Written Thursday, August 10th.
I write from a darkened American Airlines cabin midway through a nine-hour flight. Last time I posted, I was leaving the tropical beach paradise of Dubrovnik, Croatia for a slightly different locale in Oslo, Norway. I spent six days in Norway in the company of two good friends I met earlier this summer in Amsterdam.
Then last Monday afternoon, I flew for the UK to spend a whirlwind 49 hours getting from London to Durham, a small city five hours north, and back before busing to Paris to catch a final flight back to Chicago. Much excitement and craziness ensued in the final steps of my Europe journey.
I arrived late last Tuesday afternoon and stepped into the life of my friend Ellen. She introduced me to the vibrant city of Oslo. Filled with music, distinct architecture, and young people wearing Patagonia and hiking packs, it breathes an excited, excitable energy and gave me the impression of a city deciding what it wants to be when it grows up. That kind of life set against the backdrop of incredible natural beauty and sharp fresh air made the place an intriguing and inviting locale.
Each day was filled with Oslo sights and enjoying both the sunshine when it decided to come out and the rain when it softly fell. A mutual friend of ours, Charysse, was able to join us on Thursday evening and our duo became a fabulous trio for the rest of the weekend. We hiked, cooked together, talked about life, swam in the Oslo fjord, ate Norwegian fare, enjoyed live music and fantastic views, and drank plenty of coffee. At night we snuggled into Ellen’s cozy bedroom where Charysse and I shared an air mattress that just fit between her bed and the wall, adding to the air of nostalgic sleepover. We joked or talked but then fell asleep easily to the distant city sounds whispering through the cracked window.
The week afforded a welcome opportunity to get to know two people I already really liked so much better. I hope that won’t be the last crazy adventure on which the three of us embark.
UK – London to Durham
All too soon, Monday came around and I had to leave. I had an important appointment pulling me from Oslo to Durham, England. This summer, through conversation with the sports director there, I have explored the possibility of stepping into the rank of post-graduate student, coaching assistant, and basketball player at Durham University. If I go, I would live in the UK from roughly October until the following May and earn a master’s degree, play basketball for a school team, and act as a player-coach or coaching assistant for the program. The arrangement is certainly enticing, but it also costs — a reduced rate for my tuition and board, but still a significant sum for someone like me. I needed to go and see it for myself to get some perspective in order to be able to make the decision. The director told me he’d be available on the 8th of August, so we put the day in the calendar and come Monday the 7th, I embarked.
My two days in the UK were some of the most contrastingly fruitful and hectic days I’ve ever experienced. Let me give you the flavor in a few bullet points:
- Monday: Arrive in London around 9pm after flight delays. Make my way through long customs lines at Gatwick, finally locate the shuttle to my rental car agency, and secure a car around 11pm.
- Drive north. I had marked Nottingham, about 2 and a half hours north of London, as a convenient halfway point and goal for the night. I had to pull over a couple times on the shoulder and sleep. Arrive in Nottingham around 5am Tuesday morning. Park on a residential side street and sleep across the backseat of my car. (I’m cheap.)
- Wake up around 8:30am and after stopping at a gas station to buy a SIM card for my phone and discover thati get they were out of stock, drive the rest of the way to Durham. Pull into the city limits around 11:30am but then battle through one of the most vexing and frustrating navigational puzzles I’ve ever experienced. The GPS I had received from the rental car agency and I don’t get along so I attempt to use rough GPS coordinates on my phone but without Internet connection. I end up accidentally driving into the pedestrian-only part of town where you are apparently assessed small fines via traffic camera that you must call in and pay that day. (I learned this from a helpful but woeful street worker who gave me directions in a thick northern English accent.) But calling would be a bit more of a challenge without a SIM card.
- Finally figure out how to get out of the “congestion zone” area.
- Find a library. Try to look up directions. Ask the clerk. He has no idea where the gym is but can at least give me the number I need to call to pay the fine. Now if only I had a phone.
- In a stroke of brilliance, try searching for the address a different way on the GPS. It works.
- Drive the easy five minutes out of town to the gym. Arrive around 12:30pm, an hour and a half after I had hoped.
The entire two days felt like this. At every turn I met delays, consternations, logistical surprises, and unforeseen costs. It didn’t help that it rained the entire time, turning me into a soggy mess by the end.
Driving through London proper could be a nightmare. Though I got the hang of driving in a mirror-image world where the steering wheel, gearshift, pedals, and side of the road on which you drive are all reversed, I had more difficulty grasping the constant roundabouts, weird merges, nonexistent street signs, and meandering roads. Every step in the journey presented a new challenge.
I spent all of Tuesday afternoon at the Durham University sports complex. I received a tour of the facility, talked with the director, was graciously fed lunch at their cafe, got to sit down with the head coach for a quality talk, and had good conversations with a few current students about their experiences so far. Tuesday evening, I joined a campus chaplain (with whom I had connected via email a couple weeks previous) and a group of about 10 post-graduate and seminary students for a traditional Eucharist service and then a homey potluck-style dinner where we swapped Trump jokes, good-spiritedly bemoaned northern England culture, and enjoyed each other’s company. I made my way back to my car around 10pm and drove back to Nottingham, alighting in another street parking spot and falling asleep across the back seat again around 1am.
Back up at 6:30am Wednesday morning. I headed back to London, parked my car in a lot, and enjoyed two final appointments separated by a couple hours on the tube (subway). I met the founders of two private basketball organizations, a real treat. I thoroughly enjoyed connecting with them and learning about their clubs. By 4:30pm, I was getting back on the tube and heading back towards my car. A few last travel legs remained between the moment and catching a 10pm bus from the center of the city that would take me to Paris to catch my flight the next morning. But it was only fitting that my last few hours in London might have been the most pressured.
- Got to my car after needing to ask directions to the correct of a few adjoining parking garages.
- Tried to plug in the car rental’s address in the GPS. Nope. It managed to recognize approximate location coordinates and I embarked, hoping I could get at least close and use my phone for the final few steps if possible.
- Drove an hour through congested London streets.
- Without apparent warning, found myself in isolated countryside. What I remembered of the rental office was that it was not in countryside. Continued following the GPS’ directions for another half hour. My imagined timeline for the evening was starting to feel a bit of a pinch.
- Try again to figure out where to go using my phone. It worked. Drove another half hour.
- 7:30pm. Located the car rental office. Elation. Spent 15 tense minutes trying to find a blasted gas station so that I could fill up before returning the car.
- Found gas. Found the rental again. Returned the car. God was gracious and the process was quick and the airport shuttle was ready and waiting when I exited the office.
- Back to the airport. Find the train to the city center. 8:30pm. Good, we should still be doing ok.
- Train arrives in central London about 9:15pm. I am under the impression that the bus station I need adjoins the train station in which I just arrived. Ask for directions to the buses. I’m directed outside and “just down the street.”
- It’s pouring out. Start walking. No bus station. There are buses parked along the road but no station. Five minutes of walking yields nothing. Ask directions. First guy has no idea. Second girl points back in the direction from whence I came and told me it would be on the other side of the street. Back I go. 9:35pm.
- Find the station. The screens in the lobby don’t list my bus. Ask at the counter. He directs me to a gate number and I take off running. 9:42pm.
- Pushing through the crowds that fill the surprisingly vast bus station. It just keeps going. Finally I come upon the gate number. 9:48pm. There’s my bus outside — the passengers are already lined up at its door. I go out, confirm with someone that it’s the right bus, then breathe a sigh of relief. Made it.
- I’m nearly the last one in line. I and a young French couple in front of me pull out our digital QR code confirmations for the driver as we get to the door. The confirmation email I had received read, “show this to the driver upon entry.” Straightforward — that’s how it has worked for me on other buses in the past.
- The driver shakes his head at our outstretched phones and points inside, instructing us to go check in. Check in? 9:52pm. We run.
- No one at the door. No one at the next most likely counter. We manage to find the company’s staff kiosk midway through the station and gasp our problem. The staff member rubs his temple and walks with us back towards the gate.
Guys. It is only by the supreme grace of God that this gentleman, when he couldn’t find someone to check us in because it ends 10 minutes before departure, eventually persuaded the bus driver to let us board the bus. We were a hair’s breadth away from being barred from the bus (in fact, the driver at first refused to let us board and almost pulled away) because we hadn’t sufficiently checked in. I had to plead with them to let us board — there was no other bus that would get me to Paris in time to catch my flight home.
Thankfully, God is good. I now write from that plane and am incredibly thankful that God allowed me to get here. But I’m not entirely keen on experiencing the craziness of the last three days again anytime soon.
And now I head back for the States, after my longest overseas stint yet, with lots of fodder for thought and some big decisions to make in the next week or two. I have a lot to think about and process not just from Durham but from the entire summer. But you’ll hear about it as soon as I can make some sense of it myself. Very much looking forward to seeing some of you in person soon.