Wedding Day

Helen was awake at just after 5am and I followed shortly after that as well.  By 8am we were ready for breakfast again. We thought we would find a place outside of the hotel but the range is pretty limited around the hotel. We did walk down Main Street which was closed off for a farmers market. Beautiful produce (baskets of peaches for example) but no one selling breakfast (they missed a trick with that). So we headed back to the hotel to have breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant.

After breakfast it was time to get ready for the wedding (some of us take longer to get ready than others). We left for the Church just before 11am. The wedding ceremony was at Downtown Presbyterian which was pretty close to the hotel. The Church is not very traditional (for American Church’s at least) as the building is a converted warehouse. The ceremony was ‘unplugged’. I thought that meant no electricity (understandable for South African’s!) but it actually meant, turn off you phone and participate in the ceremony and not take photos and post onto social media. Apparently it has become quite an issue in the US that people live stream the ceremony onto Facebook, SnapChat stories, Instagram etc. So Melissa & Andrew requested that no photos be taken during the ceremony and that people rather be present.

American’s have strong traditions in how a wedding is conducted. All the wedding party including parents & grandparents are part of the procession into Church. My brother’s youngest daughter (Victoria – just under 2 years old) was flower girl but she wasn’t going to walk in by herself so my brother had Melissa on his arm and the flower girl on the other hand. The pastor conducting the ceremony did a superb job. His talk was woven into the vows and the ring exchange which was the first time I have heard someone do that. The tears were flowing from Helen from when my sister-in-law came in (brought in by one of her sons). The groom (Andrew) pretty much cried through the whole ceremony. It was a very touching and godly ceremony and really encouraging to see them start their marriage on such a note.

We were asked to stay behind for some photos with the bridal party.  Only 3 of our direct (wider) family were missing – Stephen, Michael and Daniel – all too busy watching cricket no doubt! We then headed for the reception which was at the hotel we are staying at. Drinks to start while the photos continued. America has the stupid law that only people over 21 can drink alcohol (it really makes no sense that you can be in the army and die for your country but you can’t have a beer). Some instances of underage drinking might have been noted by the cousins (maybe helped along by their parents obtaining the drinks for them).

At the reception we were again seated with my sisters and brother-in-laws (and one niece) which made for easy conversation and an enjoyable lunch. It also meant that when the bar opened my brothers-in-law were the first at the bar … got their priorities right! Another American tradition is for the bridal party to enter after being announced by the DJ.  The bridesmaids and groomsmen come in as couples and all do a unique entrance with a little dance or swirl or whatever they decide on.  Helen looked surprised but it’s my 2nd American wedding so I was expecting it this time.

Lunch was served (which was pretty good) and after the main course we had the speeches.  The leading bridesmaid and groomsmen both do speeches and toasts followed by my brother (father of bride) and then the groom. Then the dances took place with bride and groom going first and then the moment I was waiting for – my brother with Melissa.  I have never seen my brother dance (or at least not that I can remember). While I was expecting him to end up on the floor at some point, he did actually did quite well … #impressed David! The DJ called for all fathers and daughters to join them and so I took Chloe up (though she complained she didn’t know how to dance!). My one brother-in-law had two daughters there and none of them moved a muscle … #losers!  After that Andrew and his mother danced and the DJ also invited all mothers/sons to come up and join them. I did make a point to invite my Mom up though she declined. Stephen/Michael … where were you?? Daniel where were you? … Jason was #loser too.

When Melissa & Andrew were ready to leave we all exited the hotel and lined up outside to blow bubbles over the departing couple. There was also an ice cream truck (think genuine American ice cream truck) as part of the farewell. Very creamy, sweet ice cream but as they say in US ‘a neat idea’.

By this stage it was 5pm and we were pretty tired. We had agreed to meet up for a final farewell at the place my brother and parents are staying at.  We got there at about 7:15pm and just enjoyed a chilled evening chatting. We got back to the hotel at around 9:30pm and were all pretty tired and fell asleep quickly and slept to about 6am this morning.

Until tomorrow …

P, H & C (moaning about how tired she is …)

Greenville SC Cont.

As most of our day was free yesterday we spent some of it doing shopping. The first shop we went to was CVS Pharmacy (after breakfast). Now you must say ‘A Pharmacy?!’ but if you have never been to American then you won’t understand that their pharmacies are unique. Firstly you find a pharmacy on just about every block corner in America. Secondly, the items sold in pharmacies are wide-ranging.  They are really like a mini-supermarket where you can also get your medication. One of the aisles contained wine … confirms my thought that drinking is good for your health otherwise why would it be in a pharmacy otherwise?! We spent just under $100 in the pharmacy. There is some medication you can get simply off the shelf in America which you cannot get anywhere else in the world and so we always take advantage of doing precisely that when we are in the US.

Helen and Chloe had a brunch with the bride, bridesmaids, other aunts and cousins. That is fairly traditional in the US.  Usually it’s held on the day of the wedding but as it is a morning wedding, this one was held the previous day. I picked them up from there after they were finished and we headed to do some more shopping. Helen had discovered that this weekend is tax-free weekend in SC. One weekend a year just before school restarts the whole state has a tax-free weekend.  I assume it is so people can buy all the necessary school items but we understand it also includes other essentials like TVs even! We could take advantage of that and save ourselves a few more %.

Our first shop was Target which is a massive hypermarket type place (but on steroids). What strikes me every time I am here is the variety you can access in a store. An aisle of health bars was what struck me this time (and I really do mean an aisle). The prices are also incredible. I compared the price of golf balls (yes you can see my interest in that!) and they were about 30% cheaper than what we pay in SA. After some random purchases made at Target (like bake mixes) we headed to find a mall. The traffic was terrible and while it was only a few miles away it took us a long time to get through the traffic.  It is clear that everyone was out and about accessing the tax-free weekend.

While driving around it really struck us again how many shops, restaurants and cars there are in America. And make that large shops, large restaurants (both normal and fast food) and large cars actually. The place is just full of them. It really is a consumer driven society. I travel around the world a lot and have been to many different countries but it really stands out to me again when I am here. We did eventually find the mall but couldn’t find a parking. If you know anything about America you will know they never under-provide for parking at malls so it gives you an idea of how busy it was. I wasn’t planning to buy anything but Banana Republic were selling shirts (and they are really nice quality) at 50% off so not only did I not have to pay tax but I got it half price.  Who can resist an offer like that?

By this stage I was feeling the jet lag kick in and so we headed back to the hotel for a quick nap. Helen resisted and paid later on in the evening for that mistake. Last night was the Rehearsal dinner. It is traditionally held after the rehearsal for the wedding and includes the whole wedding party and close family and friends. We met my sister and brother-in-law for a pre-dinner drink (they were staying at the hotel where the dinner took place) and then we had dinner afterwards. It was a very nice evening. The food was great (it was done by Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse which is a top steakhouse chain in the US) and the company was great (we sat with my two sisters and their husbands). They played a video of Andrew & Melissa (the two getting married) with a variety of photos from their lives to date. That included a shot of my son (Stephen) and Melissa kissing (he started early!). There were also a few off the cuff speeches. Informal and very pleasant. We walked back to our hotel (it was around 9:30pm) and the Main Street of Greenville was just humming with people – clearly the place to be on a Friday night!

Until tomorrow …

P, H & C

Greenville SC

I sent yesterday’s blog from the flight from London-Philadelphia (the one we were almost kicked off from). I never said anything about the flight though. There are some things that struck me each time I travel on an American airline.  First is the age of the cabin crew.  The guy serving us was definitely closer to my parents in age than he was to me. If my parents ever run out of money in their retirement they can clearly get a job with any American airline as cabin crew. Only thing is that my parents probably couldn’t be as grumpy as the cabin crew. Given America is so known for their service, it really seems that all the grumpy, non-service orientated people end up as cabin crew.

The flight landed a few minutes early and the international arrivals hall was totally deserted. It seems we were the only international flight landing at the time and so we had no delay at immigration (and the guy was quite friendly too – also unusual). We parked at gate A6 and our connecting flight to Greenville, SC was from F29. We decided to walk to exercise off the 20 hours of flying. 15 minutes later and sweating profusely we got to terminal F. Fortunately we could use the AA lounge.  They give you drinks vouchers when you enter because you get nothing for free in AA lounge! Another thing that immediately struck us was that anyone talking on their cellphone did so with an ear piece in.  No one just talked on their phone holding their phone to their ear.  Worried about brain cancer? Too lazy to hold phone up to their ears?

At the gate for the flight to Greenville they announced the flight was overbooked (another one!) and that they wanted 2 people to give up their seats.  $500 voucher for any OneWorld alliance flight and guaranteed seat on the next flight leaving 2 hours later.  No takers.  Next offer, $750 voucher … was thinking of offering Helen and Chloe at that point! The flight probably only costs around $200 so that is a real profit.  I’m sure if you pick carefully you could travel perpetually at the expense of the airline on this basis! We ended up leaving late (waiting it seems for two AA flight crew to join the flight … probably why they needed two seats) and so arrived about 15 minutes late into Greenville.  Pretty bumpy flight as well due to the thunderstorm activity around … plane shook like a blender at times (nervous flyers wouldn’t have been happy).

We have rented a car for the time here. First reminder of real American service standards. Show drivers license; give you the keys. Nice big American yank-tank made by Kia (Korean)! Never seen such a big Kia so no doubt made specifically for the USA market. 30 minutes to hotel (caught in rush-hour traffic on 6 lane highway).  We are staying at Westin Poinsett in downtown Greenville ( Quick shower to wash off 28 hours of travel and then we headed for dinner at the place my brother, parents and some of the other family were staying (Swamp Rabbit Inn). They booked the whole place.  Dinner was Shrimp Boil – basically shrimp, sausage, potato and corn boiled up together and then you just dump the pot contents on the table and everyone just eats with their fingers. It was invented in South Carolina in a place called Frogmore (used to be called Frogmore Boil). My kind of food. Desert was ice cream (cookie dough … our favorite) and cupcakes (including pumpkin cupcakes … see pic).  I’m not a cupcake eater but everyone else seemed to really like them and the pumpkin ones were gone first.

By this point we were exhausted (it was about 9:15pm) and so we headed back to the hotel and fell asleep almost immediately. Pretty much slept through until 5am (Helen 5:30am) at which point we were starving. The places for breakfast nearby opened at 7am and we were there pretty soon after that. The hotel recommended the Famous Toastery which was just around the corner from the hotel. The streets were deserted – nobody gets up earlier in Greenville it seems. Another reminder of America – massive portion sizes. French Toast, Egg & Bacon for breakfast (Chloe had flapjack … size of the plate flapjack). Very cheerful & friendly service (what I expect in the South).

After breakfast (given it was just 8am at this point) we decided to walk around the area. The hotel is very near to the Falls Park area and Swamp Rabbit Trail. We did the whole park area and a lot of the trail. It is very beautiful. You can imagine it was just swamp at one point but they have made a lovely park with a running track etc that follows the Reedy River.  There are small falls (hence the name Falls Park).  The beauty of the area really did strike us and I hope some of the photos capture it for you. Greenville Downtown area is also really quaint and full of character. We already like this place and we have only been here for about 12 hours!

Until tomorrow …

P, H & C

USA here we come

Yesterday evening Helen, Chloe and I left for the US.  We are going over to celebrate the wedding of one of my nieces. This will be the 2nd wedding of that generation.

The trip didn’t start brilliantly. The previous night American Airlines called and left a message on my work phone to say they were oversold on the flight across the Atlantic and they wanted us to re-route via Chicago but unfortunately they only had two seats on that flight.  WHAT?! (stronger language would have been appropriate) Why did they think that I would be happy with that? What did they think I would say “Sure 2 seats is fine, one of us will just stay behind in the airport lounge”? Given how much I fly, I have a high frequent flyer status on American Airlines (because they are part of the same grouping as BA) and so in fact does Chloe (Helen also actually but not the same level as the two of us).  Why are they not finding someone else to dump off the flight!?!

After many phone calls by the travel agent she finally spoke to someone at AA and told them to get lost. They said OK. But we hadn’t been able to check in and get our boarding passes.  So we went to airport early to hopefully get it sorted out there. Fortunately we were dealing with a BA check in person and he was extremely helpful and after a reasonably length time he managed to check us in and issue our boarding passes for the US flights as well.  A reminder again of the shocking service American ‘airlines’ (to encompass all of them) give!

Helen is becoming a bit of celebrity spotter in the lounge. On the trip home from the UK in July she saw Frances O’Connor (no I would have never known who she was but Helen did … Mansfield Park apparently). Yesterday evening she came back from toilet and said ‘Ben Kingsley’ sitting behind us. And now him I know … Lawrence of Arabia; Ghandi … Oscar winner. Chloe kept trying to get a photo of him and eventually got one this morning when we disembarked in London.

The flight from Cape Town to London was uneventful and pretty smooth so we all were able to get some reasonable sleep. We had a 3.5 hour layover in London before our flight to Philadelphia. I was again reminded of the different service level of American airlines. Just checking into the lounge took 5 minutes (not exaggerating). It has never taken me that long to get into a lounge. Usually they just scan your boarding pass and you’re in. Not with AA though – passports; security questions and an access controlled door to the lounge. They did eventually let us in.

As I type this we are mid-Atlantic. I love modern technology … WiFi on planes.  Had a WhatsApp conversation with Michael, dealt with some emails and typing the blog. Good use of the 8 hour flight. Hopefully the rest of the travels go smoothly (as they have so far).

Until tomorrow …

P, H & C

Berlin to London

This morning we met Daniel (my nephew) at a coffee shop in his neighbourhood for brunch. It is an Australian coffee shop (underlines the multi-nationalism of Berlin) and they served a very nice breakfast (and the coffee was good to). It was raining when we left and we were waiting outside for our taxi to come when a lightning strike hit the telephone/electricity pole about 15 meters away from us. The thunder struck almost immediately afterwards (not surprising because the lightning strike was right there). We could actually see the sparks from the strike. It was the closest I have ever been to a lightning strike (and certainly don’t want to ever get closer!).

We headed for KaDeWe which is the largest department store in continental Europe and only 2nd to Harrods in Europe. The displays (from the food to the kitchen items to stationery) are beautifully done. It is really quite high-end in its range and prices but worth a visit if you’re ever in Berlin. Helen and I had visited the store 24 years ago and we bought a raclette machine from there so it also held some good memories (though Helen says she didn’t remember it at all).

Back to the hotel to pack up and head for Berlin Tegel airport for our flight back to London. Berlin Tegel airport is the weirdest airport I have ever experienced (and I have experienced a lot of airports). We had to check in a at section D which required us to walk through the whole of the terminal and then exit to get to D. We boarded on time but then sat on the tarmac for an hour due to air traffic control restrictions to due thunderstorms over London and the channel. We eventually landed at about 7pm UK time and got to the flat at about 7:30pm.

Michael rushed straight off to go buy an Apple iPad for himself from the Apple store while Chloe and I went to buy dinner from Waitrose down the road. After dinner, Helen, Chloe and Oli went shopping in Oxford Street (like they don’t have 2 days to do that!) tonight and just got back about 10 minutes ago.

I’m not sure about the rest of them but I am going to bed now!

Until tomorrow

P, H, S, C, M & O (straight back from the shops to insult me while I was typing the blog got her that position)


Berlin Day 2

After all the walking of the last week, we opted for a more chilled day with a little less walking. The plan was to have breakfast at a coffee shop at 9:15am and then take a Berlin city hop-on-hop-off bus tour to get a better overview of the city. The tour we chose was a 2-hour round trip and we hopped on Gendarmenmarkt (in front of the Conzerthalle). We stayed on the bus until the stop before we go on (which was Checkpoint Charlie).

It was overcast the whole morning – which was nice not having to sit in the sun on the bus – but unfortunately with the windchill factor it was pretty cold (and some of us didn’t have jerseys). It was still a good trip though the English commentary was a lot less than the German commentary particularly because the driver was adding to the German commentary. The trip does take you past all the important sites including Berliner Dom; Humboldt University (where numerous famous people including Einstein attended); Holocaust Memorial; Brandenburg Gates; Reichstag; Tiergarten; Schloss Bellevue (official resident of President of Germany) and then finally Checkpoint Charlie.

As I mentioned above we got off at Checkpoint Charlie and went into museum shop. They sell bits of the wall by weight in the shop. Pieces of concrete … I wonder how many people buy those believing it is really a part of the wall?! Could be from any random piece of concrete chopped up. Pretty good business if people are foolish enough to buy it. We did wonder down a block to a place where a section of the wall is preserved. It is the site of the Gestapo Headquarters from WWII which was destroyed in bombing and totally destroyed after the war. They now have a museum called Topography of Terror which is both an inside and outside museum. Matching in length to the piece of the wall still standing are displays talking about the rise of the Nazis, aspects of WWII, persecution of the Jews etc. We walked along and read and looked at the photos. It was quite sobering. There was so much it took us an hour to walk and read the whole thing. You finish one panel and think ‘I’ll skip the next one’ only to be drawn in by the title and then you start reading and simply cannot stop. It reminded me again to be thankful for those who fought and lost their lives in WWII for the Allies.  It was for a good and right cause. It reminded me of my grandfather who fought (and fortunately survived) in WWII.

After lunch, some of us headed back to the hotel to rest (me, S & C) while Michael and Oli went to the Berlin Cathedral and the Holocaust Memorial. Helen went to the Tiergarten and the Holocaust Memorial. For dinner tonight we ended up as the same place as last night. We really enjoyed last night and figured there was no point not going back and doing the same thing again. Coffee, hot chocolate and whiskey (for S) back at the hotel and soon time for bed.

Until tomorrow

P, H, S, C, O & M (because he did the least today)

Lutherstadt Wittenberg & Berlin

Given it is the 500th year of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, we had always planned to make that a stop on our European tour. Originally we thought we would take the train from Prague to Wittenberg (as it is south of Berlin) and then on to Berlin but I discovered when I tried to book the train tickets that the train to Wittenberg from Prague actually went through Berlin first. So it made sense to rather just stay 3 nights in Berlin and take the train down and back again one of the days. That is what we did today.

Our train was at 9:30am – it is only 40 minutes down to Lutherstadt Wittenberg (the town renamed itself relatively recently so important is Luther to its history). Helen and I visited Wittenberg in 1993 shortly after reunification (Wittenberg was part of East Germany) and we could see the effects of East Germany on the town at the time. It was very run down but today we got a totally different impression and it is now a quaint small town proudly celebrating its history and connection to Martin Luther and the Reformation. The whole town is focused on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church and there are numerous special displays for the event.

Our first stop was Lutherhaus which was originally the monastery that Luther took over and then became his personal house. It is much larger than I expected and you had to keep reminding yourself it was actually originally a monastery. The displays and history of Luther’s life are very informative and well done. Definitely worth the relatively low entrance fee. What struck me about Luther was (a) how hard-working he was and (b) what a huge impact he had on both Church and secular life (not just in Germany but throughout the world). I could write a blog post just on Luther (and I might still) but I’ll restrict myself for now to illustrate the (a) and (b) above.

Regarding how hard he worked, he translated the New Testament from Greek to German in 11 weeks. Admittedly he was in isolation at the time (to keep him from further threatening the Church doctrine and in particular indulgences) but it shows how he was prepared to turn difficult circumstances into something positive by simply working hard.  In addition, Luther wrote a lot challenging many of the traditional Catholic doctrines. In 1924, 15% of all the printed books in German came from Wittenberg and most of them were written by Luther himself.

Regarding the impact on Church and secular life, here are some of the impacts Luther had:

  • he believed each person to be equal in God’s eyes (both men and women) and so his wife ran the household as her domain entirely (totally against the culture of the day). She was also a pretty good business woman it seems as they ended up with the largest amount of property in Wittenberg and definitely had the most sheep, goats & cows at the time Luther died (sign of their wealth).
  • he introduced schooling for girls (again a totally unique concept at the time)
  • he introduced a ‘community chest’ in the town square where people with wealth could contribute to those who were struggling financially (I wonder if this is the origin of the charity Community Chest?)
  • he allowed parishioners to partake of both the bread and wine (Catholic Church only allowed them to have the bread)
  • he stopped the use of the confessional booth and said confession of sins for salvation was sufficient and that your daily walk with God in faith was what was important
  • he stopped indulgences entirely (which was just a way at the time of taking money from the poor in his view – and he was right)
  • most importantly after studying Romans he concluded that we are saved by grace alone and no works at all matter

He always encouraged non-violence and even during the Peasants War in Germany he kept stressing to both sides that war was not the way to resolve the conflict and when the peasants were defeated he stressed the need for grace from the victors (though it seems this wasn’t heeded). He believed the way to change people’s minds was through dialogue and discussion and so each night he would discuss a variety of topics with the students who were living in his house (the students started taking notes and these were eventually printed in what is known today as Table Talks).

Luther also had some priorities sorted out.  He built a cellar under his house to store his wine and beer. We preferred wine to beer though he drank both. In fact his wife (Katharina) brewed the beer herself (I have asked Helen why she hasn’t been doing that for me?!).  The only annoying thing about the visit to the house was that there were a large group of Asians touring too. They were taking photos of everything and had to pose next to each picture of Luther (and I’m not exaggerating). But they also took photos posed next to random items (like a chair or a book or leaning on the railing .. see example of photo of Chloe!). They will have to spend hours going through all those photos! After the visit to his house we went to the Stadtkirsch where Luther used to preach.  We unfortunately couldn’t go in as there was a prayer service operating at the time. Finally we went to Castle Church which is where he nailed his 95 theses on the door 500 years ago. The door is unfortunately no longer there but has been replaced by commemorative doors with the 95 theses engraved on them (this was done in 1858 to commemorate Luther’s 375th birthday).

We took the train back into Berlin and decided to walk from the station back to our hotel (about 2.5 kms) as the walk takes you past the Reichstag building and through the Brandenburg Gate. The Reichstag building now houses the German parliament but in fact wasn’t used from 1933 to 1999. It was damaged by fire in 1933 and then damaged further during WWII. It was right on the border of East & West Berlin (the wall ran right behind the building). It was almost torn down in 1950s but they decided against it and eventually after reunification the building was restored and parliament moved back to Berlin and into the building from 1999.

By the time we got back to the hotel it was 4:30pm and our feet and legs were very tired. We had dinner tonight at an Asian restaurant near the hotel (we didn’t feel like walking very far!). The food was pretty good and as always the company was good again. My nephew joined us for most of the day. He was offended I didn’t include him in the sign off from yesterday so I’ve added him today (but because he was offended I’ve added him to the appropriate spot).

Until tomorrow

H (because she ordered breakfast in her broken German today from a grumpy lady and because she said no one ever gets above me .. #provedwrong), P, S, M, O, C & D