19 December 2012

Kids Letters To Santa - 2012

Dear Santa,                                           12-19-12 
for Christmas I would like: Halo 4, a watch, the 39 clues Vesper Hunt and maybe a new full sized basketball. I deserve this stuff because I have, in my opinion, behaved this year. I first was just generally the one who settled arguments or cheered people up. Example: I read to Sick Ella the other night. I have also done stuff for people just because I felt like it. Example: I made Ella’s lunch for her on several occasions. Finally I did all of my homework and stuff, and got it handed in on time. Example: My 4 reports I all got finished and typed up by the due date. Merry Christmas!! :) 
Alex Roth 

Dear Santa, 
For Christmas I want the third and a half dork diaries book, makeup, socks, american girl doll pants, shirts, and red dress. I also want earrings, LPS (littlest pet shop), a santa outfit for kenzie, a new ipod touch, nail polish, and a puppy friend for kenzie :) I have earned this stuff because I got all A’s on my report card, I help out with the dog, and I was good every time daddy was in New York City. 

From the good little girl, 

See previous years letters.

07 May 2012

You've Seen One Crown

Thursday 5 Apr 2012
After our Wicked awesome time the previous night, we needed to have a bit of a lie-in to recover. When we finally got up and had another leisurely breakfast at the flat, it was time to mind the gap twice more on our way to Tower Hill. This is where the famous Tower of London was built, which makes sense since they named it after the hill.
I remember being only mildly interested in The Tower on my other visit to London way back in 2000. When you realize that 12 years is but a blink in the history of this fortress, it is not surprising that little has changed. Halfway through the Jeweless Crown Room (which was before the Crown Jewels Room, both of which we had to queue for) Alex summed it up brilliantly when he said "You've seen one crown, you've seen them all."
After finally escaping The Tower, we followed a self guided tour which was led by a awesome bloke and walked across The Tower Bridge (also named after the hill) to the South Bank. This is definitely one of my top two banks in London, but maybe only because we didn't make it to Gringotts. We went to Hornis Hob Pub for some Southern British food. Ella got chicken off the kids menu, Alex got a beef rib pie that was way better than my Shepherd's pie, and Shelley probably got some kind of salad. Shelley is now telling me she did not get salad everywhere and at this meal she actually got chicken curry. I say if you want to know her version of events, you should read her log.
Since it was Thursday the nearby Borough's Market was running - this is a street/farmer's market with crazy wonderful random stuff including a great beer stand, a place that sold freshly dead rabbits, and an Indian tea guy. The latter was my favorite. Being a tea snob wannabe, he could have been a guru to me as we discussed topics including first flush vs second flush, the differences when you steep the same leaves once, twice, or thrice (yes, he used the word "thrice"), and what infusing is really all about. Unfortunately me talking tea with my new friend was somehow less interesting to everyone else then it was to me, and I was dragged away too soon to look at the freshly dead rabbits.
We crossed that river again, this time via the Millenium Bridge which led to St. Pauls. We saw the entire cathedral between where you go in and where you have to pay. It looked nice.
Later that evening we returned to the South Bank to overcome a disappointment from our previous trip to London. Back in 2000 The London Eye was extremely difficult to score tickets for because it was brand new and was only going to be around for five years. After waiting for a couple hours we gave up, and since that day I have regretted it. Luckily in 2012 there is still an Eye in London, and thanks to the internet you can book tickets ahead of time thus reducing your wait in line to less than an hour.
Was it worth a 12 year wait? Definitely. The views we saw of London as the sun was setting were brilliant - I don't think the many many photos we took can do them justice. I wish we could have gone around again. The "4D Experience" however was not worth the price of admission, and it was included for free. Boo, I say, and not just because it had 3 less D's than the thing in Iceland.
We took way too many more pictures of the clock tower which contains Big Ben (yes I was listening to the tour guide on the bus) before heading back to our neighborhood for dinner. This time we decided to go to a pub. Remembering lunch and trying to one-up my son, I ordered the slow cooked ox cheek and red wine pie. It was the best one I ever had. Love me some slow cooked ox cheek.

30 April 2012

Kids Look - It's Big Ben!

Wednesday 4 April 2012

We started our first full day in London the same way the locals do when on holiday - we had a lie-in. Very nice. After enjoying a tasty breakfast of chocolate (British) croissants, fruit, cheese, and weird cereal we tubed to Victoria. There we hopped on the hop-on hop-off bus. Seemed appropriate what with Easter coming, and it is what non-locals do when on holiday.
From the upper decker we were able to do drive by shootings of many of the required sights - Big Ben, Parliament, London Eye, various bridges, Twinning shop, that palace place, some big old church type building(s), and more. All were more or less as expected.
We hopped off and went to our 2nd pub of the trip which had the disappointingly bland name of "The Clarence". Luckily the decor was more interesting then the name. The food and beer were also quite good. I had the fish and chips if you care, and if you don't care you should have skipped this sentence.  Shelley had some kind of salad.

We then did some foot touring of the local sites including:
  • Trafalgar Square (not a square)
  • St. Martin In The Field (not in the field)
  • Picadily Circus (nothing like a circus)

We continued our tour of bizzaro London at the half-price ticket place where we bought full price tickets for Wicked, which I'll talk about in a paragraph or two. We then went to another pub with a name more bland then Clarence: "The Crown", where Shelley and I got pints of something and the kids got brownies and ice cream that did not have ice cream and Ella's was actually a lime tart.
It was time to hop back on the tour bus, which toured for about 5 min before stopping for a 20 minute break. So, off we hopped and walked to King's Cross Station. The Harry Potter fans in the audience will recognize this as the home of Platform 9 3/4 where Harry and the crew board the Hogwarts Express. Turns out there is an actual Platform 9 3/4 which is the most understated tourist thing I've experienced in quite some time.
Instead of going to Hogwarts we went back to the flat for another round of British Baguette sandwiches, then off to the Apollo Victoria Theater for the show. Wicked was brilliant! Everything was so well done, especially once you learned to ignore the fact that they don't speak British in Oz. The woman who played the Wicked Witch of the West End did an especially good job. It was lucky that they could find such a talented singer and performer who also happened to be green. It's not easy.

22 April 2012

Today We Go To London

Tues 2 April 2012

We had been in Iceland long enough that 5:00 am did not feel like 1:00 AM, but it still was plenty early to be getting up, thank you very much. It was disappointing to not see any more of Keflavik, but we had 7:30 plane tickets to London with our names on them, so it was time to say goodbye to this wonderfully unique and uniquely wonderful country. Actually not "good-bye" but more likely "see you later" because this is definitely a place worth revisiting. Also they had Appelsin on the plane.
Before you knew it,  we were at Heathrow. England was now officially the first European country that I had been to more than once (not counting France). My first visit was with the Brocks way back in the year 2000. On that trip we only spent a couple days in London, so I was excited to get reacquainted with the city and to get to know it better.
The trip from the airport to our flat was more of an adventure than it should have been. Besides having more trouble getting our tube tickets that we should have, Ella nearly got ran over twice, and we got rained on. Perhaps London was upset with us for being away for so long. It was with relief that we finally made it to our flat near the Kensington section of town.

The rain had stopped by the time we'd gotten settled, so it was off in search of some food. Great Britain is not known for great cuisine, unless you really like British pub fare, which we do, and that will become clear if you keep reading. Pub #1 of this trip was Gloucester Arms where I had a meat pie (and a pint of some bitter), Alex got the roast of the day, Ella got fish and also chips, and Shelley probably got some kind of salad (and a pint or two). And the people say "Ahhh!"

Exploring the area was next. Right nearby was Kensington Gardens in which we saw a dog that looked almost exactly like our Kenzie (who we sometimes call Kensington at more formal dog occasions).  This park is also home to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground. I've since learned that is used to be the Peter Pan Playground, which explains the pirate ship. Anyway, the kids were able to collect some white sand while we relaxed on one of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Benches.

One of my favorite things to do in new places is to visit the local grocery store to see what is familiar and what is not. We went to Waitrose to stock on as much of the unfamiliar foods and beverages that we would need to avoid eating every meal in a pub. We also stopped by a local sandwich shop as it was closing and got a super deal on some tasty British baguette sandwiches.

20 April 2012

The Full Monty

Monday 2 April 2012

Our last full day in Iceland was to be full of adventures and new experiences. I was navigated by Ella to a nearby bakery where we acquired three chocolate donuts and a latte (aka The Usual).  We were packing up our things when Jonas the owner came by to meet us, say hello, and collect our credit card number, which we hadn't had to provide before since this was Iceland. We really enjoyed staying at this place, and I will most certainly miss the heated floors and towel bars.

Siggi soon was by to collect us and take us to one of the many local geothermally  heated swimming pools. We had read up on Icelandic swimming pool etiquette, so were ready for the procedure of preparing to enter the pool, well at least as much as any American who is used to showering alone can be. I did have to tell Alex to put the kibosh on his go-to exclamation of "Nuts!"  At least the water wasn't cold. Ahem.
Once we were in our trunks we really enjoyed the pools, even though the air was just 35 degrees F. Besides the Olympic sized lap pool and three water slides, there were also a series of "hot pots" (aka hot tubs) heated to various degrees of boiling. The 40-42 degrees C was a bit too hot for me, but the 38-40 degrees C was just right.  Before long however it was time to go through the swim suit -> street clothes process. Soon enough I was trying to forget that part as we headed back to their house for lunch.
After lunch we stopped by the mall for a 7D movie. I was never clear on what all the D's were, but we got to shoot stuff so that was fun. Also I totally won, not that this matters and no, I am not too competitive.
After this, things took a turn for the bizarre.
Siggi, Jon, and Hannah took us to Hot Springs Land. Even after several days of seeing stuff like this, this place really stood out and not just because of the three Icelandic women dressed like Japanese Geishas vouging and doing crane kicks. I could not wait to hear Siggi's explanation for what part of Icelandic culture this represented, but he could just shrug his shoulder's and shake his head. I figure this was probably something they don't talk about and outsiders are not supposed to witness.

We pondered that mystery while driving to the famous Blue Lagoon. First let me assure you that The Creature From the Blue Lagoon is just a myth, and it is not at all a scary place other than the group showering. Anyway - at its simplest it is a hot spring with blue mineral water in which you can soak away your cares and ills. There are also vats of white mud that you cover your various parts with that cleans your skin. It is much more than that however. It is a place from a dream in which where you came before and where you are going next do not matter. All that matters is that moment and being in the now. Just as the warm steam filled my lungs, a zen-like appreciation for being able to share this moment with my family filled and rejuvenated my soul.

Bergiland joined us for one final dinner with our Icelandic friends. It was here that Siggi mentioned in an off-hand way that in Iceland they have thirteen different Santa Clauses!!
Tip: If I am visiting your country and you have some fantastically crazy holiday situation going on, do not wait until the very end to mention this to me
I've done some research since then and discovered that these Santas are also called Yule Lads. Each Lad has his own quirk, and traditionally they ranged from mere pranksters to homicidal monsters who eat children. According to Wikipedia it gets even better: "the Yule Lads are often depicted with the Yuletide Cat, a beast that, according to folklore, eats children that don't receive new clothes in time for Christmas." That's got to ruin your holiday: 
"Sorry Jimmy, but we were not able to make it to the store in time to get you those new sneakers you wanted. Also expect a cat beast to come by later and eat you." 
Now days the Lads (and presumably their cat) have gotten friendlier and just put a potato in your shoe if you are bad. I don't know where they put it if you are good. I'll be looking into this, believe you me!
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, dinner. It was a great way to end a very eventful day. It was so nice to be able to spend a bit more time with our friends over a good meal. We cannot thank Berglind, Siggi, and their family enough for being such wonderful hosts and making us feel so welcome in their country. The Lads will definitely not be eating you this Christmas!

17 April 2012

Sight Seeing and Smell Smelling

Sunday 1 April 2012

Sleeping in was a much needed and very nice change of pace.  While Shelley went for a run, the rest of us took our time getting ready, then all headed out to see the city. First stop (once we found it) was The Gray Cat - a coffee shop founded by some Icelander after spending some time in New York City. The kids both got "The Truck" which was bacon, fried eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, and "American Style" pancakes. I got some egg and meat on toast thing and Shelley probably got some kind of salad. It was all very good.

We then did some photo-walking / shopping along the streets of Reykjavik and  also took the elevator to top of the tower at the Hallgr√≠mskirkja church. The weather cooperated again and we were able to see and shoot some great views of the city. Reykjavik definitely has a hip vibe, not unlike Soho or The Village in New York.

Siggi, Jon, and Hannah came by after lunch to take us  along the Golden Circle. The partly cloudy weather was as nice as we'd seen, so we thought it would be a great day for it. Unfortunately as we travelled north over the mountains, the weather took a turn for the worse. By the time we got to Geysir it was 4 degrees C, windy, and raining. The good news was that I had brought a rain coat, hat, and gloves with me. The bad news was that I'd left them back at our apartment. Even so, Geysir was something to see and to smell. The original geyser which is named Geysir (from which all other geysers get their name one can assume) no longer geyses, but another one right by it now does instead. We waited in the warm sulphor smelling steam for 3-5 minutes to see it go.

Aside: One cool thing about Iceland is that they don't go out of their way to protect litigious stupid people from themselves. Anyone is free to put their hands in the 90 degrees C pool or stand directly next to the erupting geyser. Luckily we were not that cold, and also Siggi told us to not to.

Another Aside - I think on this excursion I was the furthest north I have ever been - over 65 degrees. I could nearly see the great wall of ice.

After some quick refreshments at Cafe Geysir (I am totally making this name up) it was on to Fourth Falls where it was just as cold but smelled a good bit better. During most any other month of my life this would have been the coolest falls I'd seen, but for this trip it just made it into the top three. Definitely. Also very nice and appreciated was that at no time on this trip were any of the four waterfalls we saw referred to as "The Niagara of Iceland". At Fourth Falls Shop of Gifts, I'd had enough of being cold so I bought a fake-fur trapper hat which Siggi assured me that Icelandic people actually wear. It kept my head snug and toasty all the way back to the truck, and I look forward to wearing it again in the next 9-12 months.

Cementing their candidacy for hosts of the year, Siggi took us back to their house where Berglind had prepared a succulent lamb dinner complete with more of that Icelandic Appelsin orange soda which I seem to have become addicted to. Then we got to enjoy a piano and/or cello recital from the three oldest kids which allowed me to once again ask my kids "See what happens when you practice?"  Also there were hot fudge sundaes and Easter Fortune Eggs.

16 April 2012

Beyond Reykjavik (Part 2)

(in which we continue the "Iceland Excursion" from the previous post)
Saturday 30 March 2012
We turned down a long bumpy road through a desolate landscape that had been cleared by a Glacier which was our destination. I've seen glaciers before and even had a drink cooled by glacier ice-cubes, but this was the first time I was ever able to venture out on one. Stark, cold blue ice filled with fissures and chasms coupled with the real possibility of going ass over teakettle - that is what it was like.

Though our next stop was officially a museum, it would be more accurate to call it The Iceland History Experience. It all started many decades ago when a teenager named Thordur Tomasson started collecting things of historic interest and significance. Thordur is now 91 and still going strong - he showed us around and sang and placed Icelandic folk songs on the langspil. The things he has collected now number in the tens of thousands and range from a gravity powered mouse trap to a large fishing boat to a one room school house. A surprisingly good time was had by all.

The next waterfall we visited, or "Second Falls" as it was called by me was also very cool, but no so cool as we were after we walked behind it. This ended the part of the day in which we were dry, but was still a great thing to do because how often do you get to do that? There is also a legend of some missing gold back there somewhere, but we did not find it. We did get to refill our water bottles directly from the stream which seemed so wrong and so right at the same time.

We stopped at another waterfalls and a petrol station, and before too long we were back in Reykjavik and John dropped us off somewhat near our apartment. 

The awe and wonder we were filled with after this fantastic tour was only slightly diminished by the freezing walk home in our damp clothes. Too worn out for anything else, we picked up a pizza and a pizza box filled with lettuce and called it a night.

15 April 2012

Beyond Reykjavik (Part 1)

Saturday 31 March 2012

After a quick breakfast at the Kornig bakery, we met up with John, our ex-patriot Canadian tour guide to see the sites outside of the city. Seven other tourists and we were on the road by 8:30, and it did not take long to see just how fantastic and non-Maryland like this country was.
After stops at an Icelandic Quickie Mart for candy and snacks, a black sand beach, and then a place where buildings were built into the volcanic rock of a hillside, we visited Skógafoss. This was an amazingly tall and powerful waterfall and since this was Iceland you could go right up to where the water crashed into the water, if you wanted to get dead. Alex went right near that spot because he only wanted to get soaked. There were also steps cut into the hillside so you could climb to the top. I discovered a side trail about 2/3 of the way up that led to an outcropping right by the falls. This was my favorite part of this stop and perhaps of the entire day.

Next up was the town of Vik. The small road to black sand beach  was covered over with black sand (Ella now tells me it was ash, and she might be right). I encouraged the driver to give it a go and told him I would push him out if he got stuck. After he got stuck and I could not push him out, we walked the rest of the way to the beach while he stayed behind to enjoy the scenery and await a tow truck.

The beach was quite a thing to see. In the ocean were several "drepcaslen" which are rock formations born of lava and shaped by the sea. The weather continued to cooperate so Shelley and I went picture crazy while the kids went play in black sand crazy.

We then walked to the nearby woolen outlet which our driver claimed was the best place to buy this kind of stuff. Maybe he only told that to hosers that get him stuck in sand (or is it ash?), or maybe it was that any store a tour bus takes you to will be overpriced, but this one was so we did not buy anything. Next door was the only restaurant available for lunch, so at least that was an easy decision. I had a little lamb and an Apelsin, the kids ordered fish and chips because who knows when they will have another chance for that, and Shelley probably had some kind of salad.

Tune in next time for the rest of this tour.

14 April 2012

We Are In Iceland

Friday 30 March 2012

After collecting a new stamp in our passports and deciding not to stop in the duty free shop, we were officially in Iceland. One of the two people who was not a stranger in this strange land, hence forth called Berglind, soon picked us up. On our way to her house in Gardabaer (on the outskirts of Reykjavik) it was clear that Iceland was like no place we'd been before. This moss covered region was flat and treeless and strewn with random boulders. The buildings were low, sparse, and somewhat Scandinavian looking.

Things had become more urban (in a good way) as we approached her house. Their town overlooked Reykjavik, and their house was modern and nice, and unlike anything I've seen in Adamstown, MD. In this house were 3/4 of Beglind's children, 8/8 of her Tibetian Spaniels (5 adults and 3 puppies), and her cool husband Siggi who I soon realized is Iceland's answer to Batman (if Batman were a dentist). They offered to let us take naps, but I was sure I could not sleep - at least until my head hit the pillow and suddenly it was 3 hours later.

We enjoyed a mini-tour of Reykjavik on our way to the apartment we'd rented for our stay. One very interesting thing about Iceland is that their lawyers work in the same way as our drive-in waitresses from the 50's, minus the rollerskates. We also learned that you don't need to be able to read Icelandic to serve as legal witness for an Icelandic legal document about I have no idea what.

After some much needed freshening up, it was back to Berglind and Siggi's to drop off the kids, then back to Reykjavik for dinner at a very cool place called Grillmarkadurinn. Live moss growing on the walls was only interesting until our food arrived. I got a meat sampler (lamb, duck, and beef) and Shelley got the fish sampler (cod, salmon, and some other white fish). I can't tell you what Siggi and Berglind got since they ordered in Icelandic, but it sure looked good.

Next stop was the newly made awesome Harpa Music Hall for the Reykjavik Symphony Mozart Cover Band.

This was a great place to hear music, take several short naps, and drink Egils Appelsin Limonadi, which is Icelandic for "Awesome Orange Soda". It is what the natives (which is everyone else) drink, so you can see how it makes me blend in.

On The Way To Iceland

Thursday 29 March 2012

Two seats in the exit row, two seats not in the exit row.
Two people old enough to sit in the exit row, two people not old enough to sit in the exit row.
Result? Shelley and I got to sit together and have extra (aka nearly enough) leg room.

We were very excited to be going to Iceland. Partly because we have friends there who we've wanted to visit for a long while. Partly because this will be the first new country for Shelley and me in 11 years. Partly because we really want our kids to have a broad perspective on the world and life. Partly because it seems like a really cool place to visit. Partly because it is a place most people don't go to.

On this last point there is an interesting backstory which I may have made up but I don't think so. You may be wondering why the country is called Iceland even though it is not made of ice and is actually quite temperate most of they year. Apparently a long time ago when they were deciding on a name, they went with Iceland because they thought it would discourage people from visiting. This gives me respect for the country naming committee, and not just because it is also the main reason we got a cat.

With the kids nestled elsewhere, I popped in my earbuds and listened to the audio book of "Sh*t My Dad Says". Before I could get through a bag of Swedish (neighbor to Iceland) Fish and decide if I identified more with the author or his dad, I was somewhere between asleep and the moment when my head starts to fall over. I spent most of this trans-Atlantic in this state, so it did not seem like long until we were beginning our descent.

As we landed I felt the excitement one can only feel at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border.