Reykjavik: Windy, spendy, quirky

IMG_0928We left Reykjavik yesterday, and we’re now in Hella, a town that our new Icelandic friend Elsi called “a drive-through town.” Steve and I thought she was being a bit mean, but actually, she’s right. Anyway, it’s our base of operations for the next couple of days.

Steve and I arrived in Reykjavik at 9 a.m., after a 5 1/2 hour overnight flight that was not conducive for sleeping. It was more cramped, somehow, than the flight we took from SFO to Minneapolis, and I just can’t figure out how to sleep on planes anymore. So we landed in Reykjavik very tired, and very impressed by the efficient, IKEA- inspired airport.

I love Scandinavian design — all the light birch wood, and clean lines and occasional pops of bright color. Iceland is my kind of joint.

We boarded a FlyBus to transport us to Reykjavik proper, and passed through the moonscape-y Reykjanes peninsula, all lava rocks and random puffs of steam from where the earth is apparently roiling with lava. Later, our new friend Dagbjartur, told us that people sometimes go out into the lava fields and fall into a crevasse that was camouflaged by moss. They get injured and stuck down there and the moss just grows back over them and that’s the end of that person. Dag would know: He’s the director of the search and rescue school at ICE-SAR, or Iceland Search and Rescue. Dag is a good person to know when you’re in Iceland.

We got to our hotel eventually, the Centerhotel Thingholt, which was smack in the middle of downtown. I mean Pier 39. I mean Pike’s Place Market. You catch my drift? Tourists, everywhere. Including us.

The Centerhotel Thingholt is a “boutique hotel,” which means it’s trendy and hip and the rooms are the size of postage stamps. It makes Steve feel bad when I say that, but it’s not his fault. The rooms were very nice, the hotel had a good, free breakfast and the location was prime. We could, and did, walk everywhere.

Our new friend Dag.

Where did we walk? Well, that first day we walked to the Cafe Paris, because it was close, and had lunch. Then we walked back and fell asleep for a few hours, and then got up and had an incredible dinner at the Resto restaurant, with Dag and Elsi. In his off hours, Dag works for NetHope as a contractor, like me. He and Elsi were incredibly kind and gave us all kinds of tips on where to go and what to do. They warned us that Iceland was unbelievably expensive, and that if you buy bottled water in Iceland, you’re a sucker. “It may not be the cleanest, but it’s the best tasting,” declared Elsi.

We went back to the hotel to collapse but were awakened at about 3 a.m. by what seemed to be a rave occurring beneath us. (Are raves still a thing?) We heard bass, lots of bass, and people yelling “Wooooo!” and when we looked outside, it looked like it was maybe 11 a.m., but no, we checked, and it was 3 a.m., because that’s how it is in Iceland in the summer. So we shut the curtains as tight as we could and jammed our earplugs in as far as they’d go, and the next day we asked to change rooms and got a quiet and slightly bigger room on the other side of the hotel.

Tourists, everywhere. 

So: Morning in Reykjavik. We stumbled downstairs 10 minutes before the breakfast was due to end and then hit the streets. My dad made a crack when he was driving us to the airport about the flight probably being empty because who in the hell wants to go to Iceland? Everyone, that’s who: Americans and Brits and Germans and French and I lost count of all the languages I heard around Reykjavik. The place was crawling with tourists.

Steve and I walked outside and got our first real taste of Icelandic wind. The temperature was in the mid-50s, but the winds make it much chillier, so I went back upstairs and got another layer. In most of the pictures Steve took of me around Reykjavik, I look like a big shapeless blob because I’m so bundled up. So then we walked around “The Pond” and came to the National Museum, which was completely awesome and totally worth it.

The Pond.

I hadn’t studied up much on Icelandic history before we came, so I got the whole scoop at the Museum. In a nutshell, Nordic and British Vikings came over in the 9th century and settled the island and established a parliament in Thingvellir (we went there). Christianity came to Iceland in about 1000, and by the middle of the 12th century, Norway was in charge. By 1380, both Norway and Iceland came under Danish rule, and Iceland got totally screwed because it could only trade with Denmark.

It gets worse: One-third of Iceland’s population was wiped out by the Black Plague in 1402. In the late 1700s, volcanic eruptions destroy Icelandic farmland and there’s mass starvation. One hundred years later, Icelanders hightailed it to North America en masse, settling mostly in Canada (Manitoba, to be precise). Iceland became a republic in 1944, was a founding member of the United Nations, and has seen its population grow to 330,000, thanks in large part to the fishing industry. Iceland ranks third on the World Happiness Report, proving that you don’t necessarily need sunshine to be happy.

The only known fragment from a Viking drinking vessel in all of Iceland.

After the National Museum, we ate kebabs and went to the Settlement Exhibition. That was also really interesting. It was underground, and built around the site of a 10th century Viking longhouse, which was discovered during an excavation in 2001 and left intact.

Then we went over to the Harpa, Reykjavik’s controversial concert hall. Controversial because it was in the middle of being constructed during Iceland’s economic crash, and the Harpa is the most expensive building in Iceland to date. It looks like a huge glass ship, perched on the harbor.

That night, we took Dag and Elsi’s advice and went to Austur-Indiafelagid Ehf, described as the best Indian food outside of India. I’ve never been to India, but the food at Austur-Indiafelagid Ehf was incredible — and we felt like we’d lucked out getting in (we didn’t have a reservation). It was also bloody expensive — a theme for Reykjavik, and as we’d find, for all of Iceland.

The next day, July 10, was my birthday, so I got to direct the agenda. First, I rode the exercise bike in the overheated exercise room at the gym and showed up to breakfast drenched in sweat and ready for my Skyr. (Why don’t we have Skyr in the U.S.? It’s got 17 grams of protein per serving, and it’s delicious.) Then, shopping. (After a shower, of course. I’m not a barbarian.)

I like to shop a great deal, and I wouldn’t call myself a bargain-hunter, but the prices in Iceland are unequivocally insane. We went to Geysir, Iceland’s big label, and they had cool stuff. I just wasn’t about to pay $250 for a wool sweater that didn’t fit quite right, or a pair of Lee jeans, which were going for $175. (Like I’d ever wear Lee jeans anyway.)

Puffin Shop

I finally bought a lopapeysa, a traditional, hand-knitted sweater made from Icelandic wool at an unassuming corner store, but it’s really scratchy and I will have to wear a long-sleeved shirt under it. I’ll wear it maybe once a year in Seattle, so all told, a terrific value. After an amazing Icelandic vegan meal, we checked out some of the tourist shops (which Elsi calls “Puffin Shops”) to pick up stuff for the boys. We spent 9,200 Icelandic krona on crappy t-shirts that say “Iceland” on them.

This is getting really long. But I have to mention the fabulous meal we had at Grillmarkadurinn. This super-hip spot books out about a month in advance, and the food was spectacular. I got a selection of perfectly grilled fish and Steve went the carnivore route: lamb, beef and duck. I remember being nervous that I was going to have to eat lamb head or rotten shark but the food has been top-notch here, on par with any great city in the world.

It looked like midday at 10 p.m., but we rolled back to the Thingholt and packed up. Because the next day, we were hitting the Ring Road, and the Golden Circle.


Two days ’til China: Stress dreams, speed-shopping and koalas

Bini decided that writing would chill him out tonight. I can't deny that I was a little bit thrilled.
Bini decided that writing would help him wind down tonight.


I had a really horrible dream last night. I’m fully aware that dream-sharing is annoying, but indulge me. It’s my blog, and you’re reading it, for some reason.

I dreamed that when we went to China to meet little X, he was the size of a 9-month-old baby. Which would be fine, except that he’s almost 3. And he started shrinking. It’s hard to tell timetables in dreams, but I’d say a couple of days had passed and he was small enough to slip under the furniture. I held him cupped in my hands and took him to doctor after doctor, but none of them knew what was wrong.

All around me were the disembodied heads of people who’d been nice-but-skeptical about us adopting a child with a special need: “I knew this was a risk .. I wanted to tell you … It was clear from his pictures that something was wrong … Should have kept your family how it was …”

Friends kept pestering me for pictures, so I ignored my phone and stayed at home, holding and bathing and feeding my shrinking child. I thought about how I loved him and felt a responsibility to raise him, even though he wasn’t what I’d expected. I woke up to the alarm, at 7:00 a.m., disoriented and shaken.

I slipped out of bed and woke Bini for school, letting Steve sleep for a little while longer. I was so troubled by my dream that I told Bini about it over breakfast.

“That’s a weird dream,” he said. “Are you worried that X is shrinking?”

“No,” I said. “I think I’m just nervous.”

“I’m nervous too,” Bini said. “But I dreamed about breaking a board with my foot.”

You don’t have to have a psychology degree to interpret what my dream was about. We’ve never met this child, but we already love him. We’ve promised to take care of him and be his parents. And I’m worried that he will have needs that exceed what we can handle. What I can handle. We know he had cleft palate, and that it was repaired. But we also know the risks. Cleft palate in isolation can signal other birth defects, and though we’ve asked all the right questions and gotten all the right answers, we won’t know for sure until we get him home. I can’t deny that I’m scared.

Non-sequitur of the day:  I actually started packing. I went to the mall for a little speed shopping, and solved most of my clothing concerns. My wardrobe for China consists of the following colors: Black, white, gray, navy blue and one red t-shirt. I bought a scarf. I have packing cubes. Things are in the suitcase. It’s go time.

Other non-sequitur:  Bini has been having trouble winding down for bed lately. I can’t imagine why. Tonight, as I was peeling him off the ceiling, I asked if he’d like to pick some books to read until he fell asleep.

“Actually, I want to write,” he said. “Could you get my clipboard from downstairs?”

When I peeked in 15 minutes later, he had written three pages about koala bears, including a diagram. He did indeed seem calmer. And I’m kind of delighted that my boy likes to write before bed, just like his Mama.

Three days ’til China: Packing anxiety, and a life-changing reminder

How am I supposed to pack for this?
How am I supposed to pack for this?

I was at the North Face store in University Village today, buying a deeply discounted two-in-one coat for China. I have so many coats and jackets, I could start my own store. But I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time worrying about what to pack. Like, hours. Steve will find me cruising Zappos, desperately searching for THE RIGHT SHOES that will look OK with leggings and a casual dress, a pair of shorts, skinnies AND boot cut jeans and that I can run in. Of course they don’t exist.

Why do I care what I look like in China? I just do. It’s how I’m made. I can’t be remade. So every time I have to pack, I get anxious.

While packing for Paris, I did so many trips to and from my closet that I logged 5,500 steps on my Fitbit. I am a collector of clothes.  And that means way too many choices when it comes to packing. I’ve been going over combinations constantly in my head: leggings + Athleta dress = flats. If freezing, flats = boots. It’s crazy-making.

My packing anxiety isn’t helped by the different climates we’ll encounter during our visit. Beijing is cold in the winter, as is Xi’an, and Guangzhou is subtropical. Let me also point out that we’re going to be there for two-and-a-half weeks. Looking at a forecast doesn’t help. The weather can change quickly here, in little ol’ Seattle, so trying to predict the weather for three separate cities is impossible. Also, I’m not a meteorologist.

So, how do I pack for this situation? (The next person who says “layers” gets punched in the throat.) I’ve been to Asia before, and know how hot and oppressively muggy it can get. But I also hate being cold. I tackled one problem today by purchasing a highly unflattering coat with a zip-out liner.

“You lucked out getting this coat,” said the cashier at North Face. “It’s the end of the season. And this is a rad coat.”

“Yeah, I love that I can zip out the liner,” I said. “I’m going to China on Wednesday, and I have to be ready for anything, weather-wise.”

We chatted for a few minutes about the different climates there, and the pollution. Then he asked if I was going for work, or vacation.

“No, we’re adopting a child,” I replied, while swiping my much-swiped card.

“Whoa. That’s … that’s huge,” he said. I looked up to find him staring at me in amazement. “You’re leaving in, like, a few days to adopt a kid?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Things are a little crazy.”

He shook his head. “That’s so awesome. Life changing.”

Of course I know this whole adventure is life changing. But for some reason, being reminded by the wiry, 20-something cashier at North Face knocked me back. I felt s tiny, icy ball of unease start below my sternum, and roll down to my gut. I felt a little dizzy, so I put my hand on the counter. Life changing. Oh my God. He’s right.

“Well, I hope it’s amazing. I mean, I’m sure it’ll be amazing,” he handed me my bag of coat. “Safe travels, OK?”


How to survive the holidays, a postmortem

My dad, wielding the champagne bottle, Charlie, my brother's partner, and me, surviving New Year's Eve dinner.
My dad, wielding the champagne bottle, Charlie, my brother’s partner, and me, surviving New Year’s Eve dinner.

It’s January 3, I’m on Day One of my post-holiday austerity plan (no booze, kale for lunch) and trying to remember what happened over the past four weeks. Well, for one thing, I didn’t write a damned thing that I wasn’t paid for. Also, what do we think the shelf life is for a gluten-free chocolate cake that’s been in the ‘fridge since December 24?

Never mind. The purpose of this post is to share with you, after nearly a month off, what I’ve learned about surviving the holidays. Every year I say that I’m going to take it easy, that I’m going to be prepared, that it won’t be stressful. But it always is, goddammit. There’s no way to get through it all without some stress, particularly if you have children or family of any kind, but I’ve got some helpful tips. Which are no good to you this year, but maybe you’ll remember.

  1. Go out, right now, and buy Christmas crap. It’s probably picked over, but here’s what I’m getting for next year: A ton of little gift bags, ribbon, festive tissue paper and a box of generic holiday cards. Put it in a bin, and then put a reminder on your phone for November because if you’re anything like me, you’ll forget. Then, next year …
  2. Buy a bunch of iTunes, Amazon, Starbucks gift cards. Also, little bottles of liquor (those were a hit) and little packages of coffee beans. Then, assemble a bunch of little gift bags with the generic cards, coffee and gift cards for people like your dog-walker or your regular babysitter or the UPS guy or the neighbors. One year, our neighbors all brought us stuff and I had to send Steve to the store to buy 12 bottles of wine and a bunch of gift bags. This year, we were READY. (And only two neighbors brought us stuff. Oh well. It’s the thought that counts.)
  3. Give something to the garbage collectors. We gave ours booze, and the recycling guy was so appreciative that he got out of the truck and wheeled the emptied bin back up the driveway. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
  4. Ship gifts directly. If your family, like mine, lives out of state, you have two choices: Pony up for the gift-wrapping at your favorite online store or gift-wrap yourself and ship by Dec. 10. (See No. 5).
  5. Ship by Dec. 10. If you don’t, the little weasel at the post office will try to scare you by telling you that your giant box of gifts won’t make it by Christmas. By Dec. 14, the post office is like Mad Max. You don’t want to be there with your kid. Trust me.
  6. Find a funny picture for your holiday card.  We kept putting off the family-in-front-of-the-fireplace-with-the-timer thing, so two weeks before Christmas, Steve and I just picked a funny/cute picture of our kid and that was the holiday card. I still can’t believe how many compliments we got on that card. Lesson learned: No one cares what you look like, mom and dad. It’s all about the kid. Particularly if he’s adorable, like mine.
  7. Screw your rules about drinking and eating. During the rest of the year, I only drink three times a week. But during December? Please. And don’t be that person at the party who goes on about overeating during the holidays and it’s BAD and food is BAD. You’re a big bummer. Just have the damned Buche de Noel and shut up.
  8. Let your kids watch TV.  Maybe you had an idyllic childhood in Vermont and you spent the holidays sledding and caroling. That’s terrific. I remember spending a lot of time watching “All My Children.” And I lived in Northern California, where it’s always 60 degrees out. Winter break is for allowing your brain to turn into mush. It’s fine. Jeez.
  9. Rent a car. This is hugely controversial with my parents, but we do it anyway whenever we visit. Because even if your parents make their car available to you whenever you want it, you’re still borrowing your parents car. Like you’re 17 years old. You’re already sleeping in your childhood bed with your spouse, so do this thing. Then you can escape.
  10. Even if they make you crazy, try to enjoy your family. I’m saying this now, 24 hours removed from my family visit. But I’m really glad that I have family to visit during the holidays — that my parents’ marriage is intact, that they’re healthy and that my brothers and I like each other. Yes, we all revert to ancient roles and rituals when we’re together and my husband has to retreat to the solitude of his iPad and ESPN,  but it’s good. It really is. (And my mom reads my blog.)