Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A George Orwell Christmas

This year, "Santa" gave Seamus a copy of Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. But then Ian gave Seamus the very same book, and also Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. (Seamus wants to study journalism, so we've been doing our best to give him books we think a future journalist should read.) Meanwhile, Santa gave Ian a copy of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, also by George Orwell. Are you sensing a theme here?

In addition to the Orwells, there were quite a few other books exchanged and we all have a lot of reading to do now.

It was a lovely Christmas overall. My sister and her husband came down from Washington, DC, as they do every year, and a dear friend from our ER days also came over for dinner. All the kids were here, but the girls went back to Richmond a day early because of severe allergies. This being 2016, our Christmas tree is trying to kill us with its pollen. We've never reacted so violently to a tree before. Not only did the tree make us sick, it had vicious spines that made hanging lights and ornaments acutely painful. Indeed, Christmas Tree 2016 was so terrible, I took it down on the day after Christmas (yesterday).  Jon's convinced I bought it because it was the cheapest one at the nursery, but I was drawn to its twiggy appearance and elegant, slender branches.

A photo posted by Aileen Bartels (@aileenbartels) on

 I am happy with the pine rope on the bannisters though.

A photo posted by Aileen Bartels (@aileenbartels) on

We had a lovely rib roast from the hipster artisan butcher for Christmas dinner. For dessert, I made a crepe cake. Because why mix up a batter and throw it into the oven for half an hour when you can make nineteen crepes, one at a time and then pile them into a precarious stack with hazelnut cream painstakingly spread between each layer? The cake was a success though, so it was worth the effort. The recipe is from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook.

The kids were happy with their presents and I'm particularly proud of these mittens that I knit for Grace. Finished in the knick of time. I got off to a late start because the local yarn shop didn't have what I wanted and I ended up ordering yarn that had to be shipped here from Sweden.

A photo posted by Aileen Bartels (@aileenbartels) on

My daughter Brigid took this picture of Jon and me at Christmas dinner.

I hope that all of you and yours had a lovely Christmas. Did you attempt any ambitious dishes for the holidays? Do share if you did. I hope that those of you who do a Christmas tree got cooperative ones!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Liberal Elite Jumps the Shark

A reader alerted me to the fact that there exists a hater's reaction to the Restoration Hardware catalog. Unlike the Williams Sonoma Hater's Guide, it's not a wicked romp through the more ridiculous, overpriced items in the RH catalog; but a scathing recap of a bombastic opening note, written by the company's CEO, Gary Friedman.

The note (the original one, not the haters recap) is just so, so awful, but in its fulsome prose, I think I found a clue as to how Donald Trump won the election. Elevating furniture to the level of the sublime and the making of it to a holy sacrifice to the gods? What is this shit?

What started out thirty years ago as harmless yuppie affectations such as grinding one's own coffee (remember when people discovered home coffee grinders? Prior to 1983, virtually all coffee came in a can) has become a maddening class of people who like to pose for photographs with their two dirty-nailed hands (authentic!) lovingly cupping a turnip. (I found an entire page devoted to stock photos of hands cupping vegetables.)

Speaking as a bonafide member of the liberal elite (I DO own furniture from RH after all) I have to say that some of us need to get our heads out of our asses. Stop cupping the turnips and take an interest in the people around you.

And so we're stuck with Trump because some people decided that anything would be better than four more years of fucking Kinfolk. Unfortunately, we've elected to use napalm to get rid of an annoying patch of trumpet vine and as always with scorched earth methods, the many good things that came out of liberalism (such as the Affordable Care Act) will be destroyed too.

*And I apologize for yet another post about Trumputin. I can't seem to get out of this post-election foul mood. I had a mad hope that the faithless electors would save us, but they haven't.  But please, share in the comments the precious affectations that irritate you and we can all have a bitter laugh.

Monday, December 05, 2016

And Now for Something Completely Different

But first, ONE LAST comment about Trump. Yesterday morning, while wiping down the kitchen countertops, I felt such a rush of happiness. My house was peaceful, orderly, and clean. I was anticipating a lovely cup of coffee and a book, some time spent knitting, and an afternoon visit from friends.  It was good to be alive and I had an epiphany that Donald Trump can't take away the simple joys of just being alive.  He's a loathsome monster who hacked his way into the White House, but we're alive and we're in this together and our joy can overcome his nastiness.

But it's the holidays and I want to talk holiday indulgences. I love having seasonal treats that I do just once a year. At Christmas time, I stick to books that are fun and cozy, and possibly Christmas -themed. I also make a point of rereading my favorite childhood Christmas stories such as The Dolls' Christmas, and Becky's Christmas by Tasha Tudor, and The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden. I think this year I'll also reread Miss Read's Christmas stories.

I don't usually buy magazines but I always indulge in the holiday issue of Bon Appetit, and usually plan our Christmas menu from whatever new recipes I find there. This year's issue is a little disappointing, but I think I'm going to do their "reverse roast" prime rib for Christmas dinner. I haven't settled on sides or dessert yet.

A newer holiday indulgence is to read the latest Hater's Guide to the Williams-Sonoma catalog. I went searching for it yesterday, but the 2016 version doesn't appear to have been published yet. However, I discovered that I'd missed the 2015 version! I had a good laugh, although I think they'll never top the first one. I hope the absence of a new one this year doesn't mean they've stopped writing it. If ever we needed a good laugh at the expense of the excesses of privilege, it is this year.  Please, Drew, don't fail us! If we can't have Hilary Clinton for president, we ought to be able to mock a $132 cookie baking kit that consists of items that are already owned by virtually everyone with a kitchen, or if not, can be purchased for under $15 at Target. Oh, but everything is HANDCRAFTED OF COPPER with GOLDTOUCH NONSTICK COATING.

I know it's basic, but I like re-watching favorite holiday movies. The ones I can't miss are Christmas in Connecticut, and Elf. Speaking of basic, I need to get my Christmas playlist together on my ipod and possibly treat myself to a few new songs. I also need to dig out the Christmas music so I can play carols on the piano.

How do you treat yourself this time of year?

Friday, December 02, 2016

Surviving in the Post-Trump World

I have gained approximately 100 pounds since Trump won the election and I feel like I've aged ten years. I have to get my act together and come up with a plan for staying sane for the next four years before I end up in an Oreo coma or a straightjacket. These are the options:

  1. Retreat entirely into a fantasy world of knitting and comfort lit.
  2. Embark on four years of rage, activism, and civil disobedience.
  3. Absent myself from Facebook and Twitter and rely on one trusted news source, to be checked no more frequently than once a week. Regularly donate to groups that can effectively fight the Trumps. Engage in periodic acts of activism, but don't try to fight everything.
  4. Move to a different country and watch our destruction from a safe distance.
Obviously, option three is the most sensible, but I really needed to write it out for myself. Option four has possibilities too, but is considerably more difficult. Given that Jon and I work in high-demand professions, with diligence, we might be able to find jobs overseas. The main problem is that I'm not willing to abandon my children here and since three of them are adults and one will be going off to a university, taking them with me might be tricky. The other problem is that Jon doesn't want to leave the US but I think life here will become intolerable. Jon himself has experienced a hate crime of sorts. He was at the grocery store, wearing a scarf that a friend bought him in Turkey. The scarf's print is recognizably Middle Eastern. Anyway, a random white man, for no reason whatsoever, came barreling toward Jon and forcibly elbowed him out of the way. The store wasn't crowded and there was plenty of room to get by, so we concluded that it was an act of aggression. It was certainly acknowledged, long before the election, that the United States is a racist country, but the fact that so many people now feel empowered to aggressively demonstrate their hatred is deeply disturbing. I think that all of us - truly ALL of us - harbor some amount of prejudice. However, decent and thoughtful people have the ability to detach from their prejudice, to examine it, and to work to overcome it. Since the election, some people have completely dispensed with decency.

Since long before the election, I've been in a constant state of outrage over the way that sexual assault victims are treated in the criminal justice system, particularly the odious case over the summer in which a rapist was given a light sentence because he's a college athlete. I wasn't the most enthusiastic Hilary Clinton supporter (I preferred Bernie) but I was optimistic that a woman president would be a huge blow to out hateful patriarchal culture. My vote for Hilary Clinton wasn't just a vote against Trump, but a vote for women. So you can imagine what a crushing disappointment it was that we elected a sexual predator instead. Now, every loathsome creeper who ever leered at me or made comments or tried to grope me on the bus is legitimized. Jon and I had a massive screaming/yelling fight the day after the election because he just doesn't get what it means to be a woman in the United States. I am still so fucking angry. This is the main reason I'd like to get the hell out of the US and take my children with me.

On the other hand, what would the US look like if everyone who had the means and education to leave did so? If an opportunity presented itself to you, would you consider leaving the United States?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thanksgiving Aftermath

Fun fact: Spatchcock, in addition to being a method of preparing a fowl prior to roasting, is also an incredibly awkward-looking pole dance maneuver.  Either way, it means you end up with legs that are at an acute angle in relation to the head.

I had a great deal of difficulty cutting the spine out of the turkey, and had to resort to using Jon's tin snips, because my kitchen shears are useless. It was an incredibly gory operation and my kitchen looked like a crime scene when I was finished. Apologies to those of you who follow me on Instagram and already saw this horror show.

A photo posted by Aileen Bartels (@aileenbartels) on

Once you've finished violently wrenching out its spine, you flip the turkey over and perform CPR on it until its sternum snaps and you end up with a splayed out bird that allegedly will roast much faster than if you had left it in its natural state.

I used the Bon Appetit recipe that was circulating the internet. You brine the turkey in orange zest and aniseed and then baste it with olive oil infused with more orange and aniseed.  It was mostly a success, although the orange flavor didn't really come through and I didn't wash the brine off thoroughly enough, so bits of it were salty. But also tender and juicy with a subtle hint of anise. It took a lot longer to roast than the recipe said and we finally gave up and ate it.

A photo posted by Aileen Bartels (@aileenbartels) on

Could have used about twenty minutes more in the oven.

We stick to a pretty traditional menu, but I always like to try at least one new dish. This year's newcomer was a sweet potato/swiss chard gratin from Smitten Kitchen. It was delicious and worth the time it took to prepare three pounds of Swiss chard. Five stars! Would make again!

Aside from the food, it was lovely to have all four children home for the holiday. Even Ian slept over on Thanksgiving night, though he lives only a mile away. In our quirky old house, all the bedrooms open up to each other, so when everyone is asleep, with our collective breath heating up our tiny bedrooms, it reminds me of a cozy beehive. It was wonderful to be the first one up on Friday morning and to see all of my children - even though they're young adults now - safely tucked into bed and sound asleep.

I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving. What was your most successful dish this year?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Thanksgiving and Despair

For this one week, I'm going to try to put aside my post-election angst. Ever since that horrible Wednesday, I've been increasingly bewildered and angered by the news. Of course it's no surprise that Trump's political appointees support his agenda of enriching himself at the expense of the earth and the American people. Did you really think Trump was going to end corruption in Washington? You got played. But the news from the liberal side also has me in a tizzy: Ignore Trump's gross behavior, focus on his policies! Stay angry! Not normal! Hamilton! Ignore Hamilton, focus on Trump's $25 million settlement of the Trump University fraud case! Ivanka! Pence is worse than Trump! No he's not! Attend the Million Women March! Boycott the Million Women March!

Do you remember the prairie fire chapter in Little House in the Prairie? When Pa barely has time to plow a firebreak, and Ma and the little girls run around the property, beating out every small fire with wet gunny sacks? That's how I feel. Steve Bannon is one fire that needs to be beaten out. Myron Ebell is another. And Jeff Sessions, and all the rest. I don't know what to do or where to look and I feel totally helpless. Meanwhile, some of my relationships are on shaky ground because of political differences. The only thing that's keeping me going are the Obama-Biden memes.

But, for the first time in eight years, I do not have to work on the day before Thanksgiving. Last year, we had just installed a major upgrade to our software and I was on 24 hour call to support it over the holiday weekend. The year before, I was on day call and trapped in my cube until 5:00 pm. So the past two years were especially awful and I am so happy to have the day off. If you need me on Wednesday, I'll be cooking up a storm.

This year, I'm going to spatchcock the turkey, which I'm keen to try. The step when you use brute force to crush the breastbone?  I'm going to imagine it's Donald Trump's face. So that should be therapeutic. Indeed, I think I'll name this year's turkey Donald Trump. He will have an orange zest and aniseed rub and he'll be delicious.

The other exciting thing about Thanksgiving this year is that now we have Wegmans. I was actually a tiny bit tearful the first time I went to the new Charlottesville Wegmans, partly because of the intense wave of homesickness, and partly from the joy of having a piece of WNY here. When we first moved to Charlottesville, I was dismayed by the poor quality and limited selection at the local grocery stores. What do you mean I can't buy New York wine? What do you mean you've never heard of sponge candy? How am I supposed to make pie crust without lard? With Crisco, like some kind of barbarian? Why are all the apples so mealy and gross? Why are the onions so mushy? Why are there only five available pasta shapes? Why does no one in the south know how to run a deli? Since when is Labatt Blue "imported?" Why does all the cheese come from Wisconsin? WHY ARE THERE NO EGG BAGELS?  For the past eighteen years, every time we went home to Buffalo, I'd have to stuff the car with a year's supply of acini de pepe, Weber's horseradish mustard, a cooler full of Sahlen's hot dogs and other foods it's impossible to obtain here. But now, at last, I have Wegmans at my fingertips. Western New York, represent!

The last exciting thing about Thanksgiving this year is that I bought my "forever shelves" for pantry items. My kitchen simply doesn't have enough space for all our food - not even with the new plumbing pipe shelves that I built last year. I'd had my eye on the "French Shopkeeper's Shelves" in the Wisteria catalog, for years, but ultimately, decided they weren't right.

The shelves I considered and rejected - Via

Instead, I bought the "French Baker's Rack" from Restoration Hardware. A splurge, but these are the shelves I'll use forever. They were delivered early Saturday morning, and I had a glorious weekend reorganizing.

Old shelves - hand me down from my uncle
and still very serviceable. Hoping to sell them.
At first, I moved all the food from the old shelves to the china cabinet (another hand me down).
I put the china in the new shelves, but was unhappy with the arrangement.

Now, the china is back in the china cabinet and the food is on the new shelves.
Between the kitchen shelves for dry goods and spices, and these shelves for canned goods and other non-perishables, my food is finally easily accessible and organized.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! And remember, if anyone in your family is especially hateful, you can make a donation to Planned Parenthood in their name.

Friday, November 11, 2016

No Room for Unity

On Election Night, I fell asleep before the winner was declared, although I stayed up long enough to realize that things were not looking good for Hilary Clinton. When I woke up at 4:45 am on Wednesday, I checked my phone and the universe played one of its most cruel jokes on me. Because the first thing I saw was a tweet giving Hilary Clinton 312 electoral votes, so for a brief moment, I thought it had turned out OK after all. Then I saw all the tweets declaring Trump the victor, and a wave of horror left me nearly incapacitated. Realizing the full extent of the disaster was truly like reliving the morning of September 11, 2001.  And finally came the insult on top of the injury: calls for "unity." At that terrible moment, as the reality of president-elect Trump sank in, the last thing I wanted to hear about was unity.

Unity, in this context, means shutting your mouth while the Trump administration runs this country the KKK way. I'm not interested in finding common ground between myself and people who think a man who claimed a woman wasn't attractive enough for him to sexually assault is an appropriate choice for President of the United States.

After the calls for unity came plaintive comments from Trump voters, saying that we were sore losers, that we were not respecting their point of view. Trump supporters have actually been complaining about "hatred" coming from Clinton supporters. If you voted for this Day-Glo Pinochet, you do not get to ascend a moral high horse about anything, least of all, hatred. Where was your anti-hatred rhetoric when your candidate labeled Mexicans as rapists; called for Hitleresque treatment of Muslims?

Here is what the very first day after the election brought us.

I have no interest in being conciliatory to anyone who voted for this; to aiding Trump supporters in feeling less bad about themselves because they brought this disaster onto the American people. I have pledged to myself that I will do whatever is in my power to undermine Donald Trump, and to that end, I've donated money to Planned Parenthood, to the local Sexual Assault Resource Center, and to the Southern Poverty Law Center. I've committed to join in the Million Woman March on Washington DC in January. I will take advantage of any opportunity that comes my way to protest and block the actions of this puffed-up liar.

Trump supporters do not deserve to have their feelings protected. What they deserve is exactly what they voted for - Donald Trump.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Aspirational Dustpan

On this, the eve of of a historic election, I have a very important topic to discuss. How do all these lifestyle bloggers and instagrammers manage to turn their cleaning tools into wall art?

Like so:


Or this:


Photo from Pinterest, courtesy of the now-closed Hey Natalie Jean blog 
Seriously, what is this, and why can't I achieve it? And who got the idea to make an artful display of their broom and dust pan?

One of the many ways that my 110-year old house is inconvenient is that it doesn't have a broom cupboard. I have to prop the broom next to the refrigerator and keep the dustpan on top of the fridge. So I've been mulling over the shaker peg board broom storage method. But how do these bloggers keep their brooms so clean? Do you see that gorgeous broom? The spotless dust pan?  The snowy apron and the blue and white striped rag? The pristine white wall? If I attempted this, my walls would be black within the week. My broom and dust pan are plastic, bought at the supermarket. My rags are old cloth diapers and worn out towels. My mom used to use - prepare yourself - OLD UNDERPANTS as cleaning rags. I don't do that. One has to draw the line somewhere.

I needed a bottle brush, and instead of just buying one at the grocery store, I ordered a German-made wooden handled, horsehair bristled brush. I think it is a Waldorf bottle brush. OK, not really, but it is from Germany. It's a gorgeous bottle brush, but now I lack the peg board (and, frankly, the wall space on which to hang a peg board).

As for the bloggers who do this, I have to wonder: do they actually clean with these tools? Or are these strictly display brooms and they have cupboards for their real broom? Or, (most likely) they have cleaning help who use their own supplies.  

I have to admit, though, I am seriously tempted to get a Shaker peg board and a beautiful broom. And it's certainly true that this set up would look right in my old farmhouse. Would you ever do this?

Friday, November 04, 2016

Books in Brief - October Edition

I haven't done a book post in ages! Here's a round up of a few things I've been reading recently.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This one has been on my to-read list for a long time. What was I waiting for? I think I felt a little intimidated, but Wolf Hall turned out to be very readable and entertaining. You're probably aware that Wolf Hall is about the Tudors, specifically during the period when Henry VIII is trying to invalidate his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn instead. It's a story that's been written and re-imagined many times in books and film. Mantel's version is told from the perspective of the humbly-born Thomas Cromwell, who became Henry VIII's closest advisor and engineered the Boleyn-Tudor marriage. Mantel's strength is that she makes the characters seem so alive, particularly Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk who Mantel brilliantly portrays as a comic character. I did end up with a lot of feelings about Wolf Hall, mainly because its version of this story is so contrary to what I came to believe from my Catholic education. I was raised to believe that Thomas More was a saint and a paragon of faith, and that Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer were the villains. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is the sympathetic character and Thomas More is fairly icky. Anyway, I can't wait to watch the TV miniseries.

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Continuing the story from Wolf Hall, this book is about the downfall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of Jane Seymour. I think Anne Boleyn is one of the great mysteries of history. Was she a conniving adulterer or was she a victim? I always thought it highly improbable that she was guilty of incest, but Mantel makes the case that she was raised apart from her brother, so never developed a sibling relationship with him. Still, any woman must have known it would be madness to cheat on the king. What's your opinion?

The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever. Tale of a classic New England preppy family and their sorrows and adventures. This book is included in Modern Library's Top 100 best novels in English list. The family, Leander and Sarah, and their sons Moses and Coverly, all devote energy to keeping their rich eccentric Aunt Honora happy, for she may or may not leave them her money when she dies. The sons leave home to make their way in the world and show Aunt Honora that they have achieved manhood. Leander faces personal crises at home, while Sarah arrives at a scheme to help boost the family fortunes. Overall, an enjoyable read.

The Misses Mallet by E. H. Young. Emily Hilda Young was another British mid-century writer. I loved Miss Mole, one of her other novels. The Misses Mallet is about a family of spinster sisters living in England in an unspecified time, that I'm guessing was just prior to World War I. (Motor cars are mentioned, but there are no references to war.) Caroline and Sophia are nearly elderly and live on their memories of their lively girlhood. Rose, much younger, has a complicated relationship with a local farmer who is in love with her. When Henrietta, a younger niece arrives, relationships become even more complicated.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Farewell to Reykjavik

It was almost time to say goodbye to Iceland. After I left the pool, feeling deliciously relaxed, I walked to the Sandholt Bakery for a breakfast of toast and jam and coffee. I propped my book open and had a nice, leisurely read. (I'd packed The Wapshot Chronicles by John Cheever to read during this trip.)

It was a beautiful day, the warmest of my whole trip ("warm" being in the fifties) and sunny. After breakfast, I just walked around, and revisited some of the things we'd seen on the walking tour on my first day.

Gay bar

House mural
Knitting mural seen on the side of the same house as above
Sweet little house

The very last thing I did before walking home to finish packing was return to Hallgrimskirkja and buy a ticket to the tower.

Reykjavik from the church tower

Pictured above is the lawn in front of Government House, where I'd seen the northern lights the previous night. On the walking tour, we'd been told that if we looked at these two statues of Icelandic worthies, at just the right angle, it would look like one statue was "doing something naughty to the other one."

Last glimpse of Reykjavik, on the way to the bus station

I strapped on my heavy pack and walked to the station to catch the Flybus back to Keflavik. Here is where things started to go wrong. Comically at first, but later, more seriously. The bus was nearly full and when I sat down in one of the only available seats, there was barely enough room for me, with my backpack on my lap. The guy in front of me had his seat reclined all the way back, (it was 11:30 in the morning) forcing me to ride firmly pinioned to my seat, barely able to even move my arms. It soon became apparent that the guy and his girlfriend were the worst sort of Americans - those entitled,  loud, oblivious, self-satisfied Americans who ruin everything wherever they go.

It was their stupid conversation about the selfies they'd taken the night before that gave them away. (That and sociopathic practice of reclining.) I can't really judge the taking of selfies, since I indulge in this behavior myself sometimes, but to actually discuss your selfies in public, particularly in the context of how great they were? BEYOND THE PALE. Then began a self-congratulatory conversation about how they'd timed their vacation so, so perfectly. The girlfriend of the douchebag had pouffed her hair over her forehead and was wearing sunglasses which enraged me for some reason.  How dare anyone be an American with Kardashian hair and sunglasses on the flybus?  How dare you? When we arrived at Keflavik, and the douchebag stood up, his pants were half down, so I was momentarily exposed to a close up of his behind before he hoisted his underwear into position.

I dislodged my backpack from my trachea and put as much distance as possible between myself and the Americans.  Looking back, I think my extreme irritation with these people and, a few minutes later, my being nearly prostrate with dismay at when I misunderstood a sign to say that my gate was a 20 minute walk from passport control (I'd walked the same distance cheerfully enough just an hour earlier) were early signs that all was not well. Mid-flight, when everyone on the plane was oohing and aahing at the sight of Greenland out the window, I was curiously uninterested. All I could think about was my headache, the pain in my face and the fact that I was suddenly uncomfortably aware of my teeth.

Still, I was more or less OK when we landed in Baltimore at 5:30 pm, local time. US Customs has expedited the reentry process for all Americans, so perhaps five minutes after stepping off the plane, I was on the curb outside the airport and a parking shuttle pulled up almost immediately. Sweet!  I was on the road before 6:00 pm and thought I might get home in time to catch the first Clinton/Trump presidential debate.

But now the headache, which had formerly been an annoyance, turned into a searing, blinding pain that could not be ignored. In addition to that, I began to feel sick to my stomach. I felt so sick, I realized I couldn't drive a car and pulled over into a deserted northern Virginia parking lot and vomited into the grass. Then I fell fast asleep in the car - even slept through an entire thunderstorm. This became the pattern for the rest of the ride home: drive for a while, feel overwhelmingly sick, pull over, throw up, pass out. It was horrible. The worst drive of my life, bar none and I have been on some seriously awful road trips. Finally, I woke up with a start in a Food Lion parking lot in Madison, Virginia. It was 12:40 am. I had been on the road for over six hours, was still forty-five minutes from home, and the ride from BWI to Charlottesville is usually three and a half hours, even with traffic factored in. Jon, of course was frantic, although I'd been sending him regular texts about my whereabouts.  I managed to drive the rest of the way home without throwing up, but the next day I was so sick I couldn't even stand up or keep down sips of water. I must have picked up a virus. I don't think I had food poisoning because I barely ate anything (one way to have an affordable vacation in Iceland).  The next day I felt much better.

And this concludes the Iceland tales. I'm sorry it took me a month to relate what was essentially a long weekend. I really loved my solo vacation. Sometimes you need to get away from everyone. My main goal was to return home feeling refreshed, and that is exactly what happened.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Iceland Day Four: The Pool

The one thing you must do on a visit to Iceland is swim, ideally in a geothermal pool, such as the Blue Lagoon. Apparently the Blue Lagoon is the most-visited site in Iceland, and it looks like it must be incredible. Since it's located somewhere between Reykjavik and Keflavik airport, you can arrange an excursion there either on your way to or from the airport, which was my original plan. I thought I'd spend my last morning in the Blue Lagoon and then take a bus straight to the airport.  But then I had second thoughts. I didn't want to spend my last hours in Iceland hustling out on another excursion. I wanted a leisurely cafe breakfast. I wanted to revisit some of my favorite places in Reykjavik. Also, I didn't want to spend my last day with tourists. (Sorry.) So I decided to visit one of Reykjavik's municipal pools instead.

I almost chickened out. I had done a little reading about Icelandic pools, so I knew I was in for a potentially awkward cultural experience. But then, I'd practically broken off all my fingernails cramming a towel into my already overstuffed backpack at the last minute before leaving Charlottesville. Was that effort going to be in vain?

The closest pool to my house, Vesturbæjarlaug, opened at 6:30 am, so on that cold Monday morning, I found myself walking through the dark and deserted Reykjavik streets. The temperature felt like it was in the thirties. I don't think it was below freezing, but then I did see someone scraping a car windshield.

So the thing about Icelandic pools is that they have very strict standards of cleanliness, which means you must shower, at the pool, without a bathing suit, in a communal shower, before swimming. I'd read that there are even "shower guards" who stand there and MAKE SURE you're actually washing yourself. It's not that I couldn't deal with the communal shower, I was mainly worried that the three whole blog posts I'd read about Icelandic pools hadn't fully prepared me and that I was going to commit some sort of unspeakable blunder, while naked.

I paid my 900 kroner ($8) entry fee and headed up the stairs to the ladies' locker room. Step one is to remove your shoes, just inside the door. There's a special shoe shelf that you put them on. Then you proceed into the locker room proper and select an empty locker. It will have a key in the lock that you wear around your ankle on a rubber band. Take off all your clothes at your locker and then proceed to an anteroom, where you stash your towel and bathing suit. Then you enter the shower room and wash up. There are signs, in four languages, showing you all the areas of your body that you need to wash. There are soap dispensers, so you don't need to bring your own soap, but you do need to bring your own shampoo and your hair is one of the areas you're specifically directed to wash.

It really wasn't as awkward as you'd expect. Everybody is just minding their own business, although the other ladies will greet you with goðan daginn (good morning). If YOU were in a communal shower with a bunch of other women would you be staring? Of course not. So the shower was fine.

Once that's done, you go back to the anteroom, dry off completely and then put your bathing suit on. I should mention that my bathing suit is a sexy, ruched, halter style, number that I bought at Anthropologie a few years ago. It looks like something Marilyn Monroe would wear and was nothing like the sensible athletic suits the other women were wearing, the pool population that early in the morning being somewhat elderly.

Properly attired, you leave your towel behind (the blogs say that while towels aren't forbidden, most people don't take a towel into the pool area) and head out to the pool. Barefoot and wet-haired as I was, the thirty-five degree temperature and half-frozen concrete pool deck were something of a shock. (In my anxiety about the shower procedure, I'd completely forgotten the fact that it was, by Virginia standards, winter.) There's a lap pool and an adjoining pool for general splashing about. There's also a huge modern hot tub, but I made a beeline for the smaller concrete hot pots, each labeled with a sign indicating the water temperature. The 38-40 C pool seemed to be what I was aiming for, and it was heavenly.  There were two Icelandic women in the pool and they said goðan daginn, and then continued their conversation.

Have you ever noticed how soothing it is to listen to people speaking in a foreign language? Nothing is required of you. You can just let the words flow around you like music. This fact is doubly true when the speakers are two 70-ish women speaking Icelandic.  The only words I could understand were "yes" (sounds like "yow") and "no" (sounds like "nee"). It was like watching someone knit, or take tray after tray of fresh cookies from a hot oven. For a few moments I was about as relaxed as I've ever felt in my life, when suddenly I was gripped by a new worry.

On the railing above my head was a sign depicting a woman's head with long hair and a word that clearly meant "forbidden." The two women in the pool with me were wearing bathing caps. Were bathing caps required? I peered over the edge to observe the other women and all were wearing bathing caps. There are signs in four languages with illustrations, admonishing you to wash your crotch before swimming, but this little tidbit is kept secret until you're actually in the water? The two women in the pool with me seemed unperturbed that my long, outlander hair was clogging their pool's filter and on further reflection, I decided (hoped) the sign was saying that it's forbidden to put your head under water. (Eventually I did see a woman without a bathing cap.)

I walked over to the modern hot tub for a change and drifted horizontally from the edge while gazing at the curiously purple Icelandic morning sky.  I switched back to my original hot pool to take advantage of its super strong air jet. I'd been walking ten to twelve miles a day and my legs were sore. There are ropes hanging from the railing so you can lift yourself and let the air hit wherever you need it to. There's also a cold pool (8 C /46 F) if you're into alternating between two extremes, which some people claim has health benefits. How is any of this better than a hot tub in the United States? First of all, the absence of a suffocating chlorine smell is certainly a plus. The air jet is about a million times stronger than anything I've encountered in the US. Also, I liked the novelty of using an outdoor pool in the winter and the Icelandic cultural vibe.

But here's where things got weird. Two older men sprinted across the pool deck, yelling in Icelandic. They both got into the hot pool next to mine and all was quiet again for a few minutes until the two men got out of the water and started yelling again. The women in my pool also started yelling and got out of the water and I saw that everyone was exiting all the pools and heading toward the two men. I got out of the water too, because I'd been planning to leave, but now the entire pool population, about twenty people, was gathered between me and the exit. Under the shouted direction of the two men, everyone began to exercise; a sort of brisk Viking yoga of lunges and toe touches and jumping jacks. I looked around wildly and didn't see a single person in any of the pools. Was this compulsory? I couldn't possibly walk past the crowd to the exit. I attempted a half-hearted lunge with the crowd, but then fancied one of the men was glaring at me, so my Marilyn Monroe bathing suit and I slunk back into the pool, wondering if we'd be trapped there until I missed my flight and how I'd explain that to Jon. "I had to stay an extra day because a gang of Vikings were doing calisthenics and wouldn't let me leave the pool."

At any rate, the exercise session lasted only about five minutes and then everyone streamed into the hot pools. For a picture of this ritual, scroll through this article. A little poking around Google has since taught me that poolside exercise, even in the snow, seems to be a thing in Iceland. Indeed, it has a name: Müllers-æfingar. IIcelanders do have the longest life-expectancy in Europe, so maybe there is something in this.

I reluctantly left the water and headed back to the locker room for another quick shower. There are hair dryers you can use, and even a nice large makeup mirror; handy if you're going straight from a swim to your job. I left the pool, in search of breakfast and feeling faaan-tastic.

There's still a bit more of my Icelandic trip to write about, although much of it will be about the disastrous journey home. I hope to get that post written this week and not drag this out any longer.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Iceland Day 3 (Part Two): Gullfoss and Þhingvellir

When we left off, I was on a super jeep tour of Iceland's Golden Circle and had just explored a bit of the Langjökull Glacier. Now, we drove down to Gullfoss, an impressive waterfall.  It was now brilliantly sunny (with a killer windchill) and the views of and around the waterfall were gorgeous.


It was so windy I had to keep my hair bundled in an unattractive collection of clips.

Where there's a waterfall, there will be a rainbow


In addition to showing us these sites, Arni gave us a lot of information about Iceland. It's only 16 million years old. Compare that to the Appalachian Mountain chain, which had its beginnings in the Grenville orogeny about 1 billion years ago. The Rocky Mountains, relative babies, are still 64 million years older than Iceland. The island was formed by volcanic activity that persists to this day. The geothermal areas generate electricity and hot water for most of the country, so there's no need to burn fossil fuels. The drinking water, Arni said, is filtered by glaciers. Arni and I hung out a bit when the Hong Kong couple were off doing their thing. I told him about mistaking city hall for the National Museum. "I suppose it happens all the time," I ventured and he responded in a polite, noncommittal way.

Our next stop was a brief one at Laugarvatn Fontana, a geothermal area with a spa and baths. We didn't go to the spa, but walked along the shore of a lake. The lake water itself was cold but steam was rising from the beach and in one spot, water bubbled briskly out of the sand. Arni pointed out mounds of black sand, under which was bread dough, left to bake in the geothermal heat. The only picture I took is this movie of water boiling out of the sand.

Our last stop of the day was Þhingvellir National Park, site of the world's first parliament and the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Althing (parliament) was found in 930 A.D. Later, Iceland fell under the rule of Norway and then Denmark. In 1944, when Iceland once again became an independent nation, citizens gathered at Þhingvellir. 

Image from here

The two tectonic plates are drifting apart at the rate of one inch each year. That's quite fast when you consider that just within my own lifetime, the landscape has shifted four feet. If you're really adventurous, you can scuba dive between the plates here. 

Icelandic flora

North American plate

Þhingvellir was our last stop and it was only a half hour drive from there back to Reykjavik, where Arni dropped me off at my guest house. It had been a nine-hour day and it wasn't over yet, because this was my last chance to try and see the northern lights. Most people book a tour, where you're taken out into the country, but I didn't want to spend three hours on a bus, so I decided to take my chances in the city. Arni said they're only visible from Reykjavik if they're very strong, but I didn't feel discouraged. 

I finished dinner around 9:00 pm and headed out for a sculpture garden we'd visited on the walking tour on my first day. Audur had said it was a good place from which to see the northern lights. But then, while I was still downtown - right in front of Government House - I saw something in the sky. It could have been a wisp of cloud, but I knew it wasn't a cloud. It faded and then reappeared as a stripe of bright green across the sky. The green faded and came back a few more times and I knew I wasn't imagining things because other people had stopped to look too. This day had been my best-ever travel day, but for it to be finished with a northern lights sighting was almost unbelievable. 

This picture is terrible. You can barely see them, and you'll have to take my word for it that the lights were more intense than that in real life. Another word of wisdom from Arni was that all the fantastic northern lights pictures you see were taken by professional photographers with a slow exposure. This fleeting glimpse seemed to be it for the night, in the city at least. I walked up to the dark sculpture garden and waited there for a while, but didn't see anything. (Another thing about Reykjavik - I never felt unsafe, not even when walking alone at night.) 

So this was my last night, but since my flight home didn't depart until afternoon, I had time for another Icelandic experience the next day, which I'll relate in the next post.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Iceland Day 3 - The Golden Circle

For my third day in Iceland, I booked a tour of the "golden circle," a ring of geysers, waterfalls, volcanos and geothermal areas all within day trip distance of Reykjavik. It's like doing Ireland's Ring of Kerry, only with less seaside and more explosions. I didn't want to be on a huge tour bus, so I booked the "super jeep" tour through the company Extreme Iceland. These have a max of ten people. The tickets are pricey, but for one person, it was cheaper to do this than to rent a car and explore the area on my own.

We started at 9:00 am, and when the jeep picked me up, there was just a young couple from Hong Kong and our guide, Árni, who told us that with such a small group, we would have the opportunity to do some extra things. Did we want to go up on the glacier? Of course we did.

Our ride for the day. It's so high off the ground, we needed a step stool to climb in and out.

Our ride wasn't actually a Jeep, but a Ford van, jacked up onto a massive chassi with huge wheels. We stopped at a gas station for a quick toilet break and headed to our first destination, Kerið, a volcanic crater lake, where we hiked around the crater, an exhilarating experience in the brisk wind, with beautiful views into the crater and of the countryside all around.

Around Kerid

I saw this red shrub everywhere but I don't know what it is.
I saw a lot of rainbows in Iceland

After a brief stop at the Faxi waterfall, we went to Geysir, a geothermal area that has several geysers: the famous Geysir, which is now dormant, and the active Strokkur, which erupts roughly every ten minutes. Despite it's lack of activity, Geysir is an interesting sight because of the delicate blue color of its water, and even though it doesn't erupt, its water is scalding hot. Árni told us that Geysir became active again for a while, after an earthquake in 2010, but then went back to sleep. It was freezing cold with a stiff wind and it was tempting to try to warm yourself by the geyser, as if it were a campfire, but the steam loses its heat immediately, and you can't touch the water because you'll scald yourself. 
Water literally boiling out of the ground

You can tell when Strokkur is about to erupt because its water will start to gloop and gurgle, and then blast, a huge plume of water rises into the air and immediately dissipates. (You don't want to be standing downwind or you'll get soaked, but not burned because it cools so quickly.) The quality of this video is so bad - I'm too discouraged to load more, but I put a couple of other ones on my Patience Crabstick facebook page, so you can check them out there, if you want.

There are toilets, a cafeteria, and gift shop at Geysir, so we stopped for an early lunch and rest. Árni, in addition to being very knowledgable about all the sights and wonders of the surrounding country, was a pleasant guy with whom to spend a day. 

Langjökull is the large glacier, furthest to the left.

Not too long after we headed for the Langjökull Glacier, the paved road ended.  Árni pulled over to let some air out of the tires, explaining that for the terrain we were about to cover, this was necessary to reduce bouncing and to allow as much rubber as possible to come into contact with the road. The vehicle was equipped with a system for efficient deflating and re-inflating of the tires and soon we were on our way again and Árni let us know that the tires were down to just 10 psi, which is pretty flat. ("We go down to 5 psi in the winter," he said.) Anyway, at first the road didn't seem THAT bad, but then Árni said, "We don't need roads. Roads are for cars," and made an abrupt right turn and we went jouncing down a rocky cliff, until we reached a river, which we drove through - the bridge well above us - and then clawed our way back up to the road.

The "road" to the glacier

After that exciting diversion, the road became pretty bad and eventually ended altogether and we slowly progressed across a difficult, rocky terrain. But let me back up to when we were still on the paved road. As we drove, I could see, far off in the distance, a vast, inexplicable thing such as I'd never seen the likes of before. It was high above us, seemingly at the same height as the mountains in the distance. With a mist rising off it, it looked as if the sea had somehow invaded the mountaintops. Of course, the thing was the glacier, which sits about about 4,000 feet above sea level. Langjökull Glacier is the second-largest in Iceland and covers roughly 1500 square kilometers.

The landscape changed dramatically as we neared the glacier. The grass and trees around Kerið and Geysir gave way to a greenish-grey moss which eventually disappeared and we drove through a barren moonscape, devoid of all life except for patches of livid yellow moss. (Fun fact: astronauts were sent to Iceland to practice before going to the moon because Iceland is the most like the moon of any land on earth.)

On the glacier

The black cones are volcanic ash

The glacier itself has a deep margin of black volcanic ash. We drove right onto it, past the ash and onto the ice and got out of the car to walk around.  The ice is blue, because, Árni explained, it is so compressed. It was absolutely freezing. The wind was from the north, and thus had traveled across 1500 square km of ice before hitting us. The air temperature itself was probably not that cold, but the windchill was easily as cold as the coldest winter day you'll ever experience in Virginia. (But not as cold as weather I've experienced in Buffalo.) I'd lost my hat on Videy Island :( 

After we left the glacier, we made three more stops, but this post is getting long, so I think I'll save the second half of this day for later.