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Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Inimitable Joy of Train Travel

Whilst we lived in Stockholm, we rarely took the train to another destination. With low cost airlines bringing air travel prices way down, the mere time it took to get somewhere else from that far north city was rarely worth it. So when I looked into getting to Bonn, Germany via train for the Association of International Churches in Europe board meeting, I was pretty excited that it could be done quite easily. Plus, it gave me my first chance to take the Chunnel and who could resist that?! Plus, airport transfers in London are a huge headache and can be expensive and with the train station just 3 tube stops from our house, it was a pretty easy choice.
St Pancras train station is a cool place. Very organized with many food options.
So clever...the stirrer also doubles as a sort of plug over the opening so you don't spill everywhere!
I purchased a lunch for later, a coffee and yogurt and granola for now and found my way through security and passport control as I readied myself for the first leg of my journey: A two hour train ride to Brussels, Belgium. The train was decidedly uncrowded so I had lots of space to stretch out. The sun was shining brightly upon my face and the chu, chu, chu of the train was so soothing. I was impressed with how much less stressful train travel is than airplane travel. Plus many of the stations sport pretty neat architecture!The English countryside was super green and idyllic. The Chunnel was rather unremarkable in that it's just like any other tunnel, but at 99 miles a hour covering a mere 23.5 miles, you are across the channel and into France in remarkably good time! The service on my phone worked throughout the Chunnel crossing but as soon as we popped out in France, my British carrier stopped. I was amazed it still worked in the Chunnel and texted Doug just because I could!
The sun was still shining and the countryside remained lovely as we chugged across France into Belgium. Soon we arrived at Brussels Midi and I needed to make my first change. I found the train to Köln and off I went a mere 10 minutes later. Again, I had plenty of space and time went quickly by. Once in Köln, I asked about a regional train into Bonn Bad Godesberg and one was leaving in 10 minutes. While I had shown a ticket on each of the the 2 prior journeys, no one checked for this one. Once through the initial security from England to Belgium, I didn't have to hassle with security again. I didn't have to be concerned about what I had packed, if my liquids were too large and I even carried water and coffee on board with me! I never once had to remove my computer from my bag. I showed up 10 minutes before my connecting trains and had plenty of time to catch my trains. I'm telling you...train travel is so much less stressful than airline travel!
We arrived right on time and my colleague met me and we walked to the cute little German hotel that will be my home for the next two night.
So 5 hours and 4 countries later I'm relaxing after a lovely dinner with my colleagues on the shores of the Rhein River. I really enjoyed my sojourn by train and am thankful that we are now living so much closer to the continent so that we can more readily enjoy this mode of transportation.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Milestones and Goals

It is mid-January, 2016. I am still running which represents a minor miracle in and of itself! Yesterday I ran for 60 minutes straight, almost 5 miles! I never thought I'd ever be able to accomplish this so I'm pretty thrilled. My pace is quite slow, about 12.5 minute miles but I am finding the stamina to complete the runs and have actually gotten to a place where I don't want to miss it. 
The view from where I head to catch my bus to the start point every Tuesday and Thursday mornings. 
I still don't really love doing it, but I do enjoy getting it done! And I am very happy for the exercise and I continue to enjoy seeing London whilst running around. Clearly, there is joy in the pack! The only way that any of this is possible is because of the group of women who I have met and who journey with me, an amazing group called Women Running the World! Running alone is still AWFUL. Even a short 35 minute run alone is torture compared to the longer runs with companions. (There's a sermon in there somewhere!). The coaches are these amazing experienced runners who cheer us on, give us advice, and encourage us to keep on keeping on. It's really been quite the highlight of our time here in London and I'm thankful for the 2 women from church who encouraged (pushed, cajoled, etc.) me to start doing it.
(Thanks Tracey and Stefhanie!) 

So, with our timeline for remaining in London finally set, I have been able to set my sights on a bigger goal. (Our last Sunday will be June 5 and we fly to CA on June 7, fyi). 
When I first announced back in September that I was joining a running group, several of you cheered me on. One friend in particular wrote this, "Let us know how this goes. Especially interested to hear if your competitive nature comes out and we begin to read of you running a 5K? 10K? 1/2 marathon? Full marathon?" 
Well, he was right about my competitive nature. I've always done better when there is a prize to keep an eye on and now I've set a significant goal for myself. All credit goes to my running group as the leaders arrange and plan everything necessary for us to be able to complete....drum roll....a half marathon! 
Yup, all 13.1 miles will be run by yours truly on April 24. The best part of the whole goal is that the half will take place in...another drum roll please....NICE, FRANCE! Nothing like going straight for the sweet spot in this girl's heart by asking her to run along the seaside!
So, I'm equal parts excited and terrified. I still have not run more than 60 minutes straight and I know the half will take close to 2.5-3 hours to complete so there is still a lot of training to take place. The schedule is pretty rigorous from here on out but I am committed to getting it done and excited to see how a race of this length will feel. 
I am also excited because the training runs continue to take us all over London. In the coming weeks we'll be running to Borough Market, Canary Wharf, Battersea, Wembley, and Kew Gardens. These places sound so far from our start point and the longest training run is 135 minutes so it's really hard to imagine what that will look like, but the leaders have promised that if I stay with the program, then I will be able to complete the half!
So far the weather has been quite cooperative. It's gotten cold this past week but I have learned to dress well. Mostly I'm relieved that we are not contending with icy streets. Even the rain hasn't been a huge factor most days. And we're catching the sun coming up over the horizon and enjoying the beauty of Regents Park and Primrose Hill as well as the diverse architecture that dots the neighborhoods we run through.
Rugby fields, frosty morning, Regents Park
It has been awesome for me to stay with this! It has been great for me to be able to set this goal and strive toward fulfilling it. I still can't really call myself a runner but I can say that I run and I never really thought I'd even get that far. I'll keep ya posted as the journey continues. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Spa Day Afternoon

Doug gave me an afternoon in a Moroccan type spa for Christmas so I cashed it in this past Monday. Wow. It was amazing. I always loved the afternoons I could spend in Sturebadet in Stockholm but this experience was so different. It has very cold in London this week, the coldest we've had since coming here. Temperatures hovering right about 32F and 0C. So I picked a good day to go do this.
On my way to the spa, I happened past the Totally Swedish shop. I've heard about this place so it was kind of fun to wander in and take a look around. Fun to see some familiar foods and goods!
Just down the street was the entrance to the Crystal Palace. The place was modest from the outside and a regular hair salon upon entry. But downstairs opened into this hamam that was actually pretty great. Now, we've have these kinds of experiences in Turkey and Morocco so I was no stranger to the drill. And, after just touring Pompeii and seeing the fantastic facilities that the towns folks had for baths, I knew the first class benefits of the "bathing" experience were excellent.
My first stop was 15 minutes in the steam room. Now, as far as steam rooms go, this one was not my favorite. It was quite hot enough. But it was still nice. From there you entered the room where all of the scrubbing was to unfold!  My "host" asked me to lie down on the hot marble stone that was in the center of the room. That is such a great feeling! She immediately began to douce me with bucket after bucket of hot water. From there, she scrubbed me down good then followed up with a big soapy wash. While I was all soaped up, she gave me a full body massage. I'm telling you, it's heaven! In between treatments, she continued to douce me with copious amounts of water. It felt like I was back in the womb! The final stage was a mud/clay/coffee mask that she applied to my entire body. Then she left me to percolate on the marble slab for 15 minutes. It smelled amazing.
When my time was up, I was ushered into a beautiful rain shower to wash off and then it was time to get back to reality. But once dressed, I was invited into the relaxation room for a lovely cup of peppermint tea.
We don't have these bathhouse or hamam experiences in the US so much. It's really too bad. Many cultures enjoy the merits and benefits of these wonderful experiences that are so good for the body. I have come to love getting super hot in a sauna or steam room, then cooling off with cold water, and then returning to the heat source. The experience of having waters flushed over you is so healing and renewing.
Thanks Doug for a great afternoon escape plan that was truly renewing.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Capri

On our last full day in Italy the sun came out and we decided to take a boat trip over to the island of Capri. We decided that we should wear Capris on our way to Capri.
Known as a glamorous spot for the rich and famous, it was easy to see why it has gained that reputation!
The season is definitely coming to a close so many hotels were already closed and there were not too many shops open.
Even so, it was delightful to wander the narrow alleyways, take in the lovely views and enjoy a little sunshine on our faces!
The boat ride over was only 30 minutes but it was a pretty treacherous bucking bronco ride which led to the second time during the week that motion sickness was an issue for me. Several people actually threw up. Fortunately I was able to watch the horizon, breath deeply and keep it together. I was extremely happy to dock!
The town of Capri sits high above the harbor so if you don't want a straight uphill hoof, you could either take a bus or a funicular to the center of town.
We chose the funicular and we were glad we did. It was a really steep ride to the top.
When we first got off, the wind was cold. We were freezing and hoping that the day would warm up! Fortunately we finally got to the sunny side of the island and it was much more comfortable! 
The other town on the island is Anacapri. We jumped on a bus and took a serpentine ride to the center of this quaint little area.
Strangely enough, there are no sea views from this town even though it is perched high above the coast. We wandered down the main path, looked at a couple of the significant places, learned that the Swedish royal family has stayed in one of the spots, and stopped for lunch.
I had to have a caprese salad. It is my favorite salad of all time and where better to have it than its namesake island. It was my last one and it was delicious. 
One of the churches had one of the most beautiful baptismal fonts I've ever seen.
Right next to it was an impressive statue of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. Very cool.
Soon enough it was time for us to catch a bus back to the marina. We still had some time to kill before the boat left so we wandered around the marina, taking in the views.
The water color was so breathtaking.
The most well-known attraction on the island is the blue grotto. Unfortunately it was closed due to the winter season but the color of the water surrounding the shoreline revealed how beautiful it must be. Finally, we could see Vesuvius!
It had been shrouded in clouds for the entire week so we were glad to see that it really does exist! 
I was a bit bored whilst waiting so decided to practice my selfie techniques. Here is a sampling!
The ride back was much smoother. I even stood in the open air on the top part of the boat and soaked in the beauty of the Amalfi coastline.
Pulling back into Sorrento at dusk was a treat. Fun to catch a view of the entire marina and appreciate the beauty of this lovely little spot.
I really loved seeing this fisherman sitting on the dock trying to catch his evening meal.
That night we returned to our favorite restaurant and indulged in Fetticine Alfredo and one last pizza. I finished off my meal with a shot of limoncello, the area's signature liqueur.
It was raining when we finished. We still took a stroll. Still ate one last gelato. Still marveled in the beauty of this little spot on the Italian coastline.
Our final day was truly a beauty and we enjoyed every minute of it.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Epiphany Sorrento Style

Little did we know that when we booked our trip for the first week of January that Ephiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, the 6th of January, would end up being a highlight of our trip. Traditionally, this is the day set aside to commemorate the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus, who in reality was 2 years old by then, according to Matthew's account.
The Swedes enjoyed one more day off before returning to work on this day but there are many cultures that celebrate this day with special things.
Sorrento celebrates with a marching band, a worship service with communion and a beautiful procession through the streets with children dressed as peasants and Mary and Joseph continuing their journey and the magi marching ahead of the Christ child who is being carried through the streets in a most spectacular fashion. 
We didn't really even realize what a special day this would be until the marching band came down the street where our hotel was located. We had read that a concert would be happening on the square at noon so we checked that out too. Very fine musicians playing a variety of brass music. The whole town had gathered and the mood was incredibly festive and delightful.
We had heard that there would other things happening around town, mainly for children, but we didn't discover these. 
I managed a midday run while Doug rested, his cold still giving him fits. It was pretty tough due to cobblestones streets and a steady uphill incline, but I was rewarded with this view once I reached the top of the road. 
After an earlier thank usual dinner, we took our usual stroll around town and decided to pop in on the church where the Eucharist service was taking place. We couldn't get in because it was so packed. We also noticed that the square was filling up with people so we asked a local policewoman what was happening. She explained about the procession that would begin at 8.00. I was still on the hunt for mint chocolate chip gelato so we went in search of that and found some of the very best I've ever had. Big chunks of chocolate were laced throughout the minty creaminess. Perfect.
Then it was time to join the throngs of locals who had gathered in the square to wait for the procession. We heard the band playing silent night and then saw the parade come into view.
It was so special to see how important this celebration was to the people. The procession was indeed beauitful and festive and we were enthralled by it all, so happy to have stumbled onto such an awesome local custom.
Suddenly, there were loud booms and a fireworks show laws beginning with pinwheels spinning on the top of the church.
Shortly thereafter, a huge and very fine display of fireworks began.
Since we had missed the New Year's fireworks, this more than made up for it. 
It was great watching the children's faces with each new explosion. Even the Magi and Mary and Joseph had paused to take it all in. 
Once the fireworks ended, everyone processed back into the church. We followed.
A priest shared some words, a well-known (to them) hymn was sung with gusto, and the spirit of the gathering was so lovely. Even this little doggy thought it was worthwhile. 
I was reminded that in many places, once the New Year comes, Christmas is done and over. Many people don't really realize that the 12 days of Christmas start on Christmas Day and end on Epiphany and that Epiphany itself is a significant event in the nativity. I loved being a part of the wonderful end of the season celebration, a day clearly every bit as important as Christmas itself. That joy was reflected on the faces participating and in the spirit of the town. (I have some cool video from the evening. I'll post it another time).