Thursday, October 20, 2016

A year of NOT traveling abroad

Traveling abroad is a central tenet of our existence here. It's one of our raisons d'être as expats. A core belief.
A primary motivator. My most favorite thing to do!

And yet for a year we stayed snug behind the U.K.'s borders, with nary a toe beyond Britain's shores.

How did we let that come to pass?!

Old Man of Hoy, Orkneys, Scotland
Granted, the British coastline can be pretty spectacular. Here, the Old Man of Hoy stands defiantly against the sea. (Orkneys, Scotland)

Sometimes, having a family really squashes your international travel bug.

I blame it on Kate. And Jackson. And Finley.

Our last jaunt abroad consisted of 4½ days in Prague. At the time we booked it, we didn't know Prague would be our last international trip. But even had we known, we wouldn't have changed a thing. What a traveler's gem! A glorious old town, a vibrant new town, everywhere chockablock with fantastic architecture and beauty and history. We returned from Prague—a fantastic long-weekend city, if ever there was one—at the end of July 2015.

Prague's old city center
One of the best ways to fall in love with Prague is to view it from the many—as many as you can!—towers in the city.
Earlier in July, however, we had found out Kate was pregnant with Finley. And as if pregnancy wasn't enough big news, on that same day Kate got a job offer in Bristol.

All of a sudden: pregnancy.

All of a sudden: new job.

All of a sudden: a move across the country.

These, folks, are gamechangers for your travel plans. Any one of them will ruin derail alter your globetrotting plans. But all of them in close succession, well, . . .

                                                                       . . . boom goes the dynamite.

Suddenly, your time is not your own anymore. Pregnant bellies have appointments and checkups, and you must curtail non-essential travel as the due date gets near. New jobs usually mean months of solid work without sneaking off for an overseas trip, especially when you have maternity leave looming. And moving across the country, well, that's a time-suck hassle of planning, packing, and unpacking which deserves its own circle of hell.

To some extent, the timing of all these things wasn't deliberate. We were trying for a baby, but that was taking awhile. Kate wasn't looking for a new job, but randomly came across an advertisement for it. And even with the job offer, not everything was settled because the new employer had to secure a government license to offer a job with a work visa, and then after that the U.K. Home Office had to approve us for the (new) work visa.

That left us in a holding pattern, knowing we were likely moving to Bristol but not absolutely sure of it. The process took months. We finally moved to Bristol last November, more than four months after the job offer.

In our time in Scotland, we had been diligent about seeing as much of the country as we could. With our exit looming, I resolved to see as much of the remaining bits as I could.

If you can't go abroad, explore the home turf

John O'Groats sign
The official (but not quite accurate) northernmost tip of Britain.
Even before our trip to Prague, we had scheduled an epic journey through the distant north of Scotland. We took this trip in August 2015, just a couple of weeks after we returned from Prague.

Starting in Inverness (actually, we started from our home in Glasgow, but stayed the first night in Inverness) we headed up the eastern coast, drove along the entire northern coast of mainland Scotland, and then headed down the western coast through Ullapool and back toward Glasgow. That swing through the northernmost highlands was named the "North Coast 500" by a Scottish tour association in February 2015, and it's a brilliant (re)-branding of a long-existing route through the most remote stretches of Scotland. We had planned our route before the "North Coast 500" became a a hot tourist buzzword, but it was a nice confirmation of our own trip. I'll have a lot more about the North Coast 500 and the northern highlands in some upcoming posts.

Assynt in northwestern Scotland
Driving in the Assynt in northwestern Scotland, part of the North Coast 500.
Moreoever, we expanded our North Coast 500 spin by an additional eight days to immerse ourselves in the Orkneys. That island chain, just a few miles north of mainland Scotland, is one of my favorite places in Scotland. Breathtaking, fascinating, amazing. I can't gush about it enough. Truly awe-inspiring. You can be sure that some future posts will share oodles of Orkney glory.

Through the rest of August, September, October, and into November, I soaked up as much of Scotland as I could. I visited scores of sites, from little places in Glasgow to UNESCO World Heritage locations across the country. I won't bore you with a list of all the spots, but here's a small sampling of photos from places I went during those last few months:

Cathedral of the Isles on Cumbrae
The Cathedral of the Isles, a Victorian-era church on the island of Cumbrae.
Forth Bridge over the Firth of Forth
Scotland's newest UNESCO World Heritage site, the Forth Bridge, spans the Firth of Forth north of Edinburgh.
Dunnottar Castle in Scotland
Dunnottar Castle has a magnificent setting on the North Sea, but its ruins are mediocre.
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo 2016
I'm a huge fan of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, one of premier annual events on Scotland's cultural calendar. (2015 Tattoo)
Abbotsford House in the Scottish Borders
Abbotsford House, the former home of Sir Walter Scott, nestles in the rolling hills of the Scottish Borders.
Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth
Kate and Jackson take a selfie on historic Inchcolm island.
Two of the Three Sisters in Glenco
Two of the "Three Sisters" of Glencoe.
Through all these explorations, I took in a glorious Scottish autumn, with all its vibrant colors. Fall lasts longer in Scotland than I expect it to, well into November. The picturesque Border Abbeys might be at their prettiest during autumn:

Melrose Abbey with fall colors
Melrose Abbey at the end of October.
Despite all these last-minute trips around Scotland, we also had to throw in a long weekend trip to Bristol to find a place to live.

The school calendar is mightier than your travel plans

Once we moved to England, we had to get Jackson started in school. Whereas in Scotland kids start at age five, in England they generally start at age four.

And when your kid is in school, your travel plans will never be as easy again.

Moving, starting a new job, and getting pregnant are all sticks of dynamite that can blow up your travel freedom. But they pale in the face of the dynamite colossus: school calendars.

We no longer get to pick when we travel. We have no choices now. We can only go abroad when the school is on break:

          •   a week in February
          •   two weeks in April
          •   a week in June
          •   six weeks in July/August
          •   a week in October
          •   two weeks in December 

An apple for teacher
Jackson on the first day of school this September.
Everyone with school-age kids in England has roughly this schedule. We're all tethered to it. Unlike in the States, where you can take your kid out of school when you like without much consequence, here in England the schools have the right to fine you for every day of absence and even pursue a criminal conviction. No joke. There are examples of schools seeking criminal convictions for parents who took their kids out of school for just a few days to go to grandparents' funerals. These aren't idle threats by school officials; they've gone to trial.

Basically, if you don't have permission from your school's headteacher you're looking at a daily fine for an absence. And if those fines don't work, you better be prepared to hire a defense attorney.

School calendar   >   fun family trip to a foreign country

Getting a new baby's passport and visa will take months, so no jet-setting

When we knew Kate was pregnant, but before we knew Jackson would need to be enrolled in school in England, we started envisioning the travel we could do while Kate was on maternity leave. Months of time stretched tantalizingly out before us. A grand tour of Europe! Find a spot for a couple of weeks, explore all around with day trips, then move on the next spot. We could hit a half dozen or more countries over the course of several months. Let's go!

Napping in the Somerset bluebells
They'll sleep anywhere, including a hike among the Somerset bluebells.
Granted, we'd need to wait at least a few weeks after birth to make sure the new bambino was healthy and able to go. After our early experience with Jackson, we knew that was not always a given. But assuming all went well, the bebé would be just an extra passenger on tour.

After all, infants might be the easiest travelers. Mostly, they eat and sleep. And sleep. And sleep. Put 'em in a stroller and you're free to roam. Infants are much easier than toddlers, for example, who want to be up and around and have their own little opinions.

But then reality hit. Jackson would be in school, and the mighty school calendar would rear its ugly grid.

Couldn't we at least travel abroad during those school breaks?


The new lil' scribbler couldn't cross any border without a passport. Even with a passport, however, Finley couldn't go abroad and return to the U.K. unless he had his British visa secured. Without a visa, he can't live in the country. We could take him out of the U.K., but not bring him back in without his visa. Fair enough.

So after Finley was born, we set to work. First, we needed to secure his birth certificate. An office at the hospital provided that. Next, we had to get all our documents together and fill out forms for the U.S. passport. Then we had to schedule an appointment with the U.S. embassy in London (at the beginning of April) to show that the lil' scribbler was real and that he had all the right paperwork completed. Incidentally, the embassy and its staff were terrific—efficient, thorough, pleasant. After a few weeks wait, the embassy returned our documents and sent a brand new passport for Finley.

U.S. Embassy in London
The current U.S. embassy in London is on Grosvenor Square. At the end of 2016 or beginning of 2017, however, the U.S. will have a fancy new $1 billion embassy on the south bank of the Thames.
At that point, we could apply for his U.K. dependent visa. Again with the forms, which we mailed to the Home Office along with his new passport, birth certificate, and other documents. And here's where we ran into some minor snafus. Once the U.K. immigration officials have your application, you get sent a form in the mail to take to the Post Office, which then photographs the kid and sends it to the Home Office. Unfortunately, our first form was defective, and the Post Office couldn't use it. Then, after waiting for a second form, we had Finley's photo taken, only to be told later that somehow the Home Office found the photo not quite right. So we waited for a third form and then had the photo taken yet again. Finally, success.

As spring ran on, we had clung to the hope we might get the passport and visa completed in time to go abroad during the June break from school. That was some wishful thinking.

We had started the process less than a week after Finley's birth in early March. By the end of June, we still hadn't gotten Finley's visa. Technically, he was to get a biometric residence permit like the rest of us. It's a small plastic card, and there's no longer a visa pasted into your passport.

With the start of July, we were getting antsy. We had scheduled a trip back the States at the end of July during the summer break. We were confident he'd get the the permit—honestly, how could he not?—but the delay from the Home Office was beginning to threaten those plans. We made a call, and the staff asked us to write a letter saying why we needed them to hurry up. So off went our letter, and shortly thereafter came the residence permit and all the documents.


Finally, we could travel abroad!

But what did we do in the interim as we were waiting and waiting and waiting?

If you can't fly away, drive and explore locally

While we were waiting, we tried to make the most of our free time here in southwestern England. I gave a little teaser several months ago about our weeklong trip to the Cotswolds. For visitors to England, it's likely their image of the English countryside comes from the Cotswolds. Indeed, so many television shows and movies are set within the area that location scouts are running out of new places to discover. Some villages have appeared in literally dozens scores of films and shows. Although views of lush rolling green hills, dotted by sheep and bounded by stone fences, can be found all over England, the Cotswolds provide the paragon example. Quite simply, the Cotwolds are English countryside and village life par excellence.

Upper Slaughter, Cotswolds
The lovely village of Upper Slaughter. Entry on this side of the village goes across a small ford.
Cotswold lion and lambs
The famed "Cotswold lion"—the once-dominant breed of sheep in the area, perhaps introduced by the Romansand her lambs. Although it's now a rare breed, in medieval times the Cotswold lions covered the hills of the area and provided England with its dominant source of income for trading in Europe.
Beginning and finish of the Cotswold Way in Chipping Campden
As the sign notes, "the beginning and the end" of the Cotswold Way hiking trail lies in Chipping Campden.
We also spent nine days in England's amazing southwestern corner, Cornwall. If the Cotwolds are archetypal English countryside, then Cornwall provides quintessential coastline and fishing villages. This is another exceedingly popular area for films and television shows. While it's a prime vacation spot for Brits, Cornwall is somewhat off the radar—mostly due to its remoteness from the rest of Britainfor foreign visitors.

Polperro, Cornwall
The fishing village of Polperro in Cornwall was once one of the most notorious smuggling hubs in England.
Rainforest biome in the Eden Project, Cornwall
The world's largest indoor rainforest can be found at the magnificent Eden Project, near Cornwall's border with Devon.
Stopping to rest on Cornwall's section of the South West Coast Path
Jackson taking a breather on the South West Coast Path, which runs 630 miles from the coast of Somerset, across the north of Devon, around the entire coast of Cornwall, across the south of Devon, and ending in Dorset.
Mên-an-Tol, a Neolithic stone site in Cornwall
At a Neolithic stone site, Mên-an-Tol, legend holds that passing through the stone can prevent or cure a variety of diseases. We all wiggled through because, well, why not?
Minack Theatre in Porthcurno, Cornwall
One of the world's great outdoor theaters, the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno, was built largely by one woman, Rowena Cade, and a couple of assistants over the course of several decades.
Viewing the Roman baths from the Victorian-era balcony
Kate and Jackson peer down into the Roman baths.
Nearer home, we've been reconnoitering Bristol and Somerset.

It's a region we visited long before we ever knew we'd be moving to Bristol. A few years ago when we were still living in Scotland, we spent several nights in Bath, a UNESCO World Heritage city renowned for its Roman baths, as well as its "Lantern of the West" abbey and magnificent Georgian architecture like the Crescent and the Circus.

A bridge within the Bishop's Palace.
A bridge within the Bishop's Palace gardens.
During that trip we also headed to Glastonbury, not for the overhyped middle-aged hipster music mudfest festival, but for its ruins, its towering Tor, and of course for the grave of King Arthur and the hiding place of the Holy Grail. Even more spectacular was visiting Wells, with its magnificent cathedral, as well as the gardens of the Bishop's Palace and the idyllic Vicar's Close.

We've revisited Wells and Bath since our move to Bristol. But there's so much more to Somerset. It truly has a wealth of offerings beyond Bath, Wells, and Glastonbury, from natural wonders to man-made marvels. What's most exciting is that we're only at the beginning of discovering them; so far we've just scratched the surface. Here are a few of our favorites from earlier this year.

Tyntesfield House in North Somerset
Part of the Gothic Revival movement in the mid-1800s, Tyntesfield House in North Somerset is a relatively new addition to the National Trust.
Scrumpy cider in Somerset
If you like very hard cider, then "scrumpy" cider from Somerset is for you. "Scrumpy" is sort of a moonshine version of cider; here it's made by a farmer in his barn.
"Well Hung Lover" by Banksy
The "Well Hung Lover" in Bristol by the famous street artist, Banksy, who grew up in the city. (The artwork was later vandalized by the blue paint splotches.)
Stanton Drew stone circle
Although it's England's third-largest complex of standing stones, as well as one of the largest stone circles, the Stanton Drew prehistoric site is virtually unknown outside of Somerset.
A deer at Longleat Safari Park
At the Longleat Safari Park in Somerset—the world's first safari park outside of Africathe deer come up to, and into, the car for pellet food.
Nana at Cherhill White Horse in Wiltshire
Just over the border from Somerset in Wiltshire lies the Cherhill White Horse, which we visited with Nana (above), Grampa Bill, and Grammar. Although the original and highly-stylized Uffington White Horse was carved in the Bronze Age in Oxfordshire, a bunch of other white horses were carved in imitation in the 18th and 19th centuries. This one was carved in 1780.
Clevedon Pier
The historically-protected Clevedon Pier stretches out into the Bristol Channel. Originally the rail lines ended in Clevedon. Passengers would then stroll out the pier and board a boat to chug across the channel to Wales.
Cheddar Gorge in Somerset
One summer day Kate and I (and Finley) hiked the entire clifftop perimeter of Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, which is Britain's largest gorge. It rises to a height of roughly 450 feet.

If you visit your home country, does that count as traveling abroad?


Heck no!

I mean, technically, I suppose we did travel out of one country. Crossed an ocean. Entered another country and stayed there for three and a half weeks. If you're being fussy about the meaning of "abroad."

But c'mon, visiting your own home country isn't really traveling abroad.

A quick visit at the airport
Our quick visit with our besties Erin and Mickey at the airport.
Heading back to the States for a long trip home was our last gasp use of Kate's maternity leave. When else would we have several weeks free to visit family and friends? Jeez, as I look at the calendar ahead, we might not have another stretch of time like that for years. Not that we won't return for visits, but we almost certainly won't have a chunk of time that big.

We headed first to Colorado, where Grammar and one of Kate's sisters (and her family) live. But since our connection swung through Dallas, between our flights we actually were able to squeeze in a very quick visit with old friends who now live there. Bonus!

Hike in Colorado National Monument
I took a six-hour solo hike through a mountain desert to visit the Colorado National Monument.
Family at an evening fair
Kate's sister Tracy and her husband John, with kids Macie and Garrick, at an evening fair in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Horse visits with Finley
Kate's family in Colorado has a bunch of horses on their 40+ acres.
Together on a horse
Jackson got his first ride on a horse, with help from his cousin.
We spent a week in Colorado, then drove north to Idaho to visit Kate's other sister (and her family). They live at the base of the Tetons. Our drive helped remind us of the size disparity between the U.S.A. and the U.K. The drive took us nearly 10 hours, which would be long enough to drive the entire length of Britain. Sometimes you forget about how massive the States are.

Much of our time in Idaho was spent outdoors doing things like taking small hikes, going canoeing, flying kites, and looking at gorgeous vistas of the Tetons.

A view of the Grand Teton
My brother-in-law David poses and takes in the view, with the Grand Teton jutting up in the background.
Rachel with Finley
Kate's sister, Rachel, gives a squeeze to her nephew, Finley.
Canoeing in Targhee National Forest
David, Rosalie, and Grammar canoeing in Targhee National Forest.
My niece
My niece, Rosalie.
A family selfie at the Durham Bulls game
Kate snapped this family selfie at the Durham Bulls game. She is a master of the group selfie.
After a week in Idaho, we flew to North Carolina to visit my family and some of our old friends and colleagues. Before we moved to Scotland, we had lived in North Carolina for 11 of the previous 12 years (one year away for me to do a judicial clerkship in Florida). It's what we still call "home," though we've been in the U.K. now for nearly three and a half years.

Since "home" is so familiar to me, I failed to take nearly any pictures during our nine days, which I regret. Not a single a snap of an old coworker and hardly any of friends. But here are a few shots:

Grampa Bill and Finley
Finley having some cuddle time with Grampa Bill.
Kate and Kristen
Kate (and Finley) with her bestie Kristen (and Bella).
Stephen and kids
Our other bestie Stephen (husband of Kristen) with Nicholas and Bella, as Jackson looks on.
Grandparents and grandkids
Jackson and Finley cooperating just long enough for a photo with Nana and Grampa Bill.
Going back home for a few weeks isn't what we mean when we say "traveling abroad." For an expat, traveling to your home country quite simply does not count as traveling abroad.

When will you finally go abroad again?

Next week!

So nice of you to ask.

We're taking advantage of the October school break (see above) and headed to the Balkans. Mostly we'll putter around Dubrovnik. Without kids we could probably see the city in two days, but we tend to roughly double our time with the wee ones along. In addition, we'll add some cross-border forays into Bosnia and Montenegro.

Crucially for Jackson, we'll be back home in time for Halloween. Phew. Some of our American traditions are sacred.

And then as an added travel bonus, I'm taking a solo trip in early November to Berlin. While I'll get some sightseeing done, the main focus of that trip is to hear the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by my hero, Simon Rattle. This is Rattle's final season with Berlin and I wanted to squeeze in a chance to hear them together. For a music/conducting nerd, the chance to hear the world's greatest orchestra with the world's greatest conductor is a dream come true. And a dream best realized without two little kids in the audience, hence my solo trip.

So after more than a year of not traveling abroad, we're finally busting out of the U.K. borders and getting our travel mojo back. 'Tis been a long time coming.

Now, it's time to get going.