We’re off to see the Queen!

It seems like forever since my eldest daughter Kristen and I took a road trip, and our experience celebrating her high school graduation in Japan will always shine brightly in my memory.  But before we get too caught up waxing on the past, it’s high time for us to make some fresh, new international travel memories!

For the past two years now, K has been enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, and after taking the fall semester off to intern with locally-based Anthropologie clothing company, it’s time for her to return to the books this spring as she enjoys a semester abroad.  She’ll be continuing her pursuit of a degree in Film Studies (yes, hear me groan on that one!) with minors in English and Women’s Studies (yes, that was two more groans you heard) at King’s College in London, UK.  For the record, I am still holding out hope that there is still time to turn the focus back and salvage that degree in International Business that her mom and I sent her off to St. Louis to achieve two years ago!

OK, now that I have cleared the air with my personal feelings on career-building decision making, let’s move on to the adventure at hand.  Her classes will be starting early in the first week of January, so my little darling has a bit of a mission in front of her to get prepared, and to add to her stress, everything is happening over the holidays.  The good news is that dad is always up for a road trip, and what better way to ensure Kristen gets off to a great start in this continuing education process (wait….film studies???) than to be there and help her navigate through any logistical challenges that may arise.  It’s her first time in Europe since she was 2 years old, so lots of research was necessary to get things squared away.  We’ll be flying on the 31st of December, and celebrating New Years somewhere over the Atlantic.  Of course the downside of this timing is that poor Michele will be quietly ringing in the New Year with me in spirit alone, but my confidence is high that I’ll make it up to her with a special celebration when I return on Wednesday.

So our adventure starts this morning, and here is where it is obvious that Kristen has inherited a few of her mother’s genes, at least in the travel department.  Our flight from Philadelphia is at 1:20 in the afternoon, so you know I am doing the math, baggage check-in cutoff, time for the parking shuttle, 31 miles down the interstate, yep, we can do this by leaving at 11:15 and really get a good adrenalin buzz going to start the trip and end the year!   But noooooo, that’s not happening today, as K mandates a 9:00 a.m. departure from Harleysville to “not be rushed” at the airport.  “Not be rushed?” I ask incredulously, “where’s the fun in that?”  But she is not deterred, so I begrudgingly agree, and a 9:00 departure it is.

Well of course you know there would be some interpretation in that schedule, so she’s already called me twice and is standing there tapping her foot when I pick her up at 9’ish.  We load her four bags in the van, and start down the road, but wait; I need to make a stop at the bank.  OK, that done, wait, I need to now stop at a second bank.  OK, banking completed, I am out of places to stop, so finally, at 9:58, we are actually heading towards Philadelphia International.  We get to the SmartPark lot and the parking lot Gods are smiling at us, with the very first parking spot open and awaiting us, ensuring maximum exposure for the van advertising while I am gone.  Hmmm…interesting sign, could this trip be blessed in some way?  No, it gets better, as Floyd, one of the regular drivers there, waves and says “Hold on Mr. Valaika, I’m almost done washing the van for you”.  So he pulls up in a squeaky-clean shuttle van, and transports Ms. Kristen and I in our own private shuttle to the airport.

And as we pull up to the Delta terminal, who is there but my good friend and long time Skycap Harold, along with his sidekick Benny, and they come running over to the van and get our bags moving towards check-in.  He asks where the 200 pounds of scuba gear is hiding, and I share our travel plans with him.  What a great guy and a good friend to have in the ‘business’ Harold is.  But wait, for some reason, my over-packing daughter has exceeded the baggage limit for this expedition, and Harold says “geez, I’m not sure here, but according to the computer, it looks like you are going to have to pay an excess baggage fee”.  Well fate continues to shine on us this morning, as Melinda, another friend and one of Delta’s finest gate agents, walks up to wish me a Happy New Year, and Harold tells her of the predicament and she smiles, and says “I’ll take care of this”.  Minutes later, all fees are waived, and now I am really feeling that either this is truly a gifted trip, or, like the proverbial “calm before the storm”, there is some major bombshell about to explode!  Clearly, with the early departure from home, no scuba gear in tow, and an adrenalin level of zero, this is not a normal trip for the Dave-ster in any case!  And we are still over two hours early for our flight!

With the bags checked, we head to security, and I know this is where it will get testy.  Ever since Kristen attempted to sneak her knitting needles and scissors through Salt Lake City security a few years ago, I have been sensitive to her to fully understanding the mentality (and ineptitude) of the Blue-Shirted Army that is charged with keeping America’s skies safe.  Well as a predictable as a lottery drawing with only one ticket in the bowl, guess who gets grabbed for the ‘random second level security screening’?  If your answer was a Valaika, then you’re a winner!  But, get this….it is not me, but my eldest princess who clearly has the look of an international terrorist about her.  So they pull her aside, give her a cursory review, never bothering to ask if she had bags, since I had swept them all off the belt, and we are allowed to pass.  America is safer for sure, and I’m more comfortable flying next to her!

What are we going to do with all this extra time?  Well the Delta Sky Club is calling our names, and we head in, stopping to wish long-time staffer Angela, who keeps teasing me with wanting to learn to dive, a Happy New Year.  She asks where I am heading, and I introduce Kristen to her and share our travel plans, and then amazingly, the entire staff at the front desk blows me away with their familiarity with Kings College, the school K is heading to, and they start talking about the award-winning choir, the school grounds, the famous chapel, and more facts and details than I could ever have expected.  Utterly amazing, and just further proof of what a small world we all live in.  Finally, we’re inside, and we settle down in a quiet area, and K, who celebrated her 21st birthday in September, wants to make herself a drink.  Well she walks up to the self-service bar, and I watch as she is a bit dumbfounded, looking at the automatic drink dispensers and the impressive line up of inverted bottles of libations.  So, like a good dad, I give her the quick skinny on bartending and the proper use of the equipment and technology, and before you know it, she is mixing up her gin & tonics like a pro!  And the best part?  This bar is FREE!

Several rounds later, it’s finally time to board, and we head down to the gate.  We’re whisked to the front of the line, saunter down the jetway, and board our plane and jet off to JFK in New York for our European connecting flight.  A short and uneventful flight later, we touch down in the Big Apple and entertain ourselves in the airport for a few hours before we board for Heathrow.  Last American dinner for K for the next eight months, and she savors her french fries, knowing that the “chips” they try to pass off as fries in England won’t compare to the real McCoy!  A little more quiet time allows us to go over our marathon touring plans, and we’ve got a checklist of the places we plan to hit over the next two and a half days:  Stonehenge, Salisbury, Brighton on the beach, Windsor Castle, Oxford, the white cliffs of Dover, and finally the Imperial War Museum in London (thank you Kristen!).  There’ll be no resting on this trip, and we are pretty pumped up about our adventure.  Our notes are complete, maps are laid out, and we enjoy one last round of libations as we await our boarding call in the Sky Club.

Finally, it’s time…. and once again it’s great to be in front of the line!  We walk on board and are shown our upgraded seats – the new upgraded Economy Comfort seating with 50% more recline and plenty of extra legroom, along with some other benefits in flight – OK so it’s not going to be too bad flying with the common folks tonight!  Woo hoo!

Dinner is served up, and we enjoy some more quality bonding time as I realize how sad it is that she is heading away for eight months – I’m gonna miss my little girl!  We wish each other a happy New Year as we pass through some time zone over the Atlantic, and then grab a little naptime before our arrival at 6:30 in the morning.

Once on the ground, we taxi up without delay, disembark, and pass through immigration with nary a hitch.  It should be noted, that when Kristen identified her reason for the visit to study, the border control officer had to review her paperwork from school and fill out a few forms.  He got to chatting with K, asking her about school and career, and then got to the line on his form where her area of study needed to be entered.   So she told him that she was majoring in Film Study (yes, I groan again) and the guy rolls his eyes says “Really?  Film study?”  I break out laughing, and he asks if that is something you do with a video camera and YouTube, not sure you need a college for that.  He is great, and Kristen gets into it too, finally consenting that the four classes she will be taking during this study abroad are all pretty lame.  At least she’s honest about this!  Of course she had to then tell him about her two minors, English and Women’s Issues, and it just kept getting better.  Funny how “human” a border control agent can be in another country – you’d never get that from the Blue Shirts in America.  Sad, but true.   He even answered a few questions I had about some folks they had in a special corral there – you’d never get that sort of honest disclosure from the TSA.  We finish our business here, grab our bags, pass through Customs, and exchange a small pile of Ben Franklins for the local currency of choice, Pounds Sterling.  The feeling that this trip is blessed just continues to surround us as we head out to grab the shuttle bus to Advantage Car Rental. They share the lot with Hertz so onto the Hertz bus we go, and the driver takes right off with us, another private limo –like experience for my little girl and I.  And the driver cannot be helpful enough, as he shares a lot of local tips and suggestions with us on the way to the lot.  As we pull up to the Advantage gate, he says, “Wait just a moment” and jumps off to run up and see if the office is open yet – it is not!  He runs back to inform us, then tells us to wait another moment, and sure enough, here comes the Advantage guy to open up his office.  The amazing part is that the shuttle driver is a Hertz employee and is just going out of his way to be helpful to two non-customers!  I’m starting to love these people!

Now I use the term “office” kinda loosely to describe the Advantage Car Rental facility.  Keep in mind that Advantage is sort of a second (or maybe third) tier rental car company, so the “office” is in fact a panel truck, with a generator, sliding side door and steps to get in, and a little counter and a sofa inside.  The employee fires up the generator, and suddenly we have lights…then the generator stops and we don’t.  He repeats this a dozen more times while we are trying to get our rental squared away.  First problem – they do not have a record of our rental although it is confirmed through Orbitz and in spite of the fact that I have all my paperwork.  Second problem is – they are out of cars!  Suddenly the “gifted” part of this trip appears to be unraveling a little.

The agent is essentially worthless, offering nonsensical suggestions about what we should do to resolve this – and I realize that we are in a bit of a pickle here.  I am standing here with a confirmed reservation in my hand for a nice sized car and a great rate, but that means nothing here, as he has neither the reservation nor a car for me anyhow.  And worse, we don’t have transportation and we are standing on the corner of the Hertz lot, and Hertz is historically the most expensive car rental company out there when I am searching for quotes.  But we’re tired and our options are limited, so we load our bags on a cart and with the slumped shoulders of a man defeated, I walk over to the Hertz office to see what we can do.

Jirrana, a very friendly agent, greets us and I try to explain the situation to her.  “Of course I can help you out”, she says, “Just give me your license and credit card to get started”.  “Hey before we get into that, how about we look at the quote I have here”, I say, “and see what we can to match or beat this number”.  “Should not be a problem”, she assures me, as she punches away on her keyboard.

Now I know most of us have seen more than our fair share of Hertz commercials, where the punch line for the guy who rented from “the other company” is always ….”Not exactly”.  Well guess what – Jirrana’s hard work and effort produced a rental contract for me that was twice the price of what I had from Orbitz, and for a car two sizes smaller.  I’d call that … “Not exactly.”  She said that is the best she could do, and in her sole opinion, it was a very good price.  I chuckle, and ask if she has Wi-Fi here in the office, so I can go on line and search for a quote.  No, she does not.  OK, can I use a computer here, since the office is completely empty on New Years morning?  No, I cannot.  Nice strategy, but I am not done.  I am really feeling that fate is no longer smiling on this trip.

Of course, my cell phone won’t connect to the Internet here, but I do have five bars, so I call back the states and wake Michele up at 2 o’clock in the morning, and get her to go on line to Orbitz and get me a new quote for a car while I am here. She does and we find one available from SIXT Car Rental for actually less than what I had originally gotten from Orbitz, so I tell her to go ahead and book it.  That done, I walk back up to Jirrana and ask if they would not mind giving me a ride down the block to SIXT, and of course, the answer is no, they cannot do that, they need to take me back to the airport terminal and then I can take the SIXT bus to their lot.  I say “Fine, thank you for everything”, and I am putting my paperwork away and getting ready to walk out to the shuttle when Iwana, another Hertz staffer, walks out from the back and introduces herself as the manager and asks if she can do anything.  I give her the story, and tell her what I am about to do, and she says, “Wait, I think we can make this happen”.  Now bear in mind that I have a $114 quote from SIXT in hand, and the Hertz on-line quote for the same car was $482.  Major, major difference, but heck, I’m game if she is.  So I follow her to her desk, we get chatting, I ask about her unique name, turns out she is Polish, she asks about my surname, I tell her I am Lithuanian, she breaks into a broad smile and says, “So is my boyfriend!  His family is from Vilnius.”   Well lo and behold that is where my grandfather came from, so suddenly the business barriers are breaking down left and right, and when all is said and done, I have an upgraded car for the same $114 price that SIXT quoted.  Amazing to find a little piece of Tijuana right here in London, ready to barter prices on rental cars!  K & I thank our new Lithuanian connection, load up the car, and head to our hotel to check in.

We pull out of the lot, with the “remember – drive on the left side” mantra ringing through my head, and we pull into the hotel lot a short while later.  Too early to get a room, we leave our bags with the concierge, change shirts and undies, and head out to our first destination – Windsor Castle.  First though we need to grab something to eat, and there is a McDonalds right there across the street, so I pop an illegal U-turn and suddenly we’re there!  We pull in the drive thru and immediately recognize that the woman in the car in front of us is having way too difficult a time placing her order.   Finally she gets past the ordering screen and moves forward, so we pull up and order a diet coke for dad and porridge with jam for K – something unique to the UK McDonalds.  Meanwhile, the afore-mentioned woman is having difficulties at the payment window, and finally, she gets into an argument with the guy giving her the order.  The manager apologizes for our delay, and suggests that it seems she is still celebrating New Years with a good buzz still going strong.  Needless to say, I’m glad to see her turn in the opposite direction of where we are heading.  Some people, eh?

OK, time to head off to the castle!  But first, I need to comment on our car.  It’s a Volkswagen Polo, diesel, five speed manual transmission, with the steering wheel on the right side.  It’s a blast to drive, although with the very short throw on the shifter and the left hand shifting, I manage to stall it a few times by trying to start out in third gear.  Getting in and out is a bit of a challenge, as this model was designed around someone a bi more compact than my 6’2”, 270# frame.  But we manage, and we have wheels, so all is good.  Now the highway system is something else, with a distinct lack of road signs, and a somewhat confusing (to a Yank) pattern of overhead signs on their equivalent of our interstate system.  But the best part?  They have round-a-bouts, hundreds and hundreds of them, so this really adds to the thrill of the drive!  Now while this feature might intimidate a lesser soul, I was born and raised in New Jersey the state that invented the traffic circle, so I felt right at home as we zipped in and around each one.  Of course, Kristen screaming, “Dad, you don’t have the right of way” as I accelerated into the passing traffic didn’t help my concentration, but we managed to survive each one, unscathed.  Can’t say that for the other drivers, but it was good for the tourists!  And even better, we opted to have Kristen learn her UK geography by using real maps, you know, the things you fold up in the glove box, and she just did fantastic in her navigation, learning the lay of the land at the same time.  Every trip with Dad is a learning experience, whether she wants one or not!

Well 70 miles and a couple of missed turns later, we park the car in downtown Windsor and walk up to the castle gates.  To say the place is a bit overwhelming is hardly doing it justice – this is medieval construction project on major steroids!  We head in, get our tickets, and opt for the self guided tour, and spend the next four hours just walking around this place, getting more amazed at every corner we turn.  The neatest part is that this is a working castle, not a museum, so all the massive dining halls, meeting rooms, exhibition halls, and galleries are really used on a regular basis, and the Queen Mother spends nearly four months a year in residence here, including extended weekends nearly every month, and a month or more in March and April – very cool.  Of course everything is much bigger than real life, but the amount of artwork, collections and displays truly leaves you in awe.  There is a huge display of clothing donated to the royal family over the years, and Kristen recognized so many of the names and designers I was amazed.  Ditto on the artwork, as she knew more facts and trivia about the artists than some of the castle staff did.  I was pretty dang proud to be in her company as she truly immersed herself in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.  And the staff was tremendously helpful, answering all the ‘deeper than the average tourist’ sort of questions I usually come up with on a tour like this, such as who are these people that live here (retired soldiers, rank of Major & above, who were awarded the Blue Garter for service to the country), or why are these bathrooms so big (because they get 8,000 plus visitors a day in the summer), or what are these Buckingham Palace-type guards actually guarding here (nothing, they are really ceremonial as the security is handled by all the police with the submachine guns in clear view), or who the heck had all the time and money to build this unbelievable dollhouse in the Queen’s apartment (it was a gift from the nobles…proving that political favoritism was active even back in the early 20th century), and finally, what’s with all the cannons and arrow-shooting slits – was this fort ever really attacked? (Yes, twice, both times by local barons and their followers revolting over taxes and other royal inequities – go figure!).  So we walked away with much learned and a really deep appreciation of the professionalism and knowledge of the staff here, which was proving to be the case nearly every place we stopped on this adventure.

Our plans after that were to head to Oxford and tour that area, but with the rain starting to fall, the sun going down, and me fading from the long over night flight, that thought of driving another 80 miles round trip and heading back in the dark is probably not the greatest idea, so we opt to call it a day and head back to the hotel.  I am hoping I can find someplace local that will be showing the Eagles game tonight on TV!

Well let me be the first to report that US football is not held in as nearly a high regard as that other form of football, so needless to say, none of the local pubs were showing the Birds whooping up on the Redskins tonight, but still good to end the season with another win and with the Birds finishing ahead of the Cowboys in the division!  That was enough fun for today so it’s off to catch some beauty rest before another big day tomorrow.

The weather forecast had predicted rain all day today, but once again, the gods were smiling upon us and we awoke to a bright sunny blue sky and fifty degree weather – perfect for a day of touring more of this beautiful country!  In the spirit of the poet Robert Frost, we’ve got miles to go before we sleep today.

But first things first, it’s out of the hotel parking lot (remember…left side, left side, left side!) and another quick U-turn to head into the local Mickie D’s for another porridge / jam / diet coke order. Kristen’s all over figuring out the myriad of coins and paper bills here (think Monopoly money) and we quickly settle up, and as I’m given my change, I suddenly feel ‘Six pence, none the richer!’  Sorry, couldn’t resist.

The first destination on today’s list is the the Royal Pavilion, located about 80 miles southeast of London in the sea side city of Brighton, ranked as one of the top 10 city beaches in the world by major travel guides.  The drive down is lovely, with changing landscapes all along our ways, such a beautiful country this is.  The old architecture, rustic barns dating back hundreds of years, hedgerows between the fields of crops, wooded areas; it just really takes your breath away to be living in a history book.   We pull into Brighton, and drive past some phenomenal cathedrals as we pass through town.  We head right to the coast road, and park along the beach.  Mind you now, this is parallel parking, on the wrong side of the road, with the steering wheel on the wrong side, and I manage to ace it, first time.  Kristen is impressed!  But wait…there’s more!  “Check out the cool license plate on the car in front of us,” I tell her.  “Wow”, she says as she figures it out, “These guys drove here from Lithuania!”  How cool is that?

This place is beautiful and you don’t know where to look first!  We walk across the street to the beach, and here we are in for our first surprise – the entire beach is made of large rounded gravel.  There is not a grain of sand in sight!  At first I thought, this is interesting, they put gravel at the top of the seawall, but no, right into the sea it went.  How weird is this?  Not the most comfortable beach to lay on, and man, jamming your umbrella into the rocks must truly suck big time!  Definitely a beach for shoes to be worn, but hey, it’s a beach, so we’re loving it!  We walk along the world’s first and oldest electric railway, the Volks Railway, the oldest continuously operating one of its kind in the world, going into service back in 1883.  There’s at the huge 150 ft tall Brighton Ferris Wheel, offering fantastic views of the town and the beach, and the world famous Brighton Pier juts out hundreds of yards over the English Channel.  Located across the street is the Sea Life Aquarium, the first in the world, built for the British royalty back in the late 1800’s.  A hundred or more small restaurants, pubs, and shops line the street along the beach, and many more are located in the town.  Truly a place to come and spend a few days exploring, but that’s not on our itinerary for this trip.  We snap some photos as we walk to our destination – the Royal Pavilion.

If you were to Google examples of royal excess, this place would come up at the very top of your list.  The Royal Pavilion, the spectacular seaside palace of the Prince Regent (George IV) transformed by John Nash and a team of architects, designers and interior decorators, between 1815 and 1822 into one of the most dazzling and exotic buildings in the British Isles.  The Pavilion houses furniture and works of art including original pieces lent by Her Majesty The Queen and a magnificent display of Regency silver-gilt. The Royal Pavilion Tearoom, with its fabulous balcony, overlooks the Pavilion gardens, which have also been returned to their original Regency splendor.  Originally constructed as a local monument, known as the Marine Room in the early 1800’s. One of the most unique features of the design was the decision to leave the original obelisk domed structures in place and constructed a cast iron frame around their base to envelope the existing buildings and expand upon them.  This was revolutionary and the first time cast iron was ever used in a building structure……ok, ok….the engineer in me gets carried away sometimes!  Anyhow, the entire building was constructed and finished to recreate the look and feel of Indian, China and Southeast Asia, with bamboo, silk, ornate wood carvings and metal castings – you truly feel you are in a different land when you’re inside.  Decorated from head to toe with hand made silk wallpaper, ornate carved columns and woodwork, dedicated rooms for every fancy, the first steam heated kitchen, just about everything you could imagine was in there, clearly with no budgetary limitations whatsoever.  When royalty from other lands would visit, they would typically prepare over 100 main courses alone, just to make sure the visitors had something they liked – they had sample menus saved from some of the events for us to view.  And remember, this was before Tupperware, so the waste just had to be absolutely phenomenal from these events.  Again, we’re talking no budgetary restraints here whatsoever.  Check out more on the website link above to learn about this fantastic place.

And of course some interesting military history to be found here also.  During the Great War (WWl) the British Army was significantly outnumbered, so they drew upon the resources of the vast British Empire and brought in troops from the colonies.  One of the biggest contributors was India, who sent tens of thousands of troops to fight alongside (and when possible, in front of) the British soldiers.  They served in the European theater from the onset of hostilities in 1914 through 1916, at which point they were transferred to Africa and the Middle East campaigns.  During this time though, the army needed to expand their hospital network, and the pavilion proved to be a perfect setting for the East Indian troops.  And just like today, no one could really get along – between the Sikh’s, Hindu’s, Muslim’s, Meat-Eating Muslim’s, and a few more sects, plus the ‘untouchables’ that did the dirty work, the hospital had to maintain nine different kitchens, different slaughterhouses (some animals killed by chopping off head, others had to have the spinal cord left intact, so many religious variations), independent water supplies (they could not even share a tap!) and separate laundries, cremation grounds and more.  It is no wonder they are still fighting amongst themselves today over there.  This was just crazy but neat to see that the religious extremists we see on the news today are hardly new items – these are some deep rooted beliefs and issues at work here.

Three hours (and a hundred questions to the staff) later, we strolled back to the car, and then embarked on a seaside drive along the coast, before turning inland to head towards Salisbury and Stonehenge.  We got a little fouled up in our navigation along the way, and with the sun heading towards the horizon, we decided a potty break at the McDonalds in Southampton would give us a chance to ask some locals for directions.  So we take care of business and ask the staff working the counter how to get to Salisbury, and you can immediately tell from the expressions that these guys were probably not candidates to appear on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’.  They mumbled amongst themselves, and then finally the one who appeared to be the leader of the pack says, “That’s pretty far away.  We’re not sure how to get there.”  Mind you now, it turns out we are 21 miles from Salisbury, but this collective group of young folks in this village have not only never traveled that far from home, but have no concept of how to get there either.  Geeez!   We’re about to head out the door to figure this out ourselves when one fellow comes up and says “I can help you”. Although he cannot give us directions all the way to Salisbury, he can, however get us to a town that is nearly ten miles up the road, and he knows there will be signs for our destination to be found there.  We get in the car, and Kristen comments, “That was unbelievable.  I go to a school 1,000 miles from home, and here, you’d have to circumnavigate this country to get that many miles on your odometer.  Amazing that these people we asked have never left the village!”   I concur, but at least we are pointed in the right direction, these crazy Americans, and with true international explorer spirit, we’re going to make it to Salisbury and beyond!

Back on the road, we make it over the horizon to the new land beyond, and find ourselves rolling into the lovely village of Salisbury.  In addition to our sightseeing, we have a few assignments to complete during this condensed visit.  Kristen needs a local cell phone, and a hair dryer.  Argos, the UK version of Circuit City, has been recommended as the place to go, so we’ve kept our eyes open for a location during our drives.  Suddenly, on the opposite side of the ‘dual carriageway’ (divided highway) we spot on, so time for another U-turn and we find ourselves pulling into the lot.  Into the store we go, and knowing we are like lambs in the woods here, I grab the first staffer I see and ask if he could help us out.  “I sure can’”, he responds, “Just give me a moment.”  So we mull about, and sure enough, Dan, our newest British acquaintance, is true to his word and comes out to find us.  We explain what we are looking for in a phone, and he walks us through the process and the plans and we end up with one that will work.  As I am wandering the store, he’s put the sales charm on K, and she ends up not only with her hair dryer, but a straightener and a few other things too.  But wait, the phone we got appears to need a SIM card, and they are out of stock.  “Hold on,” Dan says, as he bolts out the front door of the store.  That was odd, I am thinking, but he’s back in a minute and says, “OK, I went to the Car Phone store at the other end of the shopping center and checked – they are open and they have the SIM card.”  Talk about service above and beyond, I guess it helps that Kristen is cute – I should take her shopping with me more often.  So we finish up our business here, and walk down to the Car Phone store, only to find that today, the day after New Years, is a bank holiday, so they cannot process credit card sales. Now someone surely missed the mark on that one, we laugh, and head back to the car.  Fast forward – turns out there is a SIM card packaged with the phone, so we end up with service before the night is over.

Back on the road we continue into the village, where the highlight is the Salisbury Cathedral, at 404 ft tall, it is the tallest church in the UK, and more impressive than that, it was built as a fast-track project, completed in only 38 years, in 1320.  We pull the car over along the massive structure, get out and walk around the beautiful grounds, snap a few jillion photos, and finally we move on to find a parking spot, as K has chosen a restaurant from her guidebook for us in this town – the Haunch of Venison.  Not sure where it is, so we pop our head into a local convenience store and ask, and a friendly woman says, “I’m walking that way, I’ll take you.”  You cannot ask for a more helpful, friendlier, more interactive experience than we have encountered at every step along this adventure, and it’s not over yet.  We walk along with our new friend, chatting about the town and other matters, and sure enough, she points us right in the direction of our destination, which, by the way, she recommends highly also, and points out it is an original English Pub, not like these chains they have today! We like that!

This is arguably the oldest hostelry in all of England, and it’s really a hole in the wall sort of place.  They have been open and operating for 700 years, since 1320.  That is almost incomprehensible – makes you wonder if one day someone will find themselves sitting in a  TGIFridays or Chili’s and thinking back over the last 700 years of serving the public…..NOT!   Anyhow, back to today…tourist test number one is getting in the front doors, which are spaced so closely in the tiny foyer that only one person can get in at a time, and you have to close the one door behind you to make room to open the next one.  Obviously, they have no real fire code requirements here!  But we’re finally in, and the eyes are on us – they don’t get many Americans here.  This place can hold maybe 16 people max, in two little areas, that are not even connected, you have to go back outside to get from one corner of the bar to the other.  A cute little fireplace, some locals with their dogs, a pewter-topped bar (the only one in England, it is pointed out by one of the locals), and an array of beers on tap, none of which, for anyone who knows my tastes, that I’ll enjoy.  But K does fine, sampling a number of the local stouts and brews, each with a story behind it.   They don’t start serving meals until six, so we’ve got nearly an hour to hang in the bar.  It’s kinda funny, one person says something to us, then another, and finally nearly the whole bar is talking to us, asking questions, telling stories…they truly don’t get a lot of outsiders here!  We do find out that they have had American visitors in the past, mainly during the Second World War, when there were numerous airfields built around the town, and the US airmen’s presence is noted in the old B17 radio cabinets that now serve as bases for some of the taps at the bar – pretty darn cool to see!  We’re really enjoying ourselves here, learning of the local history, local events, political views, culinary recommendations and more, and keep at it until K’s stomach rumblings become obvious – her last meal, other than this morning’s porridge – was a bowl of soup from room service last evening.  She did inherit her dad’s eating habits, once a day if needed, and doesn’t whine about missing meals, which makes her a perfect traveling companion for me.  For dinner K goes with a stuffed squash, about the size of a football (American-version) and I choose the trademark, haunch of venison.  My meal is delicious, with local venison filets prepared just right, along with all the sides.  Great dining choice, Kristen!

Well we’ve got a ninety-mile ride to get home in front of us, but with two days of wrong-side driving practice, it’s a cakewalk, even with the round-a-bouts and sometimes difficult to understand traffic signage.  We pull back into the Sheraton at midnight and put our heads down for our final rest before K heads off to school in the morning.

Tuesday morning comes and it begins with a celebration – it’s my birthday!  It’s raining and dreary out, a perfect day to conclude the fun part of the trip and get down to the more serious purpose – to deliver Ms K to school.  We’re up early, fueling up the car at the local “petrol” station, and then working our way through rush hour traffic to her dorm residence.  Her navigating skills again prove to be pretty good, and dad is pretty cool about when we miss turns and need to backtrack, so it’s a positive experience overall.  She meets the woman in charge of housing and her room is not quite ready, so we hang for a bit in the student hall.  Another young lady arrives, a native of Hawaii who is attending college in Boston, and she is here for her semester abroad also, so K immediately bonds and the two of them strike it off well.  Seeing she is in good hands, it’s time for me to head back to the airport to return the car and catch my flight, so I bid my #1 princess goodbye and get back on the road for my last run.  Car is returned without a glitch, and I shuttle over to Heathrow.

Well the gods of fate continue to shine on this mission as the good folks at Delta upgrade my seat to first all the way home, a perfect way to celebrate a most wonderful start of the new year.  Life is definitely good!

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