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).

Four of the 13 Yule Lads (photo courtesy of www.northiceland.is)

Four of the 13 Yule Lads (photo courtesy of http://www.northiceland.is)

As I’ve mentioned before, Nordic countries have a slightly darker history when it comes to the Santa Claus myth. The Icelandic Santas aren’t really one guy…they’re 13 Yule Lads or jólasveinar that come down from the mountains and cause trouble for a couple weeks starting 13 days before Christmas.

They are the offspring of two trolls: Grýla and Leppalúð. Gryla is no slouch herself and likes to boil bad children and eat them. Part of the tradition is that kids are supposed to put a shoe in the window and the visiting lad will put some kind of gift in it, if they’ve been good…or a rotten potato, if they’ve been bad.

Last year A was too afraid of them to entertain the idea of them creeping around the house. This year I didn’t bring it up because the kid’s already getting a ton of stuff for Xmas, the last thing he needs is 13 MORE gifts.

But the school was all abuzz yesterday with news of who got what in their shoe. A actually took it quite well and took full responsibility for being passed over because he forgot to put his shoe in the window…bless him.

So last night he got the full treatment. Snowboot in the window. And an Oreo on the plate for Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) who hides in gullies waiting for an opportunity to steal milk. Unfortunately, Giljagaur DID come, and A realized it out about 1:00am…burst into our bedroom to tell us about it…and was too excited to go back to sleep for another hour.

Needless to say that when 6:30am rolled around, I did not understand nor appreciate the pile of empty milk containers on the dining room table that my hubby had painstakingly arranged.

So maybe no tell-tale cookie tonight. We’ll see how we fare with Stúfur (Stubby) who steals pans to eat the crust left on them. Maybe he’ll do me a favor and take any dirty dishes as well.

A pre-performance rehearsal.

A pre-performance rehearsal.

Things have been going really well with the women’s choir that I joined. I still don’t speak much Icelandic, so I Google translate all the group emails and postings on Facebook. And if I don’t understand what’s being said at practice, and it seems important, I’ll ask the woman sitting next to me. And they’ve continued to be so welcoming and accommodating. It really has been a lovely experience being part of their group.

This first “semester” has been focused on holiday music and culminated in two concerts at a local church called Guðríðarkirkja (Gudrid’s Church) in eastern Reykjavik. I got a kick out of the name as one of the books I’d read before we arrived was titled Gudrid, the Far Traveler about the Viking explorer Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir.

According to Wikipedia, “She appears in the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, known collectively as the Vinland sagas. Along with her husband Þorfinnur Karlsefni, they led an expedition to Vinland where they begat their son Snorri Þorfinnsson, the first European born in the Americas outside of Greenland.”

And the church actually was named after her because “after the death of her husband, Guðríður sailed to Rome to become a Pilgrim and later she became a nun. According to the Sagas, she was a very passionate woman and very religious” (TripCreator.com). It isn’t a fancy old-fashioned European church. In fact it’s rather square and modern, but it has fabulous acoustics.

Interior view of the church.

Interior view of the church.

The Icelandic songs were definitely challenging! We sang about fourteen songs altogether; one was in Spanish (“Ave Maria”), three were in English (“Mary’s Boy Child”, “It’s Beginning to Look at Lot Like Christmas”, and “Please Come Home for Christmas”)…and the rest were all in Icelandic. I’d like to say that I was able to memorize all the lyrics, but I wasn’t. I’d say I could remember about 30% of them. The rest of the time I listened very closely and mimicked the director’s mouth as he formed the words. But I was able to remember all the music! And that’s the really important part. 🙂

And I can honestly say it was one of the few truly Icelandic moments I’ve had since being here. Surrounded by a bunch of Icelandic women, singing Icelandic Christmas songs to a predominantly Icelandic audience.

After the final performance, we had a little celebration and had some yummy snacks and a few glasses of wine. The women around me were super thoughtful and spoke in English, so that I’d be part of the conversation. I can honestly say that joining the choir was a fantastic decision, and I’m really looking forward to starting up again next semester.

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