Posted in Iceland

Bidding Iceland? Pros & Cons

Map of Iceland by Giraffarte at Dreamstime.com.

Bidding for the 2019 Summer transfer season is quickly approaching. We’re not on that cycle, so I’m not overly focused on it, but I thought I’d give my two cents on the Pros & Cons for folks that might be considering throwing their hat into the ring for a tour at Embassy Reykjavik.

Pros

  1. It’s Iceland!! And Iceland is really popular right now. So friends that might not have come to visit you yet might do it now! Icelandair is still running their free stopover program that started in the 1960s (!) and really took off in the 2000s. So you can either stop there at no cost on your way to Europe or go directly on Icelandair or on their discount airline, WOW, which has some pretty decent fares. Both are adding new US destinations all the time. From the East Coast it’s only a 5-hour flight, depending on your departure point. And some Icelandair flights even simulate an aurora for passengers with colored cabin lights on night flights. 🙂
  1. Housing – All the housing that was in our housing pool was amazing. Most commutes were under 20 minutes. Some folks lived in larger houses in the suburbs, which still weren’t very far away, and others lived in apartments downtown…most with sea views. Our house was 15-mins from the embassy, had two stories, a basement, a fenced backyard, a garage, and two solariums. And it bordered a park where we walked our dog every day. Some folks even had saunas and hot tubs. It was awesome!
  1. Proximity to Mainland Europe – There’s not much in the way of Baroque architecture or 1,000-year-old castles, but Iceland is still part of Europe and has a long and interesting Viking history and Nordic culture. For a small capital city with only 200,000 people in the metro area (London had 13 million), it has an impressive amount of international cafes and restaurants. Even though flights to mainland Europe weren’t always as short and cheap as I would’ve liked, it just depended on your destination. You could get to Edinburgh in two hours, where Athens took the better part of a day. But they’re still shorter and cheaper than coming from the US!
  1. Family Friendly – Icelanders don’t love kids the way Italians love kids, but they trust them, and they trust other people. So it’s a very safe society where children are allowed to run around and be themselves without being micromanaged by the government. They actually do leave their babies in the stroller outside the restaurant or café when they’re inside…without fearing a visit from Child Protective Services. And it’s a very active society, so you can get your kids out in nature instead of being glued to the electronics.
  1. Nature – I could follow this point with no words and a few hundred pictures of how gorgeous the landscape is (do a Google image search on “Iceland nature”). But I’ll try to keep it somewhat brief. Waterfalls, glaciers, ice bergs, hot springs, black sand beaches, basalt columns, geysers, auroras, snow, volcanoes, lupine, puffins, whales, swans, horses, seals, sheep, reindeer, arctic fox, and every outdoor sport you could possibly imagine.

 

Jack Nicholson’s character at the end of “The Shining.”

Cons

  1. Climate – Twenty hours of daylight/darkness…whichever you like least. I loved the dark winter…it’s cozy and cuddly and promotes great sleep. But I hated waking up at 3am in the summer to go to the bathroom and being blinded by the sun, then tossing and turning for hours because your body now thinks it’s time to get up. Some people hate the cold or the rain. If so, don’t bid on Iceland! I love the snow, so I would actually put climate in the “pros.” 🙂
  1. Isolation – Like the daylight/darkness, this might bother some people more than others. I think it might be easier for families that are naturally plugged into certain social structures like schools or churches. We had a very small Embassy staff and still had two people curtail…both were single women. A lot of local folks are related to each other and already have all the friends and family that they need, so it can be a tough society to break into. It can also create a bit of a pressure-cooker effect. If you have any personal issues that need dealing with, Iceland can blow them wide open…again, that also might be a good thing.
  1. Island Time – Even though it was an island in the North Atlantic and not the Caribbean, no one was particularly in a hurry to get things done. I suppose some people might view this as a positive thing, but it could get a little frustrating if you actually wanted to accomplish something. It took a repair guy over six months to fix a tile he had broken in the solarium floor when looking for a leaky pipe. He would never email us or take our calls, but he would show up unexpectedly at the house at dinner time, and if we didn’t let him in right at that moment, we wouldn’t see him again for months. Which leads to my next point…
  1. Communication – Three weeks into the school year, the local school was still making changes to the class schedule. Many people that were invited to embassy events would never RSVP; they would just show up…or not. Half the time our business contacts would simply not respond to email. Word of mouth was a big thing, so if you weren’t in the loop, you just didn’t hear about things. It once took me three months to pay a bill for having my car detailed because no one would return my calls or emails to tell me how much it was.
  1. It’s REALLY expensive. More expensive than London if you take out housing and just compare the cost of living…particularly restaurants and alcohol. And things like hotels, parking and admission to the Blue Lagoon increased even in the two years that we were there to take advantage of the booming tourist economy. The Blue Lagoon now scales the price throughout the day according to how busy it is during the hour that you want to arrive. But it’s still cheaper than living in DC and paying for your own housing!

So those are my thoughts! Iceland will always have a special place in my heart. Half way through our tour another 18 months seemed like a really long time. But in the end it went so fast, and we had a hard time letting it go.

Best of luck!!

Posted in Belgium, Iceland, WashingtonDC

Life in Limbo

A winter’s day in Reykjavik, Dec 31, 2017.

So…2018 seems to have started off with a bang. Things have changed significantly in our lives since my last post. In the middle of January we were medevaced back to DC for what I thought was going to be a couple of weeks of counselling for my son. So I packed a single bag for A and I to share, put the dog in a kennel, and one of our co-workers agreed to watch and feed our cat at the house.

Well, things haven’t quite gone as planned. A couple weeks has turned into a month, and we’ve been informed that A is going to need extensive therapy…probably for the next year, and that we need to start immediately.

So we’re currently on extended medical leave and will not be returning to Reykjavik to finish our tour. Before the taxpayers get nervous, don’t worry…I’m not getting paid to not work. I’m blowing through the two months of sick leave that I’ve accumulated over the last seven years.

I found out officially on Friday that he will not be cleared to go to Brussels this summer. So after months of waiting for the handshake…it arrived today via email, and I had to turn it down.

I am so utterly disappointed and still trying to process our abrupt change in circumstances. BUT I know that we will get through this eventually. Assuming I stay with State until I retire, I still have a good 20 years left in the Foreign Service, so I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to get out and about again (knock on wood). And the important thing is to get my kiddo the care that he needs.

For now we’re working on refocusing our lives here. The folks at Embassy Reykjavik have been absolutely fantastic and supportive. They helped me ship the dog here last week, and our Management Officer even brought the cat over as accompanied baggage on her way to training to save us some money. They’ve found our spare keys and moved our cars from the short-term parking to more secure locations.

I was hoping we could get a UAB shipment with some more clothes and toys, but apparently we have to wait until we officially change posts for that to happen. So we’re making due with what we have…plus a few extra toys from Target.

We have to find a school for A so he can finish second grade. Since this was originally going to be a short trip, I didn’t bring his birth certificate or any of his school or immunization records that he’d need to register. But I was able to reach out to his school in Reykjavik and to the medical office at Embassy London, and they all sent me his records electronically, which was awesome.

Happily I had done quite a bit of research on DC when I thought we were being posted here at the end of last summer. Guess I should’ve hung on to that FSI position after all! But I’m sure something will work out, and we’ll be settled in a few months.

But I will truly miss Iceland. At times it felt like three years was too long to live in such a quiet place. But I hated to leave so abruptly…without being able to say a proper good-bye to all of our friends or visit our favorite restaurants one last time. Maybe catch one more aurora or a good snow storm or swim in a hot spring.

Ironically it’s pretty much been snowing the entire time since we left. Figures! Meanwhile it was 66F here in DC yesterday. I guess I will just have to keep my fingers crossed that we’ll get one good Mid-Atlantic dumping before the end of winter.

In the meantime we’ve tried to get out and see the sites and not make things all about the medical appointments. We’ve been to the Air & Space Museum, the National Zoo, and there was a pretty cool traveling dinosaur exhibition at the armory the other day. And we have some great current and potential friends that are posted here. So we shall keep our heads up and make it feel like home eventually.

Posted in Belgium, Iceland

Hello 2018!

Reykjavik’s insane annual fireworks (photo courtesy of NordicVisitor.com).

Happy New Year, everyone! Well, 2018 is in full swing, and it hasn’t been too bad so far. 😉 We had a very nice and quiet Christmas holiday. My hubby and I usually split the childcare duties when it comes to school breaks, so I took a few days off and had the whole week of Christmas at home.

We watched a few movies, played some games, and pretty much just chilled in our pajamas all week. But I did manage to do a few things over the holiday season that I’d been meaning to but hadn’t quite gotten around to over the last couple of years…like attend A’s school Xmas bazaar, visit the Xmas market in Hafnarfjörður, and the Reykjavik botanical garden in the snow. We also had a lovely Xmas Eve get-together with some embassy friends and got in a rare date night with a performance by the Hallgrimskirkja choir.

Marshmallow snowmen at the school Xmas bazaar.
Hafnarfjordur Xmas Market.

Speaking of performances, we were super excited to watch A actually participate in his first school performance on a real stage…and he did such a great job! Last year, at the ripe old age of six, he refused to participate and sat on my lap in the audience while his class sang songs on stage. This year his class did a short skit about Santa, complete with three-page script. Not only did he remember all of his lines as Elf #1, but he was prompting his classmates as well…whether they wanted him to or not. 😉

We also had the annual staff families Xmas party at the embassy. My hubby has a knack for interior design and, as CLO, spent a couple days decorating the embassy and setting up for the party. The whole place looked so festive and lovely! He had some fun crafts set up, and the kids decorated cookies and made classic ornaments out of beads and pipe cleaners. Then we had a visit from two of the 13 Icelandic Santas and danced around the Xmas tree according to Icelandic tradition. As much as he loves dancing, A does not like to dance around the tree…apparently he finds it repetitive and “a waste of time.”

A’s class doing their Santa skit.
Dancing around the tree at the embassy party.

Other than that, he was in a fairly good mood this holiday season…all things considered. I thought he might not want to watch Xmas movies, or maybe he’d take every opportunity to point out that Santa wasn’t real. But for the most part things were business as usual, which made me happy.

Since we were home, we figured it would also be a good time to knock out another two birds, so to speak, and had Thorfinn neutered…or “castrated” as they like to put it here. This way we could keep an eye on him all week and make sure he recovered well. We had picked up some lovely Xmas ornaments in London over Thanksgiving, and one of them looked quite a bit like the dog. So A suggested we give it a cone, so they could match. Ah, the holidays.

Thorfinn and his sympathetic ornament.
Reykjavik Botanic Garden in the snow.

Looking back, 2017 was a pretty good year. We had a gorgeous winter storm in February (yes, I actually do consider that a highlight 🙂 ), and A had his first real day of learning to ski. Thorfinn appeared in his first set of Icelandic dog shows. We got some great international travel in to Prague, Rome, Venice and London…and some good local travel up to the Arctic Circle and the Westfjords. And we had a ton of visitors, which also makes me happy. 🙂

2018 will be a big year of change for us as we head back to the States for home leave and on to Brussels to see what our next adventure entails. I don’t really have any resolutions…just to survive the impending move. I’d love to lose some weight, as always…and have told myself that I can buy a designer dress for the Marine Ball if I lose 60 lbs between now and November…lol. I’m also starting an online class next week about the history of Art Nouveau in Europe, which has a fun chapter on Belgium. So we’ve got some projects in the works. We shall see how it goes!! Best wishes to all!

Posted in Iceland

The Death of Santa

Santa shot by hunter.

We killed Santa this year. And I’m surprisingly depressed about it.

Our seven-year-old son has been asking questions about Santa for years, and we’ve always played them off with noncommittal responses or drawn from themes in classic stories. Q: How does Santa fit down the chimney? A: Christmas magic. Q: How many reindeer does Santa have? A: Eight plus Rudolph. Q: Is Santa real? A: What do you think?

But lately our son’s questions have become much more focused and elaborate, and I’ve found myself having to come up with creative responses that felt like an outright lie. I was starting to wonder if he suspected the truth and was pushing for a straight answer.

I started reading about the best way to break the bad news to your kids. There were some cute ideas online, but some of them involved stringing along an even more complex lie than the idea of Santa Claus actually existing.

His daddy had talked to him off and on over the last couple weeks about how he believed that Santa was a spirit…the spirit of Christmas, of giving and kindness and joy. That Santa was based on a real person named St. Nicholas that cared very much for children. Our son later pulled me aside and whispered conspiratorially, “Daddy doesn’t believe that Santa’s real, but we do.”

A friend suggested a letter approach that had worked well for them a few years back. I was thinking over the possibility on Tuesday morning as I drove A to school when he suddenly asked me, “Mommy, if we left on an adventure to find Santa’s house, could we?”

My mind went blank, and all I could think of was telling him the truth. I heard myself saying, “No, baby, I think you’re old enough to know…”

I heard him fall back heavily against the car seat. He didn’t cry. For a moment he didn’t speak. And then he let me have it. A long litany of accusations…how we’d lied to him the whole time…and how “embarrassing!” that he’d believed us. And why did I have to tell him now??? Couldn’t I have waited until after Christmas??

I rallied and told him all the wonderfully encouraging things I’d read about Santa and the Christmas spirit. His reply, “You said Santa is like a spirit. So when you’re giving me presents and writing ‘From Santa’ what? Are you possessed by Santa?”

I felt awful. Surprisingly, he seemed to recover fairly quickly. We checked in with his school, and they said his day had been fine…nothing out of the ordinary. When Daddy picked him up at the end of the day, they talked about it a bit, and he said he wasn’t really too upset anymore. And he seemed to be his genuinely enthusiastic self when I came home from work…showing me a new scrape that he’d picked up on the playground.

But the horrible overwhelmingly sad feeling hasn’t left me. Maybe it’s because this is just one more major milestone that my son will pass as he leaves his childhood behind. Maybe it’s the fact that Santa will never be “real” in our home again.

Or maybe, if we want to get into some serious psychotherapy, it’s because my mom died 16 days after our first Christmas in Iceland. Our second Christmas in Iceland was our first one without her. Now, on our third and final Christmas in Iceland, I’m supposed to deal with the death of Santa. I’m honestly not sure if I can.

Posted in Iceland

Date Night!

The hubby and I don’t get out for date nights nearly as often as we should. On Saturday night A’s school had a fun drop-off event for the younger kids as a fundraiser for the older ones. For 3,500 ISK (about $35), some students from the higher grades watched the kids for four hours, let them play and watch a movie, and fed them something my son described as noodles and ketchup. I assume it was pasta and red sauce, but with teenagers in charge, anything is possible. 😉

By a lovely coincidence, the choir at Hallgrimskirkja was giving their Christmas performance at the same time. So we were thrilled to drop A off at the school and cruise over to the church for an evening of Icelandic Christmas music.

The choir at Hallgrimskirkja (photo from the Mótettukór Hallgrímskirkju FB page).

Afterward we braved the cold streets of Reykjavik and did a bit of pub hopping. We were going to grab a bite at ROK, a cute little restaurant with a turf roof across from the church, but they were booked for the next two hours. So we ventured off the main drag onto a side street looking for a quieter venue.

We eventually came across a cozy-looking place called Smakkbarinn on Klapparstígur that was warm and inviting and had some appealing winter holiday decor. And it was a perfect choice. The customer service was fantastic, very attentive and friendly. We had a couple of Viking Christmas beers and ordered six tapas to share.

Sharing some tapas…pictured are fish fritters, duck breast and pork belly with Viking Christmas beer. Yum!

We still had some time to kill before pick up, so we strolled along and popped into the Chuck Norris Grill on Laugavegur, because they also had Christmas beers on tap, and it’s fun to read the sayings on the wall. Like: CHUCK NORRIS HAS A BEAR SKIN RUG IN HIS LIVING ROOM. THE BEAR ISN’T DEAD, IT’S AFRAID TO MOVE.

After that we finished up our date night with a floodlit stroll through the public sculpture garden behind the Einar Jonsson museum. The air was frosty, but the stars were out, there was no wind, and the company was excellent. So it was an absolutely wonderful way to spend a gorgeous evening.

“Skuld” (Fate) by Einar Jónsson in the public sculpture garden behind his museum.
Posted in Belgium, Iceland

Trying Not to Get Too Excited

Bruges, Belgium.

We have another two months before we even get an official handshake, and some do say in the FS that no post is truly certain until you’re on the plane. So I acknowledge that things can still change between now and this summer. But I did have to submit A’s school admissions application this month to secure a place for him next year, and that has made the whole Brussels thing a lot more real.

And what an amazing school it is too! In Belize we had a super sweet nanny who came to our house, adored A, and was fantastic with him. In London, we picked a nursery that was as close as we could come to affordable and near the embassy. So it was small and worn, but it served its purpose. Here in Iceland, we followed the crowd to whichever of the two international schools the rest of the embassy folks were going to, and we’ve enjoyed it. It’s cute and quirky and has around 200 kids in it.

But Brussels…OMG Brussels. We queried half a dozen schools there and were only approved for the one that could offer him the 1:1 ADHD support that MED is requiring for us. But what a school it is. It is five times bigger than his current school with over 1,000 children on a 15-acre campus. It’s practically a university! It has its own swimming pool, gymnastics arena, dance studio, fitness room and sports hall. To say I am impressed with the facilities is an understatement. We’re making a special trip out to Brussels in the spring to meet the staff, tour the school and discuss any special education requirements they would like to put in place for A next year.

I’m also excited about Brussels in general. At one point, I was convinced that we were going to be posted to Paris, and I was thrilled that I’d just passed the language test and was going to get to use some French. So when we didn’t get Paris, I was pretty disappointed.

But I will still get to use some French and think Brussels will be even better for the following reasons:

  • I lived in France in my 20s and have never been to Belgium, so it’s somewhere new and exciting for both of us.
  • Belgium also has other awesome towns to visit like Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges. So we’ll have all kinds of fun Flemish and French culture and history to explore.
  • It’s in a great location in Europe…only 2 hours from London on the Eurostar (we couldn’t have picked a closer post), three hours from Paris, and shares a border with France, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg.
  • It’s smaller and more manageable. The metro area has a population of only 2 million, which is 1/6 the size either Paris or London.
  • The housing is better. (Apparently most folks in Paris are housed in tiny old characterless US military barracks from the 1960s, which are fairly unappealing.)
  • As stated above, the school is amazing!!

Keeping our fingers crossed that everything stays on track!

Posted in Iceland

Icelandic Nativity Set

One of the fun things about being in the Foreign Service is, of course, buying cool local items and souvenirs. My nick-knack cabinet is getting a little full, so I’ve actually tried to cut back on the bric-a-brac, but have recently discovered an entire series of items that I might have to start collecting: local nativity sets.

Until today, I’ve never actually owned a nativity set. Without getting all religious on you, I grew up believing that the nativity is at the center of Christmas beliefs and traditions, and after 20 years of kind of doing my own thing, I am circling back around to a firmer commitment to those beliefs. So it is a lot more meaningful to me this year than it has been in decades past.

Also this year, I saw an FB post by a bunch of Foreign Service folks about the nativity sets that they’ve collected all around the world. Some of them were fairly standard for what you’d see in the States. Others were amazing arrays of local craftsmanship and materials from every possible continent. So I felt that this would be a good time to buy my first local nativity set.

So here they are, both of them, because I couldn’t decide on which one to get. The first one is a local set handmade out of Icelandic wool that was exactly what I was looking for.

Icelandic wool nativity set. (Photo found on Pinterest)

And here is the other one…probably imported from the States and made in China from cheap resin. But it made me smile, and is a perfect reminder of my time spent in Alaska and my love of all things polar. 🙂

At the moment, they’re both still in a bag in bubble wrap, so I’m posting identical photos I found of them on the internet.

Arctic Nativity. (Photo found on Pinterest.)