Happy Bolludagur–Buns Day!


Mid week, I worked at Cafe Haiti by the harbor, with a wonderful wintery view. Later, we attended the opening of the Winter Lights Festival with its wild light show. And, finally, today, we celebrated Bolludagur. Buns (cream puffs) for all. Tomorrow’s bursting day. I’ll spare you photos . . .

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SWIMMING IN THE SNOW

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On Sunday, snow blew sideways across the garden. Wind raced in from the north, then from the east. Overnight, a thick layer of ice covered the ground, so by mid-day, when the blizzard hit, heavy patches of white quickly piled high. From our kitchen window, I watched the storm howl and decided to seize the opportunity: it was the perfect time to go for a swim.

Mr. Green said he’d entertain the two little ones, so I grabbed my suit and goggles, quickly pulled together my swim bag, and raced for the car. Once on the road, I felt the wind tug at the car, the wheels slip over the ice. It’s only a short distance to the pool but I drove at the speed of a tortoise, crawling onto the main highway then easing off. Well before I reached the intersection, I braked. But the car refused to stop, sliding ahead while I pumped furiously on the pedal until eventually the vehicle halted. Ahead of me, another car spun in circles, somehow hitting nothing but a patch of snow, then righting itself before heading back along the road.

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By the time I reached the pool, it was nearly whiteout conditions, but even the overflow parking was full.  I flashed my pool pass and looked out to the great expanse of blue. Thick white flakes of snow fell onto the surface, steam rose in wafts. I held my breath; I couldn’t wait to get in. But first there was the ritual of the shower.

In Iceland, following pool protocol is mandatory. First, my shoes came off, they have to wait in a rack outside the changing rooms. Inside, I chose a locker and stripped down to nothing. Then, I carried my towel, bathing suit, and shampoo toward the shower. Next to the open shower area, I stored my towel and shampoos, knowing I couldn’t dare touch them again until after my swim. Then, standing beside naked women and children of all shapes and sizes, I had to wash. A sign gives strict instructions as to how and where. And, lest I faltered, a woman stood watch (the so-called shower police) reprimanding anyone who dared to stray from her cleaning duties. Face, armpits, crotch, feet. This time, luckily, no fellow bathers offered commentary or scolding as to my washing methods.  Once properly soaped and rinsed, I put on my swimsuit and headed for the pool.

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My feet moved over the freezing brick path and I had my usual moment of regret: Why would anyone in her right mind want to swim in a snowstorm? But the distance from the showers to the pool is only a few steps and, before I could talk myself out of it, I sunk into the heated water in search of any empty lane.

Even in the very warm pool, my body needed to adjust. I thought about the five different hot pots (hot tubs), varying in temperature from hot to scalding, that I’d sit in after my swim. Between the driving snow and thick steam, I couldn’t see but a few feet ahead of me. I dipped my head under the water where visibility was clear, until I found a lane just for me. Then, I began.

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It was too cold for breaststroke, I had to keep my head mostly underwater, so I pushed off to do the crawl. At once, my body careened through the liquid expanse, floating, swimming, kicking. In one breath, the quiet aqua water, in another steam and the patter of snow on my cheeks. Instead of counting laps, I agreed with myself, as I always do now, on a time limit. Heading through the mist from one end of the Olympic-sized pool to the other, I swam for fifty minutes. Surrounded by the warm water and not needing to count laps, I thought instead of characters, I told myself stories, I worked over life issues, I mused about my children, I wondered about friendships, I planned elaborate events I’d probably never host and a tea party that I think I will have, using the fine Russian china. On one lap, I reminisced about this same spot, thinking back to my swims during pitch-black mornings when the lights on the pool illuminated a turquoise haze and I swam until the faint pink clouds appeared in the sky. Or the day the wind picked up so fast that waves crashed against my cheeks each time I dared try to take a breath.

And so I moved. Back and forth, me, my splashes, and my imagination traveling through the heated water and the quiet snow. This was bliss.

After the fifty minutes I, of course, moved from one hot pot to another until I sat in the burning one, watching as thick chunky snowflakes gathered on the head of the attractive young mother, while her three girls jumped around her. When they disappeared, it was just me, the quiet, and the large white puffs falling into hot water.

My top three favorite pools in Reykjavik are these. What are yours?

Kopavogur, Sundlaug Kopavogs, Borgarholtsbraut 17, Kopavogi

Alftanes, http://www.alftaneslaug.is

Laugavegur, http://www.swimminginiceland.com/reykjavik-and-capital-area/17-laugardalslaug

Posted in Exercise, Iceland, snow | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

GRAY

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Today I’m suspended in gray. Ash mostly, a bit of slate, a sprinkling of charcoal. Other days there’s mercury and fog or if I’m lucky silver and gunmetal. Rarely do I glimpse other hues. Cursing under my breath, frustrated with the slightest disturbance, the wheels slip in the cogs and the whole contraption pauses. Machines and my mind falter, the world slides, out of balance, off key.

I knew it was coming. I’d staved it off for so long. Remember all that caffeine and the hours in front of the happy light? Recall my boasting of regular exercise and fanciful holiday dinners? But even with those efforts, it arrived. This, the winter grays, came on hard, like thunder rolling over my world. I would call it winter blues, but I’ve seen so little of blue. All I see are the ever-present shades of gray interrupted by all that black.
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Even though I expected it, I’m surprised. I live at the top of the planet, after all. A California girl in a place with only five hours of daylight? There’s no way I can exist here without falling under the curse. They warn you about it. I’ve written about it. And now I’ve succumbed to it.

This week, I packed away our holiday decorations and turned off all the twinkling lights. Instead of watching the sky burst, I scan the road and notice the ground littered with the debris of fireworks long-exploded. Instead of planning the next champagne night, I start a rigorous New Year diet. No more drowning out the winter with red wine or even with frothy lattes. And with the diet comes a two-week intensive period where I’m to walk each day, instead of sprint on the treadmill or swim for an hour in a hot pool beneath the snow.
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Even the kids grumble and grow grumpy. Beautiful white snow surprises us, then disappoints, followed as it is so quickly by rain or hail or wind. Or, recently, all three at the same time, keeping everyone indoors, avoiding whatever is beyond the front door. School days, I get the kids off and the morning surges with possibility, until 10:00am when I’m at my desk begging the pitch-black sky to disappear. Solstice passed, but there is still so much darkness, SO MUCH WINTER. I pace, sit, stare, and use all my might to become productive.

Hibernating has never been my strong suit, nor denying myself culinary pleasures. So today, I’m going to wallow in it, I’ll trudge and groan through the winter grays. Complain and carp. Whine and whimper.

Then, tomorrow (or some day soon) I’ll light candles, I’ll wish for an early spring, and I’ll stare at the sky until I force it to blush with color.
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Posted in Depression, Iceland, Reykjavik, Uncategorized, Winter | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Winter Solstice in Iceland

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We live in the darkness, sharing our blackened world with troll-like creatures that sneak into our homes. At night, these trolls lick our pots, steal our sausages, slurp our Skyr and leave small gifts for the children. In the waking hours we, like the trolls, creep between one dark spot and another. Instead of crumbs, we search for candles or seek out twinkling holiday lights, or bake with the warm oven, or decorate the house, or do anything we can to make this gloomy world seem even slightly more festive. And too I add to these rituals my personal attempts at battling total hibernation: I drink copious amounts of strong coffee, I bask beside the happy light, and I try to exercise every day, even if it means swimming under a coal-black sky. For now, I’ll raise my glass for tomorrow, when solstice will sit squarely behind us, and each day will draw me out of this shadowy existence and offer a few more moments of light .  . .

Posted in expat, Holidays, Iceland, Reykjavik, Winter | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

MY DAILY FIX: COFFEE & CAFES IN REYKJAVIK

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In high school we used to sneak off campus and drive over to Rae’s, a 1950s-style diner, to drink tall iced coffees and smoke cigarettes. Some nights, we’d head east and saunter into Canter’s Deli. In bright red lipstick, vintage dresses, and big boots, we’d order cup after cup of coffee and hope that Anthony Kiedis or Flea would take the booth next to us. By the time I got to college, I was addicted. And at Berkeley, my fix was everywhere. Lattes in pint glasses at Café Strada, shots of espresso at Café Roma, or cappuccinos from the new small place on north side. It only makes sense then, that after all my years in cafés, that I’d feel so at home in Reykjavik, a city where coffee culture thrives. In a few block radius, there are dozens of places to type away at my keyboard, to catch up with a girlfriend, or to stare off into the middle distance and watch the world go by.  And too, it is here where I can observe the latest trends in fashion, eavesdrop on tourists, or just slip into daily life, sitting silently at a table and hoping others think I’m a native.

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Best Coffee & Cafés in Reykjavik (in no particular order)

Mokka Kaffi: Arguably the oldest coffee shop in Iceland, this small café is decorated with a tasteful retro design. With only a few tables it’s not a place to linger for hours. Great waffles. Skólavörðustíg 3A/ 101 Reykjavík/ 552 1174 http://www.mokka.is

Kex: This restaurant and bar space has an unbelievably delicious menu, but the coffee is what keeps me coming back. They serve a super-high-octane, addictive and delicious coffee in a double or single-sized French press. During the day, there are often plenty of tables, which is great for when I want to spend a long time working, sitting on the couches, or watching the sea. Skúlagata 28/ 101 Reykjavik 561-6060/ http://www.kexhostel.is

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C is for Cookie: It may be a small café, but C is for Cookie has the biggest cups. Lattes are really large and the simple foods (soups and sandwiches) are seriously tasty. ‪Plus the décor is wacky and comfy. Tysgata 8/ 101 Reykjavik/ 578 5914

Bergsson: Step down into this new restaurant and cafe and you find yourself facing long wooden tables and freshly baked goods. While I prefer to come for lunch, mid-afternoon and early mornings are great for just a good quiet cup. Templararsund 3, http://bergsson.is/

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Te og Kafi: Founded in 1984, Te og Kaffi now runs roasting facilities, a wholesale division, retail shops, and cafes. They have over eight cafes in Reykjavik, including: Laugaveger 27, Lækjartorgi, and inside Eymmundson Book store on Austurstræti 18/ http://www.teogkaffi.is/

Kaffitár: At Kaffitár they specialize in importing, roasting, and serving Arabica coffee beans.  Apart from the roasterie, the company owns eight coffee stores/espresso bars. Through the years, several of their baristas have competed and won at the World Barista Championships. My favorite, though almost always crowded Kaffitár, is at: Bankastræti 8/ 511-4540/ http://www.kaffitar.is

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Kaffismiðja: For serious coffee drinkers only. This café has no decaf options and offers only a few teas. They roast their own beans and the place is always filled with hipsters and artists. Sometimes it can be hard to find a seat and you almost always have to share your table with others, which is a great way to meet the locals. Kárastíg 1 / 101 Reykjavík /
517-5535 http://kaffismidja.is

Stofan Café: With the worn old couches and wooden tables, it feels like you’ve stumbled into someone’s living room. But it’s really for you to sit and enjoy. Not a huge menu, but great people watching onto the square from the large picture windows. Aðalstræti, http://www.facebook.com/stofan.kaffihus

Tíu Dropar: One of Reykjavik‘s oldest cafés, this gem is located in a hidden basement on Laugavegur. A table full of really old men sits for hours in one corner. A piano beckons in another. The décor looks like my grandmother’s house and the egg breakfasts are terrific. Laugavegi 27 / 101 Reykjavík/ 551-9380

Jói Fel: Sticky buns, fresh bread, whole wheat sprouted and spelt rolls, this amazing bakery, with over six outlets around town, also has catering and great coffee. At their Gardabær location, they also serve chai tea lattes. http://www.joifel.is

Babalú: This colorful little house has comfy couches and a patio that is popular in the summer. Skólavörðustígur 22 / 101 Reykjavik /552-2278

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Inside City Hall, there was a great café where you could sit and look out at the pond. From that perch, I always felt like I could float away with the swans. That café closed and there is another one open only this month, but the site is changing hands and it will likely be a restaurant in the new year. But there’s a chance the cafe will stay on. We’ll have to wait and see. . .

Do you have a favorite café in Reykjavik? What have I missed? Do tell.

Posted in expat, Food and Drink, Iceland, Reykjavik | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

I CAN’T HELP BUT THINK YOU BEAUTIFUL

 

Oh, Iceland—you are stunning of late. With your crisp air, pink skies, frozen lakes, and that marvelous light dusting of snow on the mountain, I can’t help but think you beautiful. So much so, that I can almost forgive you for those days that are getting shorter, and darker, and darker.  .  .

Posted in Fall, Iceland, Reykjavik, snow | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

ICELAND AIRWAVES: Soul, Funk, Folk, & Gale Force Winds

Waves crashed over the seawall littering the roads with seaweed and stones, rooftops blew off homes forcing the main street to close, and hundreds of bands arrived into Reykjavik ready to rock it.  Despite gale force winds blowing straight from the North Pole, Iceland Airwaves, the international music festival, was on.

Thursday, I rushed out the door for Lay Low, a folksy-bluesy guitarist that I first heard last year when she opened for Of Monsters and Men. Fur hat pulled down low, I raced through the streets and up to the third floor of a popular bookstore to find a packed house, the melodious voice of Lay Low beginning her set and, eventually, Mr. G. As soon she started singing, and the crowd of messy-haired tourists started to sway, I knew Airwaves would not disappoint.

We didn’t buy festival passes because these days I can’t find time to drop everything for four days and see hundreds of shows. But not having wristbands was hardly a deterrent to seeing terrific music. Airwaves also offers a massive “Off Venue” program, where most of the artists that come for headline shows, plus additional artists from around the world, play in smaller settings. And the best part: all of the Off Venue shows are free.

When Lay Low said “Takk og Bless” (thanks & bye), Mr. G and I squinted at our five-page schedule full of fine print and tried to decide how we could maximize our night. Bundling up, we leaned into the wind and headed toward Laugavegur, the main street. Freezing, we decided we couldn’t make it to the Dillion Bar and stopped in at Glætun instead. In this cozy café, we listened to Sonia from Finland strum out a few mellow songs on her guitar before crossing the street to the Reykjavik Backpackers Bar. Here, the crowd swelled and we caught the tail end of the raucous Bee Bee and the Blue Birds before we found a seat. Pressed up against the others at our table, it was hard not to strike up a conversation. Turns out, during Airwaves, musicians are ever-present. We were seated next to Yunioshi, a rock band from the UK, on their annual pilgrimage to play the Off Venue program for Airwaves. More people streamed in from off the street anxious to see Ylja, the next band. But we were out of time.

Hats, gloves and scarves pulled on tight, again we walked with our heads down and our backs bent through the crushing wind to a reception for the festival. On our way to our official duties, I couldn’t help but notice the Northern Lights glowed green across the sky, but it was too cold to stop and watch. Instead we ducked into an embassy to drink local brew and talk to the talented folks from Bedroom Community, the rockers from HAM, and even a striking puppeteer from Bulgaria.

By Saturday, the winds were still high but we were ready to get out there again. This time, kids in tow, we started at Bio Paradis, the art house cinema doubling as an Airwaves stage. Trumpets blared, drums beat, someone sang, guitars and bass strummed—with the ensemble group of Útidúr the whole space came alive. B and M, our tots, were mesmerized. Me and Mr. G too.  Eyes still aglow, B, our six-year-old, watched as Útidúr packed up and Skelkur í Bringu took the stage. B loved this lead singer’s tutu and furry vest and M claims to enjoy their sound, but I was less impressed with the screeching punk rock. After a few songs, Mr. G and I got everyone bundled up again and made a bee-line for Sirkus Port to hear a favorite band.

From the street, the bright beats of Lockerbie beckoned, but we could barely get in the door. And with the wee ones, we decided not to press our luck. Instead, we pressed on and headed back to the mellow Glætun Café. There we listened to the sweet but not yet masterful vocals of young local Camilla Rut accompanied by Rafn Hliðkvist on guitar. Following them, Jóhann from Denmark sat alone on a chair with his guitar. Sadly, his slow quiet music cleared the room. And too, it made me sleepy.

By Sunday, the winds calmed, the sun reappeared, and we returned for one last show. Watching the long-haired sisters sing, their gorgeous voices swooning over the grooving guitar and bongo drum beats, we knew: Ylja was worth the wait.

Check Out My Favorite Bands: Ylja, Lockerbie, Útidúr, & Lay Low

Posted in Festival, Iceland, Music, Reykjavik, Uncategorized, Winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

ICELAND’S MOST POPULAR THINGS: Going to Feed Ducks

A guest blog by my daughter, R, age 6 1/2

I was with my mom and we walked to the ducks and we found lots of interesting things. And in this story, you’ll find lots of them. And if you finish the whole story you’ll learn a lot about Iceland and here’s the beginning of the story:

Once we went on a walk to the ducks and we found a big blob of ice like a puddle. But, the puddle wasn’t melted under the ice, so me and my mom jumped on it and it started breaking. When it broke, it looked like a big blob like at the Geyser before it shoots up.

When we walked to the ducks it was really cold out and the path was slippery. We found another little cute path. It was a shortish-longish cut. We went on that path because it was sunny.

Then we finally got to the ducks.

The ducks were all quacking and some people had a lot of bread so thousands of ducks went to them. I had a cute little pile of ducks and geese to feed. They really liked me they were getting out of the water so I said, “shoo, get in the water otherwise no bread.”

So then we walked back.

Then, we got to this little area where there are signs that said it used to be a big stadium, sort of a little cute place, a little circle with a bench and it was cute. I liked it.

There was also a bridge and we went over the bridge to get back. And when we got back the boys weren’t home so we drove to go get them but didn’t find them. We finally found them and they didn’t want a ride. They rode their bikes the rest of the way home. They brought us treats from the bakery though.

The End.

Posted in expat, Hiking, Iceland, Motherhood, Parenting, Russia, Winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

DO I KNOW YOU?

I couldn’t figure out why everyone was talking to me. Complete strangers wanted to discuss a potential afternoon cold spell, my shoes, the menu. During a long walk along the shore I could barely complete a sentence because I was interrupted by so many greetings. It took me a few hours before I realized that I didn’t know any of these people, they were just being friendly. That’s how it is in the States, especially in the South. But wasn’t I American too? And if so, why did I feel like such a foreigner?

It seemed like such a simple trip. Well, not simple at all—a whirlwind from Reykjavik to Hilton Head to attend a wedding. But it would be quick. My parents could extend their already planned visit to our home in Iceland and babysit the kiddos while the mister and I snuck away to attend the wedding. He’d stay on in the States for a full week, but I’d hustle back to relieve my parents. So, basically, I was in the states for 3 days, plus two full days of travel. With a trip this quick it would be like I never even left. No biggie.

And yet, it took only those first few strangers for me to realize how disorienting an expat’s trip back to her homeland can feel. No one in Iceland or Russia talks to you on the street. If I get any sort of acknowledgment, it’s a nod or a scowl. This has become the norm for me. That, or simply ignoring all the noise around me because I don’t really understand what anyone is saying. But in South Carolina, the more strangers approached me, the more strange I began to feel, the more out of place.

Don’t get me wrong, the trip was also amazing. No kids for three nights! A gorgeous and intimate wedding on the beach with dear friends, kayaking in the afternoon, lounging by the pool, stopping in at Target for a quick load up of American products at discounted prices! (My god Iceland is so expensive, I spent the whole trip gasping at the cheap American prices). This was bliss.

from Holiday Inn website

But then it was over. I parted ways with the mister at Dulles and spent four plus hours at the airport purchasing American magazines and getting an inexpensive and quick mani/pedi –more things I can’t do in Iceland. And, feeling that vague sense of confusion, vertigo, floating. Where do I belong?

This week in DC, between meetings at the State Department about his next assignment, the mister is walking through different neighborhoods and looking at what types of houses are on market. It’s true, we are starting to talk about our move back to the US this summer. While this move is (at the very least) nine months away, it’s now solidly out there. After nearly seven years overseas we’ll be heading back to DC. What will that mean for me? Certainly, it will be a homecoming. I know that even though on this last jaunt I felt like a foreigner in my own country, eventually that sensation will pass. But what about the other pieces I’ve left undone, or done differently because we were away?

When we were last living in Washington we were childless (save for the first three months of B’s life before we moved her and us to Turkey). And I had a big-time, full-time, well-paying job. And we owned a great house in the heart of DC that we could afford because we had two incomes. And now? I’ve done a lot of writing. I’ve done a lot of child-rearing. I’ve done a lot of little project managing of various and interesting things. I started a small studio that develops a handful of interesting children’s book projects. I’ve lived in far-flung locales, learned another language, and explored and mused, and hey, even blogged a lot. But where does that leave me when we return to America? And how will all this be used in our transition to life in DC?

from Lonely Planet

My parents left and the mister is still in Washington and I’m sitting at home with the little ones now in bed while these questions hurl at my worried conscience. Last night, I started to peek at job sites and real estates sites and in no time I got heart palpitations. Tonight, I’ve resorted to chips and beer and blogging it out. (Wasn’t it getting boring that so many of my blogs were just sunshine and adventure?)

Our move is still many, many months away. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned with this nomadic life, it’s that you have to live in the now or you’ll never get to really enjoy a place. So I’m letting myself question all this today. Then I’ll tuck it away. I’ve designed Fridays as my “think about the future” day each week.  And in the meantime, if you’ve authored the “What Color is Your Parachute” book or have any great advice for how to handle transitions, what I should do differently with my life on our return, what I should do with my career, how we can afford a house in DC, etc etc. then, please, by all means: SPEAK UP! I’ll certainly need your help as I float between countries, places, and eventually try again to repatriate. And anyway, who could ever really answer that massive question about what the hell it feels like to be American? We all know it’s a complicated response with all kinds of different answers, which probably even include that vertigo, that questioning your sense of place, and an acute need for healing from chips and beer.

Posted in DC, expat, Foreign Service, Iceland, moving, State Department | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

REYKJAVIK BY DESIGN

In Reykjavik, hidden behind brightly painted doorways and tucked behind tall tin homes, a carefully curated world thrives. This is a city where design takes precedence, where everyday life is alive with decorative details. On Wednesday, I turned off of the small main street and headed into Spark Design Space, a museum and shop showcasing those pivotal points where creatives and craftsman insist that life and art intersect. Infused with distinct Icelandic style, objects, tools, and colorful curios came alive. So too did my imagination and an inspired spirit.

http://www.sparkdesignspace.com/

http://www.dwell.com/articles/icelands-new-spark.html

Posted in Art and Design, Iceland, Reykjavik | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment