a late-night scene from downtown Isafjordur

a late-night scene from downtown Isafjordur

Spotted at midnight in and around Reykjavik this week (under the blaringly bright sky):

*an 80-year-old woman out walking her dog

*a couple climbing on the cliffs beside the fjord

*a man in full biking gear—spandex body suit, neon vest, racing helmet, etc.—speeding by on the bike path in the midst of a major workout

*a woman in heels and dark red lipstick leaning against the wall of a nightclub pleading with the bouncer to let her brother into the bar.

*a dozen men from a bachelor party stumbling across the street between bars

*a bureaucrat in a full suit sipping on a half-pint of Guinness as he meanders down the main street

*a baby sitting up in his pram as he’s pushed by his pregnant mother through the downtown

*a couple with a cart full of groceries doing their weekly shopping

In this land where we always have daytime, rhythms shift, routines change, and the moment of stillness—the quiet respite so usually associated with night—completely disappears.

See also:

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I stood in the pantry and stared at the overcrowded shelves. Spilling with the detritus of the last two years, my eyes moved over the shelf that’s sort-of designated for wrapping paper and the one that’s sort-of designated for holiday decorations before scanning the “emergency presents” shelf and then the one full of vases and planters. Feeling panic rise in my throat, I got out the ladder so I could begin combing through this one closet. By the time I’d ascended the few short steps, my body froze. Paralyzed, I tried taking deep breaths to allow my nervous thoughts to rush through me. But instead I fixed on one line: We’ve got six weeks left in Iceland and it’s time to move, again.

I climbed down from the ladder, shut the door to the closet, and decided to start packing another time.

Truth is, I’m dreading the move. While I know life back in the US is going to be great– we just bought an unbelievable new house, I love America, I think DC and California are the best places in the world, it’s home, etc, etc. I also know that to get THERE, we have to leave HERE. And right now, I don’t want to open a drawer, sort through even one of our thousands of pounds worth of stuff, or go through ANOTHER set of goodbyes and farewells to all the people and places that are so familiar, so lovely, so home-to-me-right now. So, wonderfully and amazingly right HERE.

The problem is, that for me to exist in this nomadic life, I have to learn to love where we are. Certainly there are people who spend most of their overseas tours complaining about a post or the people around them. But for me to survive, I have to find the good things about each city and make my life with within it. And, in Iceland, I fell hard. I have a super-crush on Reykjavik. I slipped into a little amazing life here. I found fulfilling work with a client list that grows each month, time to exercise and work on my own creative and physical self-improvement, great schools for the kids, a good amount of family time, gorgeous nature, interesting, smart, and fun friends. It’s pretty much everything I could have wanted in a post.

And now that I’ve fallen in love, I have to break up with it. Again. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much if we didn’t have to do this so often. One thing the Mr. and I agree on is that three overseas tours in a row is too many. We’ve been abroad for seven consecutive years now. I still can’t believe that my 7-year-old child has never actually lived in the US. It’s too many times to fall in love with people and places and then leave it. It’s too many times in a row to be away from the uber-familiar, the mothership, our families. Moving back to Washington, despite it having once been a home, will really be a lot of starting over. Do my friends still live there? Will I find new freelance clients or try for a full-time job, where will I shop, how will the school be for the kids, where will we go to the doctor, what do I do when I need a handyman? You know, all the same-old-things I ask each and every time we move. Which is 5 times in 12 years for those of you counting. Wouldn’t it just be easier to stay put?

As you can imagine, this blog post, like all the other moving-related things, I started and stopped and started too many times, closing the computer because I didn’t want to face anything related to our move. Another week or so has passed since I stood in that closet, frozen at the prospect of the work ahead of me. Since then, I’ve done a lot of grumbling. I found myself angry at the whole foreign service institution and lifestyle, annoyed with everything from car seat laws HERE compared with THERE, frustrated at the reams of paperwork we need to process, pissed at the cleanliness level of our car, or the kitchen, or something trivial the embassy hasn’t fixed (there’s still a big hole in our front yard! Two years here and no one fixed it!) You name it, I’m happy to bitch about it. . . . I think they call this the angry phase. Isn’t it one of the seven steps of bereavement?

Despite my totally pissed-off temperament, the OCD in me did manage to crawl out from under my f-bombs and mommy-time-outs. Somehow, I began to prep for the move. A few days after my first thwarted attempt and a grown-up temper tantrum, the lovely Mr. Green went with me back into that closet and together we sorted through Just. One. Closet.  That was a start. Thank you Thích Nhất Hạnh for that whole journey of a 1000 miles starts with one step thing—I’m sure you had that closet in my pantry in mind when you said that. Since that second day with the closet, I’ve actually “thinned out” nearly all the rooms.  But no, I haven’t touched the two most cluttered places—the playroom and garage.

I’m sure in another few days or weeks, I’ll sort through those rooms and I’ll move onto the “crying phase” or the “can’t get out of here fast-enough phase” or whatever it is I have to do before I reach transcendence or, I guess the word is: Acceptance. For now, I’m wallowing in my grumbling, angry, sulking stage. I’m digging in my heels. I’m ignoring the fact that there’s much work to do. I’m planning all-nighters with the girls, I’m wearing my most-funky Icelandic clothes at every opportunity, I’m continuing on with work and our household as if nothing will change. And, while maybe this wouldn’t be a great way to teach the kids about how to best handle transition or be a great moment for US public diplomacy, I like daydreaming about what it would look like if I went to the airport kicking and screaming.

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Ylströndin Nauthólsvík (photo from their website)

Ylströndin Nauthólsvík (photo from their website)

We move to the US in under six weeks. As much as I’m in denial, a quick glance at my calendar and the heart palpitations begin. Not only because there’s so much sorting and packing and (insert curse word here) that has to happen before we board a plane, but also because there’s still so much I want to do.  So I started my bucket list. Here’s hoping I can do it all. 

  1. Ride a hestar

That’s an Icelandic horse. What? I know, it’s crazy I haven’t done this yet. I know many folk travel to Iceland to do this thing specifically. I sent my then 6-yr-old to two whole weeks of horse camp last summer and she’s going again this summer. She can trot, tolt, gallop, ride bareback. Somehow I haven’t managed to get on a horse yet. I just need to set aside some time and make it happen.

2. Run along the bike path from our house to Ylströnd, the geothermal beach, and then sit in the hot pot by the sea

3. Take a day trip to Landmannalaugar or Þórsmörk

Again, many come to Iceland just to see these amazing spots in the interior. Most make the journey into a major hiking and camping trip, staying in the huts in the mountains. You have to ford rivers and need really enormous specialized vehicles to get to these places. I’m not going to be able to hike/camp this, but there are one-day tours to these spots. I best find a day to get there before we leave Iceland without my having seen these monumental sites.

4. Finally see the West Fjords

We just make it up there last summer. For all but two months of the year most the roads from Reykjavik to the West Fjords are impassible. But we’ve got a trip planned. Maybe we’ll even see some puffins again. This. Will. Happen. That reminds me, we better book a room.

5. Wear my super Icelandic KronKron or Ella frock, a piece or two of bright Icelandic jewelry, maybe my fur vest, and spend all night out with the girls. Got to see the sun rise, which is happening at about 3 am these days. Staying out till 3am or longer is not something I think I’ll be doing in the US. It feels so Euro and indulgent and my inner party girl loves this kind of rage.

6. A nice long and delicious dinner out with E & E to talk about life changes and have my Iceland girls help me talk through all my crazy “I can’t believe I’m moving, now what?” sorta thoughts. Blog post on that to come soon.

7. A few more 6-miler + runs on the paths along the fjords (see #2)

8. And, of course, the big open-house party with all our friends and kids to say thank you and farewell to this amazing country that really feels now like my home.

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NEW STORY: Saying Goodbye


Check out my story about saying goodbye in this new anthology. Particularly appropriate now as we gear up to soon say farewell to Iceland. But more on that later. . .

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ImageGrowing up in a small beach community in southern California, my mornings smelled like fog and tasted of sea salt. The ocean, while not visible from my house, was only a handful of blocks away. At ten, we’d ride our bikes to the bluffs and spend the day climbing through sandy cliffs all the while looking out toward the mighty Pacific. In elementary school, I could see the ocean from the playground and in middle and high schools we rode alongside it on the way to and from school. Each and every time I’ve looked out at the sea, I’ve searched for whales, dolphins, or seals.

When I wasn’t looking at the ocean, I was thinking about it. Nights I spent dreaming that I swam with whales and surfed beside the dolphins. By the time I got to high school, I knew that if I spotted the Palisades dolphins, something good would happen, it was going to be a good day. Marine animals became my totem, my good luck charm, my secret bit of fortune.

This morning, when I awoke to read and watch all the heartbreaking news from Boston, my chest constricted, my mind reeled. Scrolling through the news articles and Facebook feed, I read about friends at the marathon, friends nearby, and also reactions from those afar, filled with anger and grief and a questioning as deep and conflicted as my own thoughts.

Outside our kitchen window, I could see the ocean, the smooth dark blue water of our fjord, and a cloudless blue sky. I knew I had to clear my head and, rather than head to the gym, I put on my running shoes. Within minutes, I was on the trail that wraps around our fjord my mind working overtime. An old friend, and Iraqi war veteran, had posted on Facebook in anger that his reaction to these terrorists is that he wants to pour his money and might into military retaliation.

Running along the sea, all I could think was the opposite.  I’m still grieving from the recent death of a young Foreign Service officer and I’m so deeply disappointed in society that we’ve come to this. I want to find a way to make cities and countries where mass acts of violence are not acceptable. There is nothing I want to do more than teach compassion. Rather than react with violence, I want to build inclusive communities. I want to sideline violence and give my babies a world where we prioritize kindness and safety. I want them to know a world, a school, a neighborhood that thrives on calm and joy and where fear and knowledge of heinous terrorists acts are sidelined, marginalized.  I want to show children that this universe won’t accept a place so full of violence and hatred. We, as a community—small or big—must find a way to minimize the number of individuals that foster such hate. And I want to figure out how can we identify early on and assist those so bitter and hurt by whatever it is that caused their rage. I want to find a way to reach out and eradicate the masses that turn to terrorist acts to get attention or make a statement.  

But is this impossible? Insurmountable? All I could do this morning is put one foot in front of the other and run along the sea. For the first time in ages, a warm and gloriously white sun shone over Reykjavik. I knew I had to be grateful for all the other things the universe gives us. Between thoughts of the little amazing life details—the bright blue water beside me, B’s missing two front teeth, M’s kissable cheeks, Mr. G’s calm soul—I wished a compassionate approach to these problems could become something realistic, attainable.

That’s when I squinted and saw the black shiny head emerge from the glassy water. For the first time in the nearly two years we’ve lived here, I spotted a seal in our fjord. He raised his head out of the water and for a few minutes, he swam beside me.

I have to believe this is my secrete bit of fortune. Despite the dull pain in my chest, I must still hope. 

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ENCHANTMENT: Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon


A balcony ripe with the smell of Eucalyptus overlooking those rolling, rose-colored hills in Ojai, California. The remote stretch of beach in Prince’s Town, Ghana where the dense jungle meets the surf of the Atlantic. There are a handful of spots like this, places on the planet where I’ve stood and, for a moment, felt a connection to something more. A surge, a sense of peace. Calm in my soul. Magic.

Like California and West Africa, Iceland too is full of breathtaking vistas, gorgeous panoramas, unique viewpoints. But it’s not the immense depth and variety of beauty that forces me to pause. It is this one spot, another to add to my precious, curated list. This place, like the others, drew me into its spell and again compelled me to wonder at the amazingness of planet earth.


Days ago at Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon filled with ancient icebergs, I stood before enormous chunks of ice, watching as they inched forward in the crystal blue water. Waiting for small blocks of ice to float by, I watched the swirling current as they headed below the bridge and out to sea. I followed some of them toward the shore, where massive waves pounded against the black sand beach.


Once at the shoreline, the boulders of ice, some twenty feet high, lined up like sculptures on display at a museum, or a gathering of friends assembled before an event. Here, the event is the tide, the ocean that with a single wave or a slow rise will carry these giants out to melt. These chiseled shapes, some with smooth faces others with jagged, angled lines, sparkle and shine. Some special few actually glow. It is these, the radiant blue ones, electric and incandescent, that enchant me, that charm me.

DSC04288 DSC04233


Perhaps it is knowing they’ve reached the end, a long journey through thousands of years across a peak at the top of the planet. Perhaps it is thinking about the threshold, this moment where soon they will experience complete change, transforming from a mountain into an ocean. Perhaps it is just that electric azure glow, set off as it is against the dark, jet-black sand. Whatever the reason, I am humbled and awed and lucky to have known this place.


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Inside Spaks

Inside Spaks

Saturday morning I grabbed my most-fashionable friend and headed for downtown Reykjavik. While sipping a latté in Mál og Menning, I flipped through the DesignMarch and Reykjavik Fashion Festival catalogs, tracing my finger over the outline of the map with the hundreds of design exhibitions, pop-up sites, and showcases. I read aloud the line up of fashion shows at Harpa and told my friend about events from the previous night, where I was lucky to chat with Juliet Kinchin, a curator at MoMA, and Roxanne Lowit, a famous fashion photographer, among other creatives.


Well-caffeinated and full of stories, we headed down Laugavegur, stopping to admire the fish bone project at Spark Design Space then the fanciful window display and bright wool scarfs in Cintamani. At 66 North, I applauded Hafsteinn Júlíusson’s innovative Unzip project, a collaboration with Mundi and other designers from around the world.

Feet sore from ducking in and out of small shopfronts, we explored the ground-floor design exhibits at the expansive Harpa. We sat on the minimalist chairs, fingered the brightly colored tapestries, and tried the all the handles on the Nordic-styled dressers and cupboards. And then it was time for the show.

Our bulky coats checked, we reapplied our lipstick, held our heads up high, and pretended we were as stylish as the super-skinny, six-feet-high Icelandic models. We only could make it into one fashion show, but Rey rocked it. And while inside, we had a chance to kiss Elinrós and wish her luck, wishing we could stay to watch Ella on the catwalk. Soon, we were back on the cold, sunny streets in search of a late sushi lunch before we headed home.

We’d spent the day squinting at flashes from the paparazzi, but the real blare came the next night, when the weekend of high fashion and glittering design ended with an unforgettable display of northern lights.


photo by Paul Cunningham

More photos from DesignMarch & RFF:

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In the middle of a conference call Wednesday morning, I remarked aloud that a storm had blown in and the wind grown incredibly fierce. A few minutes later, the line went dead. The Internet stopped working. Even my cell phone wouldn’t connect. Outside snow blew sideways until all the windows in our house whited out. I tried the front door, I had to see what was happening out there. But it barely budged. Soon the children’s school called on our landline, “weather is expected to get worse. Please come pick up your kids as soon as you can.”

I suited up: snow pants, snow gloves, snow boots. I made sure to cinch my hood tight so only my eyes and a small bit of my cheeks were exposed. Our three oversized garbage cans stood like watch dogs across the driveway. Head down, I leaned into the wind and threw them to the side of the house. Backing out of the driveway, I took a quick breath, hit the street and instantly thumped to a stop. The car jammed into a pile of snow. Wheels spun, but the car didn’t budge. Hazards flashing, I left the car in the middle of the street and trudged back to the garage for the shovel. After I’d dug a track under the wheels, I climbed inside as my cell phone started to ring. At least it was working again. Mr. Green informed me that the city had closed, busses had stopped running, and the embassy was shut. He’d take an embassy car, drop off a few others employees, and head home. Maybe the kids could get a school bus to get them home. Okay, I agreed. If only I could get out of the street.


Reversing into my newly dug tracks, the wheels spun and the car lurched backwards. But when I put it into drive, it leapt onto the road, moving forward, toward school. Did I dare turn around? Snow whipped around me: total whiteout conditions. I could only see a few feet in each direction. Turning around seemed harder than going forward. Until the intersection, that is, when again, I heard a thud. The wheels spun, but the snow was too thick, the car stuck in the snow. Wind slowed and I could see ahead of me another car stranded in the whiteness. After many minutes of my turning the wheel and trying to move in any direction, a man emerged from the other car.

He advised me to go back home. Together, we dug around the tires. Mr. Green called again: we can get the kids on a special school bus to take them home. No telling how long it will take to get them to you, but this is safer than you trying to drive. That sounded like a good idea. My rescuer pushed and the car budged, then jumped over the curb until it was cruising back on the road I’d come from—going the wrong way on a one-way street. But I was moving forward. And soon, I was back on our street, then in our garage.


Once home, I felt entirely useless. My kids were waiting for a bus that could take hours to arrive, then hours to get them home. My husband was driving in this blizzard trying to get his employees home. And I was sitting alone at the dining room table trying to find a way to see out of the windows that were totally covered in snow.

Eventually, the family made it home. The bus driver even carried little M over the massive drift in our front yard to deliver him to the door while B ran through the piles of snow to squeeze her way through the small gap to get inside.


This being springtime in Iceland, the wild weather stopped suddenly. By the following day, the wind calmed, a slushy rain fell, the snow melted, and by today, the sun blazed (okay, shone) across the island.


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When I was a little girl we took a lot of family vacations. My parents were both teachers and they love to travel, so we took full advantage of our summers. Mostly, a family vacation meant piling in the car and driving a few hours away to San Diego or Berkeley, to Palm Springs or Pinecrest. As my sister and I got older, my parent’s expanded our range, heading all the way across the US or taking trains around Europe. Traveling on teachers’ salaries meant we had to adhere to a strict budget. My dad took pride in the fact that each trip cost as little as possible. A key part of this, of course, meant we avoided hotels. We bunked down with friends, or friends of friends, or people who maybe were sort of acquainted with someone’s associate. My dad knows a zillion people and in every city and town, he found us a place to stay. We did things our own way, a la carte, so to speak, often wandering far from the beaten path, avoiding tour buses and guides and anything that resembled a planned holiday. We never booked ahead. We never ate at the tourist traps or shopped at the stores with the busloads of vacationers. If an all-inclusive vacation existed, a week-long stay at a four-star hotel, I knew nothing about it.

Fast-forward thirty or so years. After nearly seven consecutive years of living in Europe, I’m spending my holidays like so many other middle class Europeans, on a planned holiday. What that means is that I’ve just returned from a week in Tenerife, a full-on, no holds barred, all-inclusive packaged tour. For a nominal flat fee, the four of us flew on a charter flight directly from Reykjavik, Iceland to Tenerife, Canary Islands. At the airport in Tenerife, a woman with a binder and an Icelandic flag ushered us onto a massive bus. Once seated among all the other Icelanders, she proceeded to tell us (in Icelandic) about all the events the tour company offered that week. As the bus hugged the rugged, desert landscape, we thumbed through the handouts about cocktail parties and boat cruises. Driving through the overcrowded cities the bus stopped at one massive hotel after another, dropping off the other passengers. I watched the scenery outside the bus: sunburned Brits bought neon hats and Russians dined at restaurants offering karaoke or fish and chips.  I took deep breaths, bracing myself for the horrors of a packaged holiday and reminding myself that at least it was warm outside, nearly hot. That was all I needed. We’d come to escape Iceland’s winter and see sun. The long, dark days at the top of the planet had given the whole family the winter blues. We needed daylight. And heat. Nothing else mattered.

Soon we arrived at our behemoth hotel. The receptionist announced activities at the kids’ club, by the pool, and at the disco. She affixed our wristbands and sent us on our way. Everything in the hotel was included. Three buffet meals a day, use of all the pools, sending the kids off to the babysitting club, cocktails and coffee set out mid-morning and early evening, and even the drinks in the refrigerator in our room. Included.

When I was eighteen, I went back to Europe without my parents. Even though he wasn’t with us, I found myself following in my dad’s footsteps. We never hired a guide or stayed in a big hotel. We avoided any packaged trips, we budgeted every penny, we slept on the train whenever we could, we bunked with friends of friends and distant relatives. By the time I was twenty-one and traveling through West Africa, I’d mastered the art of budget travel and learned exactly how to raise my nose in the air at big tours or crowds of holiday makers. It’s been a while since I traveled with only a backpack and probably because of my parents’ willingness to stay with anyone, I almost never ask for a free place to crash. But had I come this far? So far from my solo wanderlust-adventure-traveler-girl days that I was willing to do this? Thinking of the grey days in Iceland, I reminded myself again that all I needed was the sun. If getting it meant that I had to be part of a big tour group, so be it.

It helped that our hotel was outside of town, away from the swarms of tourists and shops selling braided bracelets and t-shirts with too many slogans. It helped too that the hotel had six pools and from every vista a panoramic view of the sea. Or that I didn’t have to cook for a whole week. Did I mention that babysitting was free? (okay, included). It helped that the weather was hot and dry and I could hear the ocean from our balcony. By the end of the first day, I was ready to throw budget and adventure travel out the window and move permanently into this massive hotel. But despite my attempts at embracing the package holiday, my dad’s influences still surfaced. Of course, I was compelled to eat and drink more at the outrageous buffets because, after all, we’d paid for it. And while many found no reason to leave the hotel, we knew we had to escape. For two days we rented a car and drove to the wet, lush north part of the island. After driving over winding hilltop roads, we wandered through small villages, stopping in a small café for coffee and ice cream. Another day we took a boat out to find pilot whales before sailing beneath the cliffs and then diving into the warm sea. For Carnival, we dragged the kids through concerts and massive crowds of costumed revelers, ogling the men in drag, the high school girls dressed as Smurfs, or the crowd of ladies doubling as ghouls. Another afternoon, we found that one of the stairways out of the hotel led to a small rocky bay where again, we could climb along the cliffs and swim in the clear blue water beside the fishermen and local kids. But then, we’d return. Back to the gargantuan hotel, where a lovely woman brought me coffee each morning and an oversized giraffe danced with the kids beside the azure pool.

Posted in expat, Holidays, Iceland, Spain, Spring, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments