Paddington, Where the Bears Live

Leaving Rotterdam behind was bittersweet for our troupe. The dining and the nice people will surely be missed; the hotel room, not so much. As a quick reminder for all who need it, our transportation options to the UK with Schaefer were VERY limited. At the end of the day, we settled on the Stena Line ferry from Hoek van Holland, The Netherlands to Harwich, England.

Hoek van Holland (aka Hook of Holland) is located just a few miles from Rotterdam, and the trek is quite nice. After riding to the end of the metro, you take a beautiful 30-minute bus ride through almost all farmland. Not many people know (I certainly didn’t before I visited), but The Netherlands is a global agricultural powerhouse. In fact, it’s the second-largest exporter of agricultural products after the US. And we could certainly see it on the bus ride, which was through one of the country’s main area of farmlands. Only it looked different than the US; rather than seeing row after row, acre after acre, mile after mile of corn, as we had become familiar with in Michigan, Indiana, and other areas of the Midwest, there were greenhouses as far as the eye can see. Greenhouses and canals, two of the iconic symbols of the Dutch countryside. And yes, in addition to the many giant wind turbines dotting the coastal region, we did also see one traditional Dutch windmill, completing our cultural checklist on the brief bus ride.

Arriving at the ferry port of Hoek van Holland was a slightly underwhelming experience (which, I’m sure is by design). The ferry we were to board is large, it’s actually close to a modern passenger cruise ship in terms of gross tonnage. Considering her size, she is very well hidden from the countryside as you approach. We arrived at the terminal several hours early, so that we could get all of Schaefer’s paperwork handled. We were more than a little nervous as the manager-in-charge looked over his documents in what amounted to a pre-customs check; however, everything was in order and we were allowed to board.

Stena Line policy dictated that we put Schaefer in an onboard kennel for the journey. The kennel itself provided plenty of space, as well as blankets, bowls and other accessories. We were free to visit as long and often as we pleased and take him for walks in the pet relief area on a nearby deck; a poop deck, if you will (sorry, I couldn’t resist). In addition, we were able to check on him via CCTV from our cabin, which had a dedicated channel hooked into the cameras in the kennel room. As such, in total, we were pretty pleased with the accommodations. Given his vehement protests, however, Schaefer clearly wasn’t, so we spent some time trying to calm him down to little avail.

Eventually, we made our way to our overnight cabin—which was very nice—to drop off our things then went down to the observation deck. This being the end of another long and stressful day, we grabbed a couple of drinks from one of the several bars and plopped into a perfect spot at the center of the bow to admire the views. And there we remained for several hours, enjoying a nice dinner, chatting with some new friends, and admiring the stunning sunset views as we travelled west across the North Sea, parting only briefly to check on Schaefer from time to time and take him for a walk before turning in for the evening.

We awoke at 5:30am local time (one hour behind the mainland) to a most pleasant ship-wide wake-up call: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin… you know, the tune that the plastic fish sings. Making our way up to the main deck for breakfast, we saw that we had arrived in Harwich (pronounced Harr-itch) and trucks were already streaming out from the lower decks. Having only time for a brief coffee and a Dutch stroopwafel, we were hurried back to our cabin to freshen up and collect our belongings. You see, while the voyage is nice and relaxing, turning around these vessels in preparation for their next journey is a seriously efficient enterprise. So, after quickly repacking for what seemed like the 1,000th time, we grabbed Schaefer and made for the shuttle bus to take us to the arrival point on land (the passenger walkway in Harwich was under construction).

Not long after, we took the comically short ride down the ramp and officially disembarked in front of the UK customs office. Despite being assured that—with the pre-check completed in Hoek van Holland—we’d simply be waved through customs with Schaefer, the British officials did do a thorough check of our documentation, including Schaefer’s paperwork. Nonetheless, our agent was very nice and after a few minutes, we were off to the adjoining train station for our two-hour ride into London. Once we had collected our tickets and were safely aboard the National Rail train, we were able to pause and marvel at the fact that we (and by that, I mean ‘Kiley’) had actually succeeded in moving Schaefer with us into the UK. The process that had started over seven months prior and involved countless trips to vet offices in several countries, dozens of conversations with officials in multiple languages, more dollars than we care to share, and plenty of finger-crossing had actually succeeded… WE MADE IT!

Most of the train ride into London was quite pleasant; things got a little crazy when we had to change trains and jump on the Tube, but we eventually made it to our hotel, The Marylebone Inn, where we were to stay for one night until our temporary flat was available. Our receptionist (which sounds a bit effeminate, considering the man’s stature) was a six-foot-four-inch Russian beast-man who didn’t appear to enjoy interacting with people very much, but boy did he like Schaefer! I swear, this man spoke more to Schaefer in our several interactions than he did to either Kiley or myself. But it was all good; the hotel was very nice, the room fitted with a double bed—which we had not seen for about a week—and it was centrally located next to Kiley’s school and our temporary flat.

Having arrived at the hotel in the late morning hours (remember, we had an overnight ferry), we spent that full first day exploring areas in which we’d be flat hunting in the coming days. In particular, we walked through areas that we hadn’t seen in our December trip, but had turned up intriguing flat options in our online searches. Overall, that first day was pretty awful; we were ferry- and train-lagged, we didn’t like any of these new areas, we almost came to blows with a superiorly-bitchy women whose dog tried to bite Schaefer, and—somehow, at the end of it all—we ended up in a seriously packed Camden Town on a Sunday afternoon. Now, we already knew about Camden Town from our December trip; it actually comes recommended from a lot of people because it has lots of bars, clubs, shops, etc. However, while we can see the appeal to others, it is just not our style (aka, we completely detest the area) and on Sunday—for us—it’s at its worst. Although dotted with respectable twenty-somethings, the packed Sunday crowd at Camden Town mostly consisted of London drifters and grumpy old hipsters who, I assume, are mad at the world after their careers as cider homebrewers fell through. Anyway, looking back on that first day, I view it as the bitter “welcome to back to the big city” that one always experiences at some point; I’m just glad we got it out of the way early.

After a good sleep, we felt much better that second day. And there was reason to be happy; we were moving into our temporary flat, which was being subletted out by one of Kiley’s classmates. We spent the first part of the day running some errands and exploring more before meeting this unnamed and very nice classmate and his equally kind girlfriend at the flat. The apartment is wonderful and our hosts gave us the grand tour before the four of us went around the corner to the neighborhood pub for a pint. After seeing off our hosts, we ventured back to the hotel to collect our bags and bid farewell to Big Ivan. Before long, we were back to the apartment for some very welcome unpacking. Although we are only set to stay for a couple of weeks, just the act of putting our clothes into drawers made the flat feel homey. And it is a fine place indeed, from which we will launch our (hopefully) final house-hunting effort for at least a year. It’s good to be home… for now.

 

 

In the two weeks that have passed since we settled in our temporary flat, we’ve been focused on two big things: flat hunting and school prep. Most days involve a little of both; during the morning hours, Kiley works on her prep courses, researches laptops, etc. while I do some online house hunting or reading; during the afternoons, we are out and about looking at flats or talking to estate agents; and in the evenings, we’re making meals at home (more often) or grabbing a bite out (less often). As of this writing, we have not yet secured a permanent flat, due mostly to the limited selection available that are pet friendly.

You see, although economic confidence has dropped in the UK as a result of Brexit (the pound is down about 15% since the vote), the rental market is still booming in London. While rental prices have begun to drop recently, prices are still very high and landlords generally have little trouble finding tenants within a few days (or hours, if the flat is nice). In this market, landlords simply don’t have to accept pets, so what we end up seeing are generally those that have been on the market for over a week or two (and, therefore, not as nice), or the ones that Kiley has been successful in tugging at the landlord’s heartstrings. She does this by sending out dozens of emails per day to landlords, highlighting Schaefer’s general awesomeness, and imploring them to consider accepting him. When working with estate agents, we also request that they contact landlords of listed flats to ask the same thing (making them work for our business). Overall, by our rough count, this works about 2% of the time, but that is enough to maintain a slow trickle of flats to view every couple of days. Nothing yet, but we still have over a week and we are ready to pull the trigger!

Outside of that, we’ve unfortunately had little time to do much sightseeing or touristy activities. When we have the chance to take a detour and take a walk through Hyde Park or explore Canary Wharf, we’ve done it; however, we haven’t done anything too crazy since landing two weeks ago. However, that doesn’t mean we haven’t been having fun and it DEFINITELY doesn’t mean that we don’t have good stories. Here are some bits and bobs (as the Brits say) from our first two weeks in London:

  1. We’re getting to know the Underground (aka The Tube). Although we’ve been concentrating the majority of our flat hunting near Kiley’s school (London Business School), we have also looked at some quieter areas a bit further out. Altogether, it has resulted in a ton of Tube rides, bus trips, etc. and we are getting more familiar with the extensive public transportation system in London. In order to help Kiley absorb the information quicker, I’ve started giving her pop quizzes on our journeys. I justify it by saying that she’ll be commuting much more and it would make me feel better knowing she’s more familiar with the system, but it’s also fun to be a pest sometimes. Random questions like “how many more stops?” and “what station are we getting off?” have become staples of our travels and—in order to keep her on her toes—I’ve even started deliberately zoning out to see if she catches our stop before we miss it. We haven’t missed a stop yet, but there have been a few hurried Tube exits. Cheeky as she is, Kiley has started pushing back; at one point, I asked “what station are we at?” to which she responded “Paddington, where the bears live.”
  2. Shopping has been boom or bust. BOOM: 10-pound dinners. During our grocery shopping, Kiley came across a phenomenal deal: the M&S £10 dinner deal, which includes a full entrée, side dish, dessert, and bottle of wine for—you guessed it—10 GBP. And these are large portions; one of the desserts was a full apple pie! We’ve actually had to cut back because, despite our darndest efforts (of course), we started falling behind on the wine. BUST: Laptops. So far, we’ve been unable to locate ANY electronics stores that sells decent laptops. There are a ton of resale shops that include used laptops, mind you; however, Kiley thought it best not to buy a used laptop where you also buy your vape supplies. I tend to agree.
  3. Schaefer remains the most epic of champs. Out of respect to our hosts, who may or may not have allowed Schaefer to stay at the flat against official policy, we have been taking Schaefer on all of our travels. London being so dog friendly, he’s allowed on all transportation and in nearly all stores, pubs, etc. For him, this has meant longer, more frequent, and less interesting trips on a day-to-day basis. Through it all, he continues to be great. I think he’s actually becoming a bit of a celebrity on the Tube, since Kiley has taken to cradling him on his back like a baby Ewok when he needs to be carried up the escalators or through a busy station. One thing we’ve noticed is that people on the Tube seem to be either hopelessly in love with him or deathly afraid of him; there haven’t been many in between.
  4. People talk different here. I know… weird, right? But they do! So far, the slang has been pretty straight-forward; lots of “proper” and “quid” and “isn’t it?” pronounced without the ‘s.’ But the one that has, and continues to, catch us off guard is “Are you alright?” It’s a standard greeting, used in the same situations as “How are you?” but we just can’t seem to get comfortable with it. Our answers are generally a hesitant “Yea” while briefly thinking ‘why, is there something wrong?’ Even when we catch it right away, we are struggling to respond, often “Uhh… yea, thanks” instead of the customary “I’m fine, yourself?” In spite of the hold-ups, we are getting more comfortable using the slang (I’ve intentionally and unintentionally inserted plenty of it into this post). And, lest I start sounding lingual-centric (if that’s a word), my own accent has been troublesome at the worst possible place; the pub. You see—while we may not think it—we Midwesterners do actually have an accent and it rears its ugly head most often with vowels, in that we try to make them all a’s. Okay, it’s not quite so bad, but we definitely throw out the occasional mAHm (mom) or khAYYki (khaki) or hAHckey (hockey). I won’t even get into the optional t’s; quick, Michiganders, how do you pronounce “mitten”? There ya go. Anyway, I digress… I got into trouble at the pub because I tried to order a blAHnde beer (instead of blonde); the bartender appeared puzzled at why I wanted the blandest beer they had. Anyway, we got it sorted out eventually, but it gives you a little perspective, right?

 

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