Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The GPS named (soft G) Giles

Happy Halloween everyone! I wish I could say that they do Halloween here in Italy like we do at home, but then I would be lying.  In fact there are many things we do at home that they just don't seem to do the same anywhere else in the world, like, efficiency, free shipping in the continental United States, and fast Internet.   But that's another story.  So anyway, in the spirit of telling spooky stories on All Hallows' Eve, I'll go ahead and give you a spooky tale from non-USA.  But since in this location I don't have to tell it like we do at home, this spooky tale won't be spooky or fictional... hopefully it will at least be entertaining!

Last month I had the very fortunate opportunity to spend my first off campus weekend out of the country, visiting the grand post-Olympic city of London with three of my classmates.  After two months of nonstop action, I must say that the weekend away was everything I wanted it to be.  Traveling like this is quite a new experience for me, but we are encouraged to see things we otherwise wouldn't be able to see in the States.  Normally, this traveling occurs on off campus weekends, which come around about once a month here at the NAC.  Our first weekend turned out to be a three-day weekend, and in these cases the general advice is to get out a little further since you have the extra day.  I still have my American sentiments, and in America we like to go big or go home, so my buddies Dave, Kyle, Adam, and I decided, hey why not London?

As I discovered, there are two great things about traveling in Europe which make something like this possible.  The first is that a lot of really cool things are close by.  Shocking, I know, but as it turns out, a lot of historical and cultural things have happened in Europe over the centuries that are worth checking out.  When you discover that countries over here are the size of our states, getting from A to B is surprisingly achievable.  The second cool thing is that travel can be very affordable if you know where to look.  This is actually the biggest reason we were able to visit London... because reasonable budgets are A+ .

While in London we stayed with a family that Dave knows, they live in the 'burbs northwest of downtown.  Getting there the first night was quite the adventure, we had a delayed flight and nearly missed our car rental pick-up because it was closing (seriously we made a phone call to them as they were walking out, thankfully they picked up and stuck around late for us), but thanks be to God we made it out of the airport just before midnight without getting stranded after all.

This is us asking a random Englishmen to take a photo while we waited for the bus to arrive so we could get our rental car.

Renting a car was an awesome call, we decided we couldn't go to London without driving a right-hand-drive stick shift on the left side of the road.  Definitely weird at first, but I imagined a worse go of it and was relieved at how much easier it turned out to be than I thought.  The even-better call was the three of my brothers convincing me to rent a GPS with the car.  I wasn't really hot on it at first, but the GPS, as it turns out, is a life saver when you're traveling roads in a different country whose road signs you don't recognize.

We apologized profusely when we finally arrived at the Michael-Tan-and-family residence at half past midnight.  But they were gracious enough to even feed us when we got in and help us get settled.  Actually, the Tan family easily turned out to be the greatest blessing of the entire trip.  Wow did they over-provide for our needs and help make our stay feel just like home.

Alright so long story, but I just have to tell this one. Here is how you know you have a Mother in heaven who looks out for you.  We check in at Rome airport, and they give us seats together in the very last row.  Bummer, I was hoping for a little further up.  Oh well.  We get dinner at the BK in the airport before making our way to security, which as it turns out takes about 40 minutes longer than we anticipated.  Both Kyle and I got stopped for further inspection, so now time is running REALLY short.  We get free and start running to the terminal because the plane is taking off in three minutes.  When we arrive, we find that the flight is delayed by 50 minutes.  Phew, at least we didn't miss the plane.

50 minutes blew by with no one at the terminal desk.  Then they change the terminal.  Then it was another half hour, no one at the terminal desk.  I started to see that it was going to be reallllly close for us to get our car reservation in London before they closed at 11:00pm.  I started praying to Mary about it, and I sensed her say, don't worry, I will take care of everything.  So we're waiting some more, then we finally get the go-head to board.  On the bus ride from the terminal out to the plane, I spied a sticker of the Madonna and Child posted on the inside of the bus door.  So I said, alright, you make it happen cuz we're about to get stranded at London airport.

Then we got on the plane, in the very last row, and it sat there.  Two hours delayed.  There's no way we'll get there in time, it's already 9:30pm.  I don't say anything but I have no idea how this will work out.  FINALLY we take off, and touch down in London just after 11:15pm.  Meanwhile, Dave looks again at our reservation and finds out they actually close at 11:30 instead.  At 11:21 when we make it into the terminal, the light bulb goes on, I guess that's what the last row was for.  They de-boarded us from the front and the back, so we were the first to get off.  We are running with our bags again because we have nine minutes to get through border patrol and customs and find Enterprise.  Ha!

Dave and Adam get stuck with a slow customs officer, so Kyle and I go for the power-play-golden-goal-overtime-touchdown and run ahead through the airport looking for "Enterprise" signs.  We find an empty Enterprise kiosk at the main exit, unstaffed.  It is now 11:32.  We grab the phone on the countertop and pick it up, which auto-dialed the out-service office in the airport's rental car lot, and the two gentlemen there miraculously pick up.  We told them about the delay, we know they are closing, we're really sorry and could they help us with our car reservation.  They said no problem just get on the 1A bus and get off the first stop (praise-be-to-God hands are silently fist pumping the air at this moment). As we make it there and thank them for staying late, they say, yeah, you are the last ones, we didn't think you were coming.  We were walking out the door when the phone rang, so we picked it up just in case.  I'm laughing inside in gratitude at this point.

When we finally got to the Tan's, the first thing I see in the front porch window is a small statue of Mary holding a rosary.  And at that point I took a breath of relief and said, well played.  Thank you thank you thank you for looking out for us, Mary.  Then I walked into the house and it was a veritable explosion of Jesus portraits and Mary portraits on all the walls, and little statues of Jesus and Mary and different saints and rosaries all over the house.  It was like she said, see?  You're safe.  I know what I'm doing.  And I responded, wow I think we just walked into a Catholic fortress. You got lots of friends.  Thank you for keeping us safe.

So the moral of the story is, love your Mother because she takes care of her children.  And have no fear to bust out a Hail Mary or two the next time your flight is delayed.

The rest of the weekend in London was grand.  We even had our own frustrating-turned-ridiculous-turned-comical experience driving on the London city roads at rush hour on rainy Friday evening after dark.  It took, no joke, 2 hours for us to drive 11 miles home.  We missed about 10 turns and went out the wrong exit on 3 or 4 roundabouts.  The GPS kept telling us to do things that were extremely difficult, like turn right into bumper to bumper traffic (our left-turn equivalent) or make the third left out of a roundabout which required you, after the fact, to have known that you should've entered it in the right-most lane.  It was a guessing game.  After the millionth time our Englishman-voiced GPS said, "Go 0.2 miles and enter roundabout" Kyle finally had the wit to respond, "No Giles, no more roundabouts!"  From then on, Giles was his name.

Alrighty, time for some photos.  We did downtown London on Friday and drove out to Oxford on Saturday.  Sooo many cool things, we didn't see nearly half of them.  Check out all the fun:

Our right-hand drive Vauxhall Astra hatchback diesel. This car was brand new when we got it, Enterprise just received it the day before. It had 7 miles on it when we drove it off the lot!

Bizarre at first. At least they didn't switch the pedals. Turned out to be so much fun. I forgot how much I've missed driving!

Brompton Oratory, an absolutely beautiful church.  We went to Mass here Friday morning.

The Brompton quarter of town, doubledecker buses included.
All the taxis looked like this!

Monument to, good question. World War II maybe?  I can't remember.

Walking along Hyde Park. They have a paved people track, and a dirt horse track.

We stumbled upon these cool gates...

Look what we found!

Buckingham Palace, the residence of the Queen.

Dude you can't go to this place and not take a pic of those fluffy hat nutcracker soldiers.
We had lunch at this pub called the Silver Cross

When in a London pub, you must get the fish and chips. That beer is called London Pride.  It was decent.

After lunch, we walked around some more, and good ol' England started to do its thing and drizzle, then rain, then drizzle.  We didn't let that stop us, though, we moved on to see Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, and Westminster Cathedral.

Westminster Abbey is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture.  It used to be Catholic, but King Henry VIII seized it when he became a schismatic with Rome and created the Anglican Church in the 1530s.  It usually costs about 15 Euro to get in (what a travesty!) but we got in for free because we went in during their Friday evensong prayers.

Westminster Cathedral, which was built much later because they took the Abbey.  Personally, I think we should just forcefully take back the Abbey like in the old days.  You know, get a bunch of swords and spears and charge in with a Eucharistic procession. Would be awesome.

Michael Tan and his mother Christina.  She made a feast for us on both Friday and Saturday night.  One of those dinners that your grandma makes that you'd clearly never be able to finish.  What a generous family.

After taking two frustrating hours to get back home on Friday night because of all the traffic and mishaps, we were really blessed to eat well.  The Tan's were so excited to take care of us and offer their hospitality, it was humbling to receive this kind of family love from people you just met.  I still can't get over it, they were such gracious hosts!

On Saturday it was BEAUTIFUL all day.  60 degrees and sunny, with a cool breeze, just like that perfect fall day.  We drove out to Oxford to see the sights and enjoy some of the history of this old college town.  After the nightmare driving experience on Friday night, Giles shaped up and treated us much better on Saturday.  We went to Mass at the Oxford Oratory, I didn't get pics of it but it was a nice little church.  We happened to be at a funeral Mass being celebrated for a longtime parishioner.  The celebrant wore beautifully embroidered black vestments, which I had only ever heard about but never seen in real life.  Black is a real liturgical color for Catholics, a priest can wear black vestments for funerals, requiem Masses, and on All Souls' Day.  Although this practice has fallen into entire disuse in the U.S. Church.

After Mass, we drove into the downtown area and parked the car for the day.  By the grace of God Oxford escaped major bombing during World War II, so all the beautiful architecture of its 39 colleges have remained to today.  We walked around to check it all out and do some people watching.  Actually for me it was mostly people listening, because the British accent is so much fun.

This is the local pub where we had lunch.  Oldest pub in town.

When in a place that does burgers like we do them at home, get it, because you won't find it in Italy!

And when I say oldest pub in town, I'm talking 770 years old.  Funny comment of the day, I told the bartender he had a nice, quaint little pub, to which he responded, yeah it used to extend all the way up to the main street, but most of it burned down in the 1600s.  I thought, definitely, those kind of fires will creep up on ya every 400 years if you're not careful.

This bundle of fun is called 'punting'.  We didn't actually do it tho, we just people-watched others do it.  You take your gondola down the Thames and push yourself along with a big long pole.  That's it.  Famous thing to do here in Oxford.

This is a library, if you can imagine that.  We couldn't get inside, blast, you needed your student ID card.

They had this sort-of indoor market which I thought way really cool.

And at this market you can buy fresh meat, including a pig's head if you want.

Rugby!  Interesting to watch, some day I'll learn more about the rules of this game.

Riverwalk along the Thames.  People were out in force along this walk, and who could blame 'em, it was a gorgeous day.

I love big trees.

The one American thing we did in Oxford was discover that they actually had a Krispy Kreme shop.  We just couldn't resist, so we bought a dozen original.  I couldn't believe I ate three of those things right in a row.  It was delicious though.

On Sunday before flying back to Rome we took the Vauxhall into downtown London one more time to go to Mass at St. Patrick's Parish on Soho Square.  This was a personal request of Dave, who is a big fan of the Venerable Fulton Sheen.  Bishop Sheen spent some time in this parish while he taught theology at St. Edmund's College in the 1920s.  After years of fundraising, the current pastor renovated this church last year and he did an absolutely fantastic job.  It looks brand new:

We left for the airport right after Mass and were able to turn the car back in no problems.  The whole weekend was a testament to me of God's goodness, not only in providing the opportunity to travel, but also for safety in travel, especially for homeliness and hospitality in our housing, and just the camaraderie with Adam, Kyle, and Dave.  I had so much fun seeing London with them.  We started class the next morning, which is a bummer because you always want that one day back to recoup.  And we started our 'normal schedule' Monday morning, meaning 6:15 morning prayer and Mass.  That's super early for folks like me who aren't early birds.  But London was definitely worth the trip even with the late flight back, and I'd love to go back sometime to see everything else I didn't see the first time!

God is good beyond measure.  I'm happy that you all can share this memory with me.

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