Growing up, my mom and I always joked that the she taught me so much…that she was my greatest example of what not to do in life. And in truth, I would always ask her advice, and I would decide what to do, not based on what she said, but based on how I reacted to what she said.

If I whole heartedly agreed with her, I would proceed in that direction. If I was annoyed that she didn’t agree with me, I would go do my own thing because obviously I really wanted to do it.

And she wasn’t necessarily supportive of some of what I consider the best decisions I’ve made in my life…the two biggest being the decision to go to Antarctica in 2002 and later to have my first and only child at the age of 38. But she accepted my choices and eventually they grew on her.

So I guess lesson #1 would be:

  1. Do not take other people, or yourself, too seriously. Pick your battles.
  2. Be kind…especially to animals. Forgive the people you love when they aren’t.
  3. But don’t take any crap. There’s a difference between being kind and being a doormat.
  4. Where you live is more important than how you live. Travel and follow your heart. Don’t get wrapped up in status and money.
  5. But remember, wherever you go, there you are. You will always be the same person regardless of your location. You can’t run away from problems.
  6. Learn to rely on yourself because often you will find there is no one else around. She was a single mother, after all.
  7. A good education is a necessity, and it’s never too late. She went back to school for her master’s degree in her mid-40s.
  8. Know your own mind or you will be subject to the whims of fate. Make a decision and stick with it. If it was the wrong decision, correct it and move on. Don’t continue to dwell on things. DO something about it.
  9. Life is short…sometimes shorter than you expect. Take good care of yourself and surround yourself with beauty and people and things that make you happy.
  10. There is no bond like the one between a mother and her child.

So those are the 10 biggest things I’ve learned from her. Some of them she lived well, others I learned because she visibly struggled with them. Either way I’m thankful that I had such a great teacher. Love you, Mom.

Before I left Alaska after my mother’s funeral, my step-dad gave me the wedding ring that my mother had given him. On the inside of the simple gold band is engraved the short message “BK to EW”.

There was some debate around the dining room table as to what the initials stood for…neither my cousin nor I could remember the exact names at the time. But I am a huge genealogy buff and have spent countless hours on, so I looked them up when I got back to Iceland.

BK and EW were my mother’s paternal grandparents. EW was born and raised in California. There’s not much info on her in, but I also have a family genealogy book that I will have to dig out as I know she’s in it. But there was an impressive amount of information on BK from census records and passenger manifests.

BK, it seems, was born in Germany in the late 1800s. In June of 1890, when he was 11, he immigrated to the US from his home in Berlin with his parents, his older brother and his younger sister.

They sailed during the Golden Age of Transatlantic Crossings on the Columbia, which was one of the Hamburg-Amerika Line’s new luxury passenger ships, similar to the Titanic, with amazing Art Nouveau interiors. After about a week at sea, they arrived in New York. The passenger manifest for the ship is all in German and documented in beautifully handwritten script.

Transatlantic passenger ship "Columbia."

Transatlantic passenger ship “Columbia.”

The "musiksalon" or music room.

The “musiksalon” or music room.

Fast forward 10 years to the 1900 census, and the family has made it across the US and settled in California, probably by rail. One thing caught my attention with the census…there was a ridiculous amount of people in it. Usually it’s just a family or two per household. But there were over 50 people on this one…all with different last names. So I looked for the address…and realized it was a head count for the Napa State Hospital for the Insane.

I knew that my grandmother had been a nurse at a mental hospital in Napa when she was younger but had never really thought much about it. Imagine if her father was an inmate?! I’d have to update my State Dept medical records and let them know that insanity actually does run in my family. I’ve always been a bit suspicious anyway. ;)

But happily, both he and his brother were listed as “employees” and not “boarders.” But what a place to work! This particular mental hospital was a giant Gothic monstrosity built in 1872 and is one of California’s five state hospitals.

Old postcard of Napa State Hospital for the Insane.

Old postcard of Napa State Hospital for the Insane. Source:

Photo of hospital nurses, 1948. Source: Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine.

Photo of hospital nurses, 1948. Source: Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine.

Originally a traditional psychiatric hospital, it is now the second largest forensic hospital in the US, which means it is filled with violent criminals…basically this is where all the felons go when they’re deemed Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. Think Hannibal Lecter. A current writer and psychiatrist there just came out with a book in 2014 called Behind the Gates of Gomorrah, if that tells you anything.

In researching the hospital for this blog post, I came across a 2007 historical article in a Napa Valley community magazine about the life of nurses in the hospital in 1948. I would swear on her grave that my grandmother is in that photo…back row…third in from the left. I have a portrait of her from that time, and it looks identical…but it’s just a little too blurry to be 100% sure.

In a 1940 census my 29-year-old grandmother was listed as a hospital nurse. In 1948 my mother would’ve been two years old. I would be born 23 years later in the nearby St. Helena Sanitarium.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Old postcard of St. Helena Sanitarium. Source:

Old postcard of St. Helena Sanitarium. Source:

Me and Mom in Southeast Alaska, 1988.

Me and Mom in Southeast Alaska, 1988.

My mother died two weeks ago.

I’ve been alternating between the usual stages of grief…total disbelief/denial, overwhelming sadness and good old-fashioned rage.

She’d had the flu for several weeks and had even been to the doctor a couple of times…would seem to be recovering, but then relapse. Around 8:00 on a Monday morning she called the ambulance for herself. Her good local friend, MK, came running up to the ambulance, but thanks to privacy laws, they wouldn’t tell her where they were taking her. MK called a number of hospitals in Oro Valley/Tucson, but they wouldn’t confirm if she was a patient there.

She died of septic shock alone in a hospital room six hours later. Her phone was ringing off the hook, but the staff wasn’t allowed to answer it. It was also password protected, so they couldn’t access her contacts. They asked her if she wanted to notify anyone that she was in the hospital, and apparently she told them no…and refused any invasive life-extending treatments. When they did try to call MK, she missed the call.

It took them four days to find me and tell me.

And we only really found out because she missed a chiropractor’s appointment, so when he couldn’t reach her he started working down her chain of emergency contacts. I spent that entire day in tears while trying to organize travel orders, hospital pick up and cremation. MK was kind enough to pick up her belongings from the hospital. And the State Dept paid for one round-trip ticket for me to the States.

There are no same-day flights from Reykjavik to Tucson in the middle of winter, so I flew to Seattle on Tuesday, spent the night in an airport hotel, then continued to Tucson on Wednesday. My best friend, AF, flew out from California to help me with the difficult task of going through her things.

But we had less than 48 hours, so I basically picked up her important paperwork, a couple photo albums and any jewelry I didn’t want movers going through. The rest we sectioned off into categories of stuff to go to friends, stuff to go to the local hospice, and the rest of it will go to my official storage in DC. I also had to pick up her ashes.

She’d always wanted them to be scattered in Sitka Sound, so I bought a ticket with airline miles, and on Friday I flew from Arizona to Alaska. Her friends and family-by-marriage there organized a Celebration of Life ceremony for Saturday afternoon. My ambassador and the folks at my embassy were super sweet and sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a card. I’d even received a card signed by all my old Econ colleagues in London, which was so thoughtful. My mom’s favorite niece flew up from California.

We were supposed to scatter her ashes from a small family sailboat on Sunday, but it was windy and rainy, and there were tsunami warnings thanks to a 7.1 earthquake up in Anchorage that morning. So I left her in their care to be spread on the sea at a later date. On Monday morning I began the 15-hour journey back to Reykjavik.

The weirdest part about it is that she was posting things on social media the day before she died. I’d FaceTimed her on my birthday the weekend before, and she’d carried on a 45-minute conversation…mostly on her own as I’d had a couple glasses of champagne with my special birthday lunch and was ready for a nap. We also exchanged emails a couple times a week, and it was her turn to write to me.

She was planning a trip to Alaska this summer for her 70th birthday and a trip to Italy with MK sometime next year. She’d asked me to a send a couple of her favorite Christmas ornaments back to her that had ended up with me by mistake when she moved to Arizona. The box is still on the counter in our dining room. She’d said she wanted an ornament from Iceland next Christmas.

I’d be happy to continue in the denial phase as long as possible. We lived a few thousand miles apart, so I could get away with it for a while…my daily life not changing a whole lot. But a few things have made her death crushingly real, like picking up her ashes. Seeing her face on the funeral program. And reading her obituary online.

And the little things have changed too…like there won’t be any more emails from her. No more silly comments on my Facebook posts. No more FaceTime calls where she puts the iPhone down and I stare at the ceiling until she gets her makeup on and feels presentable. She’ll never get a chance to visit Iceland.

And this will be my first blog post that she won’t read.

So the other day, my hubby and I were walking down Laugavegur, the main street in downtown Reykjavik, when we passed a woman kneeling on the sidewalk and taking a picture of some other woman’s shoes.

We thought it was fairly random…until about five minutes later when the same woman with the camera caught up with us, said she was from Footwear News in New York, and asked to take a picture of my boots. I’m a trusting soul for the most part, so I said, “Sure!”

Low and behold, she wasn’t pulling my leg (so to speak), and here are my boots, in all their glory, in a December 22 article in Footwear News online. Below is my edited screenshot. You can find the original article here, and I’m slide #5 in the slideshow. :)

My famous footwear. ;)

My famous footwear. ;)

Fireworks in Reykjavik (internet photo).

2016 fireworks in Reykjavik (internet photo).

I know this post is a few days late, but folks in our neighborhood are still setting off fireworks 10 days later, so I think it still counts. I hope everyone had a fabulous New Year!

We’ve had a pretty exciting couple of weeks. The puppy is growing like crazy and is driving me equally so. I’ve been more of a cat person my entire life and have been reminded over the last few weeks of exactly why that is. The dog still pees and poops all over and bites and jumps and scratches and gets into everything. We’re probably going to have to burn my new Ikea rug when we leave. And we’ve already lost one of A’s new sweaters and one of my souvenir wooden coasters from Belize. I have a sudden new appreciation for the movie Marley & Me and will have to watch part 2 one of these days.

We’re three weeks into life with puppy, and we’re still working on a routine. The cat has basically moved upstairs but will occasionally come down and sit on the landing where she can watch him and growl at him accordingly. My hubby usually takes him out in the morning while I get A’s breakfast ready, and he’s started eating it upstairs as the puppy has grown significantly in just a few weeks and now harasses him at the table, or we put him out in his puppy palace (aka the solarium) during mealtimes.

He did manage to leave the Christmas tree and the presents alone, which was shocking in itself. But it only lasted for a couple days until after Christmas, then he suddenly noticed all the lovely ornaments hanging on it. I like to leave the tree up until practically February, but this year it came down in record time.

But we did have a lovely relaxed white Christmas…and were apparently the only European capitol to do so. And it’s snowing again as I write this…nice big fat flakes. Looks like we’ve had about three inches since last night. I still love snow!

New Year’s Eve was unbelievable. We didn’t go out, even though someone said we might not be able to see any fireworks from our house. Well, they were wrong. Fireworks here are sold by the local Search and Rescue team, so instead of their being one centralized display, it’s more of a neighborhood free-for-all. The entire valley around us started around 6:00pm and continued until 1am…and intermittently for another nine days afterward.

We did participate in one Icelandic tradition though. On NYE they also light bonfires throughout the city. I believe there were four “small” ones and two large ones. Happily one of the small ones was about a five-minute walk from our house. So we kept A up about an hour past his bedtime and walked over to check it out. I also brought a little thermos of red wine to celebrate. And the fire was pretty impressive with lots of local families in attendance.

Walking over to the bonfire.

Walking over to the bonfire.

Our "small" local bonfire.

Our “small” local bonfire.

The following weekend was my birthday. My hubby let me sleep in, and made me my favorite meal for lunch (chicken piccata), and I had a nice little bottle of champagne for the occasion.

A little glass of birthday champagne...and one of A's toys that happened to be on the table.

A little glass of birthday champagne…and one of A’s toys that happened to be on the table.

The following day we went to the President of Iceland’s Diplomatic Children’s Christmas Party, which was pretty neat. It was also A’s first official diplomatic invitation…and the president’s last Christmas party as he announced soon after that he will not be seeking reelection and will be stepping down after 20 years as president. I don’t blame him! Twenty years is a good run!!

The president of Iceland's residence: Bessastaðir, which started out as a farm in 13th century owned by writer Snorri Sturluson.

The president of Iceland’s residence: Bessastaðir, which started out as a farm in the 13th century owned by writer Snorri Sturluson.


Chandelier and xmas tree.

I haven’t made any resolutions this year…have kind of gotten out of the habit. But we’ve definitely accomplished a lot in the last year. Here’s the big list for 2015:

  • We had half a dozen lovely visits from friends and family while in London.
  • I had one girls’ weekend in Spain.
  • Caught up with two college girlfriends I hadn’t seen in 20 years.
  • Had some great trips: Visited Downton Abbey, Dover Castle, the royal Forest of Dean, and Brighton.
  • A graduated from Nursery School and started Kindergarten.
  • We left London and moved to Reykjavik.
  • We spent some quality time in Arizona with my mom for home leave.
  • N and I both started new jobs at a new embassy.
  • And of course, we acquired a new family member.

And I’m starting January off with a bang and continuing my birthday with an awesome girls’ weekend at a spa hotel outside of Reykjavik with a fellow Capricorn from the Econ section that I worked with in London. Woo hoo!!

As for plans for 2016, we’d like to get the puppy into some training classes. We have our first R&R to plan. And our first summer in Iceland, which I hope will bring lots of family outings.

Happy New Year everyone!!

Thorfinn Wolverine Barfolomew

Thorfinn Wolverine Barfolomew

We’ve been promising our only child a furry companion for the last couple of years as our cat is notoriously antisocial. Before we moved to Iceland I’d started looking into adoption websites and breeders. If we went through a breeder, my hubby preferred a Golden Retriever as they have a great disposition and are generally tolerant and good with children.

I’ve never purchased an animal from a breeder, and Icelandic breeders in particular are exorbitantly expensive as they know how much you’d have to pay if you were to bring your own animal through quarantine. So we definitely investigated the adoption option first.

We attempted to adopt half a dozen different dogs over the first couple months, but nothing ever worked out. Either the owner never responded, or the dog had already been spoken for. So we finally took a serious look at going through a breeder.

A breeder on Facebook recommended a lovely woman who lives on a farm north of Reykjavik who was just breeding her first commercial litter, and the fluffy puppies were born in October. She invited us up to meet them when they were five weeks old, and they were to be released to their new homes at eight weeks, which was the weekend right before Christmas.

So on Friday night, we met her in Reykjavik, exchanged cash and paperwork, and brought home the newest member of our family, named Thorfinn Wolverine Barfolomew…after a Viking ancestor, A’s favorite X-Man, and N’s favorite Spaceballs character. :) Unlike your typical American Golden, Thorfinn is a European-style Golden who is a bit stockier in the chest and head with a very light-colored coat. He also has very long fur. A friend said he looked like a polar bear cub, which I thought was very appropriate for our current Nordic life.

I’ve never had a puppy before, but my hubby has had dogs in his family for most of his life. Our son hasn’t bonded with him quite yet as he’s very bouncy with sharp puppy teeth and claws. We’d hoped they could sleep together at night, but neither of them appears to be ready for that. So at the moment we’re working on potty training and just getting to know each other.

The first night went fairly well, but the second day was a disaster. I probably changed my socks four times from stepping in puddles of pee. Then he peed on the rug in A’s room and two other rugs around the house.

At one point he became obsessed with squeezing under the couch…I imaged a bunch of A’s small toys under there that he might choke on and pushed the couch out of the way to investigate. But it caught on a plug sticking out of the wall and ripped out the entire outlet. N has a bit of electrical experience and tried to cap off the live wires. In so doing he shorted out the lights and the Christmas tree in the front room. So we put the puppy out on the solarium where he sleeps to keep him out of the way, and he cried for an entire hour, which was heartbreaking and annoying at the same time.

But we finally got things under control and all the lights back on. And he was a fairly calm boy yesterday. Two other unexpected things have already come out of the change to our family dynamics: We’re all eating at the dining room table instead of on the couch at mealtimes, and A is much more interested in picking up his toys.

The cat hasn’t quite decided how she feels about him yet. If she sees him she hisses and growls, so we’ve moved her food and water upstairs where the bedrooms are. And she seems content to hang out there during the day and prowl the house at night after he’s gone to sleep. So we’ll see how the rest of the week progresses.

Hello, world. :)

Hello, world. :)

I am happy to report that we got our lovely little faux Christmas tree up a few days after Thanksgiving. If it was up to me, I’d leave it up all year, but I’ll settle for the end of January. We haven’t gotten around to putting up any outside decorations…maybe next year. I’ve heard IKEA is a madhouse the few weeks before the holiday, so we’ve been avoiding it.

We have done a few other things though. A and I participated in the embassy tree cutting a couple weeks ago. I thought there would be a bunch of families, so we took A out of school for the occasion. Turned out there were only about half a dozen people, including the Ambassador, but no other kids.

But A did really well. It was about an hour’s ride on a bus out to the tree farm tucked back at the end of a fjord called Hvalfjörður and run by the Icelandic Forest Service. I assumed it would be nice and flat for some reason. But the trees ran up the side of a mountain buried in about two feet of snow. A was off like a shot, apparently it’s easier to stay on the surface when you only weigh 45 pounds, while I panted and trudged up the hill behind him.

It was dark when we first arrived, but the sun came up around 11am with a gorgeous purple sky above the mountains. We already had the aforementioned fake tree at home, so we helped cut down the one for the embassy Christmas party. And the Forest Service rep cut down a tiny one for my son, which was super sweet.

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Still dark at 10am.

Sunrise at 11am.

Sunrise at 11am.

Forest Service sign.

Icelandic Forest Service sign.

View of the fjord on the way home.

View of the fjord on the way home.

Then we headed back to the embassy for the employee Christmas party in the afternoon. There were some potluck snacks and lots of kids’ activities like ornament making and cookie decorating, and we helped decorate the tree we’d cut down that morning.

Then we had a visit from Santa, and some of the kids danced with him around the Christmas tree, which is an Icelandic tradition. Most of the American kids watched for a few minutes and then ran off. There were also various arguments among the children about whether or not it was Santa visiting or one of the 13 Icelandic Yule Lads.

A has already had a couple older kids tell him that Santa doesn’t exist, and he’s quizzed me on whether or not I believe in him. So we’ll see how much longer the magic lasts.

A helping decorate the embassy Christmas tree.

A helping decorate the embassy Christmas tree.

A traditional Icelandic candelabra.

A traditional Icelandic candelabra.

View of Reykjavik from the Pearl.

View of Reykjavik from the observation deck at the Pearl restaurant.

Starting on Thanksgiving we’ve had one lovely snowy day after another and had accumulated a couple feet. Sadly it started raining yesterday so things are a bit slushy and slippery at the moment, but there’s still snow around.

Happily things were still looking pretty good when we had our first visitor to Iceland last week! I’ve known LG since 2002 when we started working together in Antarctica. She made it to London last year for a couple weeks and was here for the first time for a few days with plans to return for longer in the summer.

I took a couple days off from work, so we could have some girl time and see the sites. And see them we did! She arrived on Thursday morning and left on Sunday, and we managed to squeeze in a walking tour of downtown Reykjavik, with souvenir and Christmas shopping, a tour of the Golden Circle, lunch at the Pearl featuring their Icelandic Christmas buffet, a little drive along the sculpture trail out to the lighthouse, a Christmas choir concert at the Hallgrimskirkja, a trip to the Blue Lagoon with lunch at their yummy Lava Restaurant, and one famous Icelandic hot dog.

Þingvellir farm and church on the Golden Circle.

Þingvellir farm and church on the Golden Circle.

Gulfoss Waterfall beautiful in the snow!

Gulfoss Waterfall beautiful in the snow!

Christmas buffet at the Pearl.

Christmas buffet at the Pearl.

Christmas Choir Concert at the Hallgrimskirkja.

Slightly blurry Christmas Choir Concert at the Hallgrimskirkja.

Holiday spirit at the hot dog stand!

Holiday spirit at the hot dog stand!

She even managed to survive the jet leg long enough to have a couple home movie nights, including a campy Finnish Christmas-horror movie called Rare Exports about a bunch of miners that uncover the tomb of a monstrous, evil Santa whose helpers then start kidnapping all the local children. Needless to say, we watched it after our son went to bed…didn’t want him traumatized for the rest of his life.

I must add that if you get the chance, I highly recommend a Golden Circle tour in the winter. The geyser doesn’t seem too much different, but the waterfall is amazing with its frozen edges. And the Blue Lagoon is also very steamy when it’s cold outside. We had about 20 feet of visibility, which could’ve been a little disorienting if I hadn’t been there before. But it was a pretty cool experience all around!

Steamy scene at the Blue Lagoon.

Steamy scene at the Blue Lagoon.

I know it was a couple days ago, but the holiday weekend isn’t over quite yet. We had a lovely employee pot luck at the embassy on Wednesday with turkeys donated by the Ambassador and prepared by his chef.

A very pretty Thanksgiving turkey prepared by the Ambassador's chef.

A very pretty Thanksgiving turkey prepared by the Ambassador’s chef.

Then on the holiday itself, we took A out of school and spent the afternoon at some friends’ house. We had another lovely potluck meal there with turkey and all the fixings. The kids ran around and played games, and the grown-ups sat around, drank wine and chatted. All while watching the best snowfall we’ve had yet.

It was a really lovely week, and Reykjavik has been turned into a true Winter Wonderland. Have I mentioned how much I love snow??

Everything's better with snow.

Everything’s better with snow.

This weekend, we had three things on the agenda: school Christmas fair, watching the annual Oslo Christmas-tree lighting and swimming. Sadly, we didn’t make it out of the house in time to do the first two, but Daddy took A to the pool, while I stayed home and broke out some painting supplies!

The rest of the weekend we spent cuddling, watching movies and playing in the snow in the backyard. Not a bad way to pass a holiday weekend. I hope yours was equally relaxing!

A foot of snow in the backyard.

A foot of snow in the backyard.

Our first Icelandic snow angel. :)

Our first Icelandic snow angel. :)


A checking out our local pool.

A checking out the mist rising off our local pool.

One of the greatest things about Iceland is all of the natural hot springs and heated pools. Practically every town has a heated public pool. I think Reykjavik has about half a dozen. And I love nothing more than being in hot water when it’s cold outside.

I’m actually rather embarrassed that it’s taken us this long, but last weekend we finally managed to get out and make it our local pool. And it was fantastic. They do have two indoor pools, but outside they have a 50m lap pool, seven “hot pots”, a steam bath and three water slides.

One of the hot pots is quite shallow and great for kids with a mini water slide and a couple of goofy-looking fountains. It maintains a comfortable temperature of 38-40C, which is about 100-104F. They also provide arm floaties.

The kiddie pool (internet photo).

The kiddie pool (internet photo).

A was happy in the kiddie pool for about five minutes before he decided he wanted to go on one of the bigger slides. The walk between pools was incredibly brisk, so we hurried while trying not to run. The FREEZING COLD and rather steep metal stairs with diamond plating were a bit of a shock to the feet, I must say!

But the yellow slide was wide and not too steep and provided decent momentum and a nice big splash at the bottom…for me anyway. ;) Daddy did take him on the even bigger white slide, but they couldn’t get much speed going for some reason, so they went back to the smaller one, and we eventually let A tackle the slippery metal stairs on his own.

The water slides (internet photo).

The water slides (internet photo).

We spent several hours alternating between pools, pots and slides. I even tried the 42-44C hot pot, which is 107-111F, and it was almost painful. I could feel my skin prickling underwater and momentarily thought, hmmm, I wonder if this isn’t the greatest thing for high blood pressure. But it was still wonderfully relaxing.

All the local families looked a lot like ours: dark-haired dad with a blonde mom and kids. The skies were clear and blue with a view of the snowy mountains in the distance. And the sun was starting to set when we left. All in all it was a lovely afternoon. We’ll definitely have to make a point of returning more regularly.



Oh, and it’s good to note, if it’s your first visit to a pool in Iceland, that you are required to get completely naked in the gender-specific changing rooms and shower in front of everyone. They even have a little sign encouraging you to get all the right spots. So leave your self-consciousness at the door.

A picture's worth 1,000 words.

A picture’s worth 1,000 words (internet photo).



The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and are not attributed to any government organization.

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