Where The Hell Were You?

As you know I’ve been out of touch for a while because I got to go to Europe for the first time ever! On the first I flew from Seattle to Reykjavik (really Keflavik as that’s where the airport is) and began my first experience with jet lag. Oh my god it’s awful! The first day was sitting until near sleep, then walking until sore feet and shoulders forced a break, rinse, repeat.

Iceland is beautiful. It’s rugged, mostly mossy, cold rocks, but warm when the sun is out. While the city of Reykjavik is interesting and the Viking history present at museums and in the shops was interesting, the true charisma rises in plumes from the volcanic activity and the natural wonders it leaves in its wake. Geysers and hotspots are everywhere, used not only to attract visitors by their magnificence but also to provide nearly unending energy. All 220,000 residents of Reykjavik (2/3 of Iceland’s total population) get their hot water directly from a nearby hot spring and, while you wouldn’t want to drink it, it’s used to heat homes, generate electricity, and fill the hot tubs at the local public pool. Even the sidewalks and the roads are heated in Iceland!

The Blue Lagoon is indeed very blue and the complementary silica mud facial treatment is fun both to apply and rinse off (and throw at each other), but as with other well known attractions it quickly fills with other travelers and loses its charm. Ditto with the geothermal activity at Geysir (GAY-zer), the tectonic rift at the Golden Circle, and Gulfoss, Iceland’s largest waterfall. Of course, with a car instead of on a bus tour I’m sure avoiding fellow tourists would be easier but renting a car on Iceland is extremely expensive so I decided against it. That was a mistake. Being able to see some of these magnificent natural wonders when no other people are around gives them a sense of dignity and power that diminishes in direct proportion to the number of people you bump shoulders with on the way.

My favorite parts were walking through an ancient cemetery all alone on a quiet, cold morning, drinking too much with the locals late on a Monday night, the fabulous pastry shop that opens at six every morning, and my two afternoons at the public pool surrounded by locals, chatting in the hot tub and sweating it out in the steam room.

If I were to go back to Iceland, I would rent a car or a camper van and drive around, trying to avoid other tourists. I realize the irony of being a tourist and trying to avoid other tourists but with enough of them present the travel loses its impact, I think. I would bring a sweater as well as a raincoat, and I would spend an hour or so every single day at the local public pool. Also I would try the puffin. I tried the dried fish with butter. It was ok. I watched a girl from California try the fermented shark. It didn’t look ok so I opted out, haha. I did, however, explain to her exactly why it tasted like ammonia. She took it surprisingly well.

After Iceland it was Scotland. From the nice man at the airport to the friendly drunks at the bar every. Single. Person. In Scotland is friendly as shit. Even the customs agent joked about trains in Scotland and this was after a ridiculously slow line so I can’t imagine he had a articulately good reason to be cheerful, he just was.

After the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh the first order of business was to meet up with my friend and photographer Alex. She only had a few days left before coming back to Seattle so we made the best of it with street food, cheap drinks, and a late night snack adventure. At the convenience stores we found soft sandwiches, cheap wine, and the scotch version of Red Bull. It’s called IrnBru (iron brew) and tastes like a cross between bubblegum and skittles. It’s really weird but has tons of caffeine so it was the preferred alternative to the instant coffee which seems to fill every shelf in the UK. They may take their tea seriously but it wasn’t until a Bombay restaurant in London that I found good espresso again.

Edinburgh Castle is huge and impressive, seated atop an ancient volcanic plug. The rest of the city is below it, the skyline a jumble of elegant carvings, jagged spires, green copper domes, and a smattering of boring, official looking buildings. I spent nearly two hours in the war museum, learning about the history of Scotland’s fighting men and neighborly conflicts. There is a large church near the top of the ancient volcanic plug on which the castle sits. After World War One it was repurposed into a large, jagged war memorial. It served its somber purpose with methodical solemnity, lit by thin light filtering through military themed stained glass, painstaking statuary suspended from high vaulted ceilings, Heartfelt words from a nation to its heroes, and book after book after book of names.

A short wander from the castle is a small pub called the Bow Bar. It’s the only place I patronized three separate times on the trip. First serendipity; a sign outside for ‘meat pies; 3 pounds, noon-3” and a line of taps for local ales sounded nice and cheap, important after Iceland which is decidedly not. We got two meat pies: one haggis with chili, one chicken with gravy, both delicious. The second visit was for whiskey; the bartenders there are well known for their knowledge and good humor. An hour or so and a few wee drams later I learned to love Edinburgh gin and that a Skapa distillery tour was on the horizon. That last trip to the Bow Bar was for more haggis pie. Haggis is delicious and of all the haggis so far tasted, this was the best. It was the last day, a little gray, and one more visit seemed the perfect way to cap off the week and prepare for the very long journey to Orkney.

After Edinburgh was the small town of Kirkwall on Orkney, the largest in a series of small islands off the Northern end of Scotland and home of the highland Park Scotch Whiskey Distillery. It took a 7 hour ferry ride from Aberdeen (a further four hours by train from Edinburgh) to reach and thank God our host came to the Ferry terminal because there’s not a lot of public transit in the area. The ferry arrived late at night so it wasn’t until the morning that we got a good look at the town. The weather continued to inexplicably bless with blue skies and surprising warmth as we explored the small town, the local Kirk (church), and the ruin of an ancient bishop’s palace.

The food in a small town is always going to be a bit less than the food in a major city. A bacon sandwich is literally mayo and thick bacon between grocery store bread. No lettuce, not toasted, no ciabatta or anything, just soft bread and hard bacon. All the coffee is instant coffee; the best cup of coffee I got was in a bar that happened to have an espresso machine. I got a ‘mocha’ which was just a double espresso, steamed milk, and hot cocoa mix Served with an odd look by the gruff barman.

But of course, you don’t go to Kirkwall for the food. The Skapa whiskey distillery is also on Orkney and the tour was fabulous. The woman’s thick Orcadian accent and verbal tic was endearing and the information was new to me. The smells, oh man the aroma of malted barley, sweet sharp spirit, rich yeast, and mellowing barrels will stay with me for years to come (or at least as long as the bottles we bought last us). I wrote quite a few words on the whiskey tour but I’ll save that to craft into a mental picture worthy of the tour.

After a late night of drinking, two locals offered to spend their Saturday driving around the island showing off their local knowledge. Maes Howe, Skara Brae, the Standing Stones of Stennes, and the Ring of Brodgur all impressed us one by one by their age, size, ingenuity, and solemnity. These structures were Predecessors of the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China, among other things, and the off-season timing plus personal guided tour just made it that much more impressive.

I did have to giggle at the sheep. They’re everywhere, including grazing at the foot of a twenty foot tall rock stuck in the ground! The juxtaposition of a scruffy ram and an ancient work of passion and religion got me.

Maes Howe is an ancient grave that was broken into and graffitied by vikings on the war path. It’s about what you would expect: “Olga was here” “I had sex” “These runes were written by the greatest rune writer ever” and “Helga is beautiful” next to a picture of a rabid dog. It’s interesting to see that humans are pretty much the same across time and culture, haha, but more on that later.

The Stones of Stennes are tall standing stones, three, arranged in a semicircle around a hearth and two smaller stones. At midwinter, if you stand with your back to the tallest stone and look across the circle over the hearth, the sun shines from behind you, over the hearth, between the two smaller stones, and into the mouth of the entry to Maes Howe all the way down the 30 foot tunnel to the back of the tomb. The skill needed for that, taking into consideration the lack of modern technology, is absolutely stunning.

The Ring of Brodgur is a Henge like Stonehenge except instead of surrounded by a fence and only a few yards from a major motorway it’s truly in the middle of nowhere and you can walk up and touch the stones if you wish.

Skara Brae is by far the most famous Neolithic site on Orkney. It’s a small village made of stone that was buried by a sandstorm simply ages ago, then uncovered by another storm in the late 1800’s (I think). It’s in great shape with even tools, toys, and trinkets left intact and in their original place. It’s as if Pompei were sand instead of ash turned to rock. Again, we had it all to ourselves. Actually, it wasn’t even open but we walked down the beach and snuck in since no one was around. Totally worth it.

We ended the day at a fish and chip truck in Stromness, a viking town on the other side of the island, and had some of the most delicious, amazing fried fish and sausage patties I’ve ever had. Seriously, you wouldn’t believe it until you tasted it. That day, including staying out drinking too late the night before, being hungover until noon, and driving and walking by turns across the Scottish Islands was one of the most perfect days of the whole trip. Of the couple who drove us around, she was from Orkney but he was from another island so she knew all this lore and history and was able to share it with not only these strangers but her beloved. I remarked, as I had been reminded of showing people around my familiar places, that sometimes it helps you appreciate what you have to show it to those who don’t have it. She agreed and thanked us for helping create a pleasant and relaxed day outside, appreciating their home instead of slouched on the couch watching bad movies all day. Simply good.

After Orkney was London. We did the touristy things; I saw a play at Shakespear’s Globe, took selfies in front of Big Ben, ate Indian food, walked along the Queen’s walk, saw Buckingham Palace, went to a local farmer’s market, stopped in at the pub, and mostly just passed the time. There was too much time for it to be just a stopover, not enough time to really sink into anything so instead of trying to do everything and see everyone we just chilled. I did find a book I’ve been looking for for a very long time. You’ll notice if you’ve come to see me that the top shelf on my bookshelf has only one author on it. David Eddings wrote the books of my childhood and I’ve collected and lost the series once already. At a second hand store on Bainbridge several years ago, I found three of his books with the original eighties cover art and snapped them up. At a pop up used ‘book store’ under the Waterloo Bridge I found a fourth. For three pounds sterling I got a book I never thought I would have. I’m sure the rest of them are out there but to have fount it then and there was something I’ll never forget.

After London was Paris, or more accurately Palaissou, a small town 20 km south of Paris. As you may know, my partner traveled some years ago, long before we knew each other. One young woman he met in Tunisia made a particular impression on him, and he on her. They wrote letters and emails, then found Facebook and have kept in touch all this time. When she heard of our trip she immediately offered her hospitality. She met us at the train station (though we should have simply taken the local train, it would have been faster) and drove us to her home where we met her husband and two beautiful children.

Our hostess made us food, oh my God the food! Raclette is basically cheese melted on top of things. Potatoes, bread, more cheese, whatever, just eat it! Finish with a bottle of wine and some Tunisian digestive shared around over a word association card game and you have the perfect French evening. As a tribute to her heritage she made authentic Tunisian couscous and lots of it! She even threw a little cocktail party for us. There were only two guests but we six stood around out on the small back lawn to tell naughty jokes, make fun of the nosy neighbor, drink pomplamouse cidre (grapefruit flavored hard Apple cider), and eat the assortment of snack our hostess provided.

It was a chunk of toasted baguette with cultured butter and coffee for breakfast every day and lunch was more often than not assorte plat du fromage et une pichet rose (assorted plate of cheese and a half bottle of pink wine). In between we went to the cemetery, the Louvre, the café, the Eiffel Tower, and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Sacre-Coeur).

The Louve was amazing and I will probably also reserve my gushing about it for it’s own post. There was simply so much beauty and passion there it deserves designated time and place.

Leaving was hard but by the end of the trip it was time to come home. A short flight from Paris to Glasgow, an overnight rest, and finally a long pair of flights to and from Reykjavik (that was the layover option for Iceland Air). I’ve never been so happy to see a Link Light Rail car in my life. Even knowing there was another hour before home, I knew it was the last leg and that in itself was a huge relief.

My first glimpse of home was, not unsettling, not odd, just unfamiliar, as if it was yet another stop on a long journey. I suppose it was, but it didn’t quite feel like coming home until a few hours later, after a long hot bath and clean sheets did I finally feel: Home.

As I look back and retell stories one by one I begin to process them and look inward to find new thoughts and habits. My sleeping and eating habits have changed, for now at least, in a good way. I was concerned I had lost my drive but here I am, writing away, already deep into the day to day business, activism, and social interaction I missed so much. This trip has done me good and I think that the more time goes by, the better it will be for me. Experts say spending money on experiences is better than spending it on items. While there are still things I’d like to buy, I guarantee I got more out of this trip than I would have out of a new car, new gadget, or even new books.

Thank you. This trip has changed my life and without your assistance, without your encouragement, without your boundary keeping, emotionally fulfilling, financially meaningful, pleasurable company I would not have been able to do it. To you I dedicate this post and all the others that come from the sweet fermentation of my mind and this experience.

Holy Shit! I went to Europe! Finally! 😀