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.

 

Edinburgh

My hubby and I had both been to Edinburgh before, so we didn’t have a huge amount of local tourist sites on the list. So the first day he showed me a few of his favorite haunts, such as the Italian place that serves Haggis Ravioli, and we visited the castle with our son.

My big motivation for Edinburgh was two day trips to places (which were actually across the border in England) that had been on my bucket list since we lived in London…Lindisfarne, the first place the Vikings sacked when they arrived in England in 793, and Hadrian’s Wall, a 73-mile-long wall built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD. They were both well worth the trip.

And I was equally excited for two additional locations that were included in the tours…Alnwick Castle where they filmed several scenes from the Harry Potter movies and had the cutest “Broom Training” activity for kids and parents, and Vindolanda Roman Fort that I’d read quite a lot about in my Roman Britain online class from Oxford in Belize. Bonus!!

Approaching Alnwick Castle.

Approaching Alnwick Castle.

The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory.

The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory.

A view of Hadrian's Wall.

A view of Hadrian’s Wall and the English countryside.

The active excavation at Vindolanda Roman Fort.

The active excavation at Vindolanda Roman Fort.

A few Roman souvenirs. ;)

A few Roman souvenirs.😉

Inverness

This was another spot that I’d visited before, but I hadn’t really explored much. So we rented a car from the airport and spent a week checking things out. We drove along Loch Ness to Urquhart Castle, took the funicular railway up Cairngorm Mountain for a bit of Highland hiking, drove through the whisky valley and stopped at a couple distilleries and the Walker shortbread factory for small tastings, and visited the Culloden battlefield.

We also attended the Inverness Highland Games, which were surprisingly unexciting compared to the enthusiastic versions in the States. It felt more like a community college sports day with a shocking lack of whisky on offer.😉 If you get a chance, I recommend the ones in Orlando, Florida, and Estes Park, Colorado. The one at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina is also on my bucket list.

Urquhart Castle and the Fraser Clan marker at Culloden Battlefield.

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness and the Fraser Clan marker at Culloden Battlefield.

A bit of hiking in the Highlands at Cairngorm Mountain.

A bit of hiking in the Highlands on Cairngorm Mountain.

The caber toss at the Inverness Highland Games.

The caber toss at the Inverness Highland Games.

A wee dram at the Glenfarclas Distillery.

A wee dram at the Glenfarclas Distillery.

Other than one near-death experience in the car, this portion of the trip was lovely and relaxing. And my hubby was fantastic…he did all the driving (I loathe driving on the left) and cooked big Scottish breakfasts every morning with lots of sausage and black pudding. I think we’d all be happy to go back to Scotland at any time!

As promised here’s a more detailed post about our fabulous first big family R&R!

Accommodation:

When we weren’t staying with friends, we booked all of our accommodation through booking.com, and it worked out really well. Since we didn’t have to pay for our major transportation legs, we splurged on the housing, and we got some really neat places. Like this awesome vacation rental in Edinburgh with a view of the castle. We also had a lovely little apartment near the river in Inverness. And in Paris we had a great place just a few blocks from the Louvre that had a café and convenience store across the street and a patisserie, pharmacy and ATM around the corner.

Edinburgh Castle View Apartment.

Edinburgh Castle View Apartment.

The only place we did NOT like was the Premiere Inn County Hall in London. The UK was in the middle of a heat wave when we arrived, and this hotel was one of the many that did not have AC. So our room was hot and stuffy, which made it impossible to sleep. We had a triple room, but the room itself was so small, that if my hubby had his suitcase open, I had to open mine in the bathroom. So we checked out after one night, and they were kind enough to reimburse us 3 of our 4 unused nights, and we moved around the corner to the Park Plaza and (after asking for a room with a view) got a much bigger room with AC and a stunning view of the London Eye. No complaints there!

View of the London Eye from the Park Plaza County Hall.

View of the London Eye from the Park Plaza County Hall.

Freckleton/Blackpool

Our first stop on our trip was a tiny town called Freckleton where one of my awesome girlfriend’s lives with her husband and daughter. We didn’t have much on the itinerary at that point except spending some quality time and visiting, which we accomplished! And we still managed a girls’ night out and a trip to the pier in Blackpool where the five-year-old got ridiculously lucky and actually managed to snag a stuffed toy out of one of those rigged grabby machines on his first try. We were almost as stunned and excited as he was! As always, we were sad to say good-bye.

Kids cuddling in Freckleton. :)

Kids cuddling in Freckleton.🙂

Broom training at Alnwick Castle, England.

Broom training at Alnwick Castle, England.

Sorry I’ve been offline for so long, but I have a good excuse! We’ve been on our first big State Dept Family R&R. R&R stands for Rest and Recuperation, and your eligibility is based on where you’re posted. Hardship posts usually get one or two, but zero hardship posts do not.

So we had one R&R during our two years in Belize and used it to go back to the States for Xmas in 2012. London had no R&R because it’s awesome, and you don’t need one. Iceland is only 5% hardship but still gets two R&Rs in three years due to its isolation and long dark winters.

You have to use your own vacation leave and pay for all of your expenses, but State will pay for your plane tickets to the States, your designated R&R location (Iceland’s is Rome), or you can cost construct your own trip. If it’s less than the cost of a ticket to your designated R&R location, you’re in the clear. If it’s more, you pay the difference.

For our first Grand Family R&R we were originally going to do Greece and Italy, but it didn’t quite work out. So we opted to head back to the UK and hit some of the spots we’d missed that were on the bucket list when we lived there. We also had some friends we wanted to visit. So our R&R looked like this:

  • Flew into Manchester, visited friends and had a girls’ night in Freckleton, then went to the pier in Blackpool.
  • Took the train to Edinburgh, spent a day in town, then did day trips across the English border to Alnwick Castle & Lindisfarne Priory, and Hadrian’s Wall & Vindolanda Roman Fort.
  • Took the train to Inverness, checked out the town, went to the Highland Games, rented a car and drove to Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle, visited Culloden Battlefield, took the funicular up and hiked around Cairngorm Mountain, visited a couple whisky distilleries and the Walkers shortbread factory.
  • Flew to London, visited friends, had a girl’s night, afternoon tea, playdates and picnics in Hyde Park, went to the embassy medical unit for doctors’ appointments, did a bit of supply and clothing shopping for A and mailed it all back to Iceland.
  • Flew to Paris, did a two-day hop-on-hop-off bus tour, visited the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Saint-Chapelle chapel, visited the fun fair in the Tuilerie Gardens, sailed toy boats on the pond in the Luxembourg Gardens, ate pastries and drank French beer with lemon syrup and relaxed in the outdoor cafés.🙂

We booked all of our accommodations through Booking.com and were only disappointed once (Premiere Inn County Hall in London) and moved hotels the next day. But the rest of the time we stayed in vacation rental apartments, and they were all fantastic. Photos and details to follow!!

Viking Village restaurant.

Viking Village restaurant.

I’ve been looking forward to attending the Hafnarfjörður Viking Festival since we arrived. So I must have built it up quite a bit in my mind. Not quite sure what I was expecting…something bigger, I guess. It was still cute, but the whole thing was basically a bunch of tents set up in a parking lot next to a Viking-themed restaurant.

And the atmosphere was kind of bizarre. There were people that were nice and friendly and happy to show you what they had set up in their tent. But there were also a few people that gave you the impression that you were trespassing on their role playing day.

I was hoping that A would participate in the kids’ Viking battle since he had no hesitation whatsoever running out into a field of strangers at Hever Castle when he was 3. But this time he refused and said he was shy. I don’t know if it’s an age thing…he’s just a little more self-aware now that he’s 5, or if it’s a direct result of being in groups of kids for the last year that only speak Icelandic.

We also missed the adult Viking battle if there was one. But it was fun to see all the great crafts. Lots of leather and furs and handmade jewelry, wood fires and animals cooking on spits. A participated in a couple fun games…fishing and archery. He acknowledged that archery was a lot harder in real life than on the Wii and never hit the target…but that also might have been because they wouldn’t let him get any closer than 30 feet.

Everyone working was dressed up and a few of the patrons were as well. I wore my winter boots with the faux fur trim, a long brown shirt, brown pants and a faux fur vest. So I felt slightly authentic. Got some weird looks from the locals though. So I wasn’t sure how to take that. Maybe you’re only supposed to dress up if you’re working. A wore his Thor costume from Halloween and got some attention for that as well.

I did get a really cool souvenir though. One guy was selling random things that he collected around Scandinavia, and one of them was a candleholder made from reindeer antler in Sweden in 1969. So I guess I’m continuing to add to my mid-century art collection.

The other thing that I really enjoyed was the Viking-themed restaurant. They’re actually open all year round. The menu wasn’t terribly authentic with hamburgers and fish and chips. But they were good! You could get a really small and really expensive cup of mead. And they did have rotten shark, sheep’s head and horse available.

They’re usually open for dinner throughout the year and supposedly have live entertainment most nights and a special buffet around Christmas time. So I might have to add that to my list of places to drag people when they come visit…if they’re into a bit of Viking kitsch. For a really authentic experience, you can arrange to be kidnapped by Vikings between 18:00 and 20:30.😉

Pigs on spits.

Animals on spits.

Woman selling handmade games and jewelry.

Woman selling handmade games and jewelry.

Kids getting ready for a battle.

Kids getting ready for a battle.

Lupines near Strokkur geyser.

Lupines near Strokkur geyser.

School’s out for summer! A wrapped up his last day of Kindergarten a little over a week ago, and it’s going to be a busy couple of months. Iceland has a lot of working parents, so they have a ton of summer day camps and programs for kids. I was fairly frustrated a couple months ago as I couldn’t find anything suitable for A’s age. We’re going on three weeks of R&R in July, but we still needed care for June and August. So we went ahead and hired a nanny for a month. And it’s working out really well.

A friend at Embassy London suggested that many of the interns aren’t in a hurry to go home and that it might be a fun opportunity for them. So we spoke to a couple, and even though schedules weren’t initially lining up, one recommended her sister who is a college student in the States. We chatted via email, got our job descriptions sorted out, and picked her up at the airport at the beginning of June.

Thankfully, everything’s going really well! She’s really patient and down to earth, and she and A get along nicely. It’s such a relief! The irony is that suddenly I’m finding all kinds of camps for A, so I guess it was meant to be. And he can still do some fun things in August without us having to stay home with him.

In the meantime, summer is looking great on Iceland! The lawns and fields are covered with buttercups and lupine. And the dandelions are just starting to pop fuzz. We drove around the Golden Circle on Saturday, and there were baby animals everywhere. So here’re a few more of my favorite recent photos of Iceland in summer.

Calves at Efstidalur farm hotel.

Calves at Efstidalur farm hotel.

Rainbow over Gullfoss waterfall.

Rainbow over Gullfoss waterfall.

Foal near Strokkur geyser.

Foal near Strokkur geyser.

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