Esja

There are a few choice days in Iceland when the sun appears, clouds dissipate, and this rock in the Atlantic transforms into paradise. This summer, we had so many of these clear, sunny days that folks around here started actually worrying about a drought. I’m sure there were some legitimate concerns, but considering that I wore my parka through most of these same months, I had trouble getting worked up about the too hot temperatures. And really, I couldn’t even bring myself to call it warmish.

Somewhere around mid-August, we started seeing fewer and fewer of those sun-filled days. So last Sunday, when we woke to clear blue skies, we knew we had to climb Mt. Esja.  This enormous graceful mountain anchors the quaint city of Reykjavik. Each morning as I head into town, the first thing I do is check the mountain: Is it visible or covered in wispy clouds? Has a thick black storm spun around the summit? Are the peaks blanketed in snow or is the face lightly dusted? The ever-present Mt. Esja defines the landscape, it characterizes Reykjavik.

Despite having stared at this mountain for over a year now, somehow we’ve never climbed it. “The hike is easy,” some said. “I did it with my kids in tow,” said another. “Oh, and the best part is the café at the base when you are done. Great food.” I can’t remember which Reykjavik residents offered me these bits of advice. But considering myself a local, I didn’t bother to consult any guidebooks. We simply drove up there and started our ascent.

On the way up, we passed old men with walking sticks, young trail-runners, and other Icelanders who looked like they did this all the time. No problem, I thought. After an hour, considering we were hiking with our children ages four and six, we asked some locals which path was the easiest way up. They suggested the route on the right.

We walked over wooden bridges and along well-worn paths. We scrambled over scree and climbed on all fours over lava fields. We brushed through tall thin grassy fields and shimmied along steep drop-offs. In all, it took us nearly three hours to get to the summit and sign the guest book at the top. From each resting point, the magnificent views took our breath away. We looked across the Faxaflói Bay, over to the peninsula and lighthouse of Seltjarnares, beyond Hallgrímskirkja, the grand modern church in Reykjavik, over the shimmering water tower of the Pearl/ Perla, past the container ships in the bay, the sailboats in the harbor, the Snæfellsness Peninsula on one end and to the never-ending stretch of the Atlantic.

For our descent, we followed a group of tourists on a much easier and shorter route. This alternate path only took us two hours (with the four-year-old) and for some of that he rode on my shoulders.  While the advice I’d received had been totally incorrect in regards to the difficulty of the hike, those locals were right about one thing: the café at the bottom was delicious, especially to us, the weary trekkers both young and old.

Advertisements
Posted in expat, Hiking, Iceland, Summer | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A PUSSY RIOT: Gay Pride in Iceland

I’ve tried to keep this blog clean—this is not the place for me to talk about politics or show photos of my children. My husband works for the US government and we’ve been posted to countries where they scrutinize every word he says, judging his slightest move, writing headline stories about a statement he made and even publishing comments about things he didn’t say or would never say. Don’t get me started on the article that was full of atrocious lies. And too, we’ve been targets. In one city, there was an Al Qaeda cell in our neighborhood and we were the only Americans for miles around. The last thing I wanted were photos of my kids posted online for those guys to get a better look at them. Now we live in a lovely safe city (knock on all kinds of wood) and, while I still don’t post photos of my kids here, I do feel like I have a bit more space to express myself.

Disclaimer: For the sake of clarity, I must state again that the opinions here are my own and do not represent those of the US government.

There are a number of things the US government, and even the Department of State, do that I don’t agree with—big picture things, small policies. This was especially true during the last administration. And candidly, offline, behind closed doors, I would be happy to discuss and argue my case, talk about foreign policy or politics. But I’ve kept that off this blog for the reasons I state above. Namely, I don’t want my words misquoted, put in the press, or to become a part or a complication of Mr. Green’s job. He can handle PR and public diplomacy through his channels, the official ones. What I say should be mine and shouldn’t become a part of his work. But what happened in Reykjavik this past weekend was so amazing and jaw-dropping that I have to put in my two-cents. The State Department and US Embassy Reykjavik did the right thing—publicly and with aplomb. And I have to talk about it. US Embassy Reykjavik not only supported the Gay Pride events, they were a major part of the activities. It was phenomenal. Rainbow banners flew from the front of the embassy. The ambassador announced he would march in the Gay Pride Parade and carry a banner. He invited the staff and their families to participate. Of course, he said participation was entirely voluntary. On Saturday afternoon, amidst a major rainstorm, dozens of embassy staff, I’d say 80%, came out with their families to march in the parade. We had T-shirts made with the rainbow flag and American flag on the front. On the back it said “Gay Rights are Human Rights”—Hillary Clinton. Kids waved rainbow flags and we started marching. Out on this rock in the Atlantic, one-third of the country’s entire population turned out on the streets wearing raincoats and braving the downpour. Kids, teachers, grandparents, thousands arrived to cheer on the marchers. I was overcome with pride—for my country, for my friends, for my husband’s colleagues, for humanity. I was moved to tears as I stood next to my family and dignitaries: the ambassador and Bay Fang, the visiting Deputy Assistant Secretary, that so many could come together to support such a basic and beautiful human right. I was grateful too that it gave me the opportunity to talk to my kids about it. Explain what we were doing on a simple level with the hopes that they will grow up thinking it right, normal, to celebrate all people, regardless of who they love.

And too the kids and I were in awe of the costumes, the decoration, the fan-fare. I know that Icelanders have style and flair but I had no idea just how outrageous Reykjavik could be. When the mayor showed up in drag it was hard not to gape. Even more hilarious was his float. In solidarity with the Russian music group recently imprisoned for a peaceful protest, he dressed as a member of Pussy Riot and his float had a huge banner that said “Free Pussy Riot.” The kids were more interested in the marching band and man dressed like a mermaid to ask questions about the mayor, but this too gave us the opportunity to tell them about peaceful protest and support, albeit with less mention of the band’s name.

The Mayor of Reykjavik (in pink) with the US Ambassador to Iceland

For doing the right thing, for being part of the right message, my heart swelled with pride. I’m proud of my country. I’m proud of Iceland. I’m proud of the State Department, the ambassador, my husband. And too, the events gave me a chance to really laugh—a much-needed bellowing, deep, hooting and howling. Watching the ambassador talk to the mayor dressed in drag then hearing the lovely newscaster in her studio say her few words, I was on the floor. Here’s what I heard from clip, “alkjoeriaewoiuaweoiu PUSSY RIOT awoeiurowiruaoweiu  Pussy Riot asoereuiore Pussy Riot” Check out the video for yourself, really:

http://www.visir.is/section/MEDIA99&fileid=VTV549F9462-EC45-4133-A874-4637C4357492

So thank you, US Embassy Reykjavik. Thank you Hillary Clinton for your support on this important topic. Thank you for encouraging a loving, open society and for making me proud (and for making me guffaw). Free Pussy Riot!

Posted in Gay Pride, Government Officals, Iceland, Parenting, Reykjavik, US Ambassador | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Reykjavik Top 5

The Foreign Service is full of bloggers, both spouses like me and employees of the Department of State, that chronicle our crazy, nomadic life. The FS bloggers do a regular round-up of posts and, while I’ve participated, I almost never have written a new entry specifically for them. But I’m a sucker for lists, and because bidding season is underway, I decided to take the bait. This week’s theme: Five pros and cons of your current post. Here goes:

Reykjavik, Iceland

Pros

1. Unbelievably breathtaking vistas—a view of the massive Snæfellsness glacier rising out of the sea, the small fjord outside our front door at high tide when the waves gently lap against the shore, steaming earth rising in tall plumes off a bright red or black mountain. . .

2. A fun, interesting, smart group of mama friends to exercise with, to meet for drinks and a sushi dinner, to soak with in a hot pot, to have over for play dates, to share a coffee or a glass of wine. . .

3. Miles and miles of running/bike trails that snake along the coastline, past the fishing village, beside the sleek modern homes and tin-sided classic homes, through the barren lava fields, beside the family of swans and Arctic terns, and right back to my front door.

4. Mokka, C is for Cookie, City Hall Café, Kex, and all the little coffee shops where I can tuck into a table, get a terrific cappuccino, type away at my computer, and people-watch, while the wind howls outside.

5. Long drape-y shirts cut on the bias, woven ponchos, wool capes, multi-patterned dresses, bright tights, tall boots, and all the other gorgeous and eclectic designs worn by Icelanders and now also worn by me.

CONS

 

1. You can visit the striking Westman Islands, the breath-taking West Fjords, the dramatic waterfalls in the north, the bubbling earth along the active Kafla Volcano. Oh, but actually only during a two-month window in the summer. You shouldn’t travel from November 1- May 1. Too cold, too windy. Bad roads. Not advisable.

2. Stop in at a basic lunch place. Tasty fish and chips for lunch. Delicious. Cost for one: $32

3. Time in air from Reykjavik to NYC, only 4.5 hours! So close. Why then is it so hard to find a ticket for under $1000? And a trip to the west coast, sometimes costs twice that unless you lay over in NY for a day or two.

4. Employment options for non-Icelandic speaking spouse: slim to none.

10am. Full moon. Winter.

5. Morning routine during winter: Wake at 6am with young babes, dress, feed all, pack lunches, drive everyone through snow drifts to work and school. Go to gym, exercise, come home, shower, dress, make coffee, open computer. Look outside: still pitch black with a full moon. Nearly 11am and it feels like it will never get light outside again.

Posted in Bucket List, expat, Foreign Service, Iceland, Reykjavik, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Westman Islands / Vestmannaeyjar

 

Today we played hookey – taking a mid-week escape from our computers, our work, kids’ summer camp, and everything else – to follow the sun to the Westman Islands off the southern shore of Iceland.

Under nearly cloudless skies we drove along the grassy slopes and past the rocky peaks to a majestic hilltop to view Surtsey. Just a few kilometers from shore sits this brand new landmass, an island that formed in a volcanic eruption in 1963.

Farther on we stopped on the cliff to find the puffins, finally getting up close to the national bird of Iceland.

Later, we ran up the raw red and black rocks, tumbling across the active volcano toward the crater. Peering into the mass of rubble, we awed at the unfathomable—that this was nothing but a field and a quiet the coastline until the earth erupted in 1973 creating this massive mound.

At the bottom of the hill we gaped, imagining the horror, a whole village buried, a modern-day Pompeii. We crept to the roof and peered into the window of a home unburied for tourists and locals to see, to remember.

Chimney & Roof of home buried in lava rock

Back at the harbor, we admired the Norwegian church and midwife’s cabin. Then we turned again to marvel at the strength and perseverance of the islanders—a people that fought hot lava to save their harbor and their beautiful island.

With the sun still strong, we climbed back on the ferryboat, waved goodbye to the wondrous rocks, and headed to the mainland.

Posted in Iceland, Summer, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A SUMMER SUNDAY: PICNICS & WATERFALLS

Sunday morn we woke early to meet our friends at Litla Kaffistofan (the little coffee house) on the road out of town. After a few cups of coffee, we headed over the pass, and it started to rain something fierce. But by the time we cleared the mountain, the clouds lifted and we could watch steam rise out of the earth in patches along the hill before turning north for a quick stop at Kerið, a picturesque volcanic crater. After the requisite photo of the children, we caravanned onward to Skálholt, the original religious and farming center of Iceland. There, we burrowed through a secret tunnel below the church and stared at the bright stained-glass windows.

 

For lunch, we stopped to picnic at the double falls of Hjalp, feasting on sandwiches and fending off flies.

 

Soon we were off to Stöng to see the remnants of a Viking farmhouse where the wee ones jumped between rooms and pretended the former kitchen was their prison. Hurrying through the light rain we ducked into the awesome power station at Búrfellsvirkjun with its 1950’s style architecture and interactive museum exhibits. But more importantly, the kids loved that we were talking about dams. Or as M said, “Mom you just said the “D” word six times.”

With the rain lightening up, we explored the reconstructed Viking farmhouse at Thjóðveldisbae where B sang in the chapel and both babes piled into the sheepskin bed to snuggle.

 

Weary but determined we soldiered on, riding over dirt paths, bumping and skidding across rugged track. Just before the dirt road ended, we stopped in the shadow of Hekla to peer at our last waterfall of the day. I looked out at the grey sky and miles of lava rocks and then my sleepy babes. At last, it was time for dinner in Selfoss before we crossed back over the mountain and headed home.

Posted in Iceland, Summer, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

WRINKLE

Somewhere there is a wrinkle. A sheet flips in a breeze. A hand brushes through the air. And with that, it is as if nothing has skipped or moved. Nothing jumped or caught. As if, in a linear manner, life has continued, straightforward, uninterrupted, right here.

Right here, in Los Angeles, where I move past well-loved storefronts, across the green manicured lawns, along the crumbling sandy bluffs, and down the trafficked highways with ease, with a lengthy familiarity.

Here, on the age-old sands, I run, like I always have, along the Pacific, winding past Santa Monica to Venice and ending at Annenberg Beach House to swim in the pool tiled with designs I memorized when I was ten. The sea monster, the dolphin, the fish with the long purple scales.

On a Saturday I eat in a house by the sea on a street corner I’ve passed, sat, and walked on for years. I slip into girls’ dinner, my seat still warm from when I last dined with my dearest friends, the conversation as intimate and as special. And when we move to the stylish Viceroy to meet another big group, I know each person in the crowd. But of course, I do, they’ve come for me.

But how is that? Didn’t they hear?

Another day, I stroll through the farmer’s market to buy kale, organic carrots, raspberries, and stone fruit. Over a pile of white peaches, I greet my preschool teacher and later, I weigh my plums next to my seventh grade humanities teacher. Bags full, I show my son the sidewalk where my name is stamped into the cement.

Weekends are full of birthday parties for 5 year olds. A film premiere, a 40th celebration, a graduation party, a BBQ at my uncle’s house. Really? A full calendar of events?

Somewhere under this wrinkle, I travel too. Off to New York, back in the book business, bumping into faces from 1994 or 2004. Breakfast at Balthazar, dinner at Prune. I slide next to friends from Washington DC, San Francisco, and Moscow as if we do this every year. After all, it’s not like we haven’t all been to BEA countless times over the years. At hotel Dream, I float through the lobby beneath the reflection from the pool, and can’t help but wonder if maybe it really is a hallucination.

I’m certain that amidst the well-known sidewalks and faces, only I can sense the faint stir of free-fall, a small wind, a tiny rustle behind my ears, and a suppressed ache in my chest. Something fierce is missing, something is terribly amiss.

Do they know? The friends in LA, the friends in the book world, the people inviting us to all these events? Do they know that I have a whole parallel life at the edge of the Arctic circle, on a distant part of the planet? Do they know that I don’t actually live here and haven’t in ten years? That I’ve resided overseas for SIX consecutive years, in three different countries, in a totally strange and alternate life? Do they know that home too was the dusty streets in southeast Turkey and the city where I gave birth to our son and the convoluted underground pathways of the Moscow metro where I donned fur and fuzzy hats. Do they know that now I have a house by the sea in Iceland? It’s there, in Reykjavik, where all my possessions are kept, and more importantly, where my husband has stayed. That’s where we have schools and routines and offices and.  . . Well, my life.

There’s nothing as magically magnificent as the moment I first see that particular glow of light in southern California, the cool smell of the sea against the warm air, the total familiarity of a place full of dear, dear old friends and family and a new baby that looks just like my own, that hold a place in my heart. When I chase after my child or tilt my head back in the sun, I can almost exist wholly here, in Los Angeles, in this parallel world. I can almost pretend it has always been like this and there is nothing but here.

But after the blinding glare of the sun makes me squint or I catch up with my run-away child, I hear the wind and feel the pull, the ache in my chest. Home is with my mister. Home is a place where all four of us are together, be it moving around the globe or setting up our little space in a country with an indecipherable language that I’ll never master. I love my sisters, my family, my Pacific Ocean, my LA. I love it something fierce. But, it’s time to unfold the sheet, smooth out the wrinkle, and go back.

All I can do is hope that my LA world doesn’t find out. That no one tells them my secret. That no one lets on about my other life. Then, maybe when I come back to visit next time they’ll let me slide right back in. As if I never left.

Posted in expat, expatriate, Foreign Service, Holidays, Iceland, Pacific Palisades, Summer, trailing spouse, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP: Lambing Season in Iceland

We entered the barn to the sound of hundreds of bleats. Small voices, loud moans, baa, bleat, baa, baa. Sheep were everywhere. Ewes with massive, swollen bellies. Tiny, newborn lambs. White. Black. Spotted.

“Can you grab me a rope?” The farmer yelled above the din.

Já. Já. Yes. Yes. This one?” The man asked reaching his wrinkled hand into a box on a small table in the corner.”

“No, next to it, the thinner one.”

The man picked up a small rope and hurried toward the farmer. We scurried behind him. My toddlers, wide-eyed and silent for the first time all morning, clung to my jacket.

I tripped over a pile of straw, before I caught my fall and recovered. Looking up, I watched the farmer tie the string around a small white something coming out of the end of a sheep.

The farmer crouched low and pulled, yanking on a limb, then on the string. Sweat gathered on his forehead and he wiped his brow with his sleeve. Nothing moved. He stood and his gloved hands emerged, covered in blood.  “She’s a big one, this. Can’t get her to come out.”

The ewe bleated again and the farmer sat. Again he pulled. Two legs. A head. And finally, a little lamb.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Farm, Iceland, Spring | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

MY NEW CHILDREN’S BOOK

I’m thrilled to announce my new children’s book! WHOSE BIRTHDAY IS IT?! is from the amazing Paper Hat Press.

Check it out! Tell a friend!

https://www.paperhatpress.com/books/whose_birthday_is_it

 

 

Posted in Birthday, Children's Book, Kids Book | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

ODE TO THE WHALE

When I was a girl, I slept with the whales—above my pillow hung an oversize photographic poster of a pod of orcas and across the room swung a large paper mobile of seven whales: grey, blue, minke and so on. Beside my bed, a goldfish swam circles in a small bowl, making the water splash and swish, as if they were sounds from the sea. And so for years, through elementary and middle school, and onward to high school, I dreamt of whales. I swam with them in a deep blue ocean, flew above a jumping pod, or watched from the shore as they surfed in crashing waves. After high school, the poster came down, the mobile was stored in a box, and when I moved away, the dreams subsided. Now it’s been years since I’ve closed my eyes and swum with these, my favorite creatures.

Today, we drove out to the Snaefellsness Peninsula to explore the shoreline and view the massive glacier that inspired Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. And, too, we went because we’d heard about a whale.  First, we stopped in Arnarstapi. The wind howled and we bundled in our snowsuits, hats, and mittens hoping to walk the 2.5 kilometers to the next village over. We peered down the sea cliffs and searched for puffins. We jumped over the caves and watched the waves collide against the shore, throwing wild sprays of water hundreds of feet into the air. But the wind and cold  were too much for the little travelers, who were more interested in trying to dig in the mud or roll down a grassy hill then move forward along the trail. So after an hour or so we turned back and drove to Hellnar. After spotting a seal, we hiked down the small path to a tiny stone house that sheltered us and served up amazing vegetarian quiche, seafood stew, warm freshly baked bread, and hot, hot coffee.

 

Stomachs full and with our bodies warmed, we decided to push ahead to try and find the whale. Sooner than expected, we saw the sign for Litlaloa and turned down a rocky, unpaved road until we reached the ancient stone walls. My pulse raced with fear as I jumped out and dashed over the rocky sea wall to the shore. And there he was. Enormous. Newly dead. Alone. And laid out across the rocky beach in front of us like a sorrowful offering from the sea. This beautiful creature, fully intact and untouched, stared up at us. In the freezing climate, no bugs crawled on his skin, no birds tried to peck at his thick skin. My heart swelled and then cracked.  My stomach churned and the wind picked up again. It was time to return home.

 

Now, back in Reykjavik, a two-hour drive south, nestled at home on the couch, I am far away from the wicked wind and agitated sea, but my mind is still with this magnificent creature, still grieving for him.  Maybe tonight, again in my dreams, I’ll swim with whales. Maybe I’ll swim with this one.

Posted in expatriate, Iceland, Spring, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

ICEBERGS! REINDEER & GLACIERS! OH MY! Adventures in South East Iceland

Tonight the sun sets at 9:24pm. Tomorrow we get seven more minutes of daylight. After our ridiculously long dark winter, a shift to stretched out bright days means that everything has changed. Not only have the low grey clouds lifted and the skies cleared (mostly), but having that dazzling bright yellow ball return to the sky means something in me switched too. I’m slightly more perky in the mornings, I drink less coffee and, of course, I’m more compelled to explore.

Recently the family headed out en masse for a road trip toward Hofn. To traverse south east Iceland one must be prepared. We packed up the car: a bag full of swimsuits and towels, a bag full of snowsuits, a bag full of food, a bag full toys, and then of course, pillows, small blankets, and god knows what else.

Mr. Green and the kids had never seen the waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Skogarfoss so I pretended I was an expert and showed off the sites. I knew the family would be impressed, but I had no idea B and M would suit up to get totally soaked behind one and then race up the hundreds of stairs to the top of the other.

In Vik, we played tag (an Icelandic preschool version) on the black sand beaches, climbed the basalt columns, hid in the black “bat cave,” and watched the massive waves crash against the shore.

But the real awe came at the glacial lagoon of Jokulsarlon, filled with massive crystal blue icebergs. Here, we listened for the small clink and crash of ice as the enormous pieces of the glacier slowly floated toward the sea. On the bay side, we walked among a path of icebergs that had washed ashore while we spotted seals at play in the surf beside us. I was smitten.

Onward toward Hofn, we stopped at Brunnholl Farm near the tongue of a glacier. We spent two nights here, eating soup with the family, petting their horses, watching the cows get milked, and too adventuring in their backyard.

On the farmer’s advice, we traveled up a dirt road to a hot springs where we sat in scorching hot water under a cool sky. Later that day, we drove on a rocky road to the edge of a glacier and somehow convinced the kids to hike with us toward the blue abyss. And between stops, we sought out herds of wild reindeer and flocks of flying swans while relishing in some good old-fashioned family time on the road.

Posted in expat, Iceland, Spring, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments