We’ve never been very good at listening to kids’ music. I’ve been singing the same half dozen lullabies to my son since he was born. If he’s learned “Old McDonald” or “This Old Man,” it was probably at nursery school. So it comes as no surprise that his musical preferences are a bit on the grown-up side. And he has pretty good taste for a five-year-old!

You can tell which ones are his favorites because he will request them over and over in the car or in the living room so he can dance to them. I recently decided to put a list together and make him a little album. So we sat on the couch, and he flipped through his iPad to remind me of a few. A lot of them are from movie soundtracks, which I’m also a big fan of, and there’s even an Icelandic band in there. So it’s nice he’s getting a little culture.:)

Without further ado, here is A’s favorite playlist:

Owl City – Shine Your Way (The Croods)
Pharrell Williams – Happy
Lego Movie – Everything Is Awesome
Fall Out Boy – Immortals (Big Hero Six)
Fall Out Boy – The Phoenix
Skrillex – Recess
Idina Menzel – Let It Go (Frozen)
Robin Schulz – Waves
Jackson 5 – I Want You Back (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Redbone – Come and Get Your Love (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Raspberries – Go All the Way (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Savage Garden – Break Me Shake Me
Kaleo – Rock ‘n’ Roller
Sum 41 – Noots
Simon Curtis – Superhero
Elton John – Crocodile Rock
Katy Perry – California Girls
PSY – Gangnam Style

Downtown Akureyri.

Downtown Akureyri.

A large pile of snow in the middle of town set up for snowboarders.

A large pile of snow in the middle of town set up for snowboarders.

Let me first start off by saying this was one of the best family vacations we’ve had. And I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we didn’t accomplish half the things we wanted to and spent most of our time relaxing. I will have to remember that the next time I schedule one of our mad holiday outings.

Akureyri is a little town on the north coast of Iceland and the country’s second largest city outside the Reykjavik metro area…with a population of 18,000.:) It has a surprisingly warm climate thanks to the Gulf Stream, and I once visited their flourishing outdoor botanic garden in September, even though it is only 62 miles south of the Arctic Circle. However it still gets more snow than Reykjavik in winter and spring. It snowed six inches when we were there.

So it is also home to the Hlíðarfjall ski resort. We actually didn’t have too much on our list other than to do some spring skiing and check out a couple restaurants. Sadly, the skiing attempt failed miserably. It had been 10 years since I skied, and my hubby and son never had. I figured we would just spend some quality family time on the bunny slopes.

Instead we spent an incredibly frustrating 30 minutes trying to get our skiis on our feet, which kept getting jammed with snow, then taking them off again to help A who eventually just lay in a heap in the snow crying. My hubby was getting increasingly frustrated. My feet and legs were already killing me, we hadn’t even made it to the first lift, and the fun had pretty much been leeched out of the day already.

So rather than ruin the little one for the slopes forever, I called it quits. We lost the $90 worth of gear rental, but they were kind enough to return the two days’ worth of lift passes. Next time we will put A in the kids’ ski school and crash around on the hills for a while on our own before we try it as a family.

After that we went back to our vacation rental, I took a nap, and N took A to the local heated pool. Our rental also included a private hot tub on a balcony overlooking the fjord, and I have to say, that was pretty much the highlight of our trip. We got in that thing at least twice a day. And it was so wonderfully relaxing. Plus there’s something so fun about sitting in a hot tub while it’s snowing.

On Easter we hid a dozen eggs around the rental and watched A search for them, then gorge himself on chocolate.

The view of the fjord from the rental.

The view of the fjord from the rental.

Hot tub covered in snow.

Hot tub covered in snow.

We also tried to drive over to the Myvatn Nature Baths an hour or so away but were thwarted by weather. I’m a fairly calm driver, but after pulling over multiple times because you couldn’t see 10 feet through the blowing horizontal snow in front of you, we again made an executive decision to turn back. Besides, I can’t imagine the conditions would’ve been that great for outdoor swimming. So back to the hot tub we went!

When we weren’t in the hot tub, we tried a few places to eat recommended by friends: Greifinn was super yummy, had a large and varied menu, including one for kids with booklet of mazes and pictures for coloring, and tasty Icelandic beer on tap. The sushi at Rub 23 had also been a must-try, but A was too tired to go out for dinner. So my hubby picked up a 48-piece sushi-to-go and brought it back to the rental. And it was fantastic! Also tried the local ice cream shop, but so far I’m not a huge fan of Icelandic ice cream, not sure why.

The rest of the time we just walked around town, did a bit of window shopping and even went bowling! Another first for our little one, and he seemed to really enjoy it. The balls were a lot heavier than I remember them being…too much time on the Wii apparently. But we ended up playing next to a group of guys from Los Angeles that turned out to be part of the crew that was in country filming the latest segment of the Fast and Furious franchise…I believe they’re up to number eight. They were really nice and even cheered A on when he got his first strike.:)

Keilan bowling alley.

Keilan bowling alley (internet photo).

Bowling next to the crew from Fast and Furious 8.

Bowling next to the crew from Fast and Furious 8.

Another one of the cutest things about the trip was that our little family all slept in the same room in the rental since it was a kind of studio apartment. Normally that’s not a selling point as we’ve kept each other up in the past snoring and whining. But A has been quite lonely in his own room at home and often laments the fact that no one’s sleeping with him. So I very much enjoyed seeing his little face beaming at me at the end of the day from the bed across the room. He even managed to go to the bathroom by himself in the middle of the night without needing to wake anyone up…the first night anyway.

Fact: There are no mosquitoes in Iceland.

I found this hard to believe as we found several in our house last fall. Today I found another one and decided to take a closer look at it. Sure enough, it had no proboscis. What I thought was a mosquito was actually a midge.

Fact: There are two types of midges: ones that bite and ones that don’t.

I knew there were midges in Iceland because 20 years ago, when I came here for the first time, our tour guide pointed out the fact that local Lake Myvatn was Icelandic for Midge Lake. Happily the midges in our house don’t bite…but they do have both kinds in Iceland.

Fact: Mosquito Hawks (or Crane Flies) don’t actually eat mosquitoes.

We also had a giant Mosquito Hawk in the house, which, for forty years, I assumed would eat any pesky mosquitoes. But apparently they are anatomically incapable of killing and eating other insects. Their larvae eat algae and plant matter, but adult Mosquito Hawks only live for 10-15 days and don’t eat much at all.

Who knew?

I had two more lovely ladies from Embassy London come visit me the weekend before Easter. It was a whirlwind trip. They flew in late on Friday night and left on Sunday afternoon. But we still got some visiting and some fun tourist stuff in.

I couldn’t do this in London because it was so huge, but I’m attempting to try every restaurant in Reykjavik in the three years that we’re here. So we knocked out a few more of those…the Grey Cat for breakfast and Sakebarinn for my first sushi in Iceland.

The Arctic Char Nigiri with lemon juice was particularly tasty…although I’ve since heard you have to watch for worms in raw Arctic Char…eww. So I’m sticking to the one with lemon juice on it. We also popped into the Sky Bar for drinks. They have an amazing view of the mountains across the water. My hubby and I had stopped in for lunch for the first time the week before, and they also have a great lobster salad.

Arctic Char Nigiri and Philadelphia Roll at Sakebarinn.

Arctic Char Nigiri and Philadelphia Roll at Sakebarinn.

For the tourist stuff, we hit the Golden Circle. And the Icelandic landscape is ever changing! We pulled over at one point to photograph some beautiful melt ponds with rainbows behind. Further on, I missed the turn for the lookout at Þingvellir, so we took the southern approach and got a new view of the cliffs and found a pretty little rushing melt waterfall.

Rainbow and melt pond on the Golden Circle.

Rainbow and melt pond on the Golden Circle.

Little waterfall at Þingvellir.

Little waterfall at Þingvellir.

And I must say the tourists are definitely back as it was wicked crowded at the geyser. After that, we hopped out for a quick photo at the Gullfoss waterfall and then continued on to lunch at Café Mika in Reykholt. I must say I was a bit disappointed in their lobster salad as the dressing was a bit watery and the lobster bits were small.

We also got up close and personal with some lovely horses that were hanging out on the side of the road. I tried to pet one and it seemed to think my fingers were carrots and started nibbling on them.

Icelandic horse hanging out in the wind.

Icelandic horse hanging out in the wind.

We spent the next morning at the Blue Lagoon, which had been completely changed around after the last time that I was there. I guess they were quite busy during their renovation in January. But it was still lovely and relaxing. And we had a tasty lunch in the Lava Restaurant before heading to the airport.

So that was the last installment of girlfriends visiting Iceland for a while. Thank you all so much! It’s been so lovely being able to spend time with you!

I’m way behind on the blogging but wanted to make sure I included the fantastic visit we had with friends from the north of England last month! We’d met in France in college on our respective study abroad programs, and I was so happy we got the chance to reconnect in London last year.

Happily, they came out to Iceland for about five days and brought their nine-year-old daughter, so needless to say, our son had a blast. The kids bonded over Minecraft, the dads also bonded over video games, and the moms sat in the solarium and drank wine.:)

But we tried to actually get out and do some tourist stuff too. We had lots of lovely snow that week, so we started out with some puppy play time in the park, making snow angels and building forts. For a bit of culture we visited the Saga Museum, which is more like a small Viking wax museum. It was interesting and informative. But the best part was putting on the Viking gear and taking goofy photos afterward.

Puppy playtime in the park.

Puppy playtime in the park.

:eft: Enjoying sunset and wine in the solarium. Right: Getting into character at the Saga Museum.

Left: Enjoying sunset and wine in the solarium. Right: Getting into character at the Saga Museum.

The next day we ventured slightly further afield and went hunting for a hidden hot spring that my hubby had been to once before. It took us about two hours to get there, but it was well worth it. And our British friends enjoyed the quirkiness of being in a hot spring surrounded by snow in the middle of the Icelandic countryside…and we did as well!

A short hike to the hot spring.

A short hike to the hot spring.

The changing hut at Hrunilaug hot spring.

The changing hut at Hrunilaug hot spring.

We spent the next two days checking out the usual suspects on the Golden Circle…Thingvellir National Park and the Strokkur Geysir. We didn’t make it to the Gullfoss Waterfall, but we did make it to three new places for me…the Fontana spa in Laugarvatn, the nearby Efstidalur dairy for fresh ice cream, and Café Mika in Reykholt, which had a fantastic “lobster” (aka langoustine) salad.

The Golden Circle winter landscape.

The Golden Circle winter landscape.

The kids at Laugarvatn Fontana.

The kids at Laugarvatn Fontana.

Cows lined up at the dairy.

Cows lined up at the dairy.

Yummy lobster salad at Cafe Mika.

Yummy lobster salad at Cafe Mika.

We had such a lovely time and were so sorry to see them go. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that they’ll come back this summer. It’s funny that we didn’t get as many visitors when we lived in London as I thought we would’ve…but most of our visitors to Iceland so far have come from the UK!:)

I’ve had two fantastic visits from girlfriends from the UK over the last month. One was VK, an American friend that I had made while working in the Econ section in London. We had booked a long weekend to celebrate our January birthdays before my mother passed away, and we’d thought of cancelling as it would no longer be a care-free girly weekend. But I decided that a little break from reality would be a good thing.

So we soldiered on and had a lovely long girl-talk and soul-searching weekend. The first time I visited Iceland as a tourist I had just ended a relationship and changed jobs and found that the windswept wilds of Iceland were definitely good for the soul.

VK came in on a Friday afternoon, so I picked her up at the airport. While I was waiting I happened to run into Hafþór Björnsson also loitering around the arrivals gate. Hafþór is a competitive Icelandic strongman and has placed in the top three for World’s Strongest Man every year since 2012…but more importantly, he played “The Mountain” in seasons four and five in Game of Thrones.

Me being the celebrity stalker that I am, I struck up a conversation, and he was kind enough to chat with me and even take a photo with me, which was seriously awesome!:) You can tell from the photo that he’s exceptionally tall…about 6’9″.

Hafþór Björnsson as "The Mountain" in Game of Thrones and at the airport in Keflavik.

Hafþór Björnsson as “The Mountain” in Game of Thrones and at the airport in Keflavik.

After VK arrived we drove back to Reykjavik, spent the night at our house, and had lunch at the Slipbarrinn the next day because I do love their daily fresh Fish in a Pan. We then headed off into what felt like the center of the country and spent the next two days at the Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel. And the hotel was fantastic. If for no other reason than it looked like it should’ve been a Rebel base on Hoth.

Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel

Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel.

It also had a fairly reasonable rate and a stunning bar with high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows to better view the surrounding snowy environment and any Northern Lights that might be out. They also had a great outdoor heated pool in which we spent much time soaking and admiring the sparklingly clear, yet sadly Northern Light-free, evening sky.

The beautiful bar.

The beautiful bar.

The pool with a view.

The pool with a view.

In our downtime we ran around a bit and took in the geyser and waterfall on the Golden Circle, had massages at the spa in the hotel, ate lovely meals in the hotel restaurant and talked about life, love and loss while watching the sunset.

It was just what my little heart needed. Thank you VK!

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 Ancestry.com, 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 Ancestry.com, 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: asylumprojects.org.

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: Cardcow.com.

Old postcard of St. Helena Sanitarium. Source: Cardcow.com.

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.😉



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

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