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Iceland

3 May
View of Reykjavik from Hallgrimskirkja Church

View of Reykjavik from Hallgrimskirkja Church

I went on a quick weekend trip to Iceland with my sister. That might sound crazy, but the flight is under 6 hours, about the same amount of time it takes for me to get to California from New York. I had never been to Iceland, so off I went.

Something I had to wrap my head around in visiting Iceland was that unlike many other places I’ve visited, I wasn’t there to be wowed by the city, by the architecture, not even necessarily the history (although the Viking history is an interesting one), I was there for the natural beauty, the eerie landscape. I can safely say I have never been any place like it.

Cold, yes. Unpleasant, no. The air is so clear, the waters so blue. There was definitely a lot of bundling up and a light investment in an Icelandic wool hat to keep my head warm, but other than that the cold wasn’t difficult to deal with. There’s a saying that goes, “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait 5 minutes.” I had one hour stretches where I experienced snow, sunshine, rain, wind, cold, warm. God, what a strange place.

Our first day was spent in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland and where about 2/3 of the Icelandic population of 300,000 reside. It was a charming fishing village with colorful buildings, shops selling homemade goods, a Beatles coverband playing from a balcony, teenagers running around dressed in animal costumes, signs about knitting elves. After taking a couple of pictures from the top of the Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran church and wandering the streets, we stopped into a traditional Icelandic cafe and dove headfirst into the strange cuisine.

Cafe Loki: Rye Bread Ice Cream, Fish on Rye bread, and Hakarl (fermented shark.)

Cafe Loki: Rye Bread Ice Cream, Fish on Rye bread, and Hakarl (fermented shark.)

Before leaving for Iceland, my co-worker kept telling me about a delicacy he had heard about called Hakarl. It’s shark meat that’s left to ferment for a couple of months. I told him there was no way I was going to eat that. But I found myself sitting in a cafe in Iceland, seeing it cheaply on a menu, and not coming up with a good reason to not try it.

Weird. Plain weird. I don’t know how to begin to describe the taste. Salty, fishy, fruity, chewy, juicy. Weird. Not bad. Not good. Weird. Then, I swallowed. The aftertaste that followed was horrific. The strong scent of ammonia that follows these shark bites around invaded my mouth and sinus area. All I could do was devour the Rye Bread Ice Cream (delicious!) and try to bury the horrible taste. I later learned that it is tradition to take a shot of Brennivin (Icelandic Schnapps) after eating the shark to avoid the experience I had.

At the base of Eyjafjallajokull in my new Icelandic wool hat!

At the base of Eyjafjallajokull in my new Icelandic wool hat.

Our second day was a scheduled “Volcano Tour/Glacier Walk.” I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I typically don’t go on tours when I travel, but this turned out to be a highlight of the trip. An Icelandic guide came and got us in a massive land rover and drove us along the south coast. The countryside is pristine. Iceland uses something like 99% renewable resources, and they are environmentally aware. The island itself is volcanic, so the ground everywhere is black from ash and covered in a light layer of moss which is about all the vegetation that can grow there. The snow melt from the top of these volcanic mountains creates stunning waterfalls. Our tour included driving through riverbeds, hiking to the base of Eyjafjallajokull (that volcano that erupted a couple of years ago and ruined air travel in Europe for weeks), trekking behind waterfalls, hiking along glaciers, and eating lamb stew at a small Icelandic hotel. Of all the natural beauty we saw, it was once again the ocean that took my breath away. The long, black beaches and the crashing waves, the clouds rolling in with occasional sunlight breaking through, the loud roar of the ocean, the strong winds nearly knocking us over. Pictures don’t quite do it justice.

The ashy beaches of Iceland.

The ashy beaches of Iceland.

The following day I had arranged to go horseback riding on the famous Icelandic horse. Again, I was taken out to the Southern coast to a ranch that leases out wild Icelandic horses. The horses are rather small but sturdy. There was a German woman in my group who was rather large, but her horse didn’t seem to mind at all. The horses have a thick coat of fur and come in 100 different shades. Because I was a more experienced rider I was given a wilder horse named Rouðka (meaning “the red”). She was beautiful, and I was in love with her in an instant. Once we began the ride, she became feisty, pulling at her reins, wanting to break away from the horses in our group. Looking out over the endless Icelandic countryside I wanted the same thing, and she could tell. Once or twice, when we were trotting along in the special Icelandic horse gait called a tolt, I loosened the reins and allowed her to run ahead of everyone else. Our guides would warn me to pull her back and stay with the group, I played dumb, shrugging, blaming it on my Rouðka.

Bad picture of me, glamor shot or Rouðka,

Bad picture of me, glamor shot or Rouðka,

Our final day, on the advice of a friend, we stopped at the Blue Lagoon on the way to the airport. My guidebook put it well in calling the Blue Lagoon, the Eiffel Tower of Iceland, with all the good and bad connotations such a comparison elicits. It’s a touristy thing to do, but it is also the most iconic part of the country. I was expecting it to be so-so as most iconic things turn out to be. But instead it was relaxing, refreshing, beautiful and the exact thing we needed before getting back on a plane. Walking through the milky blue waters of the lagoon is soothing with different temperatures every few steps. There are sandy areas to sit, a bar to enjoy a beer at, masseuses, and silica mud to put on your face for a mini-facial. Although there were plenty of tourists around, the lagoon has so much steam rising from it that it was difficult to see a couple of feet ahead, not to mention that the swimming area is huge. It was easy to be alone and enjoy it without crowds. We stayed in until we were completely pruned.

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

A quick weekend trip to Iceland is exactly what I needed, to get away from work stress and personal stress. There’s nothing like traveling to a weird little nook of the world to reset yourself.

 

  • Travel Notes:
  • Skyr- Icelandic yogurt. It’s a little sour, but fluffy and satisfying. I ate it with berries every morning I was there. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I’ve been back.
  • Expensive Food- While the American dollar is currently strong against the Icelandic Koruna, I found that eating out was crazy expensive. People warned me about this, but I shrugged, figuring I was from New York. But $40-$50 for a meal for one person is typical in Iceland. Most everything else is relatively inexpensive.
  • Tours- While I don’t like tours in general, the ones in Iceland were spectacular. The guides are all friendly locals. It felt more like hanging with a local as opposed to paying for a tour. Plus, Icelanders LOVE their country and want to brag and talk about it with you every chance they get.
  • Liquor- Drink Viking beer, skip the Brennivin. It tastes like bad Vodka.
  • Layers- Holy shit, it’s cold. Then it’s warm. Then you think you’re going to freeze to death. Bring layers.
  • Conditioner- Don’t let your hair touch the water in the Blue Lagoon! Condition the shit out of it before you go in, and condition it even more when you get out. Also, don’t get any water in your eyes. I did and temporarily blinded myself and ruined a new pair of contacts.

 

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A Humble Account of Sandy

30 Oct

While the barrage of phone calls/text messages/emails from my friends makes me feel more loved than anything, it also reminds me that the nation is looking to New York City in this catastrophe. Those that aren’t here keep asking me what it’s like, what’s happening. While I’m blessed not to be in the thick of it or strongly affected, this is what it’s been like.

FRIDAY: For days, we have been hearing about a storm brewing that could possibly affect us, but this is the first time that I’m hearing the terms “Frankenstorm” and “Superstorm.” People are starting to get nervous, and it is just about the only thing people are talking about. Most people are making jokes in reference to Hurricane Irene (correction Tropical Storm Irene) that hit us last August. All the media hype amounted to about two hours of rain and winds that knocked leaves off of the trees in Central Park. No one was taking this year’s storm seriously, and absolutely no one was cancelling their Halloween weekend plans.

SATURDAY MORNING: The head doctor arrives at the clinic in the morning with bags of flashlights and batteries. My co-workers and I laugh at him, telling him he is over-reacting. He fights back that the storm is coming, and that we should all be prepared. The standard response is still “I’ll believe it when I see it.” He was in Morocco one year ago and didn’t experience the over-hype that was Irene. As he leaves for the day, he solemnly wishes me luck. I roll my eyes.

SATURDAY EVENING: I’m texting with a friend about what her last-minute Halloween costume should be. We come up with a brilliant idea that she should be the Hurricane itself. Hair all messed up, an inverted umbrella, a spray bottle to squirt people with water, and a poodle skirt to identify her as Sandy from “Grease.” We joke and laugh about this throughout the night on the town.

SATURDAY NIGHT: Bars are overflowing with drunken New Yorkers in skimpy costumes, no one speaks of the storm. I start to see reports on my phone that the subway system is going to be shut down. I start to feel a little nervous.

SUNDAY 10AM: I wake up in Murray Hill where I slept over at the boy’s apartment. Cuddled in his warm bed, the sky outside is dark, and it sounds windy. I can hear the noise of what sounds like an abandoned swingset, that metal creak of post-apocalyptic movies. Things start to feel foreboding, and I try to figure out in my head when I should plan on heading back to Queens. We spend the morning looking up news reports on his computer and listening to a Velvet Underground record. For an hour or two, the hurricane once again feels like a joke.

SUNDAY 1PM: We finally make our way across the street to buy bagels and coffee before the Jets game. The lines are around the corner out of every store. We make jokes about our last meal.

SUNDAY 2PM: While watching the Jets game, his roommates start showing up with cases of water and forties of Bud Light.
“Maybe we should get some pasta or something?” one of them says.
“Make sure you get some solo cups for beer pong.”
“Do we have flashlights?”
“I think I need to head back to Queens,” I tell the boy.
I still only have my Halloween costume, so I borrow a flannel shirt from him, and head home. Among the raincoats and rainboots, I’m wearing two inch heels, short shorts, a flannel shirt and a trench coat while carrying a large foam M&M suit. The most epic walk of shame of my life. Correction: Stride of pride.

SUNDAY EVENING: Back in my Elmhurst and changed into jeans and chucks, I decide to stock up on some supplies myself. I prepare thusly:

  • two very large bottles of water
  • a box of cheez-its
  • a flashlight
  • two candles
  • generic breakfast bars
  • pasta
  • a People magazine
  • a liter of Diet Ginger Ale…because I already have the whiskey

SUNDAY NIGHT: I reassure my mom over the phone that I’m in the safest neighborhood possible and that, yes, I bought bottled water. I watch the New York Giants edge out the Dallas Cowboys while consoling the boy over the phone about the tragic New York Jets loss. I watch the San Francisco Giants win the World Series with the mildest of interest, as I mildly dislike the Tigers. I look out the window to see no rain, although there is a light breeze.

MONDAY DAY: In the morning, still no rain, not even very windy. Cabin fever sets in early. Texts start pouring in from worried friends. I watch “Breaking Bad”, “Ru Paul’s Drag Race”, “American Horror Story,” and read a bunch of pointless articles on the Internet. I check facebook every 20 minutes, to see my New York friends are pretty much all fine and drinking either wine or whiskey.

MONDAY EVENING: Winds start to sound fierce outside my window, and I start to feel nervous. I keep my blinds shut in case the windows blow in, which sounds completely possible. It sounds so strong, that I imagine cows swirling past my window a la “Wizard of Oz” although what a cow would be doing in Queens, I can’t tell you. I live close to a hospital and the ambulance sirens have been going for hours, back and forth, up and down.

MONDAY 9PM: I haven’t been watching the news, so I finally start browsing photos on CNN, checking live blogs. I see my friends posting about the transformer exploding on 14th street, the fires in North Queens, the extreme flooding in Brooklyn, the blackout in Manhattan, the failed generator at NYU Langone Medical Center. I start to feel blessed and extremely lucky to live where I do. I send out texts to the people I care about in those areas to make sure they’re okay.

TUESDAY MORNING: I awake to a flood of text messages from worried family and friends. I reassure them that I’m okay. I turn on the news and stare jaw agape at the destruction around my city.

TUESDAY AFTERNOON: My roommate and I dare to go out in our neighborhood. We walk the 15 minutes to a 24-hour diner. Along the way, we see leaves strewn and one fallen down tree. The streets are crowded with people trying to get fresh air. The diner is also crowded. But my roommate and I bond a bit over cups of coffee, greasy diner food, stories of boys and hurricane updates we’ve read. We browse the dollar store. We buy Uno.

TUEDSAY EVENING: I figure out that walking to work tomorrow will take me two hours and debate whether I should or not. I sign up for a volunteer list serve. I sit down, bored, to write this, which if you’ve made it this far, you must be equally bored. C’mon over! We have plenty of whiskey, and that rousing game of Uno is about to start.

26 Before 26: Drink an Old Fashioned

24 Apr

In my 26th year of life, I am attempting 26 new things that I’ve never done before. Full list here.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a beer and whiskey girl through and through. I keep a nice big bottle of Maker’s Mark on my desk, and the majority of the time my drink orders are either beer, Manhattan, Whiskey Ginger Ale, or Maker’s on the rocks. So it comes as a surprise to a lot of people that I have never had an Old Fashioned. So close to my beloved Manhattan, yet not quite.

People also find it surprising that it took me so long to knock this off the list. After all, I go out for drinks quite a bit. I frequent cocktail bars, and an Old Fashioned isn’t an obscure drink. When it comes to my list though, I have many lovely friends who see it and immediately put claims down on some of the things. So I’ve held out on a lot, saving them for certain people, certain times of year, certain events. But time’s a-wastin’, and I have a pretty hefty list on my hands.

But one of my oldest and dearest friends, Danguole, was coming to New York for a visit, and she laid claim to this one. Only because I love her so, I reserved it for her.

So D and I went bar hopping around the city. I decided to take her to Beauty Bar where for $10 you get a cocktail and a basic manicure. We plop down at the bar, and I announce that we want two Old Fashioneds and two manicures. The burly man behind the counter let out an overdramatic grunt, curled himself up into a ball behind the bar and started complaining that he couldn’t remember how to make an Old Fashioned. I felt bad and showed him the recipe on my phone, but he scoffed at me and sulked off to grab some glasses. He was the most pouty tattooed, 300+ pound man I have ever encountered, and when he plopped the drinks in front of us, our jaws were kind of on the ground.

Beauty Bar "Old Fashioned"?

Admittedly I have never had an Old Fashioned before, but what’s it doing in a martini glass? Why is it pink? Was that a Vodka bottle I saw him pouring into the shaker? D, who has more experience with the Old Fashioned than me, confirmed my suspicions. It was not an Old Fashioned. Not at all. Not even close. We don’t know what it was.

So after getting our manicures from two heavily coked-out beauticians (it was a weird and interesting night indeed), we headed to a couple of other bars, eventually landing at Raines Law Room.

Raines is one of my favorite bars in the city. It’s a speakeasy, but not too speakeasy. No real gimmicks, just a dimly lit bar with dashing bartenders and amazing cocktails.

Raines Old Fashioned.

Now that’s more like it. It was fantastic. It had that good punch of whiskey, tempered by citrus notes. We ordered a couple more fancy shmancy cocktails and eventually ended up at a dive bar with some not so fancy shmancy drinks. But the night of my first Old Fashioned was one to remember.