Okay, it wasn’t really a reunion, but it felt like it. We had seven awesome people come to visit us in Reykjavik in May and June…five of whom overlapped in May…all of whom we worked with in Antarctica.

The first couple, TS and BB, came the second weekend in May and had plans to visit with us for a couple days then rent a car and drive counterclockwise around the Ring Road that circles all of Iceland. Then they would swing back by at the end of their trip.

They had their itinerary all planned out and were interested in seeing a few sites in the Reykjanes peninsula, which was awesome as there were a couple things on my bucket list in that area, like the Bridge Between the Continents…and the massive Viking sword stuck in a traffic circle outside the Viking museum in Keflavík. What can I say, some of the things I want to see are a little quirky.

The bridge between the continents of North America and Europe.

The Viking sword in front of Viking World in Keflavik.

We also visited the Gunnuhver geothermal area, and found a lovely lighthouse and a really cool section of volcanic uplift right at the edge of the sea with a memorial to the Great Auk. It struck me as a lovely place for a picnic when things warm up a bit this summer.

Sadly, they didn’t have the best of weather. But they were here for three weeks, so they got to see Iceland in all kinds of conditions and then came back around for some more visiting!

Part 2 up next!

Vatican Square.

When it rains, it pours! And I’m definitely not complaining. We hadn’t really gone anywhere in the last six months, and then woo hoo! I get two trips in less than a month. First the Girls’ Weekend in Prague at the end of March, and then we used our second R&R in April and went to Rome for a week. Normally I would’ve tried to space it out a bit more. But this winter was really long and boring, and we’re hoping to spend our summer holidays exploring a lot more of Iceland. So a nice spring trip to Rome seemed like a great idea.

And what a fabulous week it was! We dropped the dog off at one of the few local pet boarding places just north of Reykjavik on Saturday and flew out at a reasonable hour on Sunday morning. We arrived late on Sunday night and checked into a lovely little vacation rental that I’d reserved on Booking.com. (I love that site!) There were a surprising amount of modern places available, but I wanted something with a warm Italian feel to it. So we ended up in a lovely two-bedroom apartment with a wrought iron balcony in a rustic yellow building right by the Tiber River.

The entrance to the lovely building that contained our vacation rental.

Our balcony among others.

Sadly, my hubby had injured his knee a couple weeks before while ice skating, so he wasn’t up for the three-hour walking tour of the Colosseum the next day. It turned out that A and I weren’t really up for the entire thing either…once we found out it was actually three hours and 40 minutes. But we made it through most of it and made a slightly early exit from the Palatine Hill. But we got to see the main things that we’d signed up for like the private areas below the main level of the Colosseum where they kept the animals.

A loves gladiators, so we’d intentionally been waiting until he turned six to go to Rome so that he could attend Gladiator School! And it was so worth it! The kids first got a little bit of history, and he wowed his instructor when he correctly informed him (in Latin) which of the gladiator styles was his favorite. Then they did some fun training exercises, had some basic instruction on sword techniques (with wooden swords), and got to spar with each other in the end. He had so much fun!!

The Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum.

Always make sure they’re dead!

We had originally planned another three-hour tour, this time in the Vatican. But I realized before we left that none of us were going to be able to pull that one off. So I cancelled it before we arrived, and it remains on my bucket list. I’m sure A will appreciate it more when he’s older anyway.

However, we were still in great shape for a pizza-making class! We were the only ones in our group, and I highly recommend booking your class through Pinocchio Tours because it was one of the few that I found where A and N could make the pizza, and I could sit and drink wine and eat antipasto…ha! So that was awesome.

The trattoria where we had our pizza-making class.

N putting his pizza in the brick oven.

We also did a quick day trip to Venice. I had been before and really loved it, and N wanted to see it before it sinks into the sea…it could happen! It’s a long train ride but a short cheap flight on Air Italia. Unfortunately I waited a little too long to book it…so it ended up being not as cheap as we’d hoped. Our flight from Rome was delayed due to fog, so we spent hours and hours in the airport at both ends and only a few hours in Venice, and we felt a bit rushed.

We booked a water taxi from the airport, but you couldn’t really see anything because you’re sitting inside facing a bunch of other people. We disembarked in Piazza San Marco and had enough time to stop for lunch at a little restaurant down a quiet alley. The food was okay, but not great. And it wasn’t nearly as cute as a bunch of restaurants we passed later. It was ridiculously crowded being spring break, and the walkways are all fairly narrow. We basically just walked from the south side of the city to the north side and caught a bus back to the airport. So I’m glad the family got to see it, but we all agreed that we probably wouldn’t do it again. I still love Venice though. I just think Rome is much more family friendly.

The edge of Piazza San Marco in Venice.

A gondola in one of the many canals.

Back in Rome, we made a special point to visit the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary. Largo di Torre Argentina is an excavated square a few blocks from the Forum. It’s the place where Julius Caesar was stabbed by Brutus. So that’s pretty cool. It’s also home to about 150 cats and is maintained by a group of volunteers and a resident vet tech. It’s a wonderful organization, and I’m looking forward to making a contribution this month in memory of my mom’s birthday.

We spent the rest of our time in Rome wandering the alleyways, checking out little restaurants and ornate cathedrals, and taking in the easy sites like the Trevi Fountain (we threw in our coins appropriately), Spanish Steps, Vatican Square, Forum, Altar of the Fatherland, and Campo de’ Fiori market. We had beautiful weather, and we also ate gelato…every…single…day. Needless to say, neither A nor N wanted to leave. 😉

Looking for cats at Largo di Torre Argentina.

The Trevi Fountain.

View over Prague from Malá Strana.

I went to Prague once in the ‘90s while I was a student living in France. I remembered the castle, the Old Town Square, the Charles Bridge, and it generally being gorgeous and inexpensive. So I was super excited to take a long weekend and go visit a couple of girlfriends currently posted there.

JW was my fabulous co-OMS in London that I had the pleasure of working with for two years and had recently begun a three-year tour. And LP was a friend I made during OMS orientation and training when I first joined State in 2011 who had just a few months left in her tour before departing for her next post this summer.

I am happy to report that Prague is even more gorgeous than I remember…and still ridiculously cheap! At least compared to London and Reykjavik. It seemed quite small from the air and only has a population of about 1.2 million, compared to London’s 8.6 million. I imagine it feels a bit more cramped in the summer when it’s packed wall to wall with tourists. But it has a lovely relaxed Old World feel to it.

Gothic tower at the end of the Charles Bridge.

Painted wooden eggs for sale at an Easter market.

JW lives in a lovely apartment right on the water, so I was able to throw back the shutters in the guest room each morning and have a gorgeous view of the Vltava river. The weather was quite toasty for me as they had a warm spell, and the temps were in the 70s. It’s still snowing in Reykjavik, so it didn’t occur to me to pack much-needed sunscreen. But it was a good reminder for me not to bid on any Southeast Asian posts this summer.

We weren’t mad to do the tourist sites, so we had a wonderfully relaxed couple of days that involved a wander through the Saturday morning farmers’ market, a matinee of the Snow Queen ballet at the National Theatre, popping into a local seafood shop that prepared fresh oysters right from the display case with a glass of sauvignon blanc, drinks at the oldest brewery in Prague called U Fleků (est. 1499), and a night out with a couple of other ladies from the embassy at the Hemingway Bar.

Interior view from the top of the National Theatre.

Display case at the seafood shop.

Our yummy oysters.

The cocktails at the Hemingway Bar were the most creative I’d ever seen. I tried a Fairy Ale made of absinthe, sugar syrup and lemon juice served in an old-fashioned absinthe fountain with a crystal glass. Another drink called a Snow Globe looked exactly like one and contained coconut flakes and rum. And another called the Magic Moment was set on a pedestal and lit from below. So pretty and great customer service!

I wasn’t planning on doing any real souvenir shopping, but I kind of had an eye out to replace a crystal box that hadn’t survived the trip home at the end of my student year abroad. Instead I found a lovely perfume bottle made of malachite glass in one of JW’s favorite antique shops. It was done by Czech glass maker Heinrich Hoffman in 1936, two years before the German occupation of Czechoslovakia when things pretty much shut down, and Hoffman died in 1939. The bottle is stunning, and I’m so happy I found it!

Needless to say, it was an absolutely fabulous way to spend a long weekend. And I was thrilled to get a chance to catch up with both of my friends. I think I should definitely plan more Girls’ Weekends in the future! 🙂

Absinthe fountain at Hemingway’s Bar.

 

2015 Numbeo Cost of Living Map.

We’ve been living in Reykjavik for just over a year and a half now, and I still can’t get over how stupid expensive it is…even more so than London. And it doesn’t help that the US dollar seems to be plummeting compared to the Icelandic kronur (ISK). Last spring we hit a high of 130 ISK per dollar, which was great. A couple weeks ago, it was down to 107. Today, the exchange rate is 110. I know that probably makes no sense without knowing how much they actually charge for things. So I’ll give you some examples.

My car was on empty this morning, so I filled up at the local N1 on the way to drop A off at school. My hubby had the frequent-flyer discount card, so I paid the full price for my 51.9 liters (13.7 gallons) of gas at 197.9 ISK per liter for a total of $92.75.

Yesterday I was whinging about the cost of food at a restaurant I wanted to try. We never go out for dinner as it’s more expensive than lunch. And we used to eat lunch out fairly frequently until our schedules changed a bit. Lately I’ve been shocked at how much more money I have every month now that we’re bringing a sack lunch, but I really shouldn’t be.

The restaurant we were thinking of going to is a little gastropub downtown called Sæta Svínið (Sweet Pig). It’s nothing fancy, and certainly not much more expensive than other places. But the thing that got me was the add-ons. Most of the restaurants charge for every little extra thing…you want to add bacon to your burger? That’s 450 ISK…that’s $4 extra…to add a couple strips of bacon. You know how much your burger is to start with?? 2,790 ISK. That’s $25 for a CHEESEBURGER…not a steak…because that’s 4,990 ISK ($45)…about the same as a steak dinner from room service at the airport Hilton in Seattle.

A taxi from Reykjavik to the international airport in Keflavik, a 45-minute drive, is $120-150 USD depending on the exchange rate. That’s double the cost of a similar ride when we lived in Denver. A set of snow tires is about $800. A $25 oil change is over $100.

And don’t even get me started on alcohol. Every country has different rules for us diplomatic types. In Belize, we had a convenient duty-free store where we could go any time we needed to pick up a nice little bottle of wine. In London, you could only get duty back during your last three months at post, so we never bothered…but you could also pick up a decent bottle of wine at the grocery store for $8.

(Interesting side note, we’ve been doing some post research since we’re bidding this summer, and I discovered that in Australia, they have convenient duty-free stores, but OMSs and other Specialists aren’t allowed to use them, as we don’t get the same diplomatic privileges there that the Officers do. Always fun to have that thrown in your face.)

Here, you cannot buy booze at the grocery store…but from the state-run liquor store (Vínbúðin) or directly from a distributor. The cheapest bottle of white wine I’ve seen at the state store was $12; a bottle of Jack Daniels is 7,299 ($65) ISK. They don’t sell beer collectively by six pack or case but per bottle. A bottle of “imported” Budweiser is 299 ISK ($2.69). A bottle of the tasty local beer like Einstök Arctic Pale Ale is 459 ISK per bottle…that’s 2,754 ISK ($25) for a six pack. That same bottle of beer is 990 ISK at a restaurant. Also at the restaurant, a SINGLE bottle of Skaði Farmhouse Ale from the Ölvisholt Brewery is 2,190 ISK ($19.70). Needless to say, we don’t drink much beer here.

If you’re willing to run the gauntlet of paperwork, we do qualify for duty-free though. Forms have to be filled out in triplicate then approved by the local governing body, which can be a two to five-day turnaround…every time you want to buy something. The life of a government employee is already fairly regimented, and that one kind of gets under my skin…so again, most of the time I don’t bother.

As much as I love living in Europe, it might be time to start looking at more economical parts of the world in the upcoming bid season. In the meantime, I’ve turned into a boxed wine kind of a girl…since you can essentially get four bottles of wine for the price of three. So much for being a classy diplomat. 😉

You may have noticed that other than a few holiday posts around Christmas, I haven’t posted much in the way of Iceland as a winter wonderland this year. And that’s because it hasn’t been. We had a tiny bit of snow around Christmas, but it’s been warm and drizzly most of the time.

But we’ve still tried to get out and do some wintry things. My hubby is now the Community Liaison Officer at the embassy, so he’s been organizing some fun events.

In January, we did some indoor ice skating at the Laugadalur sports complex next to the children’s zoo. It was fairly straight forward with a big rink and disco lights and music and a small snack bar. And they had a very unique skating aid for the little ones…no cute plastic penguins or seals to push around…instead they had what looked like a large unbent paperclip. But since it was metal, it slid on the ice easily enough and was very effective.

Ice Skating at Laugadalur sports complex.

Ice Skating at Laugadalur sports complex.

Last month we checked out the Keiluhöllin bowling lanes at another sports complex, and I must say that I really enjoyed the way it was set up. The scores were posted automatically, and there were comfy couches instead of booths or chairs, a full-sized bar and a restaurant that serves excellent pizza.

I suck at bowling anymore…my knee apparently no longer likes to hold my body weight, and my bowling fingers swell the next day. But it was still fun to get the family out with some embassy folks.

Interior of the bowling alley courtesy of visitreykjavik.is.

Interior of the bowling alley courtesy of visitreykjavik.is.

We got a little bit of snow a couple weeks ago and tried to make the best of it with a bit of sledding by our house. But it was so shallow with bits of grass popping up that it wasn’t that good. However, our luck certainly changed last weekend. Someone said we might get five to eight inches of snow in the evening…and we woke up to almost two feet of the white stuff…and broke a record for snowfall in the month of February.

The entire town came to a standstill. But it didn’t really matter since it was a beautiful clear Sunday. So I took A across the street and wandered around in the park, whose walking paths had been plowed before much of the roads in the city. N on the other hand was now snowed in with some friends at a cabin out of town and wondering if he’d be able to get home. But he did eventually.

A making his way along a path in the park.

A making his way along a path in the park.

This weekend was absolutely gorgeous as well, and the first real weekend after the new snow. Coincidentally our fabulous new CLO had planned a family ski day to a nearby ski hill called Bláfjöll, which is a convenient 30 minutes outside Reykjavik. Considering our last failed attempt at skiing in Akureyri last Easter, our first priority was putting A in the kids’ ski school.

I emailed with no reply, called with no answer, and finally called again to find out the school was full for that day. I was told there was a free instructor roaming the bunny slope that would show the kids the basics. Unfortunately he said he was busy the one time that we saw him. So we endeavored to teach A the basics on our own…without skis on our feet this time…and it was a whole different, and much more pleasant, experience.

We learned a new technique: holding the poles to control speed. :)

We learned a new technique: holding the poles to control speed. 🙂

He was in surprisingly good spirits considering that half of Iceland had turned up to ski, and we waited in line for 45 minutes to rent him a little pair of skis and poles. Last time they didn’t give him poles. And this time they said they would recommend against them. But considering how poorly our little control freak handled his lack of mobility last time, I figured he would appreciate at least being able to push himself forward.

So after we finally got him kitted out we spent another 45 minutes or so running up and down the bunny slope with him. And he did great. I was just happy that he gave it a second try and put some effort into it. He eventually got tired, so we called it a successful day and drove back to town for some tasty burgers, since there’s not much in the way of après–ski in Iceland.

But I can now say that I’m happy with our snowfall and can finally post some beautiful photos of our Icelandic winter wonderland!!

Our resident flock of geese.

Our resident flock of geese.

The lovely plowed walking path in the park.

The lovely plowed walking path in the park.

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So we are officially half way through our tour. This is the first time we’ve been at a three-year post, and, honestly, it’s starting to seem like a reaaaaaaally long time. Other than a random eight-year stint in Orlando in the ‘90s (because I couldn’t come up with a place that I’d rather be…but did still manage to move apartments every two years), three years is the longest I’ve lived anywhere, and that was back in high school.

I think I started getting antsy this last summer when everyone was bidding. I’m always peeking at the projected vacancies to see what’s out there, and there’re some interesting places.

Now that A’s in school and has been diagnosed with ADHD, he’s been downgraded to a Class 2 medical clearance and has to be approved by the school at our next post, so that’s an important factor next time we bid. The ability for N to get a job at the embassy is also important, and the odds for that increase at larger posts.

We also have two pets…one of them a large dog. So I’m kind of done with quarantine countries. I’m still not a fan of the heat, which rules out half the globe. With all that in mind, it’s fun to get online and see what exotic new locations might meet our needs.

Iceland really is small, and the embassy is even smaller. We’ve had two people curtail from post in the 18 months that I’ve been here, which has a huge impact on morale. This winter hasn’t been as nice as last year…we haven’t had any fun visitors or much snow. Snow has the ability to reflect light even at night and really brighten up a place. So it’s just been quiet and dark.

For once I might be looking forward to winter ending and turning into summer as we have a slew of visitors starting in May…yay!! We have one more R&R to look forward to, although it will have to be much shorter than last year’s. And I really do want to try to get out and get us hiking more at all. Maybe A will complain less now that he’s a little older. Plus it’s a good way to get the dog some off-leash exercise.

I do still have a few places left on my bucket list, but they’re really kind of small and random and in out-of-the-way places that involve driving for at least four hours…like the infinity pool on the fjord in Hofsos, or a photo with the resident puffin at the aquarium on the Westman Islands. I wouldn’t mind going whale or puffin watching, but I’ve seen them before in Alaska. So, if we miss them, it’s not that big of a deal.

So ya, I have itchy feet.

A traditional Icelandic food platter.

A traditional Icelandic food platter.

The Icelandic calendar has lots of fun and interesting traditional holidays and festivals throughout the year. Right now it is Þorrablót.

According to Iceland.is, “Thorrablot was a sacrificial midwinter festival offered to the gods in pagan Iceland of the past. It was abolished during the Christianization of Iceland, but resurrected in the 19th century as a midwinter celebration that continues to be celebrated to this day. The timing for the festival coincides with the month of Thorri, according to the old Icelandic calendar, which begins on the first Friday after January 19th (the 13th week of winter).

“Origins of the name ‘Thorri’ are unclear but it is most likely derived from Norwegian king Thorri Snærsson, or Thor the God of Thunder in the old Nordic religion.

“On this occasion, locals come together to eat, drink and be merry. Customary, the menu consists of unusual culinary delicacies, known as traditional Icelandic food. These will include rotten shark’s meat (hákarl), boiled sheep’s head (svið), and congealed sheep’s blood wrapped in a ram’s stomach (blóðmör)! This is traditionally washed down with some Brennivin – also known as Black Death – a potent schnapps made from potato and caraway.

“After the Thorrablot dinner traditional songs, games and story telling are accompanied by dancing and in true Icelandic style continue until the early hours of the morning! If you fail to receive a personal invitation to a family feast, local restaurants will often add Thorrablot colour and taste to their menus.”

So today, I participated in a traditional Þorrablót food tasting hosted by the Public Affairs section at the embassy. You can see the foods we had in the photo above. And I can honestly say that I tried everything except the dried fish, because I really don’t like strong fish flavors.

In the top row from left to right, we had the following: sheep’s head, cured ham, jellied lamb, ram’s testicles, slátur (similar to haggis), blood sausage, and two other kinds of pressed meat from the abdomen and chest. The pink glass had pickled herring with mayonnaise and red beets, and the other glass was a carrot and pea salad with mayonnaise. On the left of the bottom row was the infamous hákarl (putrified shark), dried fish, flatbread and rúgbrauð (dark rye bread), and mashed rutabaga.

I had tried the shark and Brennivín before and found it to be fairly awful, but this time it wasn’t so bad. Maybe because last time I’d downed the liquor like a shot, and it was incredibly strong combined with the ammonia from the shark. This time we were told we could also dip the shark in the liquor, which did seem to mellow it a bit. And then we sipped the Brennivín after, which is actually a fairly pleasant caraway aquavit.

Have always loved the rye bread; it’s very sweet. And the mashed rutabaga was quite nice as well. The cured ham was fairly straight forward. And the ram’s testicles were surprisingly good with a smooth texture…until you found out what they were. Some things were much worse once you added your imagination, and many of them had a sour flavor as part of the old preservation process used sour whey. But I love sour things, so I didn’t mind. I had a hard time eating the sheep’s head…but the tongue tasted much nicer than some other bits. The worst for me was probably the jellied lamb because I’m not a fan of slimy textures.

Overall it was an interesting experience! I can’t say that I’m going to add testicles to the grocery list. But it was a fun thing to be a part of. 🙂

View of the sun in Reykjavik on New Year's Eve right after noon at 12:38pm.

View of the sun in Reykjavik at noon on New Year’s Eve.

I can’t remember the last time I was so relieved to see the end of a calendar year. We have a pretty good and comfortable life that maintains a fairly even emotional keel most of the time (when we’re not moving), but sometimes those years come along that throw everything out of balance.

2016 was definitely one of them. Mostly because I lost three members of my family…my mother, my grandmother and my aunt; and my husband lost a younger cousin. Technically my grandmother passed away at the end of 2015, but I’m including her in the ridiculous death toll that affected so many in 2016.

On a much smaller scale, but still an emotional issue for our family, our son was diagnosed with ADHD and a small motor tic disorder. I know this is not a HUGE problem, and there are much worse things out there. And we’re so thankful for the bright, affectionate and funny boy that he is.

But it does affect his medical clearance…not to mention its impact on his education, how he’s expected to perform in the classroom and the potential struggles he will have for the rest of his life. You always want the best for your children. You want them to be happy and successful and to have a good life. He will just have to try a little bit harder to achieve these things.

But we did have some good times!

We survived the first year of life with a giant dog…that after the first six months finally stopped urinating and defecating all over my new Ikea rug. Ugh, so disgusting! And he successfully graduated from puppy obedience school, so technically, he’s better behaved now. 😉

Happy New Year from me and Thorfinn!

Happy New Year from me and Thorfinn!

We had lots of great visitors come spend time with us in Iceland (probably more than the amount that visited us the whole two years we were in London!), which always makes me so happy.

During the summer, we had a fantastic three-week family R&R. We got to visit friends in the UK, and spend some fun time as tourists in Edinburgh, Inverness and Paris.

And we’ve tried to get out a bit and make the most of life in our current country. Some highlights include: hanging out in natural hot springs, seeing auroras, visiting spring lamb farms, collecting sea glass on the beach, and spending time with new friends. A much quieter lifestyle than our previous post.

I also joined a local women’s choir, completed a fun online Viking history course, and got promoted at work. It doesn’t change my job particularly, but I do make a little bit more money, which is never a bad thing.

Oh, and A lost his first tooth! The tooth fairy brought him a shiny gold Sacajawea dollar all the way from the States.

So it’s been a hell of a year…with some great ups and some serious downs.  Throughout my life, I’ve always noticed that the odd years are slightly better for me than the evens.

So here’s to 2017…I hope it brings us all more highs than lows! Happy New Year, everyone!!

Snow Queen Winter Solstice Yule Goddess 5x7 Greeting Card available from EmilyBalivet on Etsy.com.

Snow Queen – Winter Solstice – Yule Goddess (greeting card by EmilyBalivet on Etsy.com).

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