Monday, September 28, 2009

House Search Continued

So today we continued our house search. The weekend everything was shut down (concerning relevant business; tourist stuff and restaurants are always open). Today we were able to resume our productive activities, sort of. It seems that very few people show up to work anywhere until 9ish o'clock. Then the all take an hour lunch that could start earlier than the posted time and may run later as well. Finally most businesses seem to close their doors at 4:00p.m. This has been consistent since we arrived.

The first thing we did after breakfast was go to New College, where Kerry met with his advisor, signed up for a research seminar, and picked up some necessary papers. This was a completely positive experience, though I was a bit worn out following him up and down tons of stairs. ORU has nothing compared to New College when it comes to stairs.

After that we headed to the accommodations office which is in the opposite corner of the city center from our hotel. We had to do this because we called a half a dozen times to find out when we could finalize student accommodations, but could not get the one person on the planet who knew anything about anything. Once we got there, it turns out that we can't finalize the accommodation paperwork until we see it and we can't see it until Thursday. We were upset so we asked about the other two places we saw online. One was already taken and the other was the same story as the first. I had happened to pick up a flier from New College (a habit that I have to pick up almost anything that is free). This flier advertised accommodation in an Oxford style college (like a shared mansion) next to the Royal Botanical Gardens just north of New Town. They had double bedrooms (housing for couples) as well as included Wifi. This particular place would be similar to a Youth Hostel or a dorm in that you pay for a room (not sure if bath is in suite) and have to share the kitchen and laundry facilities. The rent was nearly 200 pounds less per month than the university housing and all the utilities (except phone) was included. When Kerry called the guy he spoke to said that approval to stay would take about an hour and to just bring our luggage in the morning and we could try it out. At least, he said, we could stay there until we found somewhere else. The fact is that we would have to find somewhere else once the baby was born, but it would be good to have a semi-permanent residence in which we could start to work and live a little. We had given up on finding a pet-friendly accommodation or even being in the nicest area of town, but this solution would give us the opportunity to do both in a more laid back casual manner. Plus, the picture of this house was very beautiful and located in a great area of town. It isn't perfect, but we will end up making friends.

Now, some of you may be wondering why we are having such a hard time. In the US you walk up to an apartment complex, pick up a brochure, look at a room or not, and sign a lease in the same day. Here you cannot sign a lease until you can see the room. This includes University housing. There was no way possible to have accommodations before we came that we know of. Secondly, the agent will usually schedule you to see the place when it is convenient for them and show it to multiple people. I really don't know the steps after that, since we haven't gotten much farther than scheduling to see a place and then getting it rented out for under us before we can see it. It also seems that the Scots here keep talking of a lot of places available right now, but all the agency offices we pass and the websites we have looked at only have about three at a time ready to lease. Also there is no rhythm to when they become available or where they are located. So, in summary, this sucks!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Shiny Side of Edinburgh Part 2

After all of this we retired in our wonderful hotel room in which both Kerry and I struggled to go to sleep. For some reason the the bed at the hotel seemed nicer, but the one at the Youth Hostel was easier to fall asleep in. I totally don't know why. In the middle of the night, I discover an envelop slid under our door. It told us that tomorrow morning we would be move to a nicer room in the main building because that building was being shut down for techinical problems. So in the morning, we again moved our luggage down to the lobby in the linen closet elevator (it took three trips). Luckily, they tagged all the luggage and said that it would be in our new room when we returned. So off we went to eat breakfast and attend the church around the corner.

It turns out this was a fantastic church to attend. The denomination was Church of Scotland and there was some litergy which we enjoyed, but the sermon was phenominal! The gospel that was preach made us feel at home and the spirit of God was very much there. We met some young couples who we talk with for almost an hour and they gave us their contact information. We made our first friends! One thing about the body of Christ is that you can find a family of believers anywhere in the world. The grace and love of Christ makes us see no strangers. Kerry and I tried to figure out how we could attend this church if we live in the student accomedations that we will be looking at on Monday. Perhaps we will take the bus or perhaps we should visit some closer churches first before making a descision. I don't know, but we intend on going again tonight.

After visiting, Kerry and I ate lunch, bought a more detailed map than the tourist one we were using, and checked into our new room with our luggage already sitting in it. The Hilton upgraded us to a “Deluxe” room which meant it was even bigger and nicer. The private bathroom now had enough room to turn around in and was even larger than many in the US hotels we have stayed in. What a change in just a few days!

So, anyways, this is where I am sitting typing this blog in preperation for our internet blitz at Starbucks. I have to say in conclusion that I have constantly been afraid that God will drop us and we will not be able to afford to stay and have to move back to the US before Kerry can complete his PhD, but this fear seems so ridiculous right now. Every moment we have been here, God has not only watched over us, but he has open my eyes from what I was expecting, struggling and survival – like our worn out impression of Old Town, to the blessing and hope of what He wants to do like the glittering New Town. There are still a lot of questions that I have, like why is my mom having to go through this trial of cancer, but when all is said and done the whole gospel and Christian experience can be summerized in one word: hope. That is why we jumped off this cliff into Scotland, that is why we still pray for healing, that is why we believe in the future promise of eternity. The things that Kerry and I are experiencing is not luck. Our luck should have run out a long time ago before we even got here. What we are expirencing is one act of grace after another. So all of you out there, keep hoping because faith comes quickly behind it and then peace after that.

The Shiny Side of Edinburgh Part 1

Well, Saturday morning we had to get up early and move from our youth hostel to the Hilton hotel. This took Kerry (because it was too much effort for my pregnant body) moving each one of our 40lbs bags down a narrow flight of stairs, checking out, calling a taxi, loading the bags (the driver did help), going to the Hilton, unloading the bags, and having them tagged and stored for when we were able to check in at 3:00 p.m. Even though this was an ordeal, the difference between the youth hostel and the Hilton was worth the effort. Did I mention that because of Priceline we were paying the same amount as we were for the Youth Hostel? Hurray!

We then had intended to take one of the free tours of the city and play tourist for the day, but once we wondered east from the hotel (which was in the unexplored west side of the city center) we came upon a wonderous sight. Yesterday we had explored a good deal of what is called Old Town. This area was pretty in a medieval bumpy stone roads and towering old buildings from the 1600s sort of way. The area we stumbled upon on Saturday is called New Town. The contrast was shocking. This area just north of the castle was made up of a main shopping strip running east-west on Princes Street that was a mile long full of modern, high fashion stores that would out shine any of our strip malls. One of the the less impressive stores on this strip was the Gap. Their was also a Starbucks on every other corner. The boutiques and resturants lined the North part of the street while a beautiful park lined the south side. On our way down this road that reminded us of home (American commercialism!) we came across beautiful views of the castle, Canton Hill, Author's seat, and the whole of Old Town in general. While every road seems to go uphill in Old Town, New Town looked down on everything, in more ways than one. We also came upon the National gallery and went in to see the free art exhibit featuring many Itlain artist and a collection of Scottish art. Then we turned North to explore the rest of New Town. The residential area was lined in uniform Georgian style buildings that instantly reveiled why these flats/apartments were so much more expensive than those south of the castle. The smooth, unhurried pacing gave us room to walk at an American's leasurly pace. Even in the busy shopping area, the population was noticable older and more varied than the 16 through 20 year olds I described in my last blog. The whole day was a large sigh of relief. Even though we may not be able to afford to live in this part of town at the moment (though the area we are focusing on right now is near the very nice Meadows park and away from the bustle), we deffinately know where to go to relax and where we would like to move to once I can get a stable income. It isn't like old town is a “bad” area of town, but it is the college area with LOTS of the young college kids type activities, cigerate smells, and clubs and the touristy area with lots of crowded streets, tartan shops, and tourist focused stores. New Town is where the population really live and shop.

After a pleasant walk we returned to the hotel to check into our room, move our baggage into the second building and up the elevator that could work as a linen closet. The room was large and spacious. We were so pleased with the almost King size bed and private bathroom. We relaxed for a while hoping to use the free Wifi we thought the hotel offered to communicate with family and businesses. It turns out that there was no Wifi, just broad band that you must pay for that we couldn't use even if we wanted to because of our laptop specs. So went out for dinner at a tiny Italian restarant in which the owner/waiter spoke little English. The food was cheap and good. We then searched for one of the zillion Starbucks to go online. Once we found one that was still open, we only had little over a half an hour to get everything done. I guess the UK doesn't do coffee shops on Saturday Nights.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

How Not To Kill A Dragon

So Kerry is leveling his experience levels today, but I am trying to figure out if we even squashed a dragon shaped bug. If you don't know what I am talking about, read Kerry's blog first.

Today was a difficult day. At first impression, I was very frustrated, but now I think it was good. I must recount what we did and did not do today to explain my view of our first full day in Edinburgh. Yesterday we flew in, and in the blur of tiredness checked into a youth hostel. This is kind of like a dorm, except we stayed at one in which we got our own bedroom. The accommodations were not luxurious, but we crashed at 7:30 and woke up 7:30 the next morning.

After a really good night sleep, I thought today would be a fantastic day for dragon slaying. We had seen a little of the town yesterday, but I was overwhelmed with people and city. I also had no idea which way I was facing and would have depended on a map had Kerry not recognized everything. Our first dragon to slay today was to find a furnished flat. The issue of permanent accommodations has been a source of stress for me since this is a very important step toward truly getting settled. I think every woman needs a nest, especially one three months pregnant. To get to the very first flat we were to see, we walked from the south center portion of the City Centre to the northwest portion of that same area. We began our walk through Meadows Park which was refreshing and beautiful, and I thought that this was very charming. After a hour and a half of walking up hill, after which we were over a half hour late to the appointment, I decided there was no way I wanted that apartment anyways. In fact, I was seconded guessing my “not getting a car” idea and was sure their were too many people in this city. I also had expected the streets to be straighter and longer. How can you call an alley a hundred feet long a separate street? Before I completely made that decision about the apartment, Kerry called the agency to reschedule the appointment, but they could not return until Monday. Fine. So we walked back towards the University to try to slay our second dragon, get Kerry registered.

As we walked our way back, I grumpily noticed we were still going up hill. How was it that we went uphill to get to the flat and then uphill to leave it. As I discovered throughout the day, the whole city is uphill!

Anyways, Kerry did get registered, and pretty quickly, but not completely. It turns out there are three steps. One step was done, but two more to go. It turns out that the University is spread out throughout the city, most of the hard part was completed at Old College in a very busy area of town, the attendance registration was in David Hume Tower near where we were staying, and meeting with his adviser would happen a New College near the castle. We ate lunch nearby as I watch a bunch of over stylized teenagers bustling around. I think these are the only people in the world who actually wear what they show in style magazines, and all of them seemed to be between 16 and 20 years old. It is strange to feel “mature” at the age of 27.

Then came the second flat that we saw. This one was up a zillion stairs and was unfurnished. We walked around in circles for about 15 minutes to find an elusive door number 24. The agent did find us and showed us where the apartment was. Inside it was on the top floor with no elevator. Even though we were kind of eager to sign a lease, that apartment just wouldn't work. Leaving there, we passed Holyrood Park with the enormous dormant volcano, Arthur's Seat. We did not attempt to climb it, but somehow it relieved some of the disappointment of the apartment. We then went to Starbucks, of which this city has one on every corner. The glorious oasis provided us with life giving caffeine and free internet, by which we were able to scope out potential other flats. Even though we would not be able to see any of them until Monday, it was good to get this dragon wounded at least.

We actually did the second step to Kerry's registration at this point.

Meeting his adviser would have to wait until Monday. This still left it on the to do list, so this dragon was not slayed, just seriously wounded. After that we went back to the hostel to find out that because we did not reserve our room for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights, we were going to have to find another hotel and move all of our baggage there. I was very depressed, but Kerry actually killed that dragon by bidding on a Hilton on Priceline and winning it. Fantastic! It is a little far, but we will get a taxi to move our stuff and we will be moving up in niceness for the same price. Now that is some major dragon slaying, but I can't take credit for that.

Even though I felt frustrated at not meeting our goals, we did start getting familiar with the city, a little less overwhelmed with the pedestrian traffic, and really picking out the nice areas which differed from online. So at least we have two wounded dragons and one dead one between us. Not too bad.

Behold Edinburgh part 2

Friday (or How I Gained Tons of Experience Points)

Google Maps is a great tool, particularly the street level, which, I am told, has inadvertently allowed certain persons (not mentioning any names, but his initials are JDD) to view people in their underwear through street-facing windows. While I have not personally had this dubious honor, I nevertheless have found Google Maps to be an indispensable tool in preparing me for walking around Edinburgh. After a day and a half of walking through Old Town and some of the surrounding areas, I feel exceptionally comfortable and familiar. I have been able to navigate by landmarks in a city I had never before visited: there's the Starbucks I saw online, and there's that Greyfriars Bobby pub, and there's that Pizza/Kebab place. Now, some might for some reason think it's funny that my landmarks tend to be food-related. Yes, I like food. There's nothing wrong with that. And yes, I have tried two of the three previously mentioned landmarks already.

What Google Maps doesn't show you, even at street level, is that the city was apparently built on an earthquake and designed by Escher. I'm talking about the elevation variances, so we've had to learn the hard way that High Street is actually high, that walking the royal mile is like traveling from Jericho to Jerusalem, and that some roads run underneath others, instead of intersecting them. This can create a problem when you are trying to reach a destination that is supposed to be at a particular corner, only the corner is about 150 feet above you (now where did I put that tourist's grappling hook?).

We've had quite a bit of walking to do, because today (Friday the 25th) was supposed to be our day to find a flat. Yeah. We struck out. Of the three that we were supposed to see today, one we were late to because I misjudged how long it would take to walk there, one was let yesterday to someone else, and one ended up being too expensive. For Lara, this felt like a total waste of time. No dragons were slain, their rotting carcasses burned, and their bejeweled scales harvested for trophies of her valor (we did register me, which took all of 15 minutes – if you've ever registered at a University, you now envy me, heh heh). That's the way Lara looks at things. That's the particular angle she has on goal orientation. Establish a goal, then seek and destroy. That's also why she gets so much done.

I, on the other hand, while being similarly goal oriented, look at goals differently. Yes, I want to accomplish them, but the process of accomplishing carries with it its own rewards. I approach life more like the way I play a Final Fantasy game. While my brother would rush through the game as quickly as possible and then struggle to beat the last boss because his levels were too low, I fight endlessly to gain levels. I never equip the relic or drink the potion that makes random battles happen less frequently. I often do the opposite. Why? Because it makes me stronger. I gain valuable experience points and max out levels, acquiring the mightiest spells, the coolest blitz techniques, and the most expensive or rarest weapons and armor. It is my endeavor in such games to find every last magical item and thus establish my name in the annals of RPG fame! HAHAHAHAHA!

This is the way I look at life. So today was actually rather satisfying for me, because I felt like, even though we didn't make a decision about a flat, we learned valuable things today and thereby came closer to a good decision. Also, we walked around for miles, so my athletics skill jumped like three levels.

My coin accounting skill must be increasing like crazy, too. The UK has 40,000,000 different coins! I'm trying to learn them all, but so far I know them as the heavy one, the one that looks like a penny, the big single color one, the big two color one, the heptagonal one (yes, it has seven sides), the 3.26 pence one ... okay, maybe not the last one. And the paper money isn't much help either. After my first ATM withdrawal I was okay because all the bills came out looking the same. This would simple to learn, I thought. Only the bills from the second ATM withdrawal came out looking different, but they were the same denomination – Anglican. I've gotten some change, too, that looks a little different. Lara observed that the US has different looking bills, especially recently. But at least a five always has honest Abe on it. I have had at least two, if not three, differently colored 10 pound notes with different people on them. All in all, my various skill levels are definitely increasing, and I think I may max out my character in three months.

Behold Edinburgh

Thursday (or Wednesday, or whatever, I'm too tired to care)

After a difficult Tuesday night in which I slept maybe five hours, we faced a hurried and emotional Wednesday. We had to say goodbye to Lara's parents and grandmother, with her mom lying in a hospital bed. We said goodbye to two cats we raised from kittens, bottle-feeding them from four weeks old. We said goodbye to our dog for who knows how long (it depends on the housing we can find). With all of this happening I honestly did not think much about my own family except to test call Skype, which I would use in Edinburgh to call them when we got there. For my test call I talked to my dad because that was who picked up. Then I got a call on my cell phone from my mom who wanted to say goodbye and hear the sound of my voice. Yeah, I felt like a jerk. I could hear Mr. T saying “Call yo' mama, fool!”

We flew out at 4:30 pm from DFW on Lufthansa (a major German airline, for those of you who are as ignorant as I was). We had not weighed our checked luggage, and ended up having to move several items around to make certain that all the bags were under the limit. We were aided by a very nice lady at the counter who made some exceptions for us. International direct flights, at least on foreign airlines, leave from terminal D. This was my first experience with terminal D. A, B, and C are basically all the same, semi-circular with shops on the inside of the circle and gates on the outside, metallic, shiny, and hectic. Terminal D was a little different. It is more squarish, with a kind of shopping mall feel to it. It was also significantly less hectic.

This was my third international flight (if you count going to and from Africa as two flights), and the shortest of the three. The flight was on-time and about nine hours. As I mentioned in a previous post, we were to lose six hours on this flight, so we thought it would be a good idea to get some sleep on the plane. I knew this would be easier said than done, since the plane left at 4:30 central time and would arrive at what would feel like 1:30-ish AM, and I don't sleep well on planes anyway. You already know how well that worked out.

Frankfurt's airport is an interesting blend of upscale, high-tech modernity and run-down, low-tech simplicity. In the B section of terminal 1 there is a really nice area upstairs with restaurants and comfortable seating overlooking the runways (with a McDonalds of all things – I really think it should be classified as a pandemic). Right outside of this area was an extended section with missing ceiling tiles and exposed wiring. It was kind of like Mad Max meets Ritz-Carlton, all the luxury one might expect in a post-apocalyptic airport.

I've heard that among Europeans, Germans are often caricatured as serious, long-faced, taciturn, and abrupt. Yep, that about sums it up. There was about as much hospitality as what one might expect from a county jail. I know it's one of the ruder aspects of American travelers to expect everyone to cater to them, but I honestly did not know how to order a pretzel in German, and we were in the freaking INTERNATIONAL SECTION OF THE AIPORT! One notable exception was one of the flight attendants, originally on Lara's side of our middle section; I moved to Lara's other side because she was much nicer than the one on my side who seemed rather put out that I didn't automatically know the drink options.

I have to admit that all the angry-looking Muslims waiting for what could have been our flight was unnerving, and it didn't help that the only response I got from my attempt to appear friendly was one of the Muslims getting up and moving away from our area. When our flight was called, I was relieved to be leaving Germany and relieved that the Muslims weren't leaving with me.

I slept most of the two hours from Frankfurt to Edinburgh, hoping that it might refresh me enough to make it through the rest of the day. At this point I didn't know what day it was, I didn't know what time it was, I honestly at one point had trouble remembering Lara's name. I wasn't really in the mood to be happy about being in another country. But the general friendliness level in Edinburgh was a stark contrast to Frankfurt. The lady inspecting our passports and visas for entry had to do some extra checking to verify our story (which I understand), but she did so in a professional and eventually personable manner. I never felt dismissed or an intrusion.

We were picked up at the airport through a service called Edinburgh Direct. The driver's name was Paul, and he was a delight. He made meaningful and comfortable conversation the whole way from the airport to our accommodations at Argyle Backpackers Hostel. I did my best to interact with him through the haze of ludicrous sleepiness, and I gave him a big tip.

Argyle Backpackers is a good example of the European youth hostel: cheap dormitory style accommodation for the most part with shared bathrooms and kitchens, aimed especially at young people traveling on a limited budget. Many hostels, this included, also have private rooms available for a little more money. It's a no frills way to stay somewhere relatively cheaply. Plus, this one was in a good location for us. Objectively, I don't know how comfortable the bed actually was, but I was asleep by 7:30 pm on what felt like the softest, most wonderful bed ever made by third world factory workers.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ein Postlein (a little Post)

I am sitting here in the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, regretting the fact that I have not posted in weeks. There is so much to tell, but it will have to wait.

Now, I know that there is a rule understood by travelers that being in an airport doesn't really count for being in the country. Well, I say: forget that trash. I'm in Germany! The airport buildings don't magically transport me to U.N.-ville. Besides, I had to walk ON THE GROUND to get to the tram that taxied us to the terminals from the plane, so nobody better be telling me that I haven't been in Germany. And if I'm not in Germany, how does one explain all the people speaking German, huh?

The flight here left the US at 4:30 central time and arrived at 8:45 am local time. Now that looks like a really long flight, but once you subtract the seven hour time difference it was a measly seven hour flight. PFFFT! PSHAH! Nothing. Except that my rear end is still numb two hours later and I know there was a 3-shaped indentation on my seat on the plane. I could tell you about the poor infant who managed to cry for the entire flight, or the poor mother who patiently did everything superhumanly possible to calm the baby, but honestly the most remarkable thing about the flight were the cool touch screen monitors in front of every seat that let me watch my own movie (from a selection). Sweet! I watched the new Star Trek movie and Monsters vs. Aliens. Going into the flight, we knew it would definitely be wisdom to get some sleep, so I did (about two hours).

Well, Lara and I will be in Edinburgh in a few hours. Tomorrow we'll view some flats (apartments) and hopefully sign on one. More to come.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Baby Showers

One of the things I was prepared for in moving to Scotland was not to have baby showers with my friends. I thought if they wanted to get me something when I was there, I would try to register with some store in the UK that had a website that they could order from and not have to pay shipping. I was pleasantly surprised that others had thought about this before me.

Kerry and I attend a Bible study on Tuesday nights in Tyler with a group of friends who I hope are all reading this. They are fantastic! They threw us a surprise baby shower. Kerry knew about it and his version of keeping it a secret was saying, "The guys and girls are going to be together tonight and they want us to be 15 minutes late." We usually split up the guys and girls, so this was a clue that something was happening, but I wasn't expecting what I was greeted with. We walked in Mark and Sheila's house and everyone yelled, "Surprise!" The living room had some balloons, the dining room table had a cake that looked like a train and cupcakes that had pacifiers made of candy on them. There was a full baby shower waiting. The food was good, the conversation was fun, and the gifts were very appropriate for our limited luggage space. They were even thoughtful enough to find Classic Winnie the Pooh (which I know is hard to find) for the receiving blankets and pacifier that I received. The cute rattle had all the little tactile things that babies love hanging on it. The little baby clothes made me think, "Wow, I am going to have a baby who will wear this!" It was very neat! The whole thing was very wonderful and was the first surprise party I ever had. In fact, I can only remember having one birthday party when I was a little kid, so it was a very unique experience! I will treasure it always.

At work, I was told they would be giving me and baby shower/going away party the Friday after the surprise party I just described. I had not ever seen the company give a going away party before and I was surprised that I would get a baby shower since I am still so newly pregnant (I was only ten weeks). I was expecting only a few people to show up and a little celebration. I was surprised that nearly everyone in the company who could be there was there. The conference table was decorated in polka-dot themed cake, baby blanket, and cookies. There was also a "money-tree" in the center of the table with cards and money. There were also some small baby items on the table with which we played a "price-is-right" style game and then a name mommy songs game. It was very nice and everyone was very generous. I especially liked the card that was signed by everyone, even those not there.

I was very surprised by these two events, and it was more than I had expected even if I had stayed throughout my pregnancy. I think that I am always surprised by acts of true friendship because of my lack of friends when I was in school, but I hope that I never take these acts that I have experienced for granted. Thank you to all my friends who are reading this. You are all very special and I hope that such acts will be returned to you ten fold!