I didn’t grow up with much in the way of elaborate Xmas traditions. We put up stockings, decorations and a tree and listened to Xmas music. You opened the presents from your stocking on Xmas eve and the rest of your gifts on Xmas day. We didn’t really have a fancy meal that I remember, but we liked to have a big breakfast.

And we always watched Xmas movies. My mom’s favorites were A Christmas Story and Miracle on 34th Street, although we never really watched the second one very often. I haven’t had much luck with the movie tradition since starting my own family. Our son has proclaimed them all boring unless they’re specifically geared for children. And my hubby’s not a huge fan of Xmas movies or chick flicks, which many of them kind of are (think Love Actually and The Holiday).

So lately I’ve branched out into a new genre for me…the B-Horror Christmas Film, and it is fairly entertaining for the grown-ups. It’s not completely unfamiliar territory…Gremlins was pretty popular when I was a kid.

One of the immediate things you notice in Iceland at Christmastime is that the warm and fuzzy Santa is definitely a Western tradition and not a Scandinavian one. So we began our foray last year with a Finnish Xmas horror film from 2003 called Rare Exports. This year we started off the season with Krampus (2015).

But I’d like to raise the bar a little bit. Since this is one of my family traditions that I actually really love, this year I’ve decided to turn it into an Advent tradition and watch 25 Christmas movies! One for every day until Xmas starting on Dec 1.

I thought of sharing this new tradition with my family, but my hubby pronounced the idea “painful.” But I’m not going to let that ruin my holiday fun!! I have a bit of catching up to do though, as today is the fourth, and I’ve only watched one film. I already have a few holiday favorites in mind, but I also found this list of many of the Xmas movies made in the US since 1901. So bring on the Amazon rentals! Next up…Love the Coopers.

I spent part of my childhood in Sitka, Alaska, which was the capital when it was a Russian territory. So I’ve always been interested in Russian language, history, art and culture. In October and November the Icelandic Opera was performing Évgení Onegin…a Tchaikovsky opera based on a novel by Alexander Pushkin.

To share the summary from the website, “The dashing, unconventional Onegin visits the estate of Mrs. Larina and her daughters, Tatjana and Olga. From first glance, Tatjana believes that he is the hero of her dreams, but he rejects her without hesitation. Onegin is bored in the countryside and flirts with her sister Olga. He outrages Lensky, Olga’s fiancé and Onegin’s only friend and Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel where Onegin kills his only friend. To try to escape his guilt Onegin travels the world but returns to Russia and discovers that Tatyana is married to Prince Gremin and lives in the high society of St. Petersburg. He is devastated and begs her to return his love to her. Although she still loves him deeply, Tatyana stays true to her husband.”

Photo by Johanna Olafsdottir from http://www.whatson.is.

Photo by Johanna Olafsdottir from http://www.whatson.is.

Photo by Johanna Olafsdottir from http://www.whatson.is.

Photo by Johanna Olafsdottir from http://www.whatson.is.

I was very excited to see it as this was the first time an opera had been performed in Russian in Iceland. My hubby is a fan of the arts, but he’s not a huge Russian opera fan. So I thought to maybe make it a girls’ night…except I couldn’t get a single girlfriend to go with me. Granted I didn’t ask EVERYONE I know, but it started to feel like it after a while. So eventually I just gave up on asking and decided that I was going to go see it on my own.

I used to go to movies and performances on my own all the time when I was single. But I usually made a point of going to matinees. Going out at 8:00 on a Saturday night on my own felt quite mischievous. But I bought my ticket, made it to Harpa, downed a glass of champagne and took a selfie in time to get settled in my seat.

A little champagne selfie.

A little champagne selfie.

And it was a lovely opera with convenient super-titles in Icelandic and English. I’ve seen foreign language operas before, but I’d never thought about how much effort went into learning the lyrics. Now that I’m in a local choir, and we’re doing a dozen songs in Icelandic, which I don’t speak, I can’t imagine doing three hours’ worth of music in a foreign language. You think that it all makes sense to the performers, but that’s not always the case. It’s like throwing a thousand meaningless words in a bag, dumping them out on the floor, and then trying to remember them in some kind of sequence.

So I was doubly impressed and had a thoroughly good time. I might have to make solo operas a regular event.😉

My step-dad flew out from Alaska for a visit this month, and we were super excited about it! I’d only seen him once in the last few years, and that was to bring him my mother’s ashes. So that was incredibly sad, and I was happy to replace that with a fresh visit and be able to show him a bit of our life overseas. And A got to meet his Grandpa D for the first time!

We did a few of the usual tourist things…Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon. But happily he’s a museum fan, so we also did some things that were on my bucket list, but I hadn’t gotten around to…like the National Museum of Iceland, the Maritime Museum and the Árbær Open Air Museum. And we caught a showing at Harpa of Icelandic Sagas – The Greatest Hits in 75 minutes, which was a lot of fun.

The two-person cast of the Icelandic Sagas with "the script" in a pile in the background.

The two-person cast of the Icelandic Sagas with “the script” in a pile in the background.

The National Museum was really interesting, and they have a great collection of Viking artifacts. But they also have a lot of neat items from a period that I never think about here…Medieval Iceland. From 1400-1600 Iceland was ruled by Denmark, and even though it was quite remote, it was part of the Reformation and was devastated by the Black Plague. They have some beautiful medieval art as well as the first printed translation of the Bible into Icelandic.

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Medieval painting.

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First printed Bible translated into Icelandic.

The Maritime Museum on the other wasn’t quite as exciting. It’s more of a museum dedicated to the fishing industry. If you pay extra (or separately) you can get a tour of the Coast Guard ship Óðinn, which is a decommissioned offshore patrol vessel.

Slightly more interesting is the Árbær Open Air Museum. To quote their website, “Árbaer is an open air museum with more than 20 buildings which form a town square, a village and a farm. Most of the buildings have been relocated from central Reykjavik.” They’re open from 10-5 every day during the summer. But in the winter they only open at 1:00 for a guided tour.

Farm church.

Farm church.

Interior of 1800s building.

Interior of 1800s-style building…Suðurgata 7.

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More of Suðurgata 7.

I usually prefer to explore on my own, but this time I didn’t mind trailing around in a little group and getting a few extra stories. I particularly enjoyed seeing the traditional homes with the sod roofs, but it was equally insightful seeing the other homes decorated as they would have been through various periods of Icelandic history. One of the buildings had been designed in the 1800s and felt very much like being on the set of Anne of Green Gables. I guess the Georgian and Victorian eras looked fairly similar the world over.

For our last adventure, my step-dad is a member of the Rotary Club in the States, so he tracked down a local meeting of Rotary International, and we joined them for a nice lunch in a restaurant on top of the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel. It had a great view. I’ll have to check that place out again.

All too soon it was time for him to head back to Alaska. But it was so great to have him here and to get a chance to get out and see some new bits of Reykjavik together.

 

1. A's first Halloween, Colorado 2010. 2. A and friend at the international department's Halloween party, Iceland 2016. 3. Me as Maleficent, Iceland 2016.

1. A’s first Halloween, Colorado 2010. 2. A and friend at the school’s Halloween party, Iceland 2016. 3. Me as Maleficent, Iceland 2016.

I’ve always liked Halloween, but I didn’t really do much about it for the fifteen or so years between graduating from high school and getting married. When we lived in Colorado I kind of missed it and was looking for a reason to dress up one year, so we bought tickets to a Halloween event at the Molly Brown House Museum and grabbed a couple cheap costumes, which was fun.

Even after we had A, we’ve expended varying amounts of effort but have mostly focused on him, of course. Some years we’ve pulled off coordinated family outfits. When we were in London, I don’t think we (the grown-ups) dressed up at all because there was so much going on, and there were so many kids, it didn’t really matter. Now that we’re at a smaller post, getting dressed up has more entertainment value.

And I’ve finally realized that I get surprisingly stressed out at children’s Halloween parties. Apparently I’m really protective of A because he got really scared and upset a couple times in London. They’re usually crowded with a ton of chaotic kid energy. And I HATE balloons…well, I hate them being popped in my face anyway. Maybe I should have a couple glasses of wine beforehand.

Last year, I think we did a pretty good job as a family. We were all Lego Avengers characters. A was Thor, N was Captain America, and I was the Statue of Liberty. But I’d gone cheap and used a mint green sheet instead of buying a costume…and it kept falling apart at the party. So this year, I made sure I ordered a good costume ahead of time, and I really enjoyed this one.

No real theme this year though…A wanted to be the Black Power Ranger, so we all just kind of picked something. I chose Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. The horns were the best. And my hubby wore a dog mask and a tweed jacket…a Dapper Dog, so to speak. He couldn’t wear it in the house though or Thorfinn would attack him.😉 So we’ll see what we can come up with next year.

I hope you all had a lovely Halloween!

The University of Oxford, UK.

The University of Oxford, England.

As you can imagine, being an office manager isn’t exactly neuroscience. So on occasion I try to find something more structured and educational to keep my brain from atrophying.

The last year we were in Belize, I was very excited about our impending move to London and discovered that the University of Oxford has a great distance learning program through their Department of Continuing Education. So I enrolled in an online course about Roman Britain.

It was a lot of fun to chat with the professor and other online students from all over the world, and it really opened my eyes to a period in British history that I hadn’t paid much attention to.

And when we lived there, it made my personal experience much richer being able to recognize and visit significant Roman sites around the country. Even a year after we left, I was thrilled to visit Hadrian’s Wall and Vindolanda Roman Fort while we were on R&R in Scotland and Northern England.🙂

I didn’t take any classes while we were in London since we were so busy, and I spent most of my spare home computer time researching things to do on the weekends in the city. But now that we’re in Reykjavik, and life is quite a bit quieter, I’ve enrolled in another class called “Vikings: Raiders, Traders and Settlers.”

It’s a perfect subject considering our current location in Iceland with its long association with Viking history and culture and the Old Norse language. And so far, I have not been disappointed!

If you’re interested in taking a class, you can see all the available courses on their website. They have over 150 available in everything from Microeconomics to Northern Renaissance Art to Ancient Egyptian Archaeology and Contemporary British Fiction.

It’s really easy to register. And you’ll get an email with your logon information and course information when it starts. The classes are all pass/fail, so there’s no pressure to get certain grades. Plus it’s fun to get a little transcript from one of the world’s oldest universities at the end.🙂

I’m very excited to report that I auditioned for and have joined a local women’s choir in Reykjavik! Woo hoo! I love to sing and really enjoyed being in the Rock Choir in London. Recording at Abbey Road Studios was obviously an amazing and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But as choirs go, I prefer something slightly more traditional.

The Rock Choir is great for people with no vocal experience as they don’t use any kind of sheet music…it’s just a page of lyrics, and you download the audio files from the internet. This kind of bugged me a little bit. Also, being a four-part male and female harmony, you only spent 1/4 of any given practice actually singing, and we rarely sang a single song all the way through.

Plus, as much as I love my boys at home, I needed some estrogen in my personal life. So I was thrilled to become part of an established women’s choir. Once a week, I get to spend a couple hours doing one of my favorite things with 120 wonderfully warm and welcoming ladies.

The practices are all conducted in Icelandic, so I rarely understand what’s being talked about. But I can follow the music easily enough. And the women have been so nice and will lean over and tell me anything truly important in English.

Although I think they find it slightly odd that I’m there at all. It’s a very tight knit group, as you can imagine. Iceland already has such a strong sense of community, and the choir itself has been around for 20 years with many of the same women (the average age is about 50). But they’ve all been truly kind, and I’m so happy that I found it.

They have a couple of performances during Christmas, a concert in the spring, and every other year they take a choir trip somewhere in Europe. This year they’re heading to Finland and Estonia. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I will be able to join them, and be part of their group, if only for two more years.

After being at post for a year, we finally got cable TV! I had been putting it off because I wanted us to spend more time outside and be more active…but that hasn’t really happened. Everyone just spends time on their personal electronics instead.

And I’ve missed having TV. We have one room that has a random satellite dish attached to it that receives 20 or so freeview channels from the UK, which is awesome. So when I want my TV fix, I usually watch that.

But I actually like watching local TV. For one thing, it really helps you with the language. And I think the programs they choose to air give some insight into the local culture. I’m also loving the diversity.

We signed up for “The World” package and get about 150 channels, most of which are in Icelandic. But there are also two Danish channels, two Swedish channels, three Norwegian channels, and about a dozen American channels…like the Food Network, E!, National Geographic, Nat Geo Wild and Animal Planet.

There’s an assortment of news stations in English, French, Icelandic and German; half a dozen kids channels in English and Icelandic; two very strange American movie channels that show 60s Westerns and other equally vague films; and something that’s slated as the Travel Channel but with a lot of ‘70s-era Michael Palin travelogues that never match the guide; with a few music video channels thrown in.

So there’s quite a bit of variety! And I like to think that my Icelandic is improving…between episodes of House Hunters and My Cat from Hell.😉 Just in time for the long winter.

Blue berry picking right outside of Reykjavik.

Blue berry picking right outside of Reykjavik.

We went berry picking a couple weeks ago with some friends from the embassy, which was something I haven’t done since I was a teenager. And obviously I’ve never been berry picking in Iceland and never for blue berries. I’m intentionally separating the two words since Icelandic blue berries are simply a small blue berry actually called aðalbláber or bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and not what we think of in the US as a blueberry (Vaccinium cyanococcus).

When I was growing up I loved picking berries in both Alaska (salmonberries) and California (blackberries). We never did anything fancy with them like make jam or pies…we would just grab a little pile and eat them…sometimes with ice cream.🙂

Happily they sell fairly large containers of American-style blueberries from Holland in the grocery stores for a ridiculous amount of money. But they taste so good and are so good for you. I think it’s worth it.

You can also pick crowberries in Iceland, which are slightly darker and not as sweet. You can buy a beautiful crowberry liqueur at the liquor stores and in tourist shops for about $25 USD that yields a whopping 200 ml (6.7 ounces) worth of liquid.

Blue berry season generally lasts from the beginning of August to mid-September. Sadly, we didn’t harvest that many berries on our day out…maybe about a cup’s worth…but it was great fun to get out with friends, it kept the kids interested for a decent interval, and it was nice to take part in an Icelandic family tradition.

Bilberries.

Bilberries.

Crowberries.

Crowberries.

That’s right, we gave it another shot. Last year, we’d been in town for barely a week, were still a bit jet lagged and staying in temp housing. We’d walked over from the apartment and were shocked by the amount of people crammed into one little Icelandic street…it was like a London block party. Apparently this is fairly normal for events in Iceland…pretty much everyone shows up.

We checked out some of the stalls then waited in a line of 20 people only to get to the front and find out that they didn’t take cash, and we needed to go find a ticket booth. We were pretty much hungry and cranky by then as we’d skipped lunch in lieu of a feast of bacon. So we called it quits and went and had hot dogs at the harbor.

THIS year, we planned it much more carefully. We went into town and filled up on sushi for lunch then wandered around for a couple of hours, went to the playground, etc., until the crowds died down and met some friends.

But the food was nothing like it was last year. Instead of amazing creations like Bacon Fudge, they had meat soup…with bacon…pizza…with bacon…fish…with a couple strips of bacon next to it. There was no art to it whatsoever. So I had some Lamb Tartare…with bacon…my hubby had some Thai food with bacon in the rice…and our son snacked on a couple strips.

I was happy to finally make a go of it. But I don’t think we’ll bother next year.

Bacon Festival minus the crowds.

Bacon Festival minus the crowds.

Thai food stand.

Thai food stand.

Lamb Tartare.

Lamb Tartare.

Thai food.

Thai food.

 

London

From there we went on to London where, again, we didn’t have much ambition to do tourist stuff, but we took care of some medical appointments at the embassy, got another girls’ night out, afternoon tea, and had a couple great playdates and a picnic in Hyde Park with friends we had before, and new friends we’d made in Iceland that had been recently posted to London.

Family picnic with friends in Hyde Park.

Lovely family picnic with friends in Hyde Park.

Afternoon tea at The Swan.

Midsummer Night’s Dream Afternoon Tea at The Swan.

Paris

I had been actually quite nervous about our trip to Paris after the attacks in Nice. And honestly probably would’ve cancelled that portion of the trip, if I could’ve done so easily. But I could not and tried to proceed with as little trepidation as possible. I think it helped that I was completely distracted by the tummy bug that I’d picked up in London that kept me running to the bathroom all night and worrying about whether or not I’d be able to get on a plane! But the travel meds worked, and we jetted over to France without incident.

We spent the first two days making leisurely use of the hop-on-hop-off bus system and making a bee line for the Eiffel Tower but seeing some great sites on the way. We made a special stop at my favorite chapel of Ste. Chapelle, and A was super good and didn’t make much noise at all. We’ve had to whisk him out of quiet places in the past as he won’t stop talking in the loudest voice possible.

The antique carousel across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.

The antique carousel across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.

Inside the high chapel at Ste. Chapelle on the Île de la Cité.

Inside the high chapel in Ste. Chapelle on the Île de la Cité.

We also tried to do some special things for him like getting treats at the patisseries, visiting the fun fair in the Jardin des Tuileries next to the Louvre, and spending some time at the boating lake in the Jardin du Luxembourg. He only had one little meltdown when he was really tired and had walked quite a bit…and laid down on the floor in front of the register at one of the patisseries when we told him he had to wait to get home to eat his treat. Being a kid is SO tough, isn’t it??

Boating on the lake in the Jardin des Tuileries.

Boating on the lake in the Jardin des Tuileries.

Pâtisserie Gosselin around the corner from our rental.

Pâtisserie Gosselin around the corner from our rental.

My hubby also wanted to visit the Louvre, so we shoved our way through the crowds to the Mona Lisa. Actually it wasn’t really that bad. We went fairly early in the morning and the rest of the museum was quite pleasantly uncrowded. I had read that there’s a special “tactile” exhibit for seeing impaired and for children that you can touch.

Unfortunately the room was quite small and hot with hardly any pieces in it. So A was much more excited about getting to take pictures throughout the museum with his little point-and-shoot camera. And the sweetest part was that the last 20 or so photos that he took were all of me and my hubby just walking around. Love that boy.

That wraps up the blog posts on our first big family R&R! Hope you enjoyed it half as much as we did!

A taking photos at the Louvre.

A taking photos at the Louvre.

 

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