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Edinburgh Castle

Although we didn’t see a lot of major sights in Scotland, we did visit Edinburgh castle one day. The kilted tour guide made plenty of jokes, including ones about the weather. We experienced rain, hail, sun and even a few snowflakes in a short time period.

The castle was impressive. We were just reading its Wikipedia page which said that it was built on top of an extinct volcano. A bit of trivia for you to remember if you ever get picked to go on Jeopardy!. Besides that, it was the site of tons of history and violence over the centuries, and was also the birthplace of King James I (the little blue room in the photo gallery). Right now, it holds the crown jewels of Scotland and the completely gorgeous Scottish National War Memorial. No photos allowed of either the jewels or the war memorial; you’ll have to Google them.

Tony got a little disorderly and had to take a time-out in the military prison below the castle.

30
Apr 2012
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Stanely House

In Scotland, we spent all five days in Paisley. We originally had loose plans to spend a couple days in Edinburgh and also to visit the Highlands, but that was scrapped.

When we arrived at the Glasgow airport around 10 a.m., the passport agent gave us a hard time. We were exhausted from all the preparations of leaving the US, followed by several days of tearing around Iceland and I made the mistake of not simply answering “vacation” when he asked us why we were entering the UK. It didn’t really take very long to get our passports stamped, probably three minutes total, but his steely attitude sapped our remaining energy and we already felt done for the day. So we got on the airport shuttle headed for downtown Glasgow, stepped off at the first pub we came across, ordered a big Scottish breakfast, found the wifi password, and didn’t leave our seat by the window for seven hours.

During that time, we emailed to finalize our arrangements to stay with friends-of-friends-of-friends (another term to avoid when answering a border control agent’s questions, especially if you don’t have any actual names to give him). Our friends who we were living with for a few months before we left, Chris and DeeAnn, are friends with Tim and Caroline, who worked at a YWAM Celtic Way Community in Paisley. The six of us had dinner one evening in January while Tim and Caroline where back in the States for a visit. They told us that they wouldn’t be in Scotland at the same time we would be there, but that we should get in contact with their coworkers in Paisley when we were passing through (border control agent didn’t care for that term either) and arrange to stay for a night.

Our intention was only to stay for that first night. But when the cab dropped us off at the weary and worn (but still beautiful) Victorian mansion at the top of a hill, and ten minutes later we were sitting on the rooftop watching the sunset and playing music with great people, we were pretty sure we weren’t going anywhere for a while.

We ended up staying there for our entire time in Scotland. The rooms didn’t have heat, the house was under extensive renovation, we had never met any of the people who lived there before, Paisley isn’t exactly a place where people go to “do” Scotland… based on all those things, it might have been an easy choice to head for the Highlands or another city. But we stayed because of the wonderful people who treated us like old friends and let us tag along with them and played beautiful music for us.

This is why we are doing what we are doing.

-A

(Thanks to Josh Grohman, whose Instagram pics we stole.)

30
Apr 2012
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Food: Paisley-Glasgow-Edinburgh

If you’re one of those people who hate seeing food pictures, you’re just going to have to deal with it. Feast your eyes.

If you’re wondering, we did eat the regular haggis, but skipped the deep-fried haggis.

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Apr 2012
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Ingi and Eyrún

I’ve been putting off writing this, because it is my favorite Iceland story, and I wasn’t sure how much to include. We’ve also been relying on our photos the majority of our content, so if you are wishing we’d write more, here is a nice long post for you.

Part of our ethos of this year has been not pre-booking or pre-planning ahead too much. Free as the wind! Come what may! Adventure! In Iceland that didn’t serve us well, at least on an emotional level. It all worked out perfectly in the end, but it did make for anxious evenings. Something about being thousands of miles from home, watching the daylight weaken and not being sure about where you are sleeping that night is a little unsettling.

We did have the foresight to pre-book our first night and stayed in a simple little guesthouse in the center of Reykjavik. The next morning, we picked up our car headed for the Blue Lagoon. Afterward, we just started driving and ended up in a fishing village called Grindavik. We drove down the empty streets and wondered what to do next. Then we saw the flags of several different countries waving on a building and decided it looked like a friendly place. The flags turned out to be attached to Kanturinn.

The Simpsons were playing loudly on the TV when we walked in. It was probably 6 p.m., but Kanturinn was empty. I privately wondered whether we had stepped into a place everyone else knew to avoid, but the owner, Ingi, mentioned it would be very busy in the early morning hours. The walls were filled with photos of bands and people having a good time. Ingi took our order and explained to us that kantur meant “edge.” His family originally wanted to name the place in honor of his grandmother, but it would have sounded very similar to “Cocaine Inn” and that wasn’t the image they wanted to evoke. I ordered a heaping plate of noodles and vegetables.

Ingi said that there was a quiz show on TV, and that residents of Grindavik were competing against residents of Reykjavik. I thought he was asking permission to end the conversation and watch the program from his barstool the other side of the room, but when we said, “oh yes, please watch it,” he fired up the projector on the wall behind us. Ingi explained how he knew the Grindavikian contestants, and told us that one man who was representing Reykjavik was a top staff member for the mayor and also a member of the Icelandic heavy metal band Dr. Spock. (If you’re wondering how a person like that gets into politics, this is a great article.)

Ingi asked if we had tried the shark yet. We replied that we had not, but were willing to try it. Icelandic settlers did not have an easy life and survived on the bounty of the sea which they preserved with creative methods. One way they preserved shark was to gut it, bury it under heavy stones for a month or three to press out the liquid, then cut it into strips and dry it out for several more months. It’s called hákarl and Anthony Bourdain once described it as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten. Ingi handed us a chunk on a toothpick and poured us each a shot of Brennevin. We both managed to thoroughly chew and swallow it. My urge to gag was mild and easily suppressed, but Tony didn’t even flinch. The Brennevin shots cleared away the hákarl aftertaste.

By this time, we were starting to feel that finding a place to lay our heads for the evening was more urgent. We could easily drive back to Reykjavik and stay either in the same guesthouse or at the backpacker hostel next door. But we were tired and weren’t sure if we wanted to drive that far. The guesthouses in the area seemed expensive, so we logged in to Couchsurfing.com to see if we could find anyone who was both nearby and miraculously online at the same time as we were. We came across one registered couch in Grindavik that belonged to a married couple who had good reviews and who indicated they would be ok with last-minute requests. (Note: A good Couchsurfer makes requests at least a few days in advance. It’s better for everyone.)

Since Ingi seemed to know everyone, we showed him their picture and asked if he recognized them. “Oh yes, the woman’s daughter used to work here. Do you want me to call her and ask if you can stay?” We declined at first because we weren’t sure if that would be considered rude, or if the person would appreciate us circumventing the Couchsurfing messaging system. But when he offered again a few minutes later, we said yes. So he looked up the woman’s phone number, had a brief conversation with her, and told us we were all set. He gave us directions to her house which was just a few blocks away, and ten minutes later, we were knocking on the door of a stranger.

Eyrún opened the door with a big smile and said, “please, be welcome.” I was feeling really sheepish about our lack of planning and how we might be imposing on her, but again she repeated, “please, be welcome.” So we were. Eyrún has a big family, and a huge dining table to match, but her husband was out of town for work and only she and her daughter were home. She made us tea and we talked about the sheep she used to raise up north and the differences between the Icelandic and American education systems. She also helped us with some Icelandic pronunciations and told us about her trip to Boston a few years ago. It was such a pleasant evening. We finally went to bed around 11, and left in the morning before she woke up.

We were very grateful for the foresight of Ingi’s father to put flags outside of Kanturinn, for Ingi’s friendliness to weary travelers, and for Eyrún’s kind hospitality. It was a great day.

-A

29
Apr 2012
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Accidental Geocache

Our third day in Iceland was a grey and blustery morning. We clambered around some sea cliffs (the same ones in our Reykjanestá video) and were very appreciative of our windproof rain jackets. Even though the location seemed to be remote, we noticed trash had washed ashore. Maybe it was the weather affecting my mood, but I felt disappointed, and maybe even personally responsible as a member of the human race, to see bits of plastic and shopping bags lodged between the rocks.

After we hiked up two of the promontories, we wandered back down and came across what we think were the old foundations for the lighthouse and related structures, which have since been relocated to the top of the next hill (see picture 4). Again, I saw some clear plastic and started to inwardly rage against what must have been litterbug hikers. But I looked closer and it turned out to be a geocache with some very American contents. We stamped our logo on a piece of scratch paper, noted the date we stumbled across the box, and threw in a US dollar for good measure.

-A

29
Apr 2012
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That’s Where You Are: Music Night at Stanely House

Our time in Scotland was highlighted by a night of music with new friends at Stanely House in Paisley.

We wish we would have got some video of The Murmerers’ lovely harmonies, but luckily someone else did. Marie Collins‘s seventeen-year-old voice wowed us, and brothers Peter Quinn and Martin Quinn, who usually play with guitarist Gary Stuart as the band “Dad, You’re Drunk” put on a great show as well. Perhaps the most truly moving performance of the night was a tribute to fast food mogul Dave Thomas, courtesy of Josh From Texas.

25
Apr 2012
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Búðir

Our favorite place in Iceland was Búðir. It’s on the southern edge of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, which juts out from the central western coast. The name means “camp,” and reflects the limited extent that humans have altered the place. (That ð is called an eth and is pronounced “th”.)

From Snæfellsvegur, which translates to snow-mountain-road and sounds so much more adventurous than Highway 54, we could just barely see the dark speck of Búðakirkja. The little black chapel with bright white windows is set just back from where the Búðahraun lava field merges with the sand beach. We hadn’t passed a car on the road in the last 30 miles and we felt like the only people in the world while wandering between the jagged lava and grassy mounds of sand.

Sadly, we were running out of daylight and still had several hours of driving between there and our bed, so we only stayed an hour and didn’t stray far from the beach. I can hardly bear to read the descriptions others have written about the long winding trails through the lava fields. But that hour was absolute bliss.

24
Apr 2012
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Tips for using this website

  • You can see all the photos in a gallery post two ways. You can click each number to change the photo displayed, however, the size will stay small, and photos that are supposed to be oriented vertically will be cropped horizontally. The best way to view the photos is to click the photo displayed, which will pop the photo out larger, and then you can either click the arrow buttons or use your keyboard’s arrow keys to scroll through the gallery. If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click the plus sign in the upper right corner of the photo. (Note: this feature on the photo galleries we’ve added to date might not work as well, but we’re changing some settings starting with the next gallery post.)
  • Get an email once a day (only if we’ve made a new post, and if we’ve made multiple posts, they’ll be in the same email) by clicking the gear icon in the upper right hand corner, then clicking the little envelope in the menu that pops down. Enter your email address to confirm your subscription. Full text of the new posts will come through, but photos and video will not, so you’ll want to click through to the website.
  • If you use an RSS reader to keep track of blogs, the RSS link is in the same drop down menu. (What is an RSS reader?)
  • We just added a Map page and a Contact page on the top menu.

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Apr 2012
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Reykjavik Street Art

We loved the street art that was all over the city. The scale and quality of many pieces suggest they are commissioned, but others were obviously gifted to the city, unrequested. Here is an older article from 2008.

24
Apr 2012
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That’s Where You Are: Snæfellsnes

On the southern coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, in the shadow of Snæfellsjökull; the glacier capped volcano where Jules Verne placed the entrance to the “center of the earth.” Looking south across the Atlantic, there is no landmass from here to Antarctica.

22
Apr 2012
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Igneous

Tony refused to let me name this post “Iceland Rocks,” so you can all thank him for that. We don’t know much about geology, but being around so many lava fields and sea cliffs and basalt columns and huge stones made smooth by the ocean waves really made us appreciate igneous rock. It is officially our favorite rock type. Sorry, metamorphic and sedimentary.

-Alicia

22
Apr 2012
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Sunrise, Sunset

There was still light in the sky until almost midnight in Iceland, so we stayed out late every evening. It made for long and exhausting, but wonderfully full days. I think we are still recovering.

22
Apr 2012
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Steam and Mist

The Blue Lagoon probably qualifies as a tourist trap due to its cost, popularity and proximity to the airport. But did we want to cook ourselves in a big geothermal lagoon and slather mud on our faces all day, regardless of weather or air temperature, and order from the swim-up smoothie bar? Absolutely.

Gullfoss, hot springs and (little g) geysirs. Abundant water and geothermal heat is what keeps Iceland running in a very sustainable way. Did you see the short Gullfoss video Tony posted the other day?

21
Apr 2012
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Animal friends in Iceland

Kitties and ponies* everywhere.

(*Technically little horses, not ponies.)

18
Apr 2012
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(The photo captions still aren’t working, but the photo order matches the narrative this time! If you’ve subscribed by email or RSS, you’ll have to visit our website directly to see the pictures.)

Three churches (kirkja) we visited in Iceland: Hallgrímskirkja, Strandakirkja, Búðarkirkja, and an Olafsvik church.

Hallgrímskirkja – Reykjavik. Built on top of a hill, it’s the largest church in Iceland. Construction began in 1945 and it took 38 years to complete. We used it a lot to orient ourselves and to find our way back to the places we wanted to go. It’s simple and beautiful. A statue of explorer Leif Erikson/Leifur Eriksson is majestically situated on the north side of the grounds.

Strandakirkja – Selvogur. This tiny white church was built by seamen to fulfill their pledge to pay tribute to God if they reached shore alive. Only a few houses remain nearby and it is built between lava fields and the ocean.

Búðarkirkja – Búðir. Built in a lavafield next to the ocean in 1703, reconstructed in 1848. The doors were locked so we could not peek inside. It’s painted a striking Scandinavian black.

Olafsvik church – Olafsvik. I can’t find much info on this, but we liked the geometry, so we took a picture.

18
Apr 2012
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Day 7

After chilling in a Glasgow pub for most of a drizzly day, we jumped a train to Paisley. A couple of old ladies and their smart phones were able to procure us a cab, which drove us up to Stanely House, where we are staying with a bunch of cool friends of friends of friends of ours (seriously). We sat on the roof of an old mansion with a bunch of people we just met and watched the sun set behind the clouds. Guitar and ukulele were played along to “I’m No Superman” and “Rolling in the Deep”, then a banjo showed up and Alicia joined in for a round of “Wagon Wheel”. Now we’re all watching a mini marathon of the Sherlock Holmes Brit TV series. There are rumors of a trip to Glasgow or even Edinburgh in search of Scotch whiskey in the morrow…

-Tony

17
Apr 2012
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Note: The image gallery above is giving me fits, so the photos are out of order and there are no captions. But I figured I had better get something posted! Click the image above and then arrow through the photos. If you’ve subscribed by email, you’ll want to visit the website directly to see the pictures. We’ll get this figured out…

I’m going to write about food first, mostly because I’m hungry at the moment, but also because everyone loves food. Most Icelanders live on the coast, so fish is plentiful. And since pollution is at a minimum here, it’s supposed to be some of the best in the world. Back home, we’d almost never order fish (except sushi), so we definitely made an effort to go outside our comfort zone and order a lot of fish. Even if it was breakfast.

Our first meal, a few hours after we landed, was at Snaps Bistro in Reykjavik. A young passerby recommended it. He said they just opened, and their prices were, “way too inexpensive” considering the quality of the food. It was only 11 a.m., so the kitchen wasn’t open yet, but we ordered coffees and pretended that the Íslenska menu was a word game. Some of the words are similar to English, especially if you try to sound them out (beikon = bacon), others you might be able to make an ballpark guess by contextual clues. Eventually, the waiter brought us the English menu, and we were able to compare our guesses with reality. Tony ordered the smoked salmon with cream cheese, lemon and herbs. I ordered the smoked arctic charr with potatoes and apples. Both were fantastic. Mine was somehow simultaneously delicate and rich. This was our first and best meal.

Another cafe we visited was Cafe Loki, which is adjacent to and has a perfect view of Hallgrímskirkja which is deservedly the landmark of the city. We ordered a smoked trout and cottage cheese bagel and a smoked herring and hardboiled egg sandwich for breakfast. We also got a little pastry called a kleina, which is a type of twisted fried donut that has some spices in the batter, but isn’t frosted or glazed or dusted with anything sweet. Perfect accompaniment for coffee. We also saw Magnus Thór Jonsson, better known as Megas, “Iceland’s Bob Dylan,” in the corner enjoying a sandwich and a beer. We recognized him because we are super knowledgeable about international folk music and anyone who knows anything has heard of him. (Or maybe he was performing on a tv program we watched a few days earlier and a nice Icelander told us all about him… more on that story later.) We did not seek an autograph, but I did pretend to be intensely interested in fiddling with the top of my camera so I could fire off a few shots from the hip to prove our brush with fame.

The night before we left, we visited the Laundromat Cafe, which is located down by the harbor in the shopping/entertainment district, and does have a laundromat in the basement if you need to take care of that while you eat. Despite the practical facilities and the good prices, it’s actually a pretty classy joint. The bar is made of bookshelves and the books are all grouped by the color of their spines. Tony got a great salmon dish with salad greens and beets (I couldn’t resist the grilled ham and cheese sandwich, but you’re not reading this to hear about grilled ham and cheese sandwiches).

Pylsur. I’m not sure if this is only tourist food, or late night after-bar food, or if people eat it on a regular basis. But we wanted to give it a try. More than once. Pylsur is a hotdog made of lamb, and is in natural casings. It’s served on a white toasted bun, and “with everything” means with diced onions, crispy fried onions, sweet ketchup, a very mild and thick brown mustard and a yellowish mayonnaise. We had some at the touristy pylsur shack down by the harbor, at a roadside stand in the middle of nowhere on the south coast and at a gas station. The first ones were the best, but it seems that they’re pretty uniform, at least all over Reykjanes Peninsula.

We also relied on grocery stores for some cheaper food options. We had Skyr, a very tasty low fat, high protein yogurt, every day. I’ve seen it in Iowa City before, but it is much more affordable here. On one of our road trip days, I bought a mini loaf of rúgbrauð (a dense, sweet rye bread), a carton of herbed cream cheese and a packet of salami. I chose the cream cheese because regular cheese was expensive and I didn’t want to buy a whole bottle of condiment. They sustained us well throughout the day we spent driving and hiking through a deserted peninsula to the north.

There were a few surprises along the way. At one grocery store, I saw some cartons of blueberry, strawberry, prune and mixed fruit juice. I examined the label, but wasn’t able to understand any of the words. I asked an older woman who was pushing her cart through the aisle if it was good for drinking and I made a drinking motion with the carton. “Oh yes, very good. Very good one,” she said. So I bought it. Once we were in the car, I cracked it open and took a nice big swig of strawberry pie filling. It was then that I located the only English word on the package (pie). I guess I should have noticed that it was stocked right next to the flour. Tony stopped off at a convenience store shortly after that and returned to the car with some chocolate candy as a consolation for my fruit juice failure. It turned out to be chocolate covered salted black licorice. I don’t like licorice at all, but it was pretty mild and the salt actually made the other two ingredients work together in the flavor profile. We saw black licorice gum and other licorice treats all over. Iceland loves its licorice, it seems.

We also had a bite of hákarl. Chef Anthony Bourdain is quoted as declaring it “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten. But that is a story that deserves its own blog post.

-Alicia

17
Apr 2012
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Ahem.

I’m finally writing our first real travel blog post now that we’re sitting on our flight from Iceland to Scotland. Iceland was good to us. The weather exceeded our expectations, with just some sporadic light showers and wind. We met some good people, too. It feels nice to sit. We’ve packed a lot into the last several days (and many kilometers on the rental car) and the long daylight hours kept us out so late that we usually went straight to bed instead of writing. I did make a point to sort and process our photos each night, so at least that part is ready to go.

Rather than a long “on Day 1 we went to X and saw Y and then we ate Z” monologue about the Iceland leg, we thought we’d group some (hopefully) interesting categories together. Kind of like those arty movies with the scenes all out of chronological order. Maybe.

-Alicia

17
Apr 2012
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Regarding Confidence

Yesterday included a bit of sleep-deprived stress, a first flight delay, a bit of confusing / lacking canadian airport signage, a bit of a check-in computer glitch accompanied by a frazzled attendant, a bit of panicked running with my belt in one hand and a handwritten boarding pass in the other, and of course bit of classic fret and worry about decisions I’ve made about this year.

We touched down in Keflavik at 7am local time after watching the sun rise over tiny bits of ice floating in the Atlantic. The first wi-fi spot available was on the bus that drove us 45 minutes up to Reykjavik. Before even leaving the airport I read through maybe 40 Facebook notes from people who wished us well, shared our blog, and told us they would miss us.

A captivating scene of mountains and moss-covered fields of lava rock kept me from replying with more than a quick Icelandic “bless bless” at the time, but now that we’re all snug in our guest house and the first night is winding down, let me tell you how I really feel…

The confidence I had when I first decided to do all this has been affected by the constant and increasing fight between excitement and anxiety. Even right now as I type this the bewilderment that this is actually happening is more tangible than any confidence about this decision. The only thing more bewildering, which happens to also be the only thing I am truly confident about, is that we have been blessed with the best friends in the world.

The past couple weeks have been a marathon of goodbyes and last meals. We have so many friends who have encouraged us from the very beginning. We have friends who’s excitement for us outshines our own. We have friends who drove from neighboring towns and states to hug us one last time. We have friends who showed up at 6 am wednesday morning to see us off. Friends who passed us like a torch from Iowa City to Cedar Falls to Mason City to the Minneapolis airport. Friends who barely knew us when they invited us to live in their home in January, but hugged us goodbye as family. We love you all so much. We don’t have any other words but thank you.

- Tony

12
Apr 2012
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