explain to my daughter what Thanksgiving is about. A budding English girl, she remains unconvinced of its importance. 

“But it’s not a real holiday since I won’t get to stay home from school,” she told me yesterday. Admittedly, she has a point. Thanksgiving doesn’t feel quite the same living in England, when no one else is snug at home on a Thursday, cooking up a storm, and gathering with family to celebrate. There’s a sort of inertia that washes over you when celebrating something by yourself in another country. When the only turkeys you can find in the stores are frozen ones set out early for Christmas, and when you have to order canned pumpkin from Amazon because it doesn’t exist elsewhere. When British people look incredulous and slightly disgusted if you mention pumpkin pie. It’s tough to be an American abroad on Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday that revels in the concept of home, with comforting rituals of food and family to encourage you to reflect on the beauty and bounties of your home and family life. Yet because you have made your life in a foreign country, your whole understanding of what constitutes home has acquired so many shades of complexity that nothing and nowhere quite feels like home anymore. Try as you might to approximate those rituals, you simply can’t evoke the sentiments in the same way. Instead of togetherness, you feel more alone. 

But I wouldn’t want to abandon my family’s traditions and give up on Thanksgiving. Given that my family doesn’t celebrate Christmas together, Thanksgiving is the one holiday of the year where we acknowledge the beauty, vitality, and quirkiness of the now much-expanded Lindsley family. Where we overcome our introversion and ineptitude at polite conversation for the sake of building unity amongst our selves and our spouses and our children. It’s also where we remember our loved ones who have passed on, by sharing stories about them and keeping their traditions alive. Before my family eats their Thanksgiving meal, for instance, they will undoubtedly circle around the kitchen holding hands (or touching elbows this year, perhaps) and chant “yummmmm” in the style of my aunt Maya, whose peaceful and loving presence will be missed again this year. Thanksgiving allows us to see how beautiful the foliage is on our family tree, and the falling leaves outside remind us of those who have already floated away from our branches. 

As I thought about Thanksgiving this year, my second year in a row of not physically being with my family, I reflected on the purpose of the holiday and its place in my life. Thanksgiving isn’t just about catching up with relatives and stuffing our faces with food. And as I’m realizing more with each year I spend outside of the US, it also isn’t about relishing the coziness of my parents’ house and feeling comforted and loved by the people I grew up around. I live 4,750 miles away from my parents and siblings. If I focus on the distance between us and what I’m missing out on because of it, I’d much rather skip Thanksgiving altogether. It hurts too much. Besides, if my parents do manage to sell their house before next November, I won’t have a familiar home to go back to anyway. So I have to let go of those ephemeral desires and focus on what Thanksgiving is really about.

Thanksgiving is about gratitude. That’s what I told my daughter anyway. She quickly latched onto the concept and started listing things she was thankful for. “I’m very thanksgiving for having such a wonderful loving mum,” she said, before hugging me with a warm smile. I managed to keep a straight face at her misuse of the word “thanksgiving”, and then cringed inside just a little that she called me her mum instead of her mom. But I let the moment pass and listened to the rest of her gratitude list. It was sweet and thoughtful, a beautiful reflection of her five-year-old mind.

And reflection is needed if we are to look deep enough within ourselves to feel a genuine sense of gratitude for all of the twists and turns that life throws at us. What a marvelous and unexpected journey I’ve had that has led me to this place. From Washington, to Missouri, to Oregon, to Ohio, to Paris, to Hawaii, to England, I’ve taken with me the love of my family, my husband, and now my children wherever I go. Thanksgiving gives us the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of home and family, and when I think about the manifold blessings I’ve received, gratitude wells up within me, threatening to leak out as tears. This time of reflection, this appreciation for life’s bounties, this thankfulness for the people in our lives is what I want to pass along to my children by sharing my holiday with them.

A first Thanksgiving for my Scottish in-laws
A first Thanksgiving for my Scottish in-laws
I hope that one year we’ll make it back to Oregon in November, perhaps when my son can sit still for more than thirty seconds and can handle fifteen hours on an airplane. But in the meantime, we can still contribute to our family
unity by celebrating Thanksgiving in England. In the words of my dad, “We live in two worlds at the same time. In the one there is distance and in the other only nearness. To travel on the wings of love in this world you just have to move your thoughts to your desired destination and there you are!” I’m right there with you, Dad. 

P. S. Speaking of homes, Rory and I have just bought our first house! We get the keys tomorrow! šŸ˜„

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Travelling During a Pandemic, Part 1

It’s a strange world we live in. After the relative normalcy of Hawaii, where, despite the stay-at-home order, we still regularly chatted with our neighbors outside, and many stores and restaurants were still open if modified, it was eye-opening to go travelling around the world and to see how the pandemic is playing out in other cities. 

As you’ll recall from my last post, our goal was to move from Honolulu to England. My visa allowed me to enter the UK only between April 24 and May 24, so we had a limited window in which we could travel. Rory’s US visa also expired at the end of June, as did our American health insurance (important to have when one is pregnant!), so we felt compelled to proceed with our moving plans despite the plethora of uncertainties facing us.

In late March, as Hawaii started to implement stay-at-home orders and Rory and I began working from home, we were ecstatic to have found decent flights for all three of us for a measly $1500. That’s about a third as much as they usually cost. Maybe this pandemic won’t be so bad after all, I thought. Maybe we’ll be able to stay under our budget for moving costs. By mid-April, however, Rory, checking the status of our flights, reported that certain legs of the three-flight journey had disappeared from our itinerary. I started feeling nervous. They’ll find other flights for us, right? We’ve paid for the tickets, so we’ll get there somehow, he kept assuring me. But towards the end of April, the whole itinerary was gone. The flights just weren’t running anymore. 

I often project a calm demeanor in the face of difficulties, but this stressed the heck out of me. All of our moving plans revolved around actually leaving Hawaii on May 7. What if we couldn’t get to the UK? What if we bought more plane tickets, only to have them disappear too? Rory called United Airlines multiple times, but the best they could do was get us on terrible flights that would end at London’s Heathrow Airport. We considered various ways of getting north from London to Dumfries (where Rory’s parents live), or Edinburgh (the airport closest to them). Neither a seven-hour train ride nor a six-hour drive sounded appealing after two days of flying. We thought about buying a plane ticket with a different airline just from London to Edinburgh, but we didn’t want the hassle of gathering and re-checking our many suitcases and paying for them a second time either. What to do?

We bought new plane tickets, that’s what. The options were limited by this point, and a four-flight, 35-hour journey with American Airlines was the best we could get. Instead of $1500, (which was not refunded) it now cost closer to $4000. There was no guarantee that these flights would run either, so we just crossed our fingers and kept packing.

Our house in it's mostly-emptied state.
Fast-forward to Thursday, April 30. The movers came at 8 am and packed up a portion of our belongings to put on a boat. Over the next five days, our friends and neighbors took all of our furniture, appliances, and warm-weather accoutrements (goodbye, snorkel gear and beach umbrella), and left us with a nearly empty apartment. We packed our suitcases and cleaned our house. We turned in our keys. On May 5th and 6th we stayed at a hotel near the Honolulu Airport. Rory continued to check on our flights and thankfully, they still appeared to be running. Finally, it was May 7th, the day to fly. After eating leftover Vietnamese food in our hotel room for lunch, we hauled our three large suitcases, my cello, my violin, three backpacks, a carry-on roller bag, a snack bag, and my purse to a taxi and drove to the airport. And so began our journey.

With our luggage on the airport curb, I looked around at the familiar surroundings one last time. Half-completed parking garage up ahead, confusing green road signs indicating the way to Honolulu and Waikiki, and palm trees lazily swaying in the distance. It looked as I remembered. Except that everything else was different. No cars weaving in and out of lanes, no people hurrying to the check-in counters, no garish aloha shirts worn by tourists with lei (flower necklaces) around their necks. It was desolate. Rory pulled out a camera to capture the complete lack of activity. Instead of the usual excitement tinged with sadness that I often felt at this curbside at the start of a journey, I felt hollow, afraid. We were alone.

In Part 2 of this post, we’ll share about our journey through the Honolulu, Los Angeles, Dallas, and London Heathrow airports. 

Monday, May 4, 2020

Goodbye, Hawaii

Sunset over Waikiki.
Our blog, Turnbull Travels, has been dormant for two years. After the initial shock of moving to Hawaii wore off, and the prospect of potentially living here forever set in, I felt less need to document all the exciting quirks of life in Hawaii. Also, parenting and work took over our lives. But now our stay in Hawaii is coming to an end and a new adventure awaits us.

It has been almost three years that we’ve lived in Honolulu. While Rory has happily continued with his assistant professorship at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, I’ve had a variety of teaching jobs, ranging from being a full-time orchestra teacher at a Catholic all-boys school (I often needed those Hail Marys), to starting a violin program with the Hawaii Youth Symphony for underprivileged predominantly native-Hawaiian students. We’ve developed fulfilling relationships with friends and colleagues while making progress in our careers.

Our beautiful daughter has become an articulate and quirky blonde three-and-a-half year-old, flourishing under the warm sun and palm trees. She’s attended two preschools here and has made plenty of friends, though she still usually prefers the company of her stuffed animals and her imagination. She gets excited when it’s “cold” enough to wear a jacket. To stay connected to family, she Skypes weekly with her grandparents and likes to send them long strings of emojis on Whatsapp. By Rory’s calculations, she’s been on nearly 30 airplanes in her short life.

Hawaii has been good to us. If you have enough money, it’s easy to live here. Throw out half of your wardrobe, buy a good pair of slippers (flip flops), and you’re basically set. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful place I will ever live in. I wake up to lush green mountains every morning and they still take my breath away. We’ve also had the chance to see three of the other Hawaiian islands besides O‘ahu -- KauaŹ»i, Big Island, and MolokaŹ»i, and all of them have their own incredibly unique landscapes and flavors. Hawaii has provided us with amazing adventures and a home that is easy to love.

View of the windward side of Oahu while hiking.
Sadly, it was hard for us to visualize ourselves living in Hawaii long-term. We’ve been fortunate to live in subsidized university faculty housing, making our two bedroom apartment reasonably affordable. But as we approached the end of our allotted time there, the prospect of buying a house began to loom large. With average home prices in our neighborhood of nearly a million dollars, we had to consider the possibility of moving out to the suburbs, where houses are only slightly less absurdly expensive, and commute times are disheartening. We also began to think about the Hawaii education system as our daughter gets closer to kindergarten. Underfunded, low-quality public schools push people towards $22,000-per-year private schools, making Honolulu the second highest metro area in the nation in terms of private school enrollment. Being hugely in debt for the next 20-30 years was not what we were looking for.

Then there’s family. Rory and I have lived far from both of our families for the last eleven years. We are the only ones among our siblings who do not live within driving distance of our parents. Though we try to visit family at least once a year, the 30 hours of travel required to get to Scotland from Hawaii makes it a difficult journey. The eight hours to my parents’ house in Oregon feels like a quick hop by comparison. So as much as we loved Hawaii, in the back of our minds, we knew that if a good job came along near one of our families, we would seriously consider it.

That opportunity waltzed in our door last September. Rory was offered a permanent position at Newcastle University in the north of England, which is only a two-hour drive from his parents in Scotland. Given his narrow linguistic specialization, there are few professorships that Rory would qualify for in a given year, and hardly any in the UK. We didn’t expect to see such an opportunity to be close to family coming around again for a long time. So we jumped.
Before the movers arrived.

And now here we are, with three days left in Hawaii, frantically trying to pack, sell, and give away our belongings. We have had seven months to plan this move, and the complexities of it have been daunting. Spreadsheets and shared Google Docs have been our lifeline. I spent months (and more than $3500) working on getting a UK visa for myself, not knowing if I would receive it in time. We were given a £5000 allowance for moving expenses from Newcastle University, which sounds like a lot, until you consider that we’re moving 7,200 miles, or almost ⅓ of the way around the earth and our stuff has to cross two oceans and a continent. For a moving company to ship even a small fraction of our household belongings, with no furniture whatsoever, was going to cost at least $5000 and take two plus months to arrive. And of course, flights from Honolulu to the UK usually cost a minimum of $1000 per person and require somewhere north of 24 hours of travel time. This will be Rory’s fourth intercontinental move and my third, so we know the ropes, but the complexity of this one has been at times overwhelming.

Loading our stuff into the moving truck.
Then you add in a global pandemic. Things that we take for granted suddenly became nail biting uncertainties. Would the UK’s borders be shut? (No.) Would we have to self-quarantine upon arrival? (Possibly.) Would our flights be cancelled? (Yes.) Would the airlines still serve food? (Not sure.) Would we be able to find a hotel that wasn’t closed? (Yes, after our first booking was cancelled.) Fortunately, our friends and neighbors have been a great help, happily lending us things and buying our belongings from us (who would have thought that we’d be eager to see masked strangers coming to our door to take away our stuff?) Everyone is stressed out right now, everyone feels overwhelmed with uncertainty, but carrying out an intercontinental move during a global pandemic? My cortisol levels are through the roof.

Still, as I keep telling myself, we’ve nearly made it. The movers came last week and packed up our shipment. After today, all of our furniture will be gone. Tonight is our last night to sleep in our house and we fly out this Thursday. Things are going more or less according to plan. But there’s one other twist in this story.

I’m five months pregnant.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Time flies when you have no seasons

The island of Moloka'i, where we visited in March
It's been six months since I last wrote a blog post. We have now lived in Honolulu for eight months, but I have to say, it doesn't feel all that long. The funny thing about Hawaii is that the seasons give you little indication of the passage of time. It was not uncommon for me to think this year, “What a lovely summer day!” and then realize it was February. It's disconcerting. Only the greener color of Diamond Head Crater hints at the presence of winter. Trees seem to flower year round and mid-winter beach trips are the norm, so it's easy to forget what time of year it is. Although the months have slipped by without me hardly noticing, when I reflect on how much my daughter has developed over the last eight months, I realize just how much time has actually passed.

We moved to Honolulu right before MaĆ«lys turned one. She hadn't started walking yet—she was still doing her funny one-legged crawl. She didn't understand most of the words we said to her. I was feeling guilty for not throwing her a first birthday party, but we had no furniture in our apartment and few friends to celebrate with. She didn't mind—she enjoyed opening presents from her relatives, and then lost interest and moved on to something else. She was changing rapidly, but still firmly in the baby category.

Maƫlys at 20 months
Now Maƫlys is four months shy of being a two-year-old. We're on the verge of starting toilet training with her, she's playing imaginatively with her stuffed animals, she goes to a toddler gym class and can climb, jump, and slide with ease. She can only say a few recognizable words, but she understands and responds appropriately to complex sentences. She teases people, laughs at jokes, and demands back rubs for herself and her toys. Our baby is a baby no more.

In our eight months here, France has also quickly faded into the background. Now, a dream-like fuzziness blurs the edges of my memories of Paris. My French accent sounds atrocious. I have not kept up my French skills as I had wanted to, unfortunately, and it's surprising how quickly my vocabulary has dwindled, only to be replaced by long Hawaiian words that I frequently mix up: Kapahulu, Kaka'ako, Kalawao, Kapiolani. I still keep in touch with a few friends from France, and we send occasional Maƫlys photos to our sweet former landlady. But for the most part, our lives have become firmly entrenched in Hawaii and France is now just an anecdote that makes me sound cooler than I really am.

Still, every time I watch a movie set in Paris, my heart skips at the familiarity of the simple things: the blue and green street signs on the corners of buildings, the bright neon vests of the sanitation workers, the sound of the doors-closing alert on the mĆ©tro. It feels as if I'm still there and need only open a window for the smell of cigarette smoke to waft upwards, for the blaring of car horns and sirens to punctuate the usual low rumble of noise. I miss it. Something which was so frightening and unfamiliar to me for so many months now feels like home. Never mind that in Hawaii I can go to the beach any time I want. Never mind that I can see tons of constellations from my balcony, not just an occasional star or satellite. Never mind that I can breathe clean air and feel safe in my neighborhood. I miss the character of Paris. I miss the feeling of power that comes from crossing a busy street with a throng of other pedestrians. I miss addressing people as monsieur or madame and knowing that I'll hear “Merci, au revoir” when I leave a store.

I'm certain that when I look back on my life, our time in Paris will be two of the best years I ever had. Perhaps two of the hardest as well, but certainly two of the best. That's not to diminish the wonderful new lives we're building for ourselves in Hawaii, of course. I'm constantly in awe of our surroundings--Rory and I get to live in a gorgeous place that most people only dream of visiting, and we both get the chance to work and do what we love while raising an incredible daughter together. Hawaii is full of aloha.

But there's something special about Paris. A certain je ne sais quoi...

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Shifting Perspectives: Transportation in France and America

America is a car-centered society. We bought a car within a week of moving to Honolulu because we realized how necessary it would be to get around. In our two years of living in Paris, on the other hand, we took less than a dozen car rides, usually in taxis. Very few of the people we knew there owned a car, most preferring simply to walk and take public transit. Parisian public transportation may be grimy and congested at times, but tickets are cheap, service is punctual, and stations are everywhere. With the high cost of fuel and the absurdly expensive and difficult process of acquiring a French driver's license, for many people, public transit makes much more sense than car ownership.

Furthermore, Paris engenders a culture of walking. Everyone walks to the shops, to their dentist appointments, to pick up their children from school. Most neighborhoods have several grocery stores within a ten minute walk—I can think of at least eight near our old apartment. I mentioned in a previous post the three separate free medical clinics for mothers and children in walking distance of our home. I even knew women in Paris who walked home from the hospital after giving birth. With almost every amenity one needs so conveniently located, walking is often the logical choice. It became such a regular part of my daily routine that I thought nothing of spending a few hours on my feet each day, both for getting from place to place but also for enjoyment, exercise, and relaxation.
Maƫlys certainly enjoys walking in Hawaii.
So I find it continually surprising how few people I see walking in Honolulu. Here, despite the year-round nice weather, it seems that most people only walk if they have to. For many people, stores, restaurants, medical facilities, and other necessities are too far away to walk to or are inaccessible by public transport. There are often no sidewalks on residential streets, confirming the dominance of vehicles over pedestrians. And while Honolulu has an excellent bus system that covers the whole island, I would bet that a majority of residents have never ridden the bus or have used it only a few times in a given year. Sadly, I must include myself in that category, as I have not yet tried out the bus system (though Rory and MaĆ«lys have made one bus trip so far and it is on my list of things to do).

The funny thing is, it only took two years of living in France to completely change my perspective on the dominance of cars. Before moving to France, I viewed my car as more than just a way to get around town; it was my own private refuge. I enjoyed being in the car, listening to the radio. And if I had to walk for more than five minutes to get somewhere, I would usually just hop in the car instead. I don't think I was particularly lazy, nor was I unconcerned with the environmental impact of driving. But my perception of what was an acceptable walking distance was skewed. I had no sense of how far away places were except in terms of driving time, so walking typically felt like an unnecessary and inefficient use of my time.

After living in Paris, I now much prefer to walk rather than drive. The fact that a place is far enough away that I must drive to get there is now a deterrent for me going there. But alas, my options here are limited when it comes to stores, restaurants, medical facilities, and schools that are within walking distance of home, so I feel myself being pulled back into the habit of driving that I so easily gave up in Paris. Honolulu does have buses and a new bike sharing program, but service is relatively limited, and the convenience factor is far less than simply jumping in a car. So for now, to combat the influences of America's ever-present car culture, I'm trying to patronize the few stores that are located near our home (walking there, of course), take daily walks around our neighborhood, and avoid unnecessary trips in the car. And one of these days, I'll have to try out the bus.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Iceland ahoy!

After I woke up this morning, September the third, my Google Calendar app reminded me of my flight to Reykjavik in a few hours. Boston to Reykjavik, it says, 1pm, don't be late!

To explain this state of affairs, I have to tell you the story of our leaving Paris. Let's start in, oh, March or so, when I'd accepted the job in Hawai'i and as we were making plans.

The goal: Get from Paris to Honolulu.

This presents a challenge, because this journey takes at least 24 hours. The journey with a baby would be particularly difficult. Plus, once we get to Hawai'i, the time difference is 12 hours - as big of a time difference as is possible. It'd be 8am, it'd feel like 8pm. At 4am, it'd feel like 4pm. Not an easy adjustment for adults, let alone babies.

However, it also presents opportunities. I checked a map, and apparently right between France and Hawai'i is a large continent known as North America. We have a lot of dear friends in Ohio (plus a storage unit with things from our old house that we didn't take with us to Paris), and family in Oregon.

So we decide to hop. Go to Ohio first (only a 6 hour time difference), spend 10 days there, see friends, pack up our storage unit and have it shipped to Hawai'i. Then onward to Oregon (a 3 hour time difference), spend two weeks with family. Finally make the last leg over to Hawai'i. Simple, right?

Yes and no. This plan has us getting to the US on June 30, and slowly travelling west until we get to Hawai'i on July 26. Here's the problem: my visa is only valid from July the 22nd. How can I get into the US on June the 30th?

Well, the first part of our trip is just tourism, I consider. I won't be working or earning any money - just seeing friends and family. So I could enter the US as a tourist, under the visa waiver program called ESTA. I enter on ESTA, and then change my status to my work visa. Simple, right?

Yes and no! You can't change status from an ESTA to a work visa. It's not allowed. You have to leave the US and then re-enter on the work visa. This sorry state of affairs then motivates a solo trip from Oregon up to Vancouver, Canada, to allow me to hop out and back into the USA. I book some train tickets and add it to our itinerary. A complex plan, but everything should work out.

We began our preparations in earnest. We sold most of our Paris possessions. We mailed a few boxes of books and things to await our arrival in Hawai'i. And the rest we packed. We ended up with four large suitcases, one smaller roller bag, one laptop bag, two backpacks, and a cello. And of course, a small baby.

We had emptied and cleaned our flat, our landlady had deemed it vraiment impeccable, trĆØs propre ("truly impeccable, very clean"), and with tears in our eyes we left for our airport hotel, where we were to spend the night before flying out the next morning. It was at this point we learned of a small flaw in our plan: we didn't have enough hands.

That is, there were more suitcases than we could easily move. With a luggage cart, it's possible, but with just the two of us, it's not straightforward. Even though our hotel is basically right beside the airport, we realize that we need to book a taxi to ensure that we can get to it effectively. I speak to the agent at the front desk and get a taxi booked, after I make sure he understands that we have a lot of luggage.

(It is here, at the hotel, I discover the value of speaking English and pretending not to speak French. The staff are more revealing when they turn to their colleagues and address them in French. But I'm listening...)

In the morning, we awake and await our taxi. It arrives, but it's plainly too small. They clearly didn't get the memo about our luggage. The driver calls in for another taxi to come, and we are resigned to waiting some more.

I'm a fairly anxious traveller, I'm not sure why, but these events send me spiralling into worry. We've barely begun our trip and there's a delay! What if they don't have a taxi big enough? What if the taxi arrives late and we miss our flight? How will we manage?

Luckily the taxi soon arrives. It's driven by a middle aged Japanese immigrant, who regaled our ears with easy-listening guitar covers of classic rock songs at high volume. He was really keen on it.

At the airport, we went to check our luggage. We had booked and paid for the extra luggage in advance, but I was expecting to have to pay 200€ for Talia's cello, which is technically oversize.

After weighing everything, they tell us that some of our bags are overweight and that we have to speak to another person to pay the fee and get the tags. I head over to the other person while Talia waits with Maƫlys.

"Okay sir, for all of this, you must pay 750€."

My eyes boggle.

"No, there must be some mistake. See, here, I have already paid for these bags. I am only paying for an overweight fee for one of the bags." I brandish my receipt from when I booked the bags. (If there's one thing I've learned from living in France, it's that paper documentation is king.)

"Let me see. Actually, we can distribute the weight of the bags across all of them, so while this one bag is overweight, the total weight of everything is under the limit. So there's no fee. Let me print your passes now."

However, this was followed by brow-furrowing and talking to colleagues. The wait was long, and I was getting worried again. We'd arrived at the airport a little later than I'd wanted (because of the taxi) and now we're being delayed again. What if security takes forever too, and we miss the flight?

Eventually the airline people come to a consensus and tell me that although I'd paid for the luggage on the second leg of our flight (Frankfurt to Pittsburgh), the first leg (Paris to Frankfurt) was not covered. This is apparently because these legs are operated by Condor and Lufthansa respectively.

Never mind the fact that they're both part of the same parent company. Never mind the fact that when I paid for the luggage, I spoke to operators at both Condor and Lufthansa who told me that the payment covered both flights. Never mind that. Right now, they wanted 150€.

At this point, I pay. I reckon I could have stayed and argued my case, but to be frank I was happy to just get the luggage onto the plane and be able to get going. My anxiety was getting the better of me.

And, remember I expected a 200€ charge for the cello? They never mentioned it! So really, this was like gaining 50€. That's what I told myself, at least.

Security was fine, the Lufthansa flight was great. The flight attendant gave Maƫlys a little toy to entertain her on the flight, which we got to keep. Everything was looking up!

Now for the Condor flight. Condor is a low-cost airline, and we got some great rates with them. So great that booking three seats (i.e. a seat for Maƫlys, which is a game-changer, let me tell you) was actually cheaper than just two on some other airlines. However, there are restrictions, and their policy on hand luggage is relatively strict. I had read flyer reports where they actually weighed people's hand luggage to ensure it's below their maximum weight. This worried me, as we had a lot of stuff.

When we go to board, the boarding agent sees that our passes haven't been double-checked, and send us over to another agent. Here we go, I think, they're going to weigh our bags. No such thing happens. Instead, they check our passports.

"Two Americans and one British person. I see. Do you have travel authorization to go to the USA?" she asks.

"Yes, I have an ESTA", I say, referring to the visa-waiver program.

"And do you have onward travel outside of the USA?"

She asks this because if an airline brings someone to a country, and they are denied entry, the airline is liable for the cost of taking them back to where they came from. Airlines are really tough these days on anything that looks like you might be in violation of the rules. The ESTA, as a short-term thing, requires that you have evidence of onward travel to leave the country.

"Yes, to Canada." I show her the document. "And see here, I also have a work visa, so I'll re-enter the US as a worker."

"Hm. No, Canada is not good enough. You have to leave the entire continent."

For various reasons, going to Canada or Mexico (or various Caribbean countries) doesn't count for leaving the country. This means that, say, someone in the US on a student visa can go to Toronto for the weekend and not have to go through complex immigration procedures upon their return. Paperwork is minimized, student gets to go to Toronto, everyone is happy.

Except that this rule also doesn't make sense, because you have left the country. You can't legislate that away.

I argue my case, that I have a work visa and that I'll be re-entering the US. She stands her ground.

"I need to see onward travel out of the US. Here is a list of countries which don't count." It's a long list, with lots of Caribbean nations, plus Mexico and Canada.

"What do you want me to do? Just get out my laptop and buy a plane ticket right now?"


Great. So I do that. Due to a lack of foresight, my laptop was not charged, so I needed to find an outlet. The first one I found was not in a location with a wifi signal. The second one worked. Meanwhile, our flight is boarding and I am freaking out.

I do a quick search for flights from US east coast cities - Boston, Newark, JFK - to major European hubs - Paris, Frankfurt, London. I select a date in the near future which is within the 90 days I can be in the US on ESTA. I find a cheap flight with Wow Air for about 160€. It goes to Paris via Reykjavik. Since I'm in Germany, my computer has defaulted to the German webpage. I click through and order my ticket, hoping that my understanding of German was good enough. I get a confirmation page.

I run back to the agent and show her the flight. She glances at it, nods, and waves us through onto the plane.

And that is the story of why I was meant to fly to Reykjavik today.

Of course, the US immigration official didn't care about whether I had onward travel. He didn't even ask how long I was staying. When you are white and travel with two white Americans, one of whom is a baby, they don't check you very thoroughly.

I later cancelled the flight, as I had no intention of taking it, and was reimbursed the 35€ or so that they charged in taxes and fees.

In hindsight, I could have handled it better. I could have just bought tickets to Reykjavik without onward travel to Paris, that would have been cheaper. I also learned that US law entitles you to a full refund within 24 hours of buying a flight. (A rare case where US law is more consumer-friendly than EU law!) Since I bought my ticket through the German site, I wasn't eligible for this, but I would have been had I used the US site.

All this to jump through the hoops of getting to the US and dealing with our complicated itinerary and complex immigration laws. Our other travels within the US (and to Canada) were not without incident, but not quite as eventful or as stress-inducing as this first one. Maybe one day I'll make it to Iceland for real.