February 2007

I got a comment this morning on my list of UK NT PhD programs from Thorsten Moritz. Though he teaches at Bethel (in St. Paul, MN), he apparently has strong links back in the UK, so they let him supervise students on behalf on London School of Theology from the US with library privileges from Bethel. Since it is a UK program it is still targeted at 3 years, but with more of a US price tag ($12k/yr). It seems that the only required trip to the UK would be for your viva (i.e., the defence of your thesis). It is definitely an interesting option.

Dan Levene, a lecturer of Jewish history and culture in the Department of History at Southampton University, came to give a couple of lectures over the past two days about magic in the lives of ancient Jews. The second lecture was a hands on analysis of a magic bowl held by a museum here in Durham. As a group we went through the process of trying to read the aramaic inscription on the bowl to correct a previous transcription and translation. It was very interesting to see scholarship in practice before your eyes.

Here’s a little history on these bowls which generally date from the 3rd to the 7th century CE:

These consist of spells for protection against a wide variety of supernatural entities, demons, ghouls, and ghosts that were thought to be the cause of humanity’s misfortunes. Texts in this collection include spells for the protection of the unborn and new-born baby and for warding off afflictions of the region of the head and belly, evil spirits in general, and human enemies. The magic bowls from which the incantations in this book have been transcribed are a form of amulet which was peculiar to the Mesopotamian regions of modern day Iran and Iraq of the fourth to seventh centuries A.D. These magical texts were individually commissioned by people whose names are usually mentioned within the texts. After having been written by sorcerer -scribes on the inside of earthenware bowls these were buried upside down under the floor of the client’s house. These texts are an early testament to Jewish magical textual traditions, elements of which can be traced throughout history to modern-day practices.

I just saw that Vonage is upping the stakes on international calling with V-Access. If you have Vonage, then someone in Canada, France, Italy, Mexico, Spain, the UK and the US can now just call using their local rates. That is, they call a local number in that country, then key-in your phone number, and voila. This is already on top of free calls from the US to Western Europe (France, Ireland, Italy, Spain and the UK), Canada, and Puerto Rico.

Since everything runs through the internet, they can offer all this stuff, not to mention all the other features that come with the package automatically–caller id, unlimited long distance, vmail, call waiting, etc. The cool part is that you can take your local number with you anywhere you can get access to high-speed internet, but it’s like your right at home with just a normal phone instead of being tied to a computer. We call the states all the time, and there’s never any delay or distortion. We just had a cable modem back in the states and vonage, that way we could cut out the local phone company charges. Unfortunately, they only have DSL in this part of the UK.

I feel like it’s a commercial, but it just works so well for our international experience, it’s hard not to share it with others. If you’re interested let me know, and I’ll send you a link. That way we both get discounts if you sign up.

I’ve always been in a must have car-driving area (i.e., TX and AR) as opposed to a large urban city like NY or something. (However, I did take public transportation in Dallas to get to work when I was done with school.) Anyhow, for us it isn’t too much trouble once you get used to it. Walking has been great for my health–I’ve lost at least a stone (“14 pounds”) and a pants size. The pace of life is slower, so the need for a car doesn’t seem to be as great either. We live right across the street from our boys’ primary school and about 1 block from a large grocery store (Tesco), so shopping is easy for us too.

The biggest downsides are 1) being much more difficult to go visit friends that are on the other side of town, 2) sight-seeing on the weekends, and 3) shopping. For #1 you work your visits around the bus schedule, which gets sparse here in the evenings. For #2, we tend to visit larger places that you can get to by train, and then go see local places of interest when friends/family are in town because we/they hire a car for the visit. No. 3 isn’t an issue for us, but some of the Ustinov people at Keenan House shop online at Tesco and have their groceries delivered.

In the end you just get used to public transportation. You just add a few minutes to an hour for your trip and just expect to pay a little. However, you just have to remind yourself when you pay £1/person or so to go visit a friend that the cost of maintaining a vehicle here is much more: petrol (“gas”) is about $8/gallon, taxes, car payments, etc. Even though a car is much more expensive, it just doesn’t feel like it when you don’t have to pay for each visit.

See also my Driving in the UK pt 2 post.

I forgot to add this to my last post about travel in the UK. Driving here is not that difficult, although it tends to scare your passengers much more than it does you. In particular, my experience and that of several friends is that lots of Americans turn into back-seat-drivers when another American is driving over here. My experience is limited to southern Scotland, Northumbria, and County Durham, but here are a few points of interest we found:

  • Roadways: The main north-south motorway (“highway”) in the north east is the A1. Being from the States, I thought this road would be 4 lanes+ the whole way from London to Edinburgh. However, much (maybe even the majority) of the time it is just 2 lanes. That way you get to fight with all the semis that go at least 10 mph less than the car speed limit. You also go through towns and through round-a-bouts. It’s more like a US Hwy (e.g. Route 66) than an interstate. What this means is that it will take at least 20%-50% longer than it would in the US for the same distance. For example, it may look like it’d take 90-100 minutes to get from Edinburgh to Durham, but it is a full 3.5 hrs. Going south is not an issue because it is 4+ lanes all the way to London.
  • Speed Limits: They still measure things in miles, so speed limits are mph. On motorways the typical speed limit is 60 mph if it’s a single carriageway (“2 lanes”) and 70 mph if it’s a dual carriageway (“4 lanes”). In Scotland these are posted regularly, but in NE England we have never seen a speed limit sign on the A1 unless there is construction or you are in a city where the limit is lower. They don’t use cops to give tickets, instead they use speed cameras. On our first trip down from Scotland to Durham we got flashed by a camera in a rental car and never got anything, but I’m also pretty sure that I wasn’t going over the speed limit because at that time I thought it was 10 mph less than it is.
  • Parking: In Durham (and it seems most other places as well) parking is at a premium, and you will almost always have to pay. For parking meters you put in an amount of money (always have coins on hand), and it prints out a little ticket with a sticker that you place on your windscreen (“windshield”). Double yellow lines mean no parking. Zigzag lines mean no stopping or it’s 3 points on your license (I’ve had a cop tell me when I was dropping someone off once).
  • Driving License: I’ve heard that you can drive here up to a year without a local license. I’m assuming that really only applies when you have a car because the handful of times when I’ve hired (“rented”) a car, they just want a copy of any license and haven’t asked how long I’ve been here. The practical portion of the driving tests are supposed to be very difficult here with a large portion of people taking it more than once. Internationals from N. America often take driving lessons to learn all the things being tested.
  • Petrol: Diesel is generally more popular than in the states, but petrol (~gasoline) is the most predominant. It has been running in the 90p/litre range for quite a while, as prices don’t seem to move around as much as they do in the states. Petrol stations are not nearly as numerous (seriously maybe a quarter or less) as they are in the states, where they seem to be every couple of blocks or on every off-ramp. So they can be much more difficult to find if you really need it, so get it while you can if you are unsure about your options. One thing that some rental companies here (that is very different from the states) is charge you less for petrol than a market price, but they charge you for a full tank up front so you only get a deal if you return it near empty. This isn’t always the case so always ask up front.

    The British here in the NE are definitely drivers, but their perception of a long trip is 1 hour by car vs say 3 or 4 hours for an American. For instance our NT Seminar has a annual interchange with Sheffield and we are going there this year. While only 2 hours or so by car and we only have 12 or so people going, John thought it would be easier to go by train and he mentioned that it would be “greener”, too. This is definitely a different mindset than someone in Texas.


    Most people that live in Durham walk and a few ride bikes, but with weather, time, and packages those options aren’t always the best.

    Buses: There are several bus options in Durham. Arriva seems to have the most local buses. They have a £270 or so term-time pass for students, or you can get a 1-way ticket (a “single”) for about a £1 depending on where you are going in town. Go North East is another local bus company, but it seems to have a few more long-haul options for cities several miles away like Newcastle or Sunderland. Prices are comparable. Another option if you are in the right place is the Durham city Park & Ride buses. You can get bus schedules, not at the bus station as you might think, but at the local Tourist Info bureau which is right in down town next to the public library and the Gala Theater. For trip planning, we found Traveline.org.uk (click on the “NE” part of the UK map) to be the best because it will show bus times for each of operators together.  Google Maps is a good way to find bus stops (and their names) if you zoom in very close.

    Bus coverage is pretty good, but the problem is the timing. On each line the buses tend to run about every 20 minutes during the day on a weekday. If you are near a main route that will have several different buses that run on it, then they come more often. The biggest difference is that after about 6:30pm, the schedules shift to every hour and routes are combined. For instance during the day about 10-12 buses per hour are relatively available for our house during the day but after 6:30 it goes to 1 or maybe 2 an hour. Then after 11 pm there aren’t any. It is similar on the weekend, but maybe a little lighter. So if you are only going to/from school, that’s fine but if you ever want to get dinner, see a movie, or visit anyone then the bus system isn’t as helpful. (One side note, though they usually are, they are not always on schedule. We’ve had a couple of times where the scheduled bus never came.) However, I know people that use them and learn to work around it. There is the Durham Nightbus that does run (9pm-3am) during term time.

    One important note: always carry change because bus drivers won’t give you change for a £10 or a £20, and only maybe for a £5. 

    Cars: We found it fairly easy to hire (“rent”) a car here. Friends here noted that they got pretty good deals through Priceline.co.uk. It works well for when family and friends come to visit.

    Taxis: It costs about £40 to get a taxi to/from Newcastle airport. Other local trips in town cost about £5. At night, when buses aren’t running it’s common to grab a cab. If it’s 4 of you, it’s just as cheap as getting a bus and quicker. One issue is trying to get one from about 8:30-9:30am and 3:00-4:00pm because taxis are often used as a means to get kids to/from school.


    Trains: For one-off trips, I usually use National Express to book tickets, because their site seems the easiest to see multiple options at once.  All the train sites have the same feed for times and prices, but I like NE’s organisation better. The only tip I’ve learned is that often two single tickets are cheaper than 1 return ticket (even though the interary is exactly the same). Buying far in advance grants decent deals, but for tickets less than 3 weeks out get very expensive. For more frequent travel, like when multiple friends or family come over, we found the BritRail Flexi Party Pass to be very handy. It allows for much shorter planning in advance since you can hop on any train (though it helps to reserve seats in advance). They have to be shipped to the US before coming, so you’ll have to book them a couple of weeks before you leave for the US.

    Planes: Pretty much the same as in the US. Short haul flights can be really cheap with places like Ryan Air, and the like. We found Aer Lingus to be pretty cheap for one-way flights to the UK (you’ll have to book through Dublin to Newcastle). But when we came over, we also noticed that you can get really cheap flights in and out of Dublin through them. To get into Durham, the three main options (in the UK) for transatlantic flying are London, Manchester, and Edinburgh (all are about equally as far from Durham by train–2.5 to 3 hours). Manchester is one of the favorites around here because their train station is practically right in the airport. For moving over here, it’s probably worth paying extra to get to Newcastle.

    We’ve all got to go sometime, but you hate to see somebody like Bruce go. The SBL site has a nice obituary about him.

    I have a little story about Bruce. He came to Ouachita (pronounced Wa-shi-taw) when I was an undergrad to give a few lectures. One of the lectures was at the school’s main weekly chapel service. It turned out that I was asked to give the benediction to the service, which happened to be my only time to do something for chapel. Anyhow, Bruce gave a sermon on prayer from the Matthew 6. This definitely ratcheted up the pressure for me since I was going to pray just after his talk and be judged by 1500 others about how well I applied the principles in his sermon. This shouldn’t have been a problem, but as a good Baptist I didn’t prepare anything before hand, so I was shooting off the cuff. I don’t remember saying anything heretical, but I’ll always remember being (unintentionally) put on the spot by Bruce.

    He did, however, autograph my USB4 text. It’s sitting right beside my autographed copy of Bill Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek. It’s funny how I was such in awe of both of these guys back then, and I still highly respect both of them. You can tell that they had a very strong language program at Ouachita since those were two of my heroes.

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