Posted on January 18, 2015
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.—Samuel Johnson
This blog is about more than my move to Morocco. It’s about all of us moving, changing, learning. It’s about discovering new people and places that make us come alive. A new year is the perfect time to move from pondering to planning new experiences in 2015. Like travel. Since some readers found the posts on London appealing, here’s what I’ve learned in 7 stays in Shakespeare’s City—particularly on this last trip where I planned my own itinerary rather than relying on a tour company. Some of these suggestions apply to any destination. London is great for first-timers-abroad a bit nervous about speaking only English. It’s a lit lover’s dream where summers are cabbage roses and winters mulled wine. It’s Christmas where Charles- Dickens- tradition meets high-street -shopping.
It’s Big Ben, Boxing Day, and The British Library housing the oldest copy of Beowulf. It’s touching the wall built by William the Conqueror and hearing the bells at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day where/when he was crowned king. It’s tracing the steps of Jack the Ripper, standing on Harry Potter’s Platform, and crossing Portobello Road.
Thanks to former colleagues and roomies-on-the-road, Sharon, Betty, and Theresa, who led educational trips via EF Tours for years, and to new coworkers, Asil, a Londoner who gave us bus and tube tips for getting around, particularly for Christmas Day when the city almost totally shuts down, and Jasna, London lover who pointed us to Primark and Pret. And to Moni…my Spanish friend who did Morocco with me North to South and told us not to miss Camden Station.
Please reply below if you have a question or travel tip to add.
Passport/Travel Documents Start planning early. Check online to see where you obtain one in your area, noting time needed for the process. Get going to avoid paying extra to expedite US passport or to risk being grounded if it doesn’t arrive by your fly date. Some airlines for international flights require passport information at time of booking. Some allow you to add it online before you leave, but get it ASAP to avoid stress later. Although you will keep your passport/visa and money on your person at all times, also start a folder of all travel documents, such as hard copies of booking confirmations for your carryon. Don’t rely solely on emails or even notes in your phone since service isn’t always available and batteries can die during travel. At the border of each country you plan to enter (and in some cases, leave), you will have to fill out a card with the exact address of where you will be staying, the dates of your stay, and the reason for being in the country. Just knowing the name of the hotel or apartment you’ve booked isn’t enough. You need the address as well.
Flights Track prices through sites like SkyScanner. CNN Money advises buying plane tickets 8 weeks before departure date on a Sunday—cheapest day—rather than Tuesday as long thought. They say Monday is the most expensive day to book. And thanks to MIT computer scientists and Suzy Stratner at The Huffington Post for sharing with readers the best-tool-to-date for finding the lowest airfares, the ITA Matrix. Buy tickets early—particularly if flying with smaller airlines from this side of the pond, like Easy Jet or Ryan Air— who have amazing fares but limited flights that book fast for holidays. Christmas 2014 prices started going up in October, peaked in November, and went down some in December. If traveling solo or uber flexible, last minute deals are great, but not so if needing to ask off early or schedule around school/work breaks of multiple travelers. Carefully consider connecting flights. If the connection is in a large airport, you will need more than an hour—2 to be safe—to make the next flight, particularly if the first one is delayed. When traveling to Costa Rica through Atlanta I almost missed my flight because I allowed only an hour for the connection. Running through an airport is no bueno. I opted to send my children through Chicago O’Hare though there is always a chance for snow there in December. The connection time was longer than Atlanta allowed and it is a smaller, less complicated hub than JFK.
Be aware of policies particular to the airlines you choose. Easy Jet and Ryan Air require customers to print boarding passes before arriving at the airport and charge you if you don’t. A typical “airline-sized carryon” bag purchased in the US will probably exceed the size they allow free of charge. On Easy Jet, you are allowed one small carryon, but a purse or computer must be placed inside it when you board the plane. Ryanair’s carryon size is even smaller, though they allow a personal item. Prices for luggage to be checked in/placed in the hold area are expensive though the person checking our bags at the desk charged us less–perhaps based on weight?– than the “cheapest price” Easy Jet offered online if bought beforehand. Though American Airlines allowed my children checked bags at no charge in addition to their carry ons, Easy Jet did not. Weigh—LITERALLY—the cost of extra baggage.When possible, travel light, particularly when walking or traveling on the tube or train. Leave space for purchases. I learned from Europeans long ago to simplify my wardrobe to basic, dark pieces that can be worn in many combinations more than once. The good news is if you do need to check a bag, it can be a large one (check dimensions on website lest they change) as long as it doesn’t exceed 20 kg/44 pounds.Gatwick also allows one bag of purchases from their duty free shops to be carried on free. On January 1st those shops had 1/2 off most merchandise.
Travel to/from Airport In London, you have options of taxis, busses, trains, and the tube between your hotel and the airport. The most expensive option is a taxi. I tried the other three. I tried Gatwick Connect upon arriving Christmas Eve. Though it is less expensive than Gatwick Express, its additional stops meant a 1 ½ commute to the hotel. Gatwick and Heathrow Express, on the other hand, runs every 15 minutes and take less than 30 minutes. Gatwick Express runs to and from Victoria Station, from which you can grab a taxi, bus, or the tube. Heathrow Express runs to and from Paddington Station from which you can travel likewise. Express tickets to/from each airport can be bought at the train station. Buying a roundtrip ticket saves money. The Heathrow ticket was collected once the train left the station; the Gatwick ticket as we exited to the airport. When Taylor and Cole departed London from Heathrow, I saw them off, then caught a bus to Gatwick, where my plane flying out of later. I was in no hurry and on January 1 there was no traffic. The trip took one hour. Traveling on the actual holiday, such as Christmas Day, means cheaper airline tickets, but consider that public transportation in London–trains, tubes, public busses and taxis–will not be available.
Posted on January 10, 2015
Thank you to Kate, an Australian expat mom I met through InterNations who moved to Marrakech last fall, too. Her son visited and returned home before my children came, and she set up lunch for last Sunday before I left for London knowing I’d need a friend after the holidays who understands the joy of sharing this life with family, then sadly saying goodbye again. To all moms who spent quality time during the holidays with your children–adult ones who live elsewhere and little ones you could stay in pjs with you till noon, is there any gift greater?
January 1 as my daughter and son disappeared through Heathrow’s security gate I felt the ground I’d gained shake.
Before meeting them in London, I’d left school for winter break thrilled that I was almost there…Christmas Eve…when I’d hug Taylor and Cole at the airport. I also felt peace because I was there–my first big marker since moving– as students hugged bye and called across campus, “Have a nice holiday, Miss!” A coworker reminded me that our dance class would resume in January, and I looked forward to working with Model UN students in the spring, then traveling with them to St. Petersburg, Russia. I was excited for a colleague who had been hired by a school in Brazil next fall and wondered if I’d apply for South America or Europe one day. I’d met her and two other new friends for lunch at our favorite restaurant, and we all celebrated soon seeing family and friends in Italy, Austria, the US, and England.
Despite fall’s challenges, fears, tears, I’d made new relationships on amazing adventures, discovering beauty without and strength within. I realized I’d survived my first continent teaching/living on a new continent, and In 2015, I thought, I will thrive.
Spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve with Taylor and Cole in London and bringing them to Marrakesh were some of the happiest days of my life. Taylor said it was her favorite vacation we three have spent together. Cole loved his first trip abroad, and we all said we could not have had more fun.
On the plane to meet them I’d read a travel article called “How to Escape Your Family for the Holidays.” I was so glad I’d be traveling with mine. Seeing the two loves of my life–who are my home–and spending nine days with them was an even bigger blessing than I anticipated while planning our reunion for months. Knowing how short this life is, I am forever grateful for that time.
Even if the low that followed when they left was hard, the high of being together again was worth it. Even more… the bond that remains.
January 1st–too soon– we again hugged at the airport. I didn’t think I’d be able to let go. I ached and tears flowed as I boarded a bus for Gatwick, waited there till my flight, then prayed I’d sleep on the plane so I wouldn’t feel the physical pain.
When I’d moved to Morocco I used all the packing and planning to postpone the full impact of saying goodbye to them–the hardest part of this decision. My daughter, unable to handle an airport farewell, hugged and kissed me on a hot, August night in my sister’s driveway the night before my flight. As she drove away crying, I walked behind the house and fell on my knees from the hurt. My son, who tried to keep things light, hugged me and smiled the next morning at the airport. I cried but wouldn’t allow myself to feel the full impact. I was determined to grieve later– away. And I did. The sadness at times in early fall was so terrible only God, who I knew had brought me here and Skype calls from my mom; sister, Penny; and best friend, Kim, kept me from depression. I thought I’d paid the pain price for this life change then in full. I was wrong.
But this time my recovery came faster. Penny reminded me that when we all live under the same roof we don’t always make or value the quality time. She said this move has been life changing. Our time together now is more intentional, and we recognize it as precious. She reminded me the holidays always have to end, when we all return to school and work. My mom, like Penny and her family who I missed seeing at Christmas for the first time in our lives but who has always wanted to see me happy, reminded me that I have a “traveling soul” and this opportunity is who I am and what I’ve wanted for a long time. January 2nd I began work on a project that kept me busy till I returned to school January 6. Seeing students and colleagues was nice.
Again I remember that even if I still lived in Nashville, Taylor and Cole would not be living with me on Jenry Court. As families do after Christmas together, we go back to the “real world” to begin a new year. But what we experienced was REAL. The sweetest thing in life is relationship. Being together body and soul 24/7–no phones and computers (other than to check in briefly with family and friends in the US) — for over a week made us even closer.
Posted on December 29, 2014
Christmas Day we attended the service at Westminster Abbey, another gift. Seats had been reserved months in advance but days before our trip someone returned three. The sermon referenced the truce on December 25, 1914 between English and German soldiers. More on the story here. As we sang hymns and heard the children’s choir in a cathedral built in 1066 where William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas Day, I thought of my city, Marrakech, built in 1062, and of my new friends who live there. I thought of all the unrest in 2014 in my home country and abroad. And, as I try to do every day, I thanked God for His power which is greater than the world’s problems. With hope I prayed for peace.
After church we boarded a cruiser on the Thames and sailed to the Tower of London and back. Then we caught a black cab to The Castle in Notting Hill where we joined the locals in eating turkey and roast beef, popping Christmas crackers, and wearing paper crowns.
After walking back to the hotel and Skyping with family, as if on cue BBC provided a tradition usually done after Taylor and I decorated our tree on Jenry Court. We watched White Christmas. So many Christmas miracles. My cup runneth over.
Here’s to light, love, and life in 2015.
Posted on December 28, 2014
Seems like old times. My children are asleep in the next room and I’m up early writing. The Three Musketeers are together again.
We spent a Happy Christmas in Merry Ole England, my first love as an English lit teacher when I began traveling abroad. My son wanted to see London, and my daughter has loved it since she, my niece, and I toured when they were in high school. I know the Brits know how to do the holidays. In fact, last week my English department coworkers and their wives got the festivities started. Nick, Anna and their gorgeous girls dressed in holiday frocks rang doorbells to surprise neighbors with plates of cookies and candies. Richard and Louise (below), hosted a Christmas party at their apartment, where I bought handmade gifts Louise makes for her business, Bodkin and Binca.
I couldn’t wait to smell and taste mulled wine at Christmas markets from Covent Garden to Camden. For weeks colleagues talked of seeing our families again and of eating our ways through our destinations. Whether spending Christmas in the US, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Singapore, Austria, or India all dreamed like Clare of sugarplum fairies and other creature comforts we don’t find in Africa.
My mission was to bring back vanilla, nutmeg, and other spices for baking and to stock up on snuggle wear for the winter. Thanks to a colleague who turned me onto Primark, I was able to fill a carryon of plush sweaters, a scarf and a robe for 5 GBPs each.
Here’s how our holiday began…
In order to meet Taylor and Cole at Heathrow on Christmas Eve, I had to take a flight on December 23. The Colonnade, my first “sight unseen” purchase from Priceline was amazing. For $95 USD I booked this 4-star Victorian gem. The doorman led me to a room where classical music was playing softly and fruit, coffees and teas, and cookies were spread. After dinner next door at the Prince Alfred, I enjoyed my two favorite guilty pleasures for the first time since August–sliding into a bubble bath (I have only a shower in Morocco), then slipping under a down comforter.