We got to the Arc de Triomphe just before the sun went down and spent enough time taking photos that I realized we were needing to change the camera settings as the light changed. So I got the idea to walk up Avenue de la Grande Armée to the next waist-high stop light to try to get some video footage that could be sped up as the sun sets. I originally thought the sun was setting fast enough that the light on the Arc would significantly change within just a few minutes. Ten minutes later I wasn’t so sure that it did, but a better ending walked right in front of us.
In January, Tony scheduled a tattoo appointment for May 11 in Toulouse. An old friend of his happens to live there, so he emailed her to see if she would like to meet us for coffee while we were in town. Sharla, her husband, Laurent, (and fancy kitty friend Eugenie) ended up hosting us for five days. Despite the fact that Tony hadn’t seen Sharla in over a decade, Alicia had never met her, and neither of us had met Laurent, we had a great time. Sharla took us to a sorta-almost-secret spot to look out over the city, to a great crepes place, and on an evening walk through the park. Also, she makes really, really good granola.
Laurent’s parents, Jean-Pierre and Anna, were determined that their son’s American guests would have the opportunity to sample the best of French cuisine, so they hosted us for lunch on Sunday. After meeting their teenage and half-century old tortoises, we had champagne and sampled a variety of canard delicacies. There was magret séché de canard (salt-cured duck breast), three types of duck sausage, crispy fried duck skin, and some foie gras Jean-Pierre potted himself. Then came wine and salad and delicious cassoulet, which featured more duck sausage and duck legs. Then five different types of cheeses, ice cream and chocolates for dessert, and a sampling of the sole remaining bottle of Laurent’s grandfather’s homemade plum liquor.
It was a marvelous feast and we enjoyed every bite. Toulouse duck is far and away more delicious than any wild Mississippi River duck. Thank you Sharla, Laurent and family very much for your kind hospitality!
(The dinner photos in this post are courtesy of Jean-Pierre.)
For several days in Barcelona, we had been lamenting the fact that it would be a long time before we could walk down a street and see a familiar face. Alicia said, “I just want to run into someone I know today. Anyone. Wouldn’t that be so nice?” Late in the afternoon of this particular day we were tired and getting a little cranky. After walking way too far to check out the zoo, which ended up being more than we wanted to pay for “maybe this will be cool” late afternoon entertainment, the decision was made to just go back to our hostel on the opposite end of the city.
The closest metro stop was a few blocks away at Barceloneta. We walked less than a block and a familiar face showed up! That lightly bearded face belonged to Kristian who works at our hostel. When you meet him you feel like you’ve known him for years. Case in point – he immediately introduces us to Michael and Panos, whom I assumed were old buddies of his, but it turned out that he just met them at a Greek restaurant earlier that day. He was taking them to his favorite place, which he only referred to as the xampañería and invited us to come along. I had no idea what a xampañería was, but it sounded like a place where they serve champagne… so yes, let’s go there.
Five minutes away from where we met, he took us down a quiet, seemingly unused block to an unmarked bar with people literally spilling out the front. Kristian dives right into the crowd and forms a channel for us to push our way to the back and find a counter to lean against. The interior is unpretentious. A few cured whole hams hang from the ceiling among the industrial light fixtures and a large wooden sign revealing the name of the mystery bar – Can Paixano.
His xampañería turns out to be a cava bar. Cava is Catalonian champagne. It is pink, bubbly, delicious, costs about €1 per glass, and it’s the only thing served at Can Paixano other than the small plates of cheese and hot sausages they pair it with. Michael brought us up to speed with Greek politics. Kristian told us about leaving his home country of Cyprus in search of adventure elsewhere, which currently finds him in Barcelona. We told him a relatable story.
Barcelona: Streets and People
A collection of people and street scenes in Barcelona, including a minor peaceful protest we encountered and a huge banner demanding that a leader of the protests be freed from jail. We loved the city and all of the unexpected beauty around every corner.
Random passersby from our hostel window. People at Plaza Mayor. Dog walkers. Restaurateurs on their smoke break. Weird old dude throwing bits of meat to stray cats and pigeons. A random juxtaposition on a metro platform. And our favorite sight, neighborhood guys giving each other BS in the bar on their lunch break.
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.
(Thanks to Josh Grohman, whose Instagram pics we stole.)
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.
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…