The Land of Ice

Europe

Back in January, I was having lunch with Ellen at work and explained my Iceland dilemma: my family had snagged a package deal for a long Easter weekend trip, and I was deciding whether to join them. Her “you’re an idiot, why is this even a question?” face was telling, so I did. Great decision.

Welcome to Reykjavik

Welcome to Reykjavik

I arrived on Saturday morning, joining Randi in our AirBnB after she had already spent a couple of days touring, riding horses and befriending our host’s cat. (Once again, my heart beats for AirBnB and the quirky, joyful extra dimension it adds to travelling.) Notwithstanding my foolish lack of sleep on the overnight flight, we set off on a two hour walking tour of Reykjavik with a great guide who came armed with a fiercely dry sense of humour.

Now Reykjavik is not a big place, and strictly speaking, you don’t really need two hours to walk around it and take in the sights. Indeed, the recent tourism boom seems to have taken Iceland a little by surprise, and so to fill the void of major sightseeing spots our guide turned to such topics as the country’s school system, tax rates and parental leave policies. Don’t get me wrong, these things were right up my street, but given the wind I would have appreciated it just as much indoors.

After meeting up with my family, we headed to one of Reykjavik’s many outdoor public pools for an authentic Icelandic bathe. (Not to mention an authentic Icelandic forced naked shower beforehand: this is not the Anglo-American way.) I loved these baths, and wish very hard that some geothermal heating might hit Chicago in the near future.

Finally, that night we headed out on a coach trip hunting the Northern Lights, which were soon located! We soon discovered that fancy cameras are much better at capturing their colours than feeble human eyes: I saw mostly white shimmers across the sky, but will allow photographs to falsify my memory after the fact.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights

Misbehaving on the coach

Misbehaving on the coach

Sunday was our big Golden Circle excursion day, and our guide Siggi drove us around in a monster jeep which – as he cheerfully informed us – was the product of a Frankenstein melding of two smaller vehicles. But it proved more than capable of bouncing through the snow and ice while we visited the Gullfoss waterfall, exploding geysers, a field of super-friendly horses and the border between the American and Eurasian continental plates. But the absolute highlight of the trip was the snowmobiling session! After first letting Katie prove out the theory that you don’t actually need to know how to drive a car in order to master a snowmobile, Randi promoted me from passenger to driver on ours, and I’m pleased to report that no injuries were sustained.

Casual family gathering

Casual family gathering

Can't drive a car; can totally drive a snowmobile

Can’t drive a car; can totally drive a snowmobile

Remember the SkiFree monster? Here it is.

Remember the SkiFree monster? Here it is.

We decided to wait downstream of the exploding geyser

We decided to wait downstream of the exploding geyser

Katie summons the horses

Katie summons the horses

After a French farewell dinner with the family on Sunday night, Randi and I tried out another public pool on Monday morning and took a final walk by the ocean before heading home. There’s a definite atmosphere of quiet, Nordic utilitarianism to the city, and walking around made me think sympathetically on Hillary Clinton’s famous “we’re not Denmark” line. Not that we don’t have much to learn from Denmark, or Iceland, but you can’t just transplant a culture from an island of 320,000 people and hope that it sticks.

Still, this was definitely an Easter weekend to remember, and served up some unforgettable landscapes. Come join the Icelandic tourist boom now before they get fed up of us all invading their country!

The Sun Voyager

The Sun Voyager

For the past two weeks I’ve been travelling again for work. Back to Warsaw first, and this time joined by Bex who very graciously endured my abridged, second-hand re-enactment of an Old Town walking tour. It was also great to see Mark and Caroline again, and along with a couple of others we visited what I can only assume is one of the city’s premier gambling establishments. Alas it still failed to arouse my interest in actually gambling (no surprise there) and so instead I amused the Italians by ordering tea (with milk) at the bar. I was desperate.

Bex, Sara, Rossella and me

Bex, Sara, Rossella and me

Caroline, Mark and Rossella in a Warsaw casino

Caroline, Mark and Rossella in a Warsaw casino

After a couple of hours wandering around Brussels on a layover, my next stop was Morocco. Having been advised that Marrakesh would be a more interesting place to spend a weekend than Casablanca, I started there.

Inside the Majorelle Garden

Inside the Majorelle Garden

I was excited – this was actually my first visit to any African country whatsoever, let alone Morocco – and spent Sunday exploring the city. (Yes, I know I’m wearing a super-touristy hat: it’s only because I needed to get some change for entry into the Saadian Tombs.) The central square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, is breathtaking and the souks alongside are fun to explore, just as long as you watch out for the motorbikes which some people see fit to ride through the packed, narrow paths.

I’m also very glad I visited the Majorelle Garden – it’s a small, enclosed space but is astonishingly colourful and peaceful inside. The perfect calming antidote to a bustling market, and the last thing I saw before catching my train to Casablanca. (A three hour ride, in wonderful old-fashioned compartment style for about $14. The rest of the world should take note.) I’m pretty sure the two Spanish men to my right were complaining about the English, though.

Jemaa el-Fnaa

Jemaa el-Fnaa

In the souk

In the souk

Looking out over lunch

Looking out over lunch

Catching the train to Casablanca

Catching the train to Casablanca

I should mention that Morocco is very much an Arabic and French speaking country, and the limitations of my English-only tongue were particularly evident in the taxi journey from Casablanca’s main railway station to my hotel. I was somewhat confused when another passenger joined us – this turns out to be a normal and, I guess, somewhat economic quirk of their taxi system – and then the driver grew increasingly impatient with my inability to answer any of his questions. Thankfully, the atmosphere lightened when he stopped the car in order to hide away some cash in a secret cubby hole hidden in the middle of the steering wheel, and we both started laughing together. You don’t really need to share a language to bond. A shared love of the absurd will do.

With Francisco

With Francisco

I didn’t get a chance for much touristy stuff in Casablanca, although I was well taken care of by Francisco and Jessica while I was there, and enjoyed hanging out with other visitors from the French office. We did make it to the world’s third-largest mosque one night, right by the sea, which was beautiful.

The Atomium at night

The Atomium at night

But soon it was time to go home, and fortunately this time the mysterious gods of yield-management airline pricing granted me an overnight stay in Brussels. So as a lovely bonus to the whole trip, my parents popped in by train so we could have dinner together and see the city sights by night.

So now, in terms of tourist sightseeing, I can tick off the Grand Place, the Mannequin-Pis (or the “peeing boy statue” as everyone actually says) and the Atomium. We worried the latter would be a wasted cab ride – with nothing to see in the dark – but were pleased to discover that at night it lights up and sparkles more than a Twilight vampire.

Oh, and in the midst of all of this, I also scored theatre tickets to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child from an intense online booking queue. But that is a story for next year…

Dinner in Brussels

Dinner in Brussels

At the Manneken-Pis

At the Manneken-Pis

Have you ever arrived at a party and realised that no one you know has arrived yet? But there’s a free bar, so you grab a drink and mingle?

Lesson learned: the mingling bit is significantly harder when you’re in Poland, and everybody else is speaking Polish.

Nevertheless, I had a great and productive two weeks in Warsaw. As most people know, the city was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War, but the modern replacement which rose from the ruins is a lot more attractive than the Soviet brutalism you might imagine. Meanwhile, Old Town is quite astonishing as a monument to rebirth and reconstruction.

A baseball player (don't ask) in Warsaw's Old Town

A baseball player (don’t ask) in Warsaw’s Old Town

Monument to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944

Monument to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944

Another reminder of the uprising

Another reminder of the uprising

MARIE CURIE WAS POLISH

MARIE CURIE WAS POLISH

Not sure what this was doing in the middle of Warsaw, but I like it

Not sure what this was doing in the middle of Warsaw, but I like it

Only 1444 km away!

Only 1444 km away!

Other highlights included ordering French food with Steven (with a horrified “that’s not French…” reaction when it arrived), museums to the Warsaw Uprising and Jewish History, and my artificially-engineered multi-stop journey home on the last night just so that I could try the underground system. (Clean, bright and purple, with trains arriving every few minutes, if you were wondering.) I also enjoyed a walking tour which ended in free vodka shots – and very refreshingly cold they were too!

As a wonderful bonus, Katie and I also spent one of the weekends in Prague. Everybody always says Prague is beautiful, and it didn’t disappoint. After taking an overnight sleeper train – which I will always find inherently joyful and thrilling, especially when there’s no messing about with passports or border controls – we took a walking tour to take in all the main sights. And man, this walking tour was good. Our guide, Karel, was engaging and charismatic, and a perfect introduction to the city. (A city no less charming for the fact that beer is literally cheaper than bottled water.)

Is there anything cooler than a transnational sleeper train?

Is there anything cooler than a transnational sleeper train?

Welcome to Prague

Welcome to Prague

Not pictured: Weeping Angels descending from Prague Castle to kill us

Not pictured: Weeping Angels descending from Prague Castle to kill us

Scenes of death made us awkward

Scenes of death made us awkward

After a ‘Premium Economy’ upgraded flight back (oh ye gods of yield management pricing), I arrived back in Chicago in time for another Groupon Summer StreetFest. And a heatwave. As April and I laboured over a game of giant Jenga, it felt more like a military exercise…

This blog is turning into a bit of a travel diary…

So last weekend I just had fun with Simon and Patrick in Paris, while trying (but not always succeeding) not to be those obnoxious Brits abroad. True, there were moments of unintended hilarity at our botched attempts to pronounce French menus, while Simon narrowly avoided causing an international incident on the Metro with a party of grumpy New Zealanders. But I did manage to see all the stuff which I’ve missed before: the catacombs, Musée d’Orsay, Versailles, the Conciergerie, and all still within that curious but delightful French paradigm of “people under 26 really shouldn’t have to pay for anything”. They’ve also recently pedestrianised a former main road right by the river, which is now rather lovely to walk down, and another sign (if any were needed) of the joys of freeing our cities from as many cars as possible.

Voila, catacombs

Voila, catacombs

Voila, Versailles

Voila, Versailles

Simon and Patrick

Simon and Patrick

(There’s nothing like wandering around Paris, of course, for reinstating a feeling of European togetherness. Yes, we are yoked to France in the perpetual rivalry of squabbling neighbours, but isn’t it better for this to stay within the big EU tent? Maybe I’m just bitter because of the absurd double-checking of passports which Britain insists on at Gare du Nord when getting the Eurostar back home, as if we can’t possibly trust the standard of French passport-checking a few metres earlier. It’s needlessly unfriendly, especially after moving within Schengen for a week.)

(Having said that, we really need to stop flogging our public utilities to their state-owned multinationals.)

And, yes, I spent the week in Stockholm and then Helsinki for work (and reindeer-eating). Which was pretty awesome, because I’ve always wanted to visit Scandinavia, and this got me two in one go – albeit not for very long. (Nit-picking: Finland is not necessarily Scandinavian, I know, I know.) It did surprise me how different they felt from each other, both in terms of people and general atmosphere, with Helsinki very obviously showing its Russian influences. But both are so wonderfully sane, with the sole exception of their airport food prices, which are not.

Obligatory American anecdote: as we left the excellent Masculine / Masculine. The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day exhibition – and take it for me, I’m not a natural art exhibition fan – we did pass one unimpressed visitor who was complaining to her friend that “if you want to see a lot of naked butts you can just look them up online”. Which very neatly allowed us to pretend to ourselves that we hadn’t been murmuring bawdy jokes to each other the whole time, and adopt the traditionally smug pose which Paris brings out so very well

I loved Handbagged. Absolutely loved it, even by the high standards of the Tricycle. But then, you’d expect me to, right? The comic imagining of the weekly audiences between the Queen and Thatcher is a rollicking blast through 80s politics, but without the superficial clip-show feeling of The Iron Lady, and was laugh-out-loud funny and terrifying in equal measure. In a small theatre, having Thatcher march onto the stage and start hectoring the audience is genuinely scary, like finding yourself trapped in a cage with a wolf. To have escaped living through it in person is a relief, of sorts, although Kinnick’s famous ‘I warn you’ speech is sadly still as prophetic as ever.

And so having enjoyed a second dollop of left-leaning British political theatre and\or silly songs (we’d seen News Revue a few weeks back), Michele and I both spent the rest of the week working in Milan. (Italian geography lesson 101: “Milan seems much less crazy than Rome… is this where businesses usually base themselves now?” “Usually, unless they’re connected to the government. In Rome they all stop at 3.”) Anyway – the food, oh, the food! The food was so good

Dining out in Milan

Dining out in Milan

Back in Britain, we spent last Sunday wandering around Cambridge to find out which bits Yale decided to steal, getting nostalgic about libraries and meeting up with Simon for pub drinks so we could mock the people’s government of the United States of America collectively. (Which is still closed, incidentally, although all in a noble effort to halt the march of national socialism and ‘the worst thing that’s ever happened to us as a country‘. I salute your stoic sense of perspective, anonymous vox poppee! America has endured terrorism, killer bees and the finale to the first season of Heroes, but clearly health insurance for the poor requires a whole new level of fortitude.)

A pretty English moment

A pretty English moment

The Fridge of Journeys

The Fridge of Journeys

Oh, come now dear Americans, I’m only being mean as a defence mechanism to convince myself that this drizzly island is still the best place to call home. Because (as our glorious fridge of many faraway magnets nicely demonstrates) all paths still lead back here, and the last couple of nights have proved what a good thing that is. From dinner at Andrew and Bonnie’s, to pizza, beer and impromptu Year 6 test-marking with my parents, to a wonderful flat night at ours punctuated by lots of shouting between Brits and Yanks about whether ‘porn’ and ‘pawn’ are homophones (they are). To Thai lunch followed by milkshakes with Lucy, to a determined march up to Highgate only to baulk at paying £4 to see Marx’s grave (look, I never said I was against price signals…), to a wonderful farewell-to-London evening for Michele in the corner of – where else? – a local pub, so many of the people and places I care about are here.

This is not a reason to stay rooted to one spot forever, but a good reason to enjoy it while I am

‘Your Christmas card this year’ – Lucy

‘Your Christmas card this year’ – Lucy