I belong to a few groups on Facebook. Some are for women’s issues, some for Foreign Service employees, a couple for the choir I’m currently in, one for parental advice, and a super cute one made by our dog breeder for all the people that adopted her eight puppies.

Being in a group can be extremely helpful and practical. Anyone who’s been in a group can probably also attest to the fact that not all groups are that way, and certainly not all of the people in them.

After our first school year in Iceland, I was trying to figure out child care for our son for the summer as my hubby and I both worked. Subsidized summer camps are an extremely popular option.

For the most part, you don’t need to learn Icelandic to live here, most people speak English. That said, they are a very proud, homogeneous community and, from what I’ve seen, don’t have many support programs in place for non-Icelandic residents. So all the information I was coming across, and the summer camps themselves, were conducted in Icelandic. Most local kids haven’t learned much in the way of English yet. Our son is a fairly brave kid, but I thought he might find it frustrating if he spent three months in camps where he couldn’t communicate.

Still being new, I had recently joined an FB group called “Away from Home – Living in Iceland.” To this forum I posted a fairly simple question asking if anyone knew of any summer camps that were held in English. One local member responded by saying, “Of course the camps are going to be in Icelandic. You’re in Iceland, duh.”

Needless to say, that comment was not appreciated. I was dying to respond with similar sarcasm along the lines of: “Thank you for your completely unhelpful comment. I hadn’t noticed when I moved my entire family to a new country that everyone happened to be speaking a different language. Oh, wait, I did! Which is why I posted the question on THIS forum, mistakenly thinking someone in this group might be kind enough to share their experiences.”

But, I reminded myself that I was a representative of the US government and getting into a verbal pissing match on FB wasn’t particularly professional. So I simply left the group and found other resources.

I had completely forgotten this incident until yesterday when I saw a colleague of mine reply to someone’s query on another group with a similarly unhelpful reply. The difference is that I know this person. I know that he’s actually quite nice and would never intentionally try to hurt someone’s feelings. He just tries a little too hard to be funny sometimes. I wondered if I should say something to him about playing nicely with others…but then, who knows, maybe he was best friends with the person who asked the original question.

So instead I tried to take this information and apply it to my situation last year. Maybe the annoying person that replied to me wasn’t really a sadistic jerk, maybe they were just trying to be funny and impress their friends with their local pride. Or maybe this entire post is just about me finally being able to write my intended response on a public forum. 😉


After a quiet summer, we had our first round of autumn visitors at the beginning of this month. Iceland is turning out to be a great place to reconnect with people! This time we had a family of six come stay for a week! The mom and I have known each other for over 20 years and were great friends in college. I’d last seen her and her husband right after they had their first baby. So it was fantastic to see them again, do some catching up, and meet the new additions and her mother-in-law. Plus our son had the bonus of having kids to play with.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take extra time off while they were here, so I tried to save the easy day trips like the Golden Circle for days when they’d be on their own with a rental car. While we were together, I tried to come up with somewhere new and exciting for us all to visit that also might be of interest to three pre-teens and a seven-year-old. And I think we found a pretty good solution.

Behold the Víðgelmir Lave Tube! It’s basically a big old cave. But it’s a big old cave formed by flowing lava from a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland about 1,000 years ago. It’s the largest lava tube in the country and is a little less than a mile long. It’s currently only accessible via an organized tour, but the tour was very nice. Plus it’s about a two-hour drive from Reykjavik, so we got to do lots of chatting in the car. 🙂

The opening to the lava tube.

Inside the cave, there’s a long wooden walkway with handrails, interior lights and a very knowledgeable guide. It’s fairly cold inside, so it’s good to layer up. I’m pretty claustrophobic, so I won’t just wander into any cave…I did a bit of research ahead of time and figured I’d do okay. And it was pretty awesome! (I hear April is also a good time to visit as they commonly have some cool ice formations inside.)

Do be aware that they turn off the lights at the far end of the cave so you can experience the total darkness. Our son was the youngest in the group, so our guide was kind enough to let us know ahead of time and tell us we could start walking back on our own, if we liked. We got a little ways away and then realized that he was the one that turned on all the interior lights. So a very long dark black hole stretched ahead of us. I did start to get a little panicky at that point, so we decided to wait for the rest of the group to catch up.

The descent into the lava tube.

Tiny stalactites on the cave wall.

Walking by the last light on in the cave.

After the cave, we drove over to two neighboring waterfalls: Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. Hraunfossar is really different because it flows out from under the very lava field that is home to the tube. The water is usually an icy blue from the glaciers, but it was fairly gray and murky this time from lots of rain upstream.

The next day we took them up to our favorite little hot spring near Flúðir. The owners had recently spiced it up a bit by deepening the pool and adding some Viking elements to the outside of the changing hut. Unfortunately, the pool doesn’t drain as quickly now, so it’s a little murkier and seems a little less authentic. But it’s still fun. 🙂

Not completely opposed to a little kitsch, we dragged mom and dad out to the Viking-themed restaurant in Hafnarfjordur for a Viking double date, and the mom and I also went out with two of the kids to see Icelandic Sagas – The Greatest Hits in 75 minutes, a comedy show at the Harpa. They also did a bit of whale watching and checked out the view from the top of Hallgrimskirkja, which never disappoints.

Hraunfossar waterfall.

The new and improved Hrunilaug hot spring near Fludir.

Fjörukráin Viking restaurant in Hafnarfjordur.

But the week went by too quickly, and all too soon it was time for them to be heading back to the States. So happy to have had the chance to spend time with them! Hopefully it won’t be another 10 years before we get to see them again. 🙂

Dept of State Embassies and Consulates, 2003

So today is September 5, and bidding will be in full swing in a couple of weeks. I must admit that I’m having a difficult time mustering any enthusiasm for it this time around, which is unusual for me.

I think part of it is because this was a three-year post. So I feel like I’ve been thinking about it and planning for it for soooooooooo long already. And this year has the added complexity of bidding with a special needs child.

So the State Dept medical office has downgraded his medical clearance to “post specific” meaning that they have to approve every post we’re thinking of bidding on before they’ll put him on my travel orders. And in order for them to approve it, I have to get a letter from a school at each post saying, not just that they’ll accept him and have ADHD support available, but that they can provide the exact same 1:1 support that he happens to be getting here.

Personally I’ve found this to be an absolutely ridiculous requirement. And we’ve already been turned down by 13 schools that can’t quite meet that criterion. I’m sure it didn’t help that I found out that I had to provide all of this information in June and was given a deadline of August 31 for most of them. So guess what, half of the schools had already let out for the summer, and their staff was on leave.

So we’re trying to widen our bidding pool. In addition to the three or four posts with schools that might actually take him, assuming they want to hire me above every other OMS that’s lobbying for that job, we’re throwing Washington, DC into the mix. Because American public schools are required by law to take every kid. Ironically, he probably won’t get the exact same 1:1 support he’s getting here! Bit of a double standard. But, hey, if you put your six-year-old child on medication that he doesn’t need, they’ll happily send you anywhere. Grrrr……

Unfortunately, we don’t really want to live in DC. One of the best perks of life overseas is that you get to live in government housing. The minute you set foot in DC, you’re on your own in a rental market where a small two-bedroom apartment near a decent school is $2,400 per month. Not to mention that you have either 30 or 60 days (I can’t remember which) to get all your stuff out of storage. So you’d better hope it’s big enough for that and all of your household goods that are coming back from your last post overseas.

So it’s been a fairly stressful summer. I know there are much bigger problems in the world. And I’m still thankful for our many Foreign Service benefits. But this is a huge part of our life, and I’m feeling a bit defensive when it comes to my little one being rejected. I also want to give people an accurate picture of life abroad. It’s not all Girls’ Weekends and R&Rs. It does come with its fair share of frustration. So I hope you’ll take this with a grain of salt, but it’s always good to know what you’re getting into. 😉

Eric the Red’s reconstructed turf house.

…a.ka. the Weirdest Weekend we’ve had yet. But I suppose that’s to be expected when you have a witchcraft museum on the itinerary.

The weekend of August 7 is a huge local holiday. For those that don’t attend the massive music festival in the Westman Islands, it’s best to start booking accommodation in the rest of the country ahead of time, because it all gets snapped up pretty quickly.

That’s how we ended up at the one of the stranger places we’ve stayed in Iceland. The Hótel Bifröst is on an active college campus that’s converted some of its dorm rooms into hotel rooms. The “hot tub and gym” were all part of the university’s facilities…complete with broken windows and crooked patio tiles where they’d sunk a Home Depot-style hot tub into the existing courtyard. Equally strange was the “paddling pool” that was an old fountain, with half the paint peeled off, that they’d filled with warm water. Don’t get me wrong, our son loved it. But it was still fairly bizarre.

However it was a convenient jumping off point for the two places we actually wanted to see: Eric the Red’s House a.k.a. Eiríksstaðir, and the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft in Holmavik. So once we’d checked in and dropped the bags off at the hotel, we continued on our way up the road to Eiríksstaðir near the town of Búðardalur.

Interior of the house.

Our local Viking lighting the traditional gas fire pit. 😉

Statue of Leif Ericsson.

According to GuideToIceland.is, “Eiriksstadir is an ancient ruin in Haukadalur in Dalir county in West Iceland. The sagas mention Eiriksstadir as the abode of Eric the Red, and it is estimated that this is the very same place as described there. Eric’s son Leif was brought up in Eiriksstadir. Leif landed in North America (Vinland) nearly 500 years before Columbus. Eiriksstadir also features a replica of the old farm, and there you can see reconstructions of the swords, helmets and tools used by the Vikings.”

It’s only open for a couple months in the summer, so we figured this would probably be our last chance to see it. And I’m happy that we did. We sat on one of the reconstructed hard wooden beds, where Vikings apparently slept sitting up, and listened to a guy dressed in traditional garb tell us about Icelandic life in the Viking era. It was pretty cool.

On the way, we also passed the Erpsstadir Creamery, which is a working dairy and skyr factory. So A was keen to stop there on the way back to the hotel and get some ice cream. Unfortunately, there was no skyr production going on when we visited, but we did pay a few dollars extra to wander around and look at the calves, cows and the automated milking machine. They also had a play area set up for kids out front. So other than the ice cream, I think A’s favorite part of the entire day was swinging on the big orange vinyl boat buoy they’d hung from a post.

Erpsstadir Creamery.

Cute dairy calves.

The next day we ventured a little further afield and drove up to the town of Holmavik (population 375) in the Westfjords to see the witchcraft museum. I’m sure there are random witchcraft museums around Europe, but this one was particularly unique as it was home to the world’s only pair of “necropants”. And they were just as creepy as they sound. If you’ve never heard of necropants, they are simply a pair of pants made from human skin…preferably from a friend who’s promised you their skin before their impending death. And oh, they were nasty. Still had the toenails and everything. The rest of the place was full of odds and ends that had been found around medieval Iceland…ravens wings, pieces of wood and animal skins with magical markings. They also have a restaurant, which we skipped.

Our final adventure on our Weird Weekend in the West was to drive around to the other side of Steingrímsfjörð to the tiny town of Drangsnes (pop. 67) and take a dip in the group of three scenice hot pots right at the edge of the water. Unfortunately, the pots were full of some rowdy backpacker-types when we arrived, and the changing rooms were down the road, which you would then traverse in wet bare feet. None of which sounded particularly appealing. So we hopped back in the car and drove back to Holmavik where we enjoyed their lovely new town pool…after fishing A out of the deep end where he threw himself without floaties thinking he could swim (he could not).

So concludes our Icelandic summer and its road trips.

The witchcraft museum in Holmavik.

The ground floor with necropants visible on the left.

The best photo of a puffin that I will ever take, yay!!

Since this is our last full summer in Iceland, we decided to putter around and try to see more of the country. So we expanded on two holiday weekends in July and August and spent one long weekend up in the north and one in the west.

Both were fairly relaxed and low key, but the trip to the north was definitely my favorite. Our two main objectives were swimming in the infinity pool on the fjord in Hofsos and taking the ferry over to the island of Grimsey on the Arctic Circle.

The ferry to Grimsey leaves from Dalvik (population 1,454), and the closest big town is Akureyri (pop. approx. 18,000). But we’d stayed in Akureyri before and decided that Dalvik would make a convenient jumping off point. Plus I’d recently read a great review for the hostel in Dalvik that also rents cottages and a little farmhouse for families.

So the first day, we drove the four and a half hours up to Dalvik and got the keys to our little farmhouse. The house was super cute with the living room, kitchen, dining area and bathroom on the first floor, and a sleeping area with three mattresses in the loft. The house had been in the owner’s wife’s family for 100 years and was filled with all kinds of cute pieces to give it a historic feel. It also had access to an outdoor hot tub, a trampoline and a swing set that it shared with three other cabins and which A thoroughly enjoyed.

The cute little 100-year-old farmhouse in Dalvik.

The sleeping area in the loft.

The next day we drove counterclockwise around Tröllaskagi (Troll’s Peninsula) passing through towns with awesome Nordic names like Ólafsfjörður and Siglufjörður. Unfortunately the drive was a little more stressful than, and not quite as scenic as, I’d hoped. When we weren’t furtively pushing our way through three-mile-long single-lane tunnels under the mountains (whose idea was that??), we were negotiating gravel roads clinging to cliffs high above the sea. Before entering one tunnel, we had to stop and let a black cat cross the road. I’m not normally superstitious, but that did not help relax me either.

But we finally made it to Hofsos (pop. 190) and spent a lovely hour or so in their fabulous pool, which has hands down the BEST view of any pool in Iceland, in my opinion. High up on a hill, it looks out seamlessly over the Skagafjörð toward the Arctic Circle. They also had a little refrigerated case selling ice cream, which we enjoyed after popping into the tiny downtown area for some tasty fish and chips at a cute little restaurant called Sólvik. After that we had a much more relaxing drive through the lowlands circling back toward Dalvik.

Infinity pool on the fjord! Bucket list: check!

Pretty restaurant in Hofsos serving fish and chips.

We still had some time to explore in the afternoon, so we drove over to Akureyri and checked out the botanical garden. According to their website, “The garden is one of the northern most botanical gardens in the world. The Public Park was opened in 1912 but the Botanic section in 1957. There are about 6600 alien taxa growing in the garden in beds and nursery and around 430 species of the native taxa.” Check it out, if you’re interested in cool plants and pretty flowers. But remember that it’s only open in the summer from June 1 to September 30.

On Sunday, we took the long three-hour ferry trip over to Grimsey (summer pop. 86). I had signed us up for a tour online that included the price of the ferry, a little drive around the island (since we didn’t bring our car), some puffin-viewing, a visit to the Arctic Circle marker, and a signed certificate for crossing it.

N & A checking out a water feature in the botanic garden in Akureyri.

Lovely blue flowers.

The highlight of the trip was definitely the puffin viewing. Our guide was going to be working with a group of scientists to tag puffins in the future, so she was thinking of incorporating her puffin-catching practice into the tour. So we followed her, her teenaged daughter, a group of her daughter’s school friends from the mainland, and a local puffin catching expert who’d grown up on the island along the southern cliffs by his house.

The puffins weren’t cooperating though, so we eventually loaded into the vehicles and relocated to another section of cliffs near a bright orange lighthouse. After a bit of patient waiting, our expert snagged a puffin right out of the air with a long sturdy net. He gently passed the puffin around so everyone could inspect it. And he gave A the honor of the releasing it back into the wild. What an amazing experience!

The ferry from Dalvik to Grimsey.

Following our puffin expert to the cliffs.

Our expert puffin catcher holding the puffin.

After that we grabbed a waffle and coffee and waited for the ferry ride home. That turned out to be much more interesting as well since we sighted half a dozen whales in the fjord on the way back to Dalvik.

Missions accomplished, we packed up the farmhouse the following morning and began the long ride home.

Now for the next installment of my May visitors story. A few days after LG and I had returned from our girls’ weekend on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the next couple of friends, KB and PC, arrived. We took a couple of days and embarked on another Icelandic road trip out to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.

This was my third time at the lagoon (I think it’s a rare and beautiful place, and I’d be happy to see it every day), and I’d always wanted to take the amphibious vehicle tour and had never had the chance. I don’t recall if they had it on my first visit to Iceland in the ‘90s, and it was cancelled due to too much ice in the lagoon when our family visited in May last year. So I was very excited to do it this time.

Sadly, I must report that it was rather underwhelming. And it was cold and rainy and wet. There weren’t many bergs at the south end of the bay, so the boat basically drove out into the middle, did a circle in the practically empty water and came back. But all was not lost.

We spent the night in a cute little two-bedroom apartment attached to a hotel nearby and then came back by the lagoon the next morning. This time the sun was shining, the beaches were littered with stunningly beautiful blue and green ice bergs, and LG and I decided to go the extra mile and sign up for the small group tour of the lagoon in an inflatable Zodiac. And I am so glad we did!! It was AMAZING…everything that I’d hoped the amphibious vehicle tour would be.

We cruised all the way up to the north end of the lagoon that was filled with ice bergs, got to see them up close in the sun, admired the glacier from a safe distance, and saw several seals sunning themselves on the bergs and playing in the water. I was sooooooo happy. And I would highly recommend the Zodiac tour over the amphibious vehicle any day.

Beautiful bergs on the beach.

The Zodiac tour.

A slowly capsizing ice berg. The top turns white in the sun while the part underwater remains blue.

The edge of the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, part of the larger Vatnajökull Glacier.

From there we hopped in the car and drove back to Reykjavik along the south coast stopping at the must-see spots like the basalt columns at Reynisfjara beach and the Seljalandsfoss walk-behind waterfall.

The next day we took it easy and signed up for a puffin boat tour from the harbor in downtown Reykjavik. It was raining again (it’s been a fairly rainy summer all around), but it cleared up by the time we reached the little island of Akurey (not to be confused with the northern town of Akureyri). You’re not allowed to wander around on the island since it’s home to 18,000 breeding pairs. But it was still fun to look at them through the binoculars or telephoto lens.

The boat for the puffin tour.

A checking things out with the binoculars.


Later that evening, TS and BB (from Part 1) had completed their trip around the Ring Road and returned to Reykjavik to join the reunion. So we all gathered together on Monday for our final excursion and caravanned up to our favorite hot spring near the town of Flúðir. Happily we had it all to ourselves for most of the time we were there. Then we headed back toward Reykjavik after stopping for a nice langoustine lunch at the Fjöruborðið restaurant in Stokkseyri.

A yummy langoustine lunch at Fjöruborðið restaurant.

I was sad to see them all leave on Wednesday, but the reunion wasn’t quite over yet! We had two more ice friends, SC and SH, arriving four days later. I don’t think we’ve seen them since we left Denver in 2011! So it was great to catch up and hear all their news. As for site seeing, they had a few things planned on their own, but we managed to get in a trip around the the Golden Circle and spend some time together at the old harbor in Reykjavik for the annual Festival of the Sea, which A loved last year and again this year.

Eventually, all the fun had to come to an end. We said good-bye to them, and they continued to Europe for further travels. I’d say it was so quiet after they left, but it’s never really quiet around our house. It truly did mean so much to me that so many of our friends wanted to come see us and check out Iceland. We have two months left in the summer and plan to get out and do some family road trips. Then the next set of visitors arrives in September, woo hoo!

As you recall from Part 1, we had an awesome group of friends visiting from The Ice in May. A few days after TS and BB left, LG arrived! And we got to spend a week with her before the next couple flew in.

We mostly just chilled around the house, cruised around Reykjavik and got caught up. But we did get one Saturday and Sunday of amazingly beautiful weather and took the opportunity to have a girls’ weekend on the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

We had originally planned to stay at a spa hotel in Husafell, maybe do a bit of tasting at a local brewery, see a lava tube. But when we arrived, they told us that the spa and all the pools were down for maintenance. Quite disappointed, we decided to eat our deposit and see if we could find something a little more interesting.

So we hopped in the car and checked out a few local sites like the Barnafoss waterfall that flows out from under a lava field, and the little church and stone pool on the farm of medieval poet Snorri Sturluson in Reykholt. Sadly, we couldn’t swim in the pool, but Lonely Planet said this about it:

The most important relic of Snorri’s farm is Snorralaug (Snorri’s Pool), a circular, stone-lined pool fed by a hot spring. The stones at the base of the pool are original (10th century), and it is believed that this is where Snorri bathed. A wood-panelled tunnel beside the spring (closed to the public) leads to the old farmhouse – the site of Snorri’s gruesome murder. The pool may be the oldest handmade structure in Iceland.

Water flowing out from under the lava field at Barnafoss.

Snorri’s pool in Reykholt.

After that, we hauled ass across the valley, up over the pass and onto the north coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in search of a pointy little mountain called Kirkjufell. Once there, we stretched our legs and walked around its lovely waterfall…and tried not to be completely annoyed by all the idiots stepping over the safety ropes trying to get better pictures.

Then we proceeded, somewhat like Goldilocks, to find a place to sleep for the night. The first hotel we came across was too dirty (and their hot tub was also down for maintenance). The second hotel was hosting a massive event and was potentially too noisy. The third hotel was attached to a hospital and chapel and hung with crucifixes. So we went back to the noisy hotel and took the last available room with a nice view of the mountains (and the noise turned out to be no big deal).

The town we had settled in was a little gem called Stykkishólmur. You might know it from the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Ben Stiller. It was used as the filming location for the Greenland town of Nuuk. We had a fantastic dinner at a restaurant near the harbor called Narfeyrarstofa and hiked up a hill by the ferry terminal with a great view and a small orange automated lighthouse on top.

The pointy mountain, Kirkjufell.

The harbor in Stykkishólmur.

The next morning we backtracked slightly and drove around the peninsula stopping at a stunning black sand beach, another lighthouse near an old farm, and eventually we had lunch in the village of Arnarstapi at a café in a bright red turf house that was also busy feeding a busload of German tourists.

We returned home at a decent hour after our grand impromptu adventure and prepared for the next group to arrive on Thursday! Part 3 up next!

The stunning black sand beach near Olafsvik.

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

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

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

The bridge between the continents of North America and Europe.

The Viking sword in front of Viking World in Keflavik.

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

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

Part 2 up next!

Vatican Square.

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

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

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

Our balcony among others.

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

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

The Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum.

Always make sure they’re dead!

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

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

The trattoria where we had our pizza-making class.

N putting his pizza in the brick oven.

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

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

The edge of Piazza San Marco in Venice.

A gondola in one of the many canals.

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

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

Looking for cats at Largo di Torre Argentina.

The Trevi Fountain.

View over Prague from Malá Strana.

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

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

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

Gothic tower at the end of the Charles Bridge.

Painted wooden eggs for sale at an Easter market.

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

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

Interior view from the top of the National Theatre.

Display case at the seafood shop.

Our yummy oysters.

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

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

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

Absinthe fountain at Hemingway’s Bar.




The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and are not attributed to any government organization.

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