Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Iceland, April 2016


Link to all photos here.

For my 40th birthday, I couldn’t think of anything better to do than to have a girls’ trip to Iceland. Well, that and going to the French Laundry. And between dealing with newish motherhood and spending a lot of energy trying to find that elusive work-life balance and “leaning in” in the appropriate manner, the time was ripe for a real vacation (because let’s face it, traveling with a baby or toddler isn’t a vacation; it’s a trip where you do everything you normally do but in a different location).

Many people have asked me why I chose Iceland. As someone who loves hot springs and a water culture, it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. Since Matt does not have the same love of hot springs, I figured it would be a good place for a solo or girls’ trip. As it turned out, four of my girlfriends from across the world were able to join me: Johanna, a teacher living in Abu Dhabi and a friend from my undergrad years 20 years ago; Laura, my best friend who I met in graduate school and who is currently living in New Zealand; Leah, who I also know from grad school; and Thea, one of my Emerge sisters and fellow local political rock star who I met here in San Francisco. It was a little strange to have so many of my different worlds in the same sphere.

We timed it for Johanna’s Spring break, the first week of April, which turned out to be a great time to go to Iceland. Although it was cold, it’s wasn’t unbearably cold. And I had no idea how such a thin piece of merino wool could keep me so warm! I also wanted to make sure that we caught the Northern Lights season. We ended up with a great mix of winter activities with relatively decent weather. Although it was indeed cold outside for this California girl (a couple layers of tolerance for cold from growing up in Philly had peeled off years ago), it wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be. It was probably in the mid to high 30s Fahrenheit all week. And I actually spent a lot of time sweating! Anywhere inside—stores, restaurants, even our hotel room—it was broiling hot.  

We arrived in Reykjavik around 6:00 a.m. after a red-eye from DC on a plane named after Iceland’s most famous active volcano, Hekla. Before going further, I want to emphasize that the difference between a good flight and a bad flight is an emergency exit row. I always try to get one, almost always successfully. Iceland Air was a great airline, and their staff was super friendly and assigned me my preferred seat at no extra cost over the phone. But I digress. We arrived the morning of April 1, which happened to be Leah’s 40th birthday. It’s a 45-minute bus ride into the city from the airport, and that was the perfect time to give Leah the birthday cupcake from SuzieCakes that I brought with me. (I actually wanted to give it to her on the plane and have the flight attendants sing, but that didn’t happen.) Thankfully, when we arrived at the Holt Hotel, our rooms were already available, so we napped for a couple of hours after eating breakfast. My rule of thumb for jetlag is this: If I arrive somewhere before 3 p.m., I sleep, but for no longer than 3 hours. If I arrive after 3 p.m., I slog through until as late as possible. The next day I’m almost always adjusted. This was no exception. The hotel and the rooms were beautiful and filled with artwork from the owner’s private collection.


 

  






After napping, we hit the town, walking along Laugavegur, the main shopping street in the city, and around the old harbor. There are so many puffin-related nick knacks to see. It was raining most of the day, but my layers kept me surprisingly warm. I was very skeptical of such a thin piece of merino wool keeping me warm, but it really did! There were so many murals all over the city. What was most interesting about the buildings to me was that doors were down a few steps. There was also some anti-EU sentiment, with EU membership a controversial topic among Icelanders. 



  

        

  

 

 



We got our first glimpse into how beloved the puffin is in Iceland. Someone, presumably a child, left his poor little puffin sitting on a bench. We left him there in case his owner returned for him.





I always love to go into local grocery stores. Food is such a big part of culture, and it's always fun to get a glimpse into local culture in that way. Here, how can you resist drinking some moo!




It was fun to see the creative cafes and restaurants around town. The Laundromat Cafe is indeed a cafe, and has the city's only laundromat in the basement. And of course we were intrigued by the Lebowski Bar!


  


   

We made our way to Icelandic Fish & Chips for dinner to celebrate Leah’s birthday, where Johanna, who arrived later that day, joined us. It was a great dinner; I tried the tusk with roasted potatoes and mango salad with a skyr-based mango dipping sauce. Fish is one of Iceland’s largest industries and exports, so we were excited to try as much of it as possible. Even as a staple, though, fish is just as expensive as all food in Iceland. More on that later.




 


On our first full day, we rented a large SUV and spent the day with Steini, an old friend of Thea’s from grad school who is Icelandic. It was so great to spend time with someone who could give us an insider’s “tour” and perspective, but it was also great to make a new friend. Steini was so knowledgeable about the history and politics of Iceland, so it was fun to chat while we saw the highlights of the Golden Circle. On our way out of the city initially, in an attempt to find a short cut we stumbled upon the main pipe that brings hot water into Reykjavik. 


 


Our first stop for the day was at Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage sight. The “Þ” is pronounced like a “th,” and the double L is pronounced like a “tl.” So, it’s pronounced kind of like “thingvetleer.” (The Icelandic language is actually quite challenging!) Þingvellir includes the site of the world’s first parliament, called Alþing, which was established in 930 and met until 1798. That was where people went to settle disputes, where the country’s laws were read aloud once a year, and where justice was rendered. In addition to the beautiful waterfalls, there is a “drowning pool” where women were drowned as punishment for things such as being romantically involved with the wrong person or breaking celibacy vows. Nearby, men were burned at the stake. This is also the place where Iceland debated and ultimately decided to adopt Christianity as their official religion (as opposed to the usual imposition by force of the religion. Of course, the fact that the Norwegian king threatened to kill Icelanders in Norway for refusing to accept Christianity may have had something to do with it). The formal adoption only came with the understanding that Heathen sacrifices and worshiping, as well as eating horsemeat, could continue secretly.


  


Here’s Thea getting ready to throw me into the drowning pool!


Þingvellir is also the place where the continental divide occurs, where the North American and the European tectonic plates meet. The plates move about 2 centimeters per year. The Silfra fissure is also here, which is an underwater crack between continents and is supposed to have some of the clearest water in the world. It’s also supposed to be fairly dangerous, so we didn’t do that.



One foot in North America and one foot in Europe



From there, we went to see the famous geysers, Geysir and Strokkur. Geysir doesn’t erupt very often—every few years—but Strokkur erupts every 10 minutes or so. The walk to Strokkur was very cool, as the natural thermal water in the area is about 110 degrees Celsius (230 degrees Fahrenheit) and the steam comes off the ground in a surreal way in the -1 degree outside temperature (about 30 degrees Fahrenheit). The sulfur smell from the thermal spring was strong there, but I kind of liked it. 



      


Across from the geysirs was a café where we had traditional lamb soup, which was very yummy. I was actually very impressed with all of the food we had, including food at rest stops and touristy stops. One of those rest stop restaurants had some good advice:




And another restaurant's restroom gave very clear instructions on its use:




From the geysirs we completed the Golden Circle at Gulfoss, the waterfalls. With the winter starting to melt away, the several layers of falls were beautiful. The pictures of the frozen falls in the winter, though, are amazing. Those pictures alone make me want to go back in January. We also learned that it was Steini’s first time there! I guess it’s easy to take things like that for granted if you’re close.


 

Despite the sign clearly indicating the danger of crossing and walking down the path, Thea and Johanna got a closer look at the falls at the bottom of the path. 


Photo courtesy of Johanna, from the vantage of the bottom of the path, which she dangerously went onto after crossing the sign saying to keep of. Rebel. 


After the falls we headed to the "Secret Lagoon," which was actually Gamla Laugin in the town of Fludir. It’s more of a locals’ place and not very touristy. The hot spring is about 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and so amazing. We were all wondering what it would be like to be in bathing suits outside in 30 degree Fahrenheit weather, but the hot spring was so hot it felt great to be outside! It was also really neat to see the steam coming up from the spring, as well as the small boiling cauldrons of mini springs around it. Before long we were all feeling very relaxed and very tired, and maybe a little light headed from staying in the spring for so long. We found the restaurant that we had been looking for for lunch, Café Mika, and had yummy and unique pizzas there.


  


By the time we finished and started heading back to Reykjavik, I was thinking that the only way the day could get any better was to see the Northern Lights. Sure enough, as I was looking out the window at a fuzzy gray cloud, the cloud slowly started turning green and then stretched across the entire sky. We were all eager to stop, but we had to find a safe place to pull over. There have actually been several incidents of tourists stopping on the highway and turning off their lights to see the aurora and getting killed! We found a spot to stop, and I was kicking myself for not bringing my tripod with me that morning. Johanna had her tripod, though. We waited a while but it didn’t seem like the aurora was going to come back, so we decided to keep driving. Of course, as soon as we were back on the highway the aurora came back. Again, it started out like a hazy cloud and turned pale green to bright green and danced across the sky. We were so excited, and poor Steini was trying to drive while we freaked out. We couldn’t get many good pictures from the moving car, although Johanna’s camera was able to catch a couple of blurry shots. It was so incredible to see them! I was just sad that I didn’t get to photograph them. I was looking forward to the Northern Lights tour that we had planned, but unfortunately, the tour was cancelled every night for the rest of the week due to cloud coverage. So I was not meant to photograph the aurora on this trip. L But we did see them, and that’s something. A photographer friend had been there a couple of months prior to our trip and took some amazing shots of the aurora. Below is one that he took from Þingvellir.


  


 This photo was taken by Justin Davis, owner of Fenceline Media Group




The next morning we went to the Blue Lagoon, which was the touristy madhouse that we expected. The locker room and showers were so crowded, and I saw firsthand why Icelanders  are so annoyed by foreigners who come and refuse to follow their customs and rules. Iceland is a water culture; in addition to the hot springs and lagoons, there are many public pools and hot pots (hot tubs). Icelanders go to these pools nearly every day; the pools are a gathering place for communities. There are very strict rules for maintaining cleanliness, including showing before entering, similar to the Japanese onsens. The rules are very clearly illustrated, yet people—Americans mostly—ignore them and just rinse off with their bathing suits on.

The Blue Lagoon was nice once we figured out where the hot spots where. The lagoon itself is massive. When you first enter, you go to the mud mask “desk” where you get some mud for your face. We wandered around the lagoon for a while trying to find places where it was hot rather than barely warm. We finally found a good spot, and not coincidentally, it was across from the bar. I made the mistake of having a drink, which I know isn’t good to do in such hot water. We ate lunch at the lagoon and then headed back to the hotel for a nap!



  

I just adore this picture of  Thea. :-)


After our much-needed naps, we went to Café Loki for traditional Icelandic food. In addition to fish, Iceland is known for its local lamb and its bread. The traditional Icelandic rye bread is steamed in a geyser rather than baked. They also have a traditional flatbread, or “potbread,” which is served with smoked meat or fish. This particular restaurant is known for its rye bread ice cream, which sounds weird but is delicious! I also had the sheep’s head “jam,” which was essentially head cheese, and mashed fish and smoked trout on rye bread. Since our Northern Lights tour was cancelled, we walked around town a bit more. One of the things I wanted to buy was a traditional Icelandic sweater, and they are sold at many places, but many of them are machine made rather than hand knitted (knitting is also apparently a big thing in Iceland). We found a great shop that sold hand-knitted sweaters kitted by a local knitting club. Each sweater has the name and age of the person who knitted it. It was awesome!



 


The next day was our longest day, a 14-hour day trip to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon on the south coast. On the way, we learned so much about Iceland and its history, culture, and even geology. On the way out of Reykjavik, we saw Hellisheidi, the largest geothermal power plant in the world.




We passed rock formations from the last ice age that were 2.5 million years old, as well Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland, which covers 11 percent of the country (did you know that thousands-years-old ice is stronger than steel?).


 


We saw several volcanos, including Eyjafjallajökull (which we practiced saying dutifully until we got it: "ay-ya fyat-la yookul," the volcano that caused the largest and longest shutdown of air space since WWII when it erupted in 2010. We also saw a documentary about a farm that sits at the foot of the volcano and how it survived, as well as the farm itself. We passed lava fields with lava from the late 1700s. Interestingly, whenever lava flows, two years later moss grows on the volcanic ash, so much of Iceland is covered in moss. We even tasted some moss syrup, which was quite good. We experienced Iceland’s desert, Skeidarasandur—the largest desert in Europe (in fact, Iceland’s polar desert is the second largest in the world), and learned that Iceland has more sheep than people.


  



On the way to Jökulsárlón we also stopped at Skógafoss, a 62m high and 15m wide beautiful waterfall along the Skógá River.



  

We finally arrived at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in the early afternoon. It is the only glacier lagoon in the world that connects to the sea, so glacier water and fresh water combine via a small river and the lagoon never freezes over. Also because of this, the lagoon has seals and fish. The lagoon was beautiful. It is 250 meters deep and 90 percent of the ice is under the water. We were there at the end of winter, so the weather hadn’t warmed quite enough for a lot of glacier “calves” to be floating around, but the ones that were there were exquisite. The ice had an incredible blue hue, and there were seals playing and arctic terns flying around. It really was a beautiful, surreal place.



  

  

  

  

On the way back to Reykjavik, we stopped at Reynisfjara black sand beach. There had been several fatalities at the beach since the surf and undercurrents are very strong. The tour guide, who was very dry and stern, warned us, “You must stay 40 meters away from the water or you will die. That is a fact.” We did try hard to not bust out laughing when looking at each other, but that phrase, “Or you will die. That is a fact.” became the most used for the rest of our trip. It was a very long and tiring day, but the lagoon was so beautiful I recommend it for anyone going to Iceland.



  
Pretty sure we were 40 meters away from the surf because we didn't die



While we were in Jökulsárlón, all hell was breaking lose in Reykjavik. Earlier that day, news broke about the release of the Panama Papers, and protesters gathered in Reykjavik calling for a vote of no confidence and the resignation of the prime minister and the finance minister because of their allegedly hiding money offshore during the financial crisis of 2010. The next day, we had the opportunity to join in the protests as we caught a march coming right toward us! We marched to the headquarters of the progressive party, or the “hick” party, talking with protesters the whole time. (With the Panama Papers scandal, the “hick” party lost favor and the Pirate Party gained steam. It’s also important to note the Iceland was the only country in the world that indicted bankers, let its banks falter, rejected austerity, and invested all of its resources on social welfare policies and the people of Iceland. Because of that, Iceland is also the only country in the world to achieve full economic recovery and not sacrifice its social foundation.) Funny enough, when the protesters we talked to learned we were Americans, their anger turned from their own country’s problems to fear for our country. They pleaded with us to not allow Trump to be elected as president. I assured them that no one is more fearful of that than we Americans!



  

  


That day was probably my favorite of our trip. We slept in a little bit and spent some time wandering around the Hallgrímskirkja church and the Leifur Eiríksson statue in front. We happened to be there when a school field trip was there, so we got to hear the massive pipe organ. We also took the elevator up to the viewing tower to see expansive views of Reykjavik and the sea.



          


  

        


From there, we walked along the water to see the Sun Voyager sculpture, which looks more like a Viking ship but which I continued to call the “whale” sculpture. We continued walking toward downtown, where we saw the statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, the first settler in Iceland in 874, and the Supreme Court building. Interestingly, we later learned that Arnarson was not, in fact, the first settler. Before Arnarson, there were Vikings who came with Irish and Scottish slaves. The Vikings decided to move on while the slaves stayed in Iceland. But because they were slaves, they were not considered to be the founders of Iceland. 


  


We then walked back across the city, which isn’t that big, to the Tin Can Factory, a recently opened community center focused on teaching Icelandic language and culture. The founders also run a program called “Meet the Natives,” a three-hour Icelandic experience that includes traditional food and lessons in the history, language, and culture of Iceland. We started with the geyser-steamed rye bread with local butter (“there must be enough butter on there to see teeth marks”) and house-pickled herring and sautéed dried local Angelica herb and garlic. We also had local flatbread with smoked leg of lamb; lamb is a very traditional Icelandic food. We each tried our hand at making crepes (which they called “Icelandic pancakes”) using 80-year-old pancake pans, and we ate them with cheese and smoked trout and with cheese and birch and moss syrups. The highlight, though, was eating the sheep’s head. We tried the eye, ear, tongue, and inner and outer cheeks. I had eaten sheep’s head before in Morocco, and I remembered it being delicious. It was less greasy than I remembered it being in Morocco. The other girls weren't as excited about the sheep's head. :-)




  


  



This was definitely one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. We had a blast! We were the only ones in our group, and the woman running it happened to be one of the founders of a local women’s movement group. Needless to say, we had so much to chat about women in politics, and we were there closer to four hours. Before we left, we all received certificates of completion with our Icelandic names. In Iceland, there are no family names. When a baby is born, he or she gets a first name and the last name is typically the father’s first name with a “son” or “daughter” after it. Thus, if Jane and Eric had a baby named James, the baby’s full name would be James Ericsson (son of Eric). If they had a daughter named Ingrid, the baby’s full name would be Ingrid Ericsdóttir (daughter of Eric). Occasionally and increasingly, progressive-minded families name their babies after both partners, so James would be James Janesson Ericsson and Ingrid would be Ingrid Janesdóttir Ericsdóttir. There is also a national naming committee that oversees a national registry of approved names and decides whether a new name that is not on the registry is acceptable. If a name is acceptable but not already on the registry, the parents pay a fee to have the name added. Because of this, the phone books are listed by first name instead of last name. (All people are also required to list an occupation for their phone book listing, which is not verified in any way, so there are many “gnome catchers” and “elf guides,” although a belief in elves is still pretty widespread among Icelanders).



  

And another reason to love the Tin Can Factory is that they know how to put on the toilet paper roll!




Later that day, after our protesting, we made our way to one of the famous hot dog stands, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, where people like Bill Clinton and Princess Diana ate hot dogs. Apparently, hot dogs are a thing in Iceland! Who knew! They’re not your traditional American hot dog, though. They’re made with Icelandic lamb with a little pork and beef thrown in. They’re served with raw onions, and fried onions (like the kind you’d find on a green bean casserole), ketchup, sweet brown mustard, and a remoulade sauce. It reminded me of ordering a cheesesteak in Philly—you order the hotdog “with or without” everything on it. I have to say, it was the best damn hot dog I’ve ever eaten.




I’m pretty sure that the reason hot dogs are so popular is because they’re the only thing affordable! The cost of food at restaurants and cafes in Iceland is crazy high, even compared to San Francisco prices. As one example, we found an “inexpensive” place for breakfast the morning we arrived, and breakfast was about $25. Each.



  


With our Northern Lights tour cancelled again, we spent the evening in the beautiful lounge of our hotel talking international politics with Steini. It was such a great day that I didn’t want it to end!





With the high of the previous day still lingering, we spent all of our energy hiking up the Sólheimajökull glacier, which is the glacier “tongue” to the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap that covers the Katla volcano. To get there, we duplicated the first half of our south coast tour from the trip to Jökulsárlón—even the same rest stops! But this time we had a friendly and fun tour guide rather than a stern and blunt one. When we got to the glacier, we geared up with our helmets and harnesses. This was one of the things that I had been looking forward to the most (besides photographing the Northern Lights. Blah.), so I was pumped. We hiked for about 15 or 20 minutes to the glacier tongue, where we put on our clampons. When walking with clampons, you have to very consciously plant each foot into the ice, so you’re forced to walk slowly. I was expecting very hard ice under our feet, but it was more like loose, pebbly ice. We hiked in a single file to ensure that we didn’t wander off into loose snow or sinkholes, stopping frequently to take pictures and catch our breath. The views were breathtaking. Like the Jökulsárlón lagoon, the ice was so clean and beautiful and had a blue hue. But it wasn’t just the ice. The black of the volcano merged in and out of the scenery, and the snow and ice were different shades.



  

  

  

  

There's a reason the ice forms circles like this, but I was too tired from hiking to remember what the reason is.  


The last stretch was really difficult for me. I have been so out of shape since having Izzie, and I was worried about losing steam. Those fears came true when we were nearly at the end of climbing. The entire group was at the top, and I felt like I just couldn’t go on and wasn’t going to make it. The girls—my sisters—were there beside me, encouraging me and pushing me forward. When I finally made it to the top, I broke down sobbing! I was cold and sweaty and tired, and had been filled with such mixed and overwhelming emotions, from feeling frustrated with myself for being so out of shape to feeling so proud of myself for making it up there. So I let it all out on the top of that glacier. I thought about it more later and realized that my making it to the top of that glacier was symbolic for me. I felt like the last year and a half of my life had been so low, full of postpartum depression and sleep deprivation and all of the normal up and down emotions that come with new motherhood, so getting to the top of that glacier was like overcoming all of that to move into the next chapter of my life. Reflecting, I realized that my thoughts up there were really about being a good mother and partner and friend, and even being a better professional after slogging through all of those roles over the prior 18 months.






The glacier is like a living example of climate change. Like other glaciers around the world, this one is shrinking by the day. About 20 years ago, the glacier covered the entire area that we hiked just to get to the tongue; it shrinks an average of one Olympic pool-length every year. Experts predict that the entire glacier tongue will become a lake in the next few decades. When we got to the plateau, there was a measuring device showing how much of the ice had melted, which is about 25 feet every 6 months! We could also see the moss and markings on the side of the volcano showing how much the glacier had melted since 2000. There was also a giant iceberg in the middle of the lake that had calved only 2 weeks prior, and we passed a massive conical rock above us that had been the floor of the glacier only 2 years ago. We also learned that when too much of the glacier melts, the water has nowhere to go but underneath, which lifts the entire glacier up and makes it dangerous to walk on.








On the way back to Reykjavik, in addition to another stop at Skógafoss waterfall, we stopped at the 60m-high Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which is supposedly the only fall that you can walk behind. I was way too tired to hike up there, so I waited behind while the girls went up. While waiting, I got a beautiful rainbow sighting.








Also on the way back, we passed massive rocks that contained caves into which houses were built! There are local folklores about elves living in these caves. (Remember, Icelanders take the belief in elves very seriously.)


  


  


That night, with our Northern Lights tour cancelled for the last time, we had dinner at the hotel restaurant. It was supposed to be a high-end place with really great food. Sadly, I thought that the food was way overpriced and just mediocre. I had the local veal with tagliatelle and black truffles. The prices were definitely indicative of Iceland, though: the tiny dessert that we shared was about $20!! And it was so obviously frozen! But it was so much fun to spend our last night together laughing and talking about our favorite parts of the trip.




Johanna had a very early flight the next morning, so the other four of us went to one of the many public pools and sat in one of the “hot pots” outside. I can definitely see why the water culture is so popular! It was very relaxing. I was sad to pack up and leave for the airport that afternoon.







Although I didn't get to photograph the Northern Lights, Iceland Air gave me one more opportunity to see them.




This trip to Iceland with my friends was exactly what I needed to reset and refocus. I felt slightly guilty that Izzie had her first case of hand, foot, and mouth disease with Matt at the same time, balanced with gratitude that I wasn’t there for it. J I’m so thankful for the modern technology that let me see them and talk with them live. But most of all, I’m thankful for such great friends—sisters—and the opportunity to share this experience with them.


Link to all photos here. I was pretty impressed with myself for editing about 1800 pictures down to about 360. 



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