December 05, 2017

Best Instagram Shots and Food Spots in Iceland

As I mentioned recently, I went to Iceland with two of my best friends last May. Now, some might feel that, as a blogger, it is now my responsibility to give you a detailed rundown of our trip's itinerary along with my planning tips and tricks. (Because bloggers always have tips and tricks.) But I'm not going to do that for two reasons:

One, I feel like that'd be a bit dishonest of me and frankly, ripping off my friend Erika, who did 99.5% of the planning. Erika is from Slovakia and also happens to be a consultant, so she travels—a lot. She's also one of those strange and admirable types who breathe what some people (me) find meticulous, aggravating, and sometimes impossible (creating travel itineraries). Anyway, I'll leave those details to Erika for if and when she ever gets a blog of her own.

The second reason I'm not going to detail our itinerary is that I don't feel like it.

What I am going to talk about is the two things I'm actually pretty decent at: Instagram pictures and food (eating it, that is). So without further ado, I present to you the best Insta shots and food spots in Iceland, according to me.

Instagram Shots

Best Place to Fake a North Face Ad: Skógafoss

Iceland is known for their waterfalls. Actually, I have no idea if that's true, but there are 10,000 plus waterfalls in Iceland, all of which are bound to be prime Insta locations.

I didn't see all 10,000, but of the ones I did see, Skógafoss was by far my favorite, mostly due to the fact that it's huge and you can get right up into it. And I mean right up into it, if you're so inclined. (I wasn't, by the way, because I was already cold and wasn't too into the idea of being wet and cold.) That said, you don't have to get too close to get a North Face-level shot.

Best Place to Have People Accuse You of Photoshop: The Blue Lagoon

I would go to Iceland again if just to spend another day (or month) at the Blue Lagoon, a spa/geothermal pool/blogger heaven near the Keflavik International Airport. It was the very first thing we did after arriving in Iceland (I think we can all agree that spa trips should be mandated after international flights), but we also ended up going our last day too because we loved it so much.

The Blue Lagoon's geothermal pool is man-made next to a geothermal power plant, where they use super hot water from the ground near a lava flow to run turbines that generate electricity. After going through the turbines, the water is fed into the lagoon, which is still pretty toasty (98-104°F, usually) and is filled with silica and minerals. Besides creating a sultry mist right above the pool, the water is also apparently great for your skin. (And I believe it. My skin was the best it's ever been after leaving Iceland, which was a miracle all on its own.)

Also (and more relevant to this post), the minerals turn the water in the pool a milky blue that is so beautiful, your photos will look Photoshopped. Seriously, look at them. I was there and I'm still not convinced they're not.

Best Pictures from Outer Space: Svínafellsjökull Glacier

I'm only half kidding about this, too. If you've ever seen the movie Interstellar, the pictures below might look suspiciously like one of its hostile, inhospitable terrains made only slightly more appealing by Matthew McConaughey.

And you'd be right, because it's where they filmed parts of the movie.

That said, the Svínafellsjökull glacier hike was probably the coolest and most unsettling thing we did during the trip. Coolest because... well, look at the pics. Unsettling because, while the hike guide didn't exactly make us feel unsafe, he was alarmingly adamant about us following his footsteps EXACTLY so as not to fall into a frozen crevice and die.

Then again, what's a good Insta pic if you're not willing to die for it, am I right?

Best Place to Capture a Horcrux: Vík

(FYI, I'm working under the assumption that you know what a Horcrux is. As one should.)

For the majority of our trip, we stayed in Reykjavík (in two different and equally awesome Airbnbs). We did, however, also spend two nights in a little village on Iceland's southern coast called Vík, which is much closer to Svínafellsjökull than Reykjavík is. The best part about staying at the old-school bed and breakfast Guesthouse Carina was, by far, the homemade rúgbrauð (an Icelandic bread that's really cake) in the morning. The second best thing, however, was the black sand beaches protected by a daunting line of cliffs at the edge of the village, which actually look eerily similar to the cave where Voldemort hid Salazar Slytherin's Locket.

Seriously, don't tell me I'm wrong about this:

Most Hipster-esque Shots: Reykjavík

What I didn't realize about Iceland (besides the fact that everyone there is beautiful. Seriously. I don't think I saw so much as a blemish the entire time I was there.) is that it's got a pretty solid hipster scene, if that's what you're into. Between the murals and the marble countertopped eateries, even the city life there is pretty darn Insta-worthy.

And this, conveniently, leads me to the second part of this post:

Food Spots

Now, for some reason (that reason being that I take food extremely seriously), I was in charge of a lot of our restaurant decisions. And they were decisions I did not take lightly.

As a disclaimer, this post isn't entirely necessary, as I'm pretty sure you can't really go wrong with choosing a restaurant in Reykjavík. (Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the three restaurants in Vík, where I'm pretty sure Hannah got served a plate of frozen mozzarella sticks with barbecue sauce.) That said, below is just a list of my favorite spots in Reykjavík.

You'd think the reason I liked this bakery so much is that it's totally Insta-worthy. (See below.) Not so. I actually loved this joint because of all its delicious, homemade carbs and the sweet-smelling smog of sugary goodness that oozed out of its front door. But really just the carbs.

We found this place mostly out of desperation (Erika had taken the car, and Hannah and I were starving), but this little cafe (which was a two-minute walk from our first Airbnb) turned out to be solid gold. Insta-gold, yes, but also homemade cinnamon rolls in the morning gold as well. (See discussion on carbs above.) The menu at Borðið was unfortunately in Icelandic, but it didn't really matter. You could point at anything on the menu, and I'm sure you'd still end up happy.

This was perhaps my peak in restaurant discoveries, and it's hardly even a restaurant at all. Kex is actually a hostel (and an inconspicuous one at that. The front door looks like the sort of warehouse door you'd only really think about entering if you're Olivia Benson). The inside, though, is nothing like SVU. The bar/restaurant on the third floor is hipster dining at its finest, complete with a view overlooking the water and a starter consisting of fried dates and bacon. I didn't offer much in terms of planning this trip, but I did offer Kex, and that, I think, was enough.

If we're being totally honest, I wasn't too pumped about the Cosy Pig. Granted, that might have been my fault seeing as I ordered a veggie burger. (I felt obligated to at least pretend I was balancing out the fried bacon.) That said, I had to include it, seeing as Erika went out one night on her own while Hannah and I were sleeping to get a second order of their beet and goat cheese gnocchi. And while Erika doesn't exactly value sleep as much as the rest of us (and much less than I do), still, I think the Cosy Pig has earned a spot on my list.

So there you have it! My highly anticipated, very timely post on the things that really matter when it comes to international travel. Next up, I'll likely be reviewing the trip to Israel we're set to take in a few weeks, which I'll probably post sometime in 2019.

December 01, 2017

A Cautionary Tale: The Vacation from Hell

Well, I promised I'd blog more, so here I am. Unfortunately, this post is not actually about any of the things I promised to blog about. You win some, you lose some, I guess.

Actually, I started writing this post earlier this fall, but I got sidetracked somewhere along the way. I've finally finished, though, and it somehow turned into the short novel you see below. Because like they always say: why say a little about something when you can say entirely too much?

That said, today I am going to tell the story of the last night of my family vacation last summer. We were nearing the end of our annual week-long stay at the Outer Banks in North Carolina, the same vacation I've taken every year since 1989, when I was still a kumquat in my mom's womb.

This vacation, however, was not like the rest.

Image via Unsplash
Anyway, to the tale.

This tale begins at 4:30 AM on a Thursday, when most of the world—including me—was still sound asleep. You see, at 4:30 AM on July 27, 2017, a group of people I can only assume are the same people who don't use turn signals were building a bridge. And in the midst of building this bridge, they were doing the one thing bridge-builders are specifically NOT supposed to do: they hit a wire underground. Yes, with one of their presumably very big and very destructive bridge-building tools, they hit a crucial wire used to power the whole island.

So at 4:30 AM on Thursday, the Outer Banks in North Carolina went dark.

Fast-forward to 6:30 AM on Thursday, with me—crusty-eyed and sweaty—waking up to realize that our bedroom fan wasn't spinning. Not yet fully awake, my first thought was, logically, that Derrick had gotten up in the middle of the night and turned the fan off. So, after grumbling for a moment, I got up and plucked the cord once, then twice, then three times. And that's when I realized what was really going on: the power was out.

However, still crusty-eyed as I was, I didn't really feel like investigating. So instead, I plopped back down on the bed and tried to go back to sleep. And this lasted all of about four minutes before I decided it was too hot to sleep. (There was sweat on my brow, for God's sake. Things were dire.)

So I decided to do what anyone in a dire situation would do: I went downstairs to find someone to complain to. And I found my sister, who was also in the middle of her own bout of grumbling over her own fans, which also wouldn't turn on. So together, we sat there in the slightly stuffy living room telling one another just how pissed we were and just how soon they better get the power back on, otherwise we wouldn't be able to make a smoothie for breakfast and so help us, if we couldn't make a smoothie, heads were going to roll.

Oh, how naive we were.

Because we wouldn't be having a smoothie for breakfast. We also wouldn't be having a smoothie for lunch. (Although not for lack of trying. I don't think I've ever witnessed anything quite so pure as my sister speed-walking across the road, trying not to spill the full blender she was hoping to discretely plug into our neighbor's generator.) Regardless, we didn't end up getting power back that day. We did, however, get an update from the local news network telling us that power would probably be restored in a few weeks.

WEEKS. In July. No power in July for WEEKS.

Now, before I go on, I should explain something about myself. I really, really like being comfortable. For a while, I tried to hide this particular characteristic. I tried to pretend I'm a "cool girl" who likes camping and music festivals and backpacking and other uncomfortable situations like that. But I'm not and I don't. I hate being hot. I hate using flashlights. I hate cold showers and unwashed towels and that slightly damp feeling of your shirt sticking to your back. So needless to say, I was not very pleased with the happenings going on that Thursday.

This, however, is not a tale about flashlights or cold showers or the infuriating state of my sweaty shirts (although all those things did happen). No, this tale is about what happened after we made dinner by flashlight, after the hour-long games of poker and magic card tricks and my sister's boyfriend falling through a tree in search of firewood. This tale is about what happened when we decided to go to bed.

Our plan for going to bed was simple: at 11:00 PM, we would all jump under our sheets and fall asleep as quickly as possible.

Now, you're probably wondering why 11. Well, according to the local news network, at 11:00 PM, our town would be receiving three blessed hours of power from the generators they'd hauled in, three wonderful, blissful hours in the midst of the "rolling blackouts" they'd scheduled so our food didn't go bad.

So we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And then, finally, 11 o'clock rolled around...


I'd like to tell you I handled this well, that I simply folded my hands in a dignified manner and said something like, "Ah, well, what's done is done," or whatever it is dignified people say in times like that.

But I didn't. Instead, I yelled and I stormed and I generally went apeshit around the house because it was hot, dammit, and I was sweating and besides, now all my yogurt was going to go bad, and who was going to pay for my yogurt, I'd like to know? Those numnuts who were building the bridge?

And to make matters worse, I knew some people were getting power somewhere out there, because every once in a while the silent darkness outside was pierced by the hooting and hollering of someone who's just experienced electricity for the first time in hours. So, that's all to say I was not particularly dignified about the letdown at all.

Regardless, we didn't have a lot of options at that point, so the only thing we really could do was carry on as scheduled and go to bed. Only we couldn't go to sleep inside, because it was hot as balls inside, even with all the windows open. And not just hot—it was stuffy too. Like, panic-inducing stuffy. Have you ever been trapped in a D.C. metro car that's broken down in the middle of summer? (Which, if you've ever been to D.C., I'm assuming you have.) That chill you get, a mixture of sweat and panic and that "are we ever going to get out of here or is this the end" feeling? That was our house.

So, in a surprising display of teamwork and heroism, Derrick and I instead decided to maneuver our queen-size mattress down an (unnecessarily, if you ask me—more on that later) narrow, unnecessarily steep staircase to the front porch, where we decided we would sleep.

And to be honest, once we were out there under the sheets, it wasn't so bad. I mean, it was no DoubleTree—even without the warm cookies. But lying there, with the breeze flitting through the porch railings and the faint buzz of mosquitoes serenading us softly to sleep, it really was okay. A very hard, exceptionally mediocre okay.

But, of course, that wasn't the end of this story. Actually, that was only the beginning. Because little did we know, as our eyelids grew heavy in that sticky, buggy humidity, we were about to enter the Hunger Games.

Now, if you haven't seen or read the Hunger Games, specifically the second one, first of all, what are you even doing with your life? Second of all, this probably won't make much sense to you. But assuming you're living in the twenty-first century and do know what I'm talking about, the night to come was a little bit like the 75th Hunger Games arena, wherein every hour brought about a new and surprising horror.

Hour One: The Fallen Boulder

Let me set the scene for you: it's nearing 1 AM, and I'm in that stage halfway between being awake and asleep, when you can hear what's going on around you but it doesn't really register. Derrick is snoring softly beside me, and there's no other sound but the buzzing of insects I've done my best to ignore.

And then, suddenly, the silence is broken.

It started with a large thud, which then sort of extended to a very long thud that felt like thirty minutes but was probably more like ten seconds. Regardless, as this extended thud shook the house (literally—the house was on stilts, so even a slightly-violent microwave door slam shook things), I froze. Like, I don't even think I was breathing. I was just lying there, fists clamped on the sheets, thinking, "Oh my god. Someones's died. Someone fell off the back porch and has died." (I never said I was any good at crises.)

Of course, Derrick was sound asleep, so he didn't hear the thud. But my mom, who I'm convinced is mostly machine and therefore doesn't sleep, did hear the thud. So about two seconds after the shaking had stopped, my mom—who is also much better at crisis situations than I am—appeared in the door.

"What was that?"

"I don't know."

"Was it Sam?"

"I don't know."

And then she was gone.

By this point, Derrick had woken up and had figured out there was some type of emergency to be dealt with. He told me later he didn't know exactly what type of emergency it was, but he nonetheless felt the need to spring to action anyway. So, he jumped out of bed and followed my mom to where she'd disappeared into the living room.

Now that I was no longer frozen, I also followed them. And what we found was, uh...

Well, what we found was my sister at the bottom of yet another unnecessarily narrow, unnecessarily steep staircase that led from the living room to the lower level bedrooms. She and her boyfriend had been sleeping on the back patio, which was just outside the living room, so she had also heard the thud. And, because she hadn't frozen like I had, she'd been the first one inside the dark living room to ask, "Is everyone alright?"

And she was also the first person to hear my dad, who was lying at the bottom of the unnecessarily narrow,  unnecessarily steep staircase, whimper, "No."

To recap: the living room was pitch black. There was a loud, extended thud which had resulted in my father—a steak-and-potatoes, football-and-power tools, man's man kind of man—whimpering at the bottom of the stairs. There was also, as Sam soon realized using the flashlight on her phone, a trail of blood leading from the top of the staircase down the wall to where my dad was crumpled.

So, naturally, Sam's first reaction was, "Oh my god. Dad's died. Dad fell down the stairs and has died."

And that's when we entered, to my sister sobbing at the bottom of the stairs screaming, "We have to take him somewhere! We have to call an ambulance!" as she tried to drag my boulder of a father up the stairs.

So, of course, my first reaction was to stand at the top of the stairs, screaming in hysteria. My mom, however, has a different approach to crises. You see, whereas I cry when I get scared, and Sam panics when she gets scared, my mom gets angry. And I mean violently, this threat is nothing to me and my womanly fury angry. So, naturally, my mom pushed me and Sam out of the way and took over.

"Jerry, what are you doing?! Why aren't you in bed?!"

**indiscriminate whimper**

**Sam and me sobbing at the top of the steps**

"Jerry, get up and go to bed! Now!"

And then my mom appeared at the top of the step with my dad in tow, snapping at us all. "He's fine. Go to bed."

So we did. I learned later that my mom had woken my dad up every half hour after that to make sure he was in fact fine and not dead. And the next morning, we learned that the trail of blood had come from a combination of my dad's left ankle and his broken right hand. But that all did not happen until after I spent another thirty minutes lying on our mattress outside crying because—well, I don't know why. Just because it was all very traumatic and it seemed like the right thing to do. Actually, I don't even know if it seemed like the right thing to do, but it happened anyway. And so it goes with me sometimes. I cry a lot.

Hour Two: Blazes of the Sun 

After a half hour of unnecessary crying, I was finally able to fall asleep. This, unfortunately, only lasted another thirty minutes before the second horror arrived—the electricity.

Now, this might not sound like a horror given the circumstances we were in, but when you're dead asleep after a somewhat traumatic incident, and suddenly the white glare of a porchlight is blazing right above your face, it feels a bit horrific. I think I was convinced for a moment that God had come to collect my soul. The worst of it, though, was that this brief bit of electricity wasn't really "the power"—it was just the rolling blackout power we were supposed to have received hours earlier. Basically, it was just enough power to cool down our fridge and turn on a light, but not enough to use the AC.

Regardless, as soon as the light switched on, so did Derrick. I barely had time to register what was happening before he sprung to action. (He springs to action a lot, if you haven't noticed.) I'm not sure what exactly he did while he was inside. I'm not sure he even knows exactly what he did. He tells me it was more like an unconscious and arbitrary flurry of switching switches and plugging plugs (like our dead phones, for example). I think my mom did a load of laundry. On the bright side, though, at least our phones worked the next day.

Hour Three: The Warriors of the Night

So you know how in any crisis situation, there's always that select group of heroes who are out there weathering the storm? You know—police people, firemen, doctors, Captain Planet and the Planeteers? Well, apparently trashmen are also on this list, because while the rest of the world was being thrown down stairs and into complete disarray, these heroic few were out there at 3 AM, collecting trash when we needed it most.

And, okay, in hindsight, I am a little glad the trash was gone the next morning (so the island was just dark, not dark and stinky), but I wasn't particularly thrilled about it at the moment. You see, the trash truck startled me back awake less than an hour after I'd barely escaped God coming to collect my wordly soul, and it was the exact sort of wake-up call I didn't need.

This was horror number three.

Hour Four: The Wakening of the Giant

I don't talk a lot about my brother on my blog, but there are a few things you should know about him: Nathan is very tall. 6"7', per his latest estimate, with a shoe size that they apparently only sell online. He also likes being comfortable even more than I do, and for reasons I will never understand, prefers wearing short-sleeves in 40 degree weather so he "doesn't get hot."

As you can imagine, Nathan was on a short fuse that night. And apparently, that fuse ended right at 4 AM, when he became so uncontrollably irate over the situation that he decided to take matters into his own hands. And by that, I mean he decided to storm down from his bedroom, through the front door, and to the car downstairs, where he presumably sat the rest of the night with the AC on. (I wasn't positive what he was doing, though, because I didn't say anything as he roared by. I think by this point I was numb to any additional emotional turmoil.)

Hour Five: Morning

The sun started rising a little before six. I have trouble sleeping (thanks, insomnia), so normally I'd be a little anxious about waking up that early with such little shut-eye. That morning, however, I popped right out of bed.

Coming into the house, it felt a little like I was coming home from war. Slowly, each one of my family members lumbered into the living room, with the exception of Nathan, who was still stewing in the car. Together, we assessed our injuries—mostly emotional, although in my dad's case, new and unexpected sources of dried blood scattered around his body.

Technically, we still had one more night of vacation, but needless to say, by that time, we'd all had enough. So that morning, I took a cold shower with an unwashed towel, slipped on a shirt that stuck to my sweaty back, and ordered my very first Starbucks coffee as we made our way off the island. 

If you're still reading, this is where the story ends. I'm not sure this is exactly marketable blog content, but I think it is a good cautionary tale for anyone thinking of going to the Outer Banks when the power's out. TL;DR: don't.