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Saturday, February 1, 2020

A Month in Europe and on the North Sea, Summer 2018

by Paul Pakusch
Travel Writer and Agent

I first started planning for this trip in the summer of 2017. Unlike the last couple of cruises that I had been on, I knew that I would not be able to get a cabin at a solo rate. So I went ahead and booked it, figuring I was going to take somebody with me but I didn't know who. It could have been one of my daughters, or it could have been a new love interest.

The North Sea cruise would be my longest cruise so far. It is 2 weeks long. It starts in Hamburg Germany, and goes to multiple ports in Norway, Iceland, and Scotland before returning to Hamburg. Being that it is expensive to get from North America to Europe, I also wanted to take a couple of weeks to do a land tour in some European countries. So I mapped out several possibilities that either included or began and ended in Hamburg, Germany. I decided to leave my options open until I figured out who was going with me on this trip. In the meantime I went ahead and booked a cabin on the Norwegian Jade, a ship I had sailed on in the Caribbean in March of 2016.

Over the summer of 2017, a strong friendship developed between Stacey and me. By the Fall, we were a couple and it looked like things were going to be pretty serious between us, and that this would end up being a long-term relationship. When the time seemed right, I told Stacey about my trip plans and asked her if she would be interested in going, and if she could get four weeks in a row off from work. She said yes. So I added Stacey to the cruise reservations.

Stacey said she had been in England when  she was about 6 months old to be baptized. Her dad had spent his younger years in Leicester England and she was interested seeing the area, including the church where she was baptized. With that in mind, I went ahead and planned out the remainder of our itinerary.

Our plan was to drive to Toronto, a three-hour drive from Rochester New York. We booked a flight from Toronto to London on Air Canada, with a transfer to Hamburg, Germany. We would spend three nights in Hamburg, then board the Norwegian Jade for our two week Cruise. After returning to Hamburg from the cruise, we would take a train to Berlin Germany, for two nights, then fly to Paris for three nights, then take the high-speed Chunnel train to London for 4 nights. Then we would fly home.

The cruise included the following ports:
Hamburg, Germany
Alesun, Norway
Bergen, Norway
Lerwick, Shetland Islands
Reykjavik, Iceland
Akureyri, Iceland
Torshavn, Faroe Islands
Invergordon, Scotland
Edinburgh, Scotland
Hamburg, Germany

What follows is a journal of our travels:

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

It is now the morning of the day we are leaving for Toronto. We have spent the last few evenings picking out clothes, packing, tidying up our apartment, and confirming reservations and directions. It is with a different perspective since neither of us has ever been gone for a whole month before.

Another new angle is that we are now engaged! I proposed to Stacey on June 18 and she said yes without any hesitation. I had originally planned to propose on the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but circumstances made me move it up a few weeks.

Thursday, June 28

As I write this, it is 8:30 in the morning and we are at London Heathrow airport, sitting on our Eurowings jet, waiting for boarding to be complete. Our flight on Air Canada from Toronto to London was quite smooth. I have previously written in other blog posts about my experiences with Business Class on Air Canada. This time, because I was also paying for Stacey's seat, we chose Premium Economy. My big issue is legroom. I need plenty of it for a long flight. We had seats in the front of the Premium Economy section, right behind the bulkhead. It worked out well. Although I could not lay out flat like I did previously in Business Class, I did manage to get a couple hours of sleep after taking a sleeping pill. Stacey said she slept about an hour. It did not go well with her because she was by the aisle and the flight attendants kept bumping her awake with the drink cart.

After getting off the plane in Hamburg, customs was a breeze. We got our luggage and took the S1 train to Altoona. I had received a message from the host of our AirBnB apartment that he would not be there during our stay. He gave us instructions to pick up our key at another location. We found his friend, she gave us the keys, then we dragged our suitcases 15 minutes to the apartment. We struggled with the key in the door. While this was going on, the fire department showed up at the building next door. I'm pretty sure I heard someone say it was a small fire caused by someone smoking. In any event, the trucks we not there for very long.

Just as we were about to give up on trying to get the apartment door unlocked, a neighbor showed up and was able to get the door open for us.

Stacey desperately needed to take a nap, so I went out to find an ATM, get some Euros, and buy some groceries. I had researched ways to get foreign currency and concluded the best way was to simply get it from an ATM with your debit or credit card once you arrive. Stacey was awake by the time I got back. We rested for a couple hours, getting caught up on internet activities since she had figured out how to log onto the apartment's WiFi.

We took a 45-minute walk, then found a Greek restaurant to have dinner at. Yes, a Greek restaurant in Germany. When you're hungry after travelling, any square meal that satisfies the palate is a square deal. We got some laughs out of the strong liquor that was in the shot glasses.

After dinner, back to the apartment to rest some more, then settle in for a long night to catch up on jet lag.

Friday June 29

After getting a good night of sleep, we made our way to the pickup spot for the Hop On Hop Off bus that we had tickets for. It was a bit confusing at first because there are multiple companies offering the same service.

While waiting for a bus at the main stop, Stacey overheard 4 people talking about the cruise on Sunday. It turns out they are all going on the Jade. It was one mother and daughter from Scottsdale, Arizona, and two women from Hawaii. When we got off the bus at the Rathaus stop, we exchanged photos with the two Hawaiian women. Since we had met three other people going on our cruise at London Heathrow, this now makes a total of seven people from the cruise that we had already met.

Our Hop on Hop Off tour of Hamburg drove along the Speicherstadt (warehouse city), habor city, shopping areas, the villas of Harvestehude, the Outer Alster Lale, the City Hall, museums, the Reeperbahn, and the habor.

After finishing our bus tour of Hamburg, we started walking along the Elbe River, back towards our apartment. Along the way, we stopped to see an AIDA cruise ship that was docked at the Altoona Cruise Port.

Back at the apartment, we rested up and got groceries from the grocery store next door. Since eating out all the time adds up to a lot of money, we are buying food to eat at our AirBNBs. We agreed that it's actually kind of nice that Florenz, the owner of the apartment is out of town because we have the whole place to ourselves.

The frozen pizzas we bought were actually pretty good. After dinner, we took about an hour and a half walk. On his AirbBNB website page, Florenz describes this area as “trendy.” We see a lot of young adults on bikes.

There are many pubs around, after all this is Germany, but not much that we've seen with music. We turned in early Friday to get a good night of sleep.

Saturday June 30

We got a late start this morning, and then had some difficulties finding our bus stop to Miniatur Wunderland. That was quite an enjoyable experience for both of us. It's the largest model railway attraction in the world, and has such incredible detail. Not just of the trains and landscapes, but also of the activities by the tiny model people.

We spent about three hours at Miniatur Wunderland before moving on to a long walk back to the apartment. The walk itself was 2 ½ hours and included stops at  St Nikolai and St Michaelis Churches.

St Nikolai has a history going back to 1195.  The most recent structure was heavily damaged during air raids in 1943. The ruins have become a memorial to the tragic consequences of war and serve as a plea for world peace.

St Michaelis was rebuilt from past destructions in 1907-1912 and its high tower and clock is a very prominent landmark on Hamburg’s skyline.

We continued our walk through St Pauli, a district with a rather seedy past. Even today, there are plenty of pubs, sex shops, and entertainment venues in the area.

Back at the apartment, we had a couple of roast turkey sandwiches as we sat outside on the balcony, then a quiet, relaxing evening.

Sunday, July 1

I had made reservations with a taxi company on Thursday to pick us up at 11:15 this morning to take us to the cruise port. We figured we had some time to leisurely pack up, tidy up, and meet the taxi. We saw some runners outside the window and realized a marathon was in progress.

Little did we realize that this marathon was about to affect the next 2 hours of our day. At about 10:40, I received an email from the taxi company that our ride to the cruise port was cancelled. I was furious. I had made this reservation 3 days ago. Why would they wait until now to cancel? We found another cab company online and called them. They said that the whole city was shut down due to the marathon and that they would not be able to provide a ride for us. They said we needed to find public transportation. I was even more furious.

After considering several options, I suggested we start walking towards the train station to see if we could find a cab around there. After only two blocks, I found some police officers taking down the tape that was used to block spectators from the street during the marathon. One spoke English. I asked the police officer if he knew anything about how much the city was shut down for the marathon. I told him we were trying to get to the cruise port. He got on his cell phone, had a conversation with someone, and then arranged for a cab to pick us up right where we were standing. After about 20 minutes, a cab showed up, and we were on our way.

Checking into our ship, the Norwegian Jade went very smoothly. While walking into the ship, I spotted a couple of entertainment staff members and we introduced ourselves to them. I told them that they would be seeing us quite a bit over the next two weeks. They said they look forward to seeing us at the sail way party. As expected, the rooms were not ready yet, so Stacey and I headed to the buffet for lunch. This was my second cruise on Jade, so I  started giving her a tour of the ship. Naturally I had to show her the lounge where I felt my life changed on the March 2016 cruise. I showed her the spot where I said I became a dancing maniac. About halfway through the tour, they announced that our rooms were ready, so we stopped to drop off our carry-on bags. We took a few minutes to look around the room, and then continued our tour. We had some time to kill before the mandatory safety drill so we relaxed by the pool for a while.

After the drill we headed back to the pool deck for the sail away party.

We jumped right into dancing with the cupid shuffle. While we were dancing, I recognized a familiar face. It was Charlotte, one of my fellow solo cruisers from my 2016 Mediterranean cruise. Then they started a Congo line and both of us and Charlotte got pulled out to be on stage for the first contest of the ship. The contest was for four men and four women to show off their best dance moves and win a t-shirt. There were some Mexicans in the contest who had their large family with them, thus a cheering squad. They won the contest, of course. I'd long ago concluded that these contests are more like popularity contests, and whoever has the largest contingent to cheer them on is the winner. All of the contestants then received a drink. Stacey drank hers quite fast and felt quite affected by it. We both had a lot of laughs.

We went back to our cabin to enjoy the view from our balcony for 20 minutes and then went to the solo cruisers' meeting. Stacey announced to them right away that we were engaged, but we fit right in with them. We ended up going to dinner with five other solo cruisers. After dinner, we went to the theater to see the welcome aboard show.

We finished off the evening by dancing for a couple of hours at the opening night party. We had a bunch of others solo cruisers dancing with us. It looks like we may have found our dance team for the next couple of weeks.

Monday, July 2

It was a day at sea. We had a leisurely morning with breakfast in the buffet. We hung out by the pool while I went in the hot tub where we met some of our fellow solo cruisers.  After lunch we took a line dance lesson which we did pretty well with because we both knew some of the dances. Stacey was happy to learn the Wobble. I had learned it on previous cruises. We participated in a trivia contest. We met our solo cruisers for the evening meeting, then participated in a Motown trivia contest. Since our group already had left for dinner, we had dinner by ourselves. Then we watched the Newlywed Game, and stayed for a Motown Dance.

They had the Norwegian Night Out. Stacey and I won Best Couple! By now the entertainment staff had gotten to know us.

Tuesday July 3 we got up early so we could meet Paal at the cruise port in Alesund, Norway. He was one of my fellow solo cruisers on the Getaway on the Baltic Sea in 2017.

Paal got us a cab and took us to the top of a big hill where there was a cafe and a fantastic view of Alesund and the surrounding waters and islands. We ran into our cabin neighbors, who also had a good time chatting with Paal. We walked down the hill on a long staircase with 418 steps, then took a walk around the streets. There was hardly any road traffic because the whole city shuts down for a five week holiday over the summer.

Paal’s friend Dag met us in his boat at the dock by the ship. He took us through some of the local waterways, then stopped to get gas before we headed to the fjords and high mountains. We ended up in the tiny village of Ole, which has a beautiful, rustic old and historic hotel, which we toured.

After returning to the dock, we thanked Paal and Dag and said our goodbyes. Back on the ship, Stacey took a short nap while I tried to get the Alesund port WiFi. No luck. Stacey went to a trivia contest; I met up with her at the end. We checked out our photos so far, then joined the solo cruisers for dinner.

After dinner, we went to the 9:30 theatre showing of their voting off contest. This made us a few minutes late for the 50s/60s dance party.  When we arrived, the dancers were in a circle. As soon as we walked in, the entertainment crew got us into the middle of a circle and expected us to start dancing. Very shortly after that, the entertainment crew selected us as being one of five couples to participate in a twisting dance contest. We did well I think, but the couple that won had been married and dancing the twist for several decades. They were very good. We finally ran into the two women from Hawaii that we had met in Hamburg.

Wednesday July 4

We arrived in Bergen, Norway, went for breakfast and ran into the same two women from Hawaii so we had breakfast with them. After that we got on the Hop on Hop Off bus and did about three quarters of the tour before we decided to walk the rest of the way.

Back on ship, it was the 4th of July back in the U.S., so the crew had a 4th of July celebration on the ship, complete with fireworks on a large video screen!

We met some solo cruisemates for dinner, then went to the 9:30 show in the theatre, which featured three “Divas” singing a bunch of songs. The 70s party followed. I got called out to be the policeman in the Village People, dancing to the YMCA.

Thursday July 5

We woke up in Lerwick, Shetland Islands to an overcast sky that was forecast to be cloudy all day. But the sun came out soon after, and we took the tender to shore. We had no excursions booked, but decided on shore to take a 3-hour Central Shetland tour, which featured meeting some Shetland ponies and visiting the tiny community of Scallaway and its castle.

After that, Stacey went back to the ship and I walked around a bit longer.

We went to a Thriller dance lesson. I dropped out halfway through, but Stacey did quite well with it. We decided to skip the solo group meeting and have dinner on our own so we could attend an 80's music trivia contest in the afternoon. Along with an older German man and, I assume, his granddaughter, we did fairly well with it.

We went to watch the Mr. Norwegian Jade contest. Stacey and some of our friends talked me into being a contestant. Five of us guys did some crazy stuff. First, we did our sexiest dance. We had to show our “muscle” by how fast we could pop balloons under our arms and between our legs.  We had to go around in a circle of three chairs for 45 seconds, seeing how fast we could do a Tarzan yell, animal sounds, and lines from a song. We had to dress like Cleopatra or something and do a belly dance.

The winner was chosen by audience applause.I was quite surprised at the reaction I got; it came down to them needing to count hands between me and the guy who ultimately won. He was already known for being a bigshot ham on the ship. He actually came up to me, handed me the T-shirt he won, and said, “Here, you deserve this.” I'm already being approached by people telling me what a great job I did. I learned something new; it's actually pretty easy to good off in front of an audience.

They then had the band play ABBA songs for 45 minutes, and then we had the 80s party. It was a LOT of fun dancing!

Friday July 6

It was a day at sea en route to Iceland, so we took advantage of the opportunity to sleep in. We were up at 11:00. Missed breakfast, so we started the day with lunch. Then Stacey went to a belly dancing lesson while I went in the hot tub. It was cold and windy. Hardly anybody was out by the pool deck. After showering, I met up with Stacey at a trivia game. We walked and hung around a bit, then went to a scattergories game. Stacey then went to a country line dancing lesson while I sat off to the side to make changes to my Android music library.

After a brief break in our cabin, we got ready for dinner and met the solo cruisers. After dinner, we watched a Battle of the Sexes game, followed by the band playing Frank Sinatra music, and then the Decades music party. Stacey was a contestant in the Battle of the Sexes!

Saturday July 7

We arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland for two days. Again, with no pressure on our schedule, we took the opportunity to sleep in, finally getting up about 9:00. After breakfast, we headed out to the Hop On Hop Off Bus. We mostly just rode the bus, getting off at one stop to walk around for about an hour. For the first time on this trip, we had rain. We were prepared; we both had raincoats and umbrellas. We stayed on the bus through the first four stops, then attempted to backtrack. That's when the rain started so we jumped back on the bus further down than we had planned. So we stayed on for another circuit for the tour.

After getting back, we had a late lunch at O’Sheehans, then went back out to the visitor's center to check out excursions and use free WiFi.

For the evening solo group meeting, I was the only one that showed up, so I chatted with crew member Henry for awhile. After dinner, Stacey turned in for the night and I went up to Spinnaker lounge for Elvis music and ballroom dancing.

I was hoping to find people from the solo dance group to dance with, but found none. The entertainment crew was there so I did a few dances with Sheree and by myself. The rest of the time I sat and enjoyed the music and watched the sun set at around 11:45 pm.

At this latitude this time of year, even though the sun sets, it's never completely dark. It drops below the horizon for a few hours and then rises again. This photo was taken at 11:40 pm.

Sunday July 8

This was our second day in Reykjavik. Stacey decided to stay on the ship while I wanted to use the 24-hour option of my Hop On Hop Off bus ticket. We had breakfast together. 

Stacey walked for awhile, sat in the library, and played solitaire in the game room. She also went out to take advantage of free WiFi.

I got off the ship and then decided to walk along the path by the shoreline. Henry had told me about it. It was a long walk; I went to the Opera House, then headed to the city hall area and up to the church. Along the way I took a lot of pictures. I took the bus from the church to the Perlan dome. I bought a ticket to tour the place, see the ice tunnels, and look at the 360 degree view of Reykjavik. After that, I took the bus back to the ship. Along my walk, I also had a lot of opportunities for free WiFi.

Back on the ship, I had lunch and found Stacey at a trivia game. We hung out a bit, then got ready for an early dinner in Alizar dining room.

After dinner, we went to a Bee Gees trivia contest. We saw a stand-up comedienne at the theatre, then went dancing in Bliss lounge to a music duo until it was time for karaoke to start. Stacey and I each did three songs.

We were along the Arctic Circle by this point, so before going to bed, I took some pictures and video of the coastline in midnight daylight.

Monday, July 9

Arrival in Akureyri wasn't until 10:00, so we had time to sleep in and have breakfast. Our excursion was Jewels of the North. The stops included Godafoss, a waterfall; volcanically formed craters at Skutustadir; lava formations at Dimmuborgir; and Namaskard, a barren field of gurgling cauldrons and boiling mud pits. We concluded with a tour through the streets of Akureyri.

Back on the ship, we had dinner at O’Tooles, then danced to the duo again. We went to the Latina dance party.

Tuesday July 10

Today was a day at sea, so we stayed in bed as long as we could, then grabbed breakfast just before they closed the buffet. We took showers after breakfast, then tried hanging out in Bliss lounge. Stacey wasn't feeling too well; the ship was rocking quite a bit from the waves. We tried going back to our room, but it wasn't made up yet so we went to deck 6, middle of the ship in the champagne lounge to try to minimize the rocking. After a half hour, we went back to our room. Stacey layed down to take a nap. After updating Facebook, I went to eat lunch. After updating this blog, I noticed a few solo cruisers had come in, so I hung out with them.

Back in the room, Stacey was starting to do better. She was hungry so even though I was just there, we went to the pub. She had a full meal and I just had salad. Then we went to the solo cruisers evening meeting. The evening show was with a Voice contestant, Karl Loxley.

We went to the International Dance, which featured songs from the countries that were home to the entertainment staff, followed by a range of songs from countries all over the world. After that, we went to watch the karaoke singers. Since some people left before their songs came up, we were able to each get in one song before it closed for the night.

Wednesday July 11

We arrived at Torshavn, Faroe Islands at 7:00 AM. We had plans to meet 3 solo cruisers at 9:00 to walk around the city near the port. We didn't go far; we enjoyed some of the views, walked through some shops, and walked through a mall.

We were back on the ship around 12:30, had lunch, played cards, and took naps. Then went to the atrium to listen to music, and participate in another trivia game.

We had dinner at Alizar, finishing off the bottle of wine that we won, plus enjoying the cake the cruise line gave us for our engagement. We watched the cast do a show of Broadway tunes, a ballroom dance, and the dance off contest. We both had put our names in the bucket, but neither of us was chosen to participate.

Thursday July 12

We woke up docked in Invergordon, Scotland. After breakfast, we got off the ship to look for our Hop On Hop Off Bus stop, only to find out it was in Inverness, a 45-minute bus ride away on a city bus. We didn't realize it was that far away, otherwise we would have gotten an earlier start. We felt stressed out about catching it, doing the Hop on Hop off Tour, and getting back to the ship on time, so we decided to stay in Invergordon to walk. We mostly followed a suggested walking tour that was on a map, but extended it further in one direction and found a nature park.

Back on the ship, we had lunch, then Stacey went to see a Scottish dance and singing show in Spinnaker Lounge while I walked around the deck and took pictures. I also made arrangements to take an excursion the next morning rather than deal with a similar situation with the Hop On Hop Off bus. I resolved to never book Hop On Hop Off tours in advance again. It's easy to get on one once you dock in port.

I put my kilt on for the evening and we went to take pictures. Naturally, it caught attention, with people complimenting me, asking ”what's underneath,” and taking some pictures. We met the solo group, got a nice photo with them, and had dinner with some of them.

Stacey and I danced to the husband/wife duo, Spoken Two, and went to the Rock the Jade party. We left right at 11:00 since we had an early excursion the next morning.

Friday July 13

We arrived offshore Edinburgh and got up early to meet our excursion. They used a local tour boat instead of a lifeboat as our tender, so we were able to sit outside and enjoy the view on our 20 minute ride. Once at the dock, a bagpiper played as we disembarked.

We had given up on the idea of using the Hop On Hop Off bus. Instead, we took the leisurely tour of Edinburgh. We saw signs posting information about streets being blocked because of a planned protest about Trump scheduled for the next day.

That evening, the entertainment crew put on a hilarious “low budget” show of movie spoofs.

We danced to Spoken Two, then attended the White Hot Party.

Saturday July 14

This was our last full day on the ship and it was a day at sea. We stayed in bed late, then had breakfast. After that, there was a deck party going on with German music, pretzel snacks, other food and games.

We spent the entire afternoon laying by the pool and in our cabin. After the solo meeting and dinner, we put our names in for the Best Couple game, but didn't make it. We packed, then went to the Goodbye party.

Sunday July 15

We got off the ship in Hamburg, found a taxi, and got dropped off about ¼ mile from the main train station due to a bicycle marathon blocking our route. The train ride to Berlin was pleasant and we had WiFi.

Once in Berlin, we found our bus and found the AirBNB apartment building. After struggling to determine which apartment we were in , we got settled. We met our flatmates, three young women from London.

We had lunch and took a long walk, including a nice park, part of the Berlin Wall, and checkpoint Charlie.

Then we walked back, had pizza for dinner, and settled for the evening.

Monday July 16

We got up, had breakfast, and took the bus to Alexanderplatz. We took the Hop On Hop Off bus on the purple route, which Stacey was bored with. I loved it because it showed a lot of historic sites in Berlin. We had lunch in a cafeteria serving German and Asian food, then took the Hop On Hop Off yellow route, which Stacey said she enjoyed a lot. We did quite a bit of walking after that, then decided to go up in the landmark Berlin TV tower. We both enjoyed the view tremendously.

We took the bus back to the flat and chatted with the girls. One of them, Claudia, said she works in a pub near where we will be staying in London.

Tuesday July 17

Our morning went smoothly with breakfast, final packing, and the bus ride to Tegel Airport. This was the first time on EasyJet and the baggage check-in process sucked. It was extremely slow, even though we had paid for checked bags in advance. I had purchased seats with extra legroom, so at least our “Speedy Boarding” went right, as we were in the first group to board. Tegel is a very outdated airport. We had to walk out onto the ramp to board the jet.

After getting to Paris, we got on the bus and found the AirBNB where we were staying. We came across a woman who tried to scam a free taxi ride off of us. After getting settled, we went out to find something to eat. We found a nice restaurant where the owner looked like he was desperate for some business, so we ate there. It was nice, and we can say it was foreign, but it was actually Italian.

After that, we got lost trying to find the apartment again. Once we found it, we settled in for the night.

Wednesday July 18

We got up to go use our Hop On Hop Iff bus tickets for a tour of Paris. I think this was the most frustrating experience between the two of us regarding trying to figure our way around. But we finally got it resolved. After the Hop On Hop Off bus tour, we had a very long but nice walk to see a lot of the sites of Paris.

We got back to the apartment around dinner time and stayed in for the night. I went out to pick up a pizza for the two of us. Then we decided on plans for the next day, and we figured we better start purchasing tickets for things to do in England.

Thursday July 19

We got up to head to the Louvre. We had tickets for 12 noon, but we got there early, so we decided to relax by a pond at the Concord for an hour.

With reserved tickets, we had no wait getting into the Louvre.

Yes, that's the Mona Lisa. My impression is that it gets a lot more attention than it deserves. I was more impressed with most of the other art displayed in the Louvre. We spent a couple hours there, them went back to the apartment. After resting up for the afternoon, we headed out for our 10:30 PM appointment at the Eiffel Tower. Again we got there early so we had dinner, relaxed and then walked around.

We hung out on the bridge over the River Seine and watched the lights come on. A guy enticed me to buy a few roses for Stacey; I decided then to enact the proposal that I originally had in mind.

We got up on the tower after dark and spent about a half hour looking around.

Friday July 19

We got up early to get to the train station for the trip to London. I thought we were running early enough, but both of us got very stressed out with directions inside the train station, my bus ticket not working, and needing to go through passport control before boarding the train. I hadn't expected that. The train ride was smooth and uneventful.

After arriving at the London train station I found I was in a great deal of pain in my chest area. I thought it was acid reflux. (From previous tests and a similar situation, I was confident it was not a heart issue) We hung around there for an hour or two waiting to see if the pain would go away. It did not. I finally got my my nerve up enough to bear the pain so that we could take a taxi and go to our AirBNB. After arriving there, I laid down for a while but the pain kept getting worse. I finally called the British version of 911 and told them what was going on. They said it would take a couple of hours for an ambulance to arrive due to being backed up. They sent a medic. The medic arrived on a motorcycle. He checked me over asked a bunch of questions, and then I happened to vomit while he was there. Then he said, "You're going to the hospital." He called for a cab to take me to St. Thomas. It did not cost anything for me. Apparently that's the way they do things in London if they can't send an ambulance.

I waited in the ER for a little while and then they finally took me in. After examining me, it was determined that I was having gallstone blockage. I ended up spending five nights in the hospital in London. They did an endoscopy to clear the blockage. They wanted to take my gallbladder out, but they did not want to do that and then send me home on a 7-hour flight. So the plan was to get me well enough to fly home and then continue with treatment after I got back. So, for 5 nights, my view of London was from the 12th floor of St Thomas Hospital.

Meanwhile, Stacey was able to do some sightseeing around London. She took a bus tour that we had tickets for, she walked around looking at some of the sights, and rode the Eye.

As our departure date was getting closer, the hospital staff determined that I would not be able to go home on schedule. Stacey did want to go home on schedule so we made arrangements for that. She was homesick by this point and was mourning her cat, who had passed away while we were gone.

When I was finally able to go home, it was my hope that I could just walk to the other end of the bridge from St. Thomas Hospital and take a close look at Big Ben before I headed for the train station. By the time I got outside the hospital, I realized I was too wiped out to be able to do that. So I did not get any sightseeing done in London at all. As I was walking away from the hospital, it just so happened that one of the nurses who had taken care of me called out my name and was catching up to me. He had changed out of his scrubs and was in street clothes already. He asked me where I was headed. I told him I was heading to the train station so I could take the shuttle to the airport. He helped me with directions and carried my suitcase up a flight of stairs. That was very generous of him. 

Once I got to the airport I was really wiped out. I got to the check-in desk for my flight and told them I had just gotten out of the hospital and asked if they had any upgrades available. I could not face sitting in an airplane seat for 7 hours and I just wanted to be able to lay down. I was able to get a business class seat that laid out flat for $750 American. The flight home was very relaxing and I was able to eat a little bit more than I had in the hospital. My treatments at home continued and I finally had my gallbladder taken out. 

A lot of people have asked me how my experience with the British Healthcare System was compared to the U.S. The medical care in the hospital was quite comparable. The big difference was in the payment system. When I had checked into the ER nobody asked me for money at that point nor did they ask me for an insurance card. On the Monday morning when I was in the hospital, someone from international relations came to me and said that I would have to pay for my visit. I said that's fine and I had expected that. I put a down payment on my credit card and they said they would bill me for the rest. It took a little bit of time, but I finally got the payments worked out and I got reimbursed from my own medical insurance. 

Being that I had trip insurance for this trip, trip insurance covered all of the other emergency expenses. They paid for Stacey's flight home from Toronto to Rochester, they paid for some hotel expenses that I had lost, they paid for my half of the AirBNB that Stacey was staying in while we were in London, since I never got to stay there. They also paid for my business class upgrade on Air Canada for my flight home. Trip insurance is well worth the investment. I have heard many horror stories from people not getting trip insurance, including one from this particular hospital. It turns out another American had been hospitalized a couple of months prior to my visit. He ended up needing extra care for his flight back to the U.S. His flight cost $70,000 and he did not have trip insurance for it.

This whole trip was quite the adventure for Stacey and me.  We learned a lot about each other. People may joke about us taking our honeymoon before the wedding, but there is actually a lot of value to it.  Both of us got irritated at times, and we learned how to respond to each other when things aren’t going so well. Four weeks of constant togetherness, under both thrilling and stressful circumstances, brought us closer together in the long run.  As we had been recently engaged, I look forward to many years of marriage, life and travel with Stacey. As I finally finish editing this blog in February, 2020, a year and a half later, we are happily married and planning a return to London very soon to see what we missed!

Paul Pakusch

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