Category Archives: Iceland

Finding Awe

The word “awesome” has been tossed around so many times by so many different types of people that it’s become meaningless. Even the word “awful,” which can mean reverential, but rarely does, sounds like the disdainful, pilloried word it has become. Yet both words have their roots in “awe,” an odd-sounding word that has a history with the Old Norse languages. And now the New York Times reports that there’s a chemistry to feeling awe, that it’s more than just a word but a sensation that triggers an intricate chain of molecular behaviors that are actually good for us. It’s the latest among a slew of stories focused on the effort to measure happiness, perhaps an indication that happiness is so hard to come by for so many. It’s a story that appeared in the Times’ health section, but should have been published in its travel section, for travel is the business of peddling “awe.”

We feel awe, the body responds. Which got me thinking, in our plugged in, drone-like day-to-day, when do we feel awe? When did I last feel real, true awe, that kind of jaw-dropping, goose bump-inducing, eyes-wide-open moment when your body becomes extremely alert and still at the same time? It’s not something we get to feel enough during the daily grind of deadlines, appointments, what to make for dinner, when to bring the car in for maintenance. Reading this article made me crave it instantly, for awe is like a drug, a rush of endorphins you want again and again.

Watching my daughter sleep always brings a sense of awe; I still recall that moment we both napped together in the hospital bed. She was a day old. We were just getting to know another. I was getting used to her weight in my arms. Flowers had arrived and there was a gap between visitors. I held her and then I dozed off for who knows how long. Nearly eleven years later, I still feel that goose-bumpy giddiness watching her sleep. This would embarrass her, since tween girls are constantly embarrassed, but it’s true. I still look at her while she sleeps and think “Wow! I made you!”

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If my daughter read this blog, she would be relieved to know, however, that most of my moments of awe tend to strike almost entirely outdoors and during vacations. The first time I finally saw Mount Fuji after three cloudy days in Tokyo. I could not take my eyes off it. Majestic sounds trite, but I don’t know what else to say except I felt the humility that is so lacking in America, yet so common in Japan. The dangerous, unguarded coastline that is Big Sur, a drive that made my stomach muscles squeeze so tightly that for two days afterward, I felt like I had performed a thousand sit-ups. The night sky in Taos, New Mexico, so thick with stars that the heavens looked tangled, as if the sky simply needed a giant comb, otherwise it would never be clear and blue and bright ever again. The Grand Canyon, despite all the tourists and signs and guard posts and gift shops, that when you just stood there looking out at its craggy reds and oranges and purples, waves of rock and all that geological history, you felt immense joy and relief; joy that the world could really be this bizarre-looking and amazing, and that you were briefly a part of it, and relief that your daily worries and anxieties were as meaningless as you had always suspected them to be, that you were barely a vowel or a consonant in the endless poem that is Earth, that were you just passing through like the rest of us.

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Hiking the black lava fields in Iceland gave me that same feeling of awe as standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Iceland is the perfect awe-inspiring reminder that Earth remains in charge; humans may be able to carve out a life on a cold, black rock, and not just survive, but thrive, but the volcanoes, the black stony beaches, the dozens of different types of moss clinging to the rocks, the wind-whipping cold, make it clear that again, you’re just passing through something far bigger, and far more powerful than you could ever hope to be. That impromptu visit from a pod of pilot whales that chose to prance alongside our boat as we were bobbing our way from one little island in the Galapagos to another. No organized whale tour. No tour guide. Just a bunch of white Americans getting sunburned on a boat while a bunch of curious pilot whales swam up to see what we were all about before dashing back off into their world beneath the surface.

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Others might find awe in art, architecture, music, even other people, or, God forbid, celebrities. Looking back on it, it’s funny that connecting with the outdoors would prove so meaningful to me. I never thought of myself as a particularly outdoorsy person. I’m not very Gaia-like; I can’t pitch a tent, I’m obsessive about sunscreen, I hate bugs, I’m allergic to hornet and wasp stings and am currently receiving allergy shots to alter my immunity against them. I should be the one who finds awe in creative pursuits and indoor activities.

And yet, it’s the mysteries of ever-changing landscapes that wow me and confound me. News headlines would have us believe the world is constantly going to hell, and I don’t mean to diminish the senseless suffering and violence that mars us. But the world is full of contrasts. There is awe and beauty in both expected and unexpected places, and it’s worth seeking out. The quest may even be good for your health.

Mount Fuji and Big Sur and New Mexico’s night sky likely tweaked my body chemistry in immeasurable ways. Human beings crave beauty and magic and wonder, even at the molecular level, our bodies want this. I would be curious to know whether scientists could find out if recalling those moments of awe produced the same kind of biochemical reactions as the first experience had. Just writing this blog post, thinking about these places, has lifted my mood, so perhaps there is some evidence to what feels true? I’ll leave that to the researchers. I’m just a writer on the lookout for more awe.

All Diets Fail

Last year sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day—that week of excess and reflection—I vowed in a half-assed but hopeful way to go on a travel diet for 2014. It was time to save more, spend less, do all the things that the financial commercials advise you to do. The first item on any financial adviser’s chopping block: the family vacation.

But as anyone who attempts to stop eating bacon and doughnuts every weekend because of a New Year’s resolution can tell you—all diets fail.

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“The Year of Austerity” also known as “Travel Diet 2014” never really had a fighting chance. We kicked off the new year flying home after visiting friends in Arizona (on this day last year we were traveling from Phoenix to Flagstaff and then on to the Grand Canyon). By April, we were on a plane to Iceland. Two months later, we were smothered in sunscreen and hiking Colorado. A few weeks later, our July trip to California was cancelled last-minute when Mike’s mom passed away, but later this year, he was back out on the Left Coast—twice in three weeks. In fact, my husband’s travel surpassed my own this year: he white water rafted in Idaho, mingled with Jedis and heroes in Atlanta for DragonCon, spent two days sequestered in a hotel conference room in Orlando, Florida, then flew to Pasadena, and came back for two-and-a-half weeks before heading back to California for stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He arrived home less than three weeks ago with some winter respiratory virus that’s left us all hacking and begging for NyQuil. In between all this we scored a gorgeous late September weekend in Cape Cod, and I escaped to a magnificent week in the Berkshires. Not traveling is just not who we are.

Science has shown that vacation planning boosts happiness. This certainly feels true for us; the anticipation of any trip brings a bounce to our daily routine. A 2010 study suggested that the excitement of any upcoming vacation was all that was needed, for apparently after a family holiday, folks became grumpy again. Not us. We’re buzzing before the trip, during the trip, after the trip. Travel is a geographical adventure, not an emotional escape for us; we’re happy at home or on the road, but not having a trip on the calendar would certainly darken my mood. Travel is my Prozac.

So for 2015, I’ve reframed the resolution so that I don’t set myself up for immediate failure because clearly I need some amount of travel in my life so I don’t become depressed. I hate to use that buzzword “balance” but for a lack of a better word, I’m aiming for balance in 2015. And I think I already accomplished some balance this past fall. For example, a small inheritance from my mother-in-law allowed me to pay off my student loans earlier than expected, a balance that hit “zero” right before Thanksgiving (the best kind of loan balance of all!). I suppose we could’ve blown that money on a trip, but that never entered into the equation. Getting rid of that loan was the smart, prudent thing to do, and not once did I feel tempted by ads of dreamy, sandy beaches. Student loans suck—especially at a rolling 7 percent interest rate, which is what I had been paying since 1996. Class of 2013 graduates have an average of $28,400 in student loan debt; mine was significantly more than that, and we squirrel away money every month so our daughter won’t carry such a financial burden. Not every dime earned disappears on vacation. See? Balance. And it’s not even January 1!

Other expenses need to be paid off as well and our old house always needs some TLC. Our dishwasher sounds like NASCAR and our lawn mower can barely chew a blade of grass, but that’s middle class life in America. Appliances will get replaced, cracks in the ceiling and walls will get fixed. Unlike middle class America, I don’t spend weekends dumping a few hundred dollars here and there at Target or Home Depot, something I hear my neighbor talk about. We’d rather put that money towards trips, which is what we’re doing in about seven weeks. We’ll be heading to the Caribbean spending February break soaking up some much-needed vitamin D in the Bahamas, specifically Exuma. We skipped the all-inclusive scene to do something a bit quieter, though not necessarily cheaper, and we’re looking forward to swimming with pigs and feeling the sun on our skin. January and February in the Northeastern United States are my two worst months; I struggle with darkness, go fetal on our couch and beg for Persephone’s return. In my opinion, the Caribbean is cheaper than eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, especially given the hourly rates New York City shrinks charge.

Bahamas will be it for international trips in 2015. We’ll putter around the continental US, fix some things around the house, pay some stuff off, ease into the new year with essentially more of the same, which works for us. If this time next year I’m blogging again about the cool places we visited and the sites we hope to see in the coming year, well, then I couldn’t be happier.

Hotels: Rethink the American Breakfast

Am I the only traveling American who doesn’t want to start her day with a plate of eggs, bacon and gluten bombs? While venturing around the Adirondacks and Vermont these last few weekends, I couldn’t help but notice all the pot-bellied families around me at hotel restaurants and diners eating their high-cholesterol breakfasts. I don’t mean to sound snobby, but America, we’re big. Too big. And I think it’s unfortunate that you have to find a vegan cafe or a five-star hotel to get a breakfast on the road that’s anything besides eggs, bacon and gluten bombs. I don’t expect the world to accommodate gluten-free eating, but isn’t variety the spice of life? Couldn’t the Crowne Plaza in Lake Placid–a pretty nice place with a kickin’ view of Mirror Lake–offer more at its breakfast buffet besides what you can find at a roadside diner? Mirror Lake Inn had the usual American breakfast fare, but there was also a plate of smoked salmon every morning, a feature reminiscent of my mornings at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Just one, preferably gluten-free, outside-of-the-box dish in the morning, America. Just one. That’s all I ask.

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(What you are served most mornings at most American hotels)

Hotels are run by companies, and companies cater to the lowest common denominator because the lowest common denominator makes them a lot of money. Nothin’ wrong with that. We’re a capitalist society. But what about eggs, bacon, gluten bombs AND a plate of smoked salmon or other fish? Or some gluten-free rice cakes, for I am not the only gluten-free traveler out there? Or what about some freshly sliced avocado, full of monounsaturated fats, which actually help lower cholesterol? You know how many people eat fish and rice for breakfast? Millions. Yes, they probably don’t outnumber those traveling along Interstate 40 or munching on egg McMuffins at Newark airport, but they’re out there, craving something different, something better for breakfast, just like me.

You might argue, “Hey, the Adirondacks isn’t where you go for fish and rice. That’s mountain country where flapjack stacks touch the clouds,” and I would reckon you are absolutely correct. The flapjack is a likely descendant of cornmeal cakes, which were the popular pioneer breakfast back when corn was not the bastardized, pesticide-resistant plant that’s now found in everything from fruit juice to salad dressing. I’m not saying eradicate flapjack stacks. And I’ll admit here on the Internet I occasionally eat a piece of bacon. And I’m not saying eradicate grains. America is the land of corn and wheat. But on either side of those massive fields of corn and wheat lie two oceans, so dangnammit, can’t hotels and establishments serving travelers think beyond the middle? The only gluten-free option shouldn’t be that abandoned bowl of browning bananas and mushy apples.

And you might also argue, “Hey, eggs and meat and dairy are on most people’s plates most mornings all around the world,” and you’d be correct, there, too. Check out how folks start their day. The human race has plenty of disagreements, but when it comes to breakfast, there’s vast common ground: we all seem to need a little caffeine kick every morning, and we like our breads and spreads alongside all kinds of things that come from farms. Those are some global breakfast staples.

When I’m in England, I enjoy the traditional English breakfast of eggs, bacon, beans, mushrooms, and that ubiquitous slice of tomato. Yum. Though I can’t eat that every day. Like the American breakfast, it is too heavy.

In France, I’m now having a tougher time because the French breakfast is coffee and croissants (and usually a cigarette), and gluten-free hasn’t taken off in p√Ętisserie country. Yet.

In Iceland, I had fabulous breakfasts of smoked salmon, skyr and shots of cod liver oil.

Eating breakfast in Mexico was a treat because I lived off corn tortillas, rice, beans, guacamole and eggs–all gluten free.

Japan offered “Western” breakfasts alongside their traditional breakfasts, and I gotta say, little servings of fish, rice and miso soup ain’t a bad way to start a day. I haven’t been to India yet, but I think the country’s lentil cakes served with rice, chutney and sambar would suit me just fine.

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(Breakfast in Paris)

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(Ending our trip to Iceland with a morning shot of cod liver oil)

Hotels mirror the culture, and one of the biggest elements of culture is food. Every time a Best Western or Holiday Inn or an InterContinental unveils another plate of eggs, bacon and toast to a guest, it says something about America. To me, it says we lack self-discipline and can’t think creatively. The United States is a melting pot, where Hispanics and Asians are two of the fastest-growing ethnic groups. Why can’t our breakfasts reflect that? Why can’t our hotels be better examples of who we are and what we eat? I challenge Starwood and InterContinental and all the other hotels chains out there as well as the independently-owned bed-and-breakfasts from the tip of Maine to the Hawaiian islands to get imaginative with breakfast. Ok, it doesn’t have to be low-fat, low-carb healthy. Like I said, I’m guilty of occasionally enjoying a slice of bacon. But can’t hotels and what they put on our breakfast plates reflect the diversity America loves to brag about? Can’t we be more than the same-old, same-old? Can we not be the Denny’s Grand Slam?

Why Reykjavik Rocked: A City for Writers

Is it strange to visit a place where you’ve never been to before and where you don’t know the language and to feel totally at home? I’ve been living in the New York City burbs now for over a decade and still don’t feel at home, but I travel to Reykjavik for the Iceland Writers Retreat and get a knot in my throat when it’s time to go. Maybe it’s as President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson says, that the city is adorned not by statues of politicians but by statues of writers. Maybe it’s because in Reykjavik, where one in ten residents publish a book, writing is a respected profession and residents adore writers and equally adore writers’ books. Maybe it’s because books are a popular Christmas gift or maybe it’s because when you tell someone in Reykjavik that you put pen to paper every day, you don’t get a blank look followed by the proverbial question “So you teach English?”

Last year, I met a guy in Taos, New Mexico, who was from New York City, but left the Big Apple nearly twenty years ago to go live a more artisanal life, for lack of a better word, and to run his business in a town where many artists live on less than $20,000 a year. “All New York cares about is money,” he said to me last Christmas, and the words stung because it’s true. Tell anyone in my leafy, affluent suburb of lawyers, doctors and managers that you’re a writer and the conversation goes like this:

“So you teach English?”

“No, I don’t teach English.”

“Oh, so then you do what, PR?”

“Nope.”

Awkward pause, at which point I feel the need to throw this person some kind of social buoy. “I do communications for nonprofit and corporate clients.” (Because the word ‘communications’ sounds more important and lucrative than ‘writing.’ Anyone can write but apparently not everyone communicates.)

“Like brochures and stuff?”

Ah, there we go! That’s the lingua franca my snobby suburb with all its nail salons and leaf blowers and hyper-helicopter parenting understands. Until I get that first novel published, no one here can picture what being a writer means, so sure, why not: let’s say brochures and stuff, at which point the lawyer, doctor or manager nods in confused approval. Because the people who sit in their jammies all day writing are the weirdos living in rundown apartments in Brooklyn…right?

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So let’s get back to Reykjavik, which means “smoky bay” in Icelandic. This city of 200,000-plus people living between sea and mountains, and dealing with constant wind and cold, have a wicked sense of humor and worship color. First of all, the city buses have mustaches. You read that right. We saw buses painted with everything from classic bushy handlebar mustaches to twirly villain mustaches. Secondly, the city pops with color. The houses are painted every shade from lime green to saffron yellow to carnation pink, and the wool yarn spun year-round and sold at stores throughout the city match the houses. When we visited the week before Easter, shop windows were bursting with sunny fashion.

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Gray skies may loom above Iceland most days, but down on the ground Reykjavik is a painter’s palette. Color was everywhere, inside and outside. Murals weren’t hard to find, and even the artists behind these murals revealed a sense of humor.

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Elsewhere, you can read about what to see in Reykjavik or where to eat or the ten best places to do this or that or all the other “hidden gem” travelogue out there that will show you a great time in this great city. For me, Reykjavik wasn’t about scoring some off-trek adventure or tasting some exclusive dish or checking off another destination from a bucket list (I don’t believe in bucket lists). Reykjavik was a mirror; a place that loves words, loves color, loves a good joke and loves a good story. It’s where what your bank account holds or what kind of car sits in your driveway or how often your yard is manicured by immigrants or where your kid goes to summer camp doesn’t matter. In Reykjavik, to be a writer didn’t mean scraping by and living some off-the-grid lifestyle, but that you were contributing to the world’s bookshelves, that you were adding your story which hadn’t been told by anyone else before you and couldn’t be told by anyone but you. To be a writer was an admired calling in Iceland, something I will remember the next time I get those blank looks at suburban backyard cookouts.

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The Problem With Travel

Two weeks after Iceland, I’m still thinking about Iceland. The land is a mood that follows you. It lingers, like the scent of a campfire coming from your clothes days after the fire has died out. Describing its craggy lava fields, its velvety swaths of green moss, the silence of the mountains that watch over those who live there and visit wouldn’t capture things properly. During meetings and get-togethers this week I tried describing what I saw to others, how snow, rain, sun and a rainbow were all right there within my view, not competing for space, just hovering above, each heavy, gray cloud and patch of blue sky simply expressing its individuality. They shook their heads in wonder, trying to picture such a sky.

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From the conversations I’ve had so far, my impression is that very few Americans know much about Iceland other than it’s cold and far (though not as far as they would think if you’re coming from the American Northeast), and what they do know is thanks to the HBO series Game of Thrones where scenes are shot. The Iceland Writers Retreat did a fabulous job educating me. This retreat was the organizers’ love letter to Iceland. They bridged the island’s addiction to sagas and literature with opportunities to learn from an international team of established authors as well as opportunities to sample the landscape. I would strongly recommend this retreat, especially for beginner writers. My week there was an inspiring mix of craft and sightseeing. Talk about writing with writers, go out and look at Iceland’s beautiful countryside, repeat. Our Golden Circle bus tour was a brief buffet to Iceland, and the organizers of the Iceland Writers Retreat were brilliant in setting up this tease; you’ve tasted the wine, now buy the bottle. Consider me sold. Normally I don’t go for packaged bus tours, but this full-day bus tour was excellent, and was narrated by the organizer’s husband, Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson, who has a new book out about his homeland’s history. Thanks to Gudni, we now know where the hidden people hide, where ‘the women were drowned’ and that there’s hope for the Icelandic language to survive even as the digital age moves computer commands toward English.

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A writer I met at the workshop, Kat Bernhardt from King Salmon, Alaska, put it best, “One of the things I’ve learned to like about travel: you can’t see everything, a place is not a check box, it is never “seen,” a reason to come back just makes the place that much richer.” We didn’t see everything. In fact, because of what we did see in Iceland, I’m now thinking of all that we didn’t see. It’s like that adage, “the more I learn, the less I know.” Well, the more I travel, the more I realize how much more there is to see, especially in Iceland where we only briefly ventured out beyond Reykjavik.

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And there lies the fundamental problem with travel. Like any addiction, when or where will it stop? I didn’t get to see the glaciers or all the charming fishing villages along Iceland’s Ring Road. I hiked to Glymurfoss, one of Iceland’s tallest waterfalls, and explored a cave my husband and daughter discovered, but I didn’t get to soak in any lagoons or hike elsewhere. Every trip ends this way: I tried this, but not that. I saw this, but wow, wouldn’t it have been cool to have also seen this, this, and this, too. Even while cocooned in hotel ballrooms attending writing workshops, vacation ideas bounced. A poet next to me described her visit to the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan so now I’ve got Bhutan on the brain. Thanks to meeting Kat and her partner Dan, a photographer (who took some excellent photos of the retreat), I know I will make my way up to Alaska someday. I met so many Canadians, that I want to get to Nova Scotia and Alberta sooner rather than later. And, of course, I want to go back to Iceland, but the country deserves more than a week. I need a few weeks to drive around Ring Road, try all the different ways the locals prepare fiskisupa, hike somewhere where the horses roam, soak up some midnight sun.

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