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There’s one aspect about my youth that many know of, select few appreciate/respect, some suspect, and others have mocked, but can best be summed up in a singular confession by the following:

"There are four things I'll be embarrassed about for the rest of my life, and here are three of them: losing an arm-wrestling contest to a girl when I was a kid, being sexually harassed by a female boss in my early twenties and not doing anything about it, and the time just after 9/11 when I actually gave $20 to the Republican party. But the fourth stings more than the rest…I've played role-playing games before."
- Paul Bibeau, Sundays with Vlad(1)

As a trying-to-find-himself teenage boy, I spent many a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), Champions, Doctor Who and other assorted Role Playing Games (RPGs) with a group of dyed-in-the-wool geeks and nerds – the customarily spurned and smirked at “great unwashed” caste of high school society. Given my more or less inherent introversion social awkwardness, lack of athletic prowess, and disdain for the popular, peer-pressure-saturated “in” crowd, my social refuge back then was this particular, peculiar demographic. We may not always have been quite what parents and/or society considers “normal” (which is worth boasting about in my book), but by the same token we weren’t out drinking, doing drugs or other questionable behaviors that keep parents up at night.(2) On the other hand, I’d wager none of us were immune to long, awkward silences over dinner and/or impassioned YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS TO BE ME! teenage temper tantrums followed up by ARE THEY 18 YET SO I CAN THROW THEM OUT OF THE GODDAMN HOUSE? parental eye rolls. As the influences of time and maturity took their toll, we became productive members of society (…more or less…), though at heart, we proudly revel in and covet our “non-comformist” glory days and heritage. Fortunately, Misha (my girlfriend) appreciates understands tolerates my geek nature (though I’m not willing to push my luck).

The Secret Lords of West Springfield High School and Scourge of Northern Virginia (clockwise from bottom left):
Spyke (blue t-shirt), me (red t-shirt and NOT making a gang sign), Neil, Dave (Punisher t-shirt), Keith, Steve (big grin/plaid pants), Erik (baseball cap) and Alex (center). The poster you can’t make out is a map of Quillanor, the fantasy world for our adventures.

I attended my high school’s official 10 year reunion, but it was much ado about nothing. Since my crowd didn’t rub shoulders with the popular kids, there wasn’t much fun or point in attending (I don’t think anyone I encountered even remembered me) and I haven’t attended any others since. Hanging out and/or remaining in contact over the years, weddings tended to double as our own unofficial reunions where we would all be in the same place. While always fun, these left mostly chance encounters for if and when one of us happened to be in another’s particular neck of the woods. Three years ago, my former game-playing group met for our very first, dedicated “reunion” and another after that in November 2014. Since that last reunion, we’ve tried to organize the next one (we’re trying to make them an annual tradition), however, higher priorities (e.g., work, families, etc.) have sometimes been a pain in the ass complicated finding mutually-beneficial dates and locations. Nevertheless, earlier this year we zeroed in on May 2016, leaving us with the lingering question of where to meet. Since we began these reunions, the previous “where” was our old stomping grounds – the wilds of suburban Northern Virginia, both for the sake of nostalgia and logistical convenience. More specifically, a few of us still live in the area and Spyke’s house (a.k.a., Casa de Wookie) in Burke provided easily accessible and available space (and a basement that’s a sentimental geek’s wet dream and treasure trove of collectibles, Lego sets, games and action figures – mint condition and still in the box, of course).


From time to time we kicked around ideas for location reunions (e.g., Hawaii – where Steve and his partner now live), but the time and means for extended travel hasn’t always been convenient or feasible for everyone. Since the last reunion, Keith relocated to Boulder, CO for personal and professional reasons, and it being within driving range of Jon in Utah and Erik in Kansas, it worked out as a serendipitous meeting place for our merry band. Sadly, Spyke needed to attend a convention and Dave’s family commitments understandably took priority over the otherwise agreed upon weekend, so sadly we were without their company this time around. A few of our “missing in action” members – namely Neil and another named Vic – haven’t attended our reunions (though Neil managed to Skype with us at the second reunion). For this meeting, timing worked out very well for me because 1) work was not infringing on my weekend activities (compared to what I endured over the past two years, this was a very welcome change), and 2) Misha (the significant other I mentioned above) was on the cusp of her second trimester, making it a relatively safe time for me to be away.(3)

Boulder, CO – Day 1 (Friday, May 13, 2016)

Boulder, CO – Day 2 (Saturday, May 14, 2016)

Boulder, CO – Day 3 (Sunday, May 15, 2016)


(1) This book is about Bibeau’s adventures and life-long fascination with Dracula, vampires and an exploration of meeting the not-quite-mainstream crowd, that any nerd, geek or freak will appreciate and/or understand. It’s also pretty damn funny. If you’re of the alternative crowd, a proud and card-carrying geek or nerd, or ever encountered and appreciate these types of people, then do yourself a favor and read this book.
(2) Unless you extend “questionable behaviors” to include various antics/shenanigans before and after Saturday midnight showings of The Rock Horror Picture Show at the now long gone Fair Oaks Mall movie theater, night walks at public parks, or a few examples of “creative” or “alternative” practical jokes we conducted (e.g., filling the Springfield Golf & Country Club’s golf course holes with increasing-in-size types of fruit – from blueberries up to a pineapple shoved into the 18th hole – which did not make the local paper’s headlines as we had hoped).
(3) Oh…uhm…SURPRISE! Misha and I are expecting (first kid for both of us)! Finding out about the baby was a HOLY SHIT WHOPPER bit of a surprise for both of us back in February, but a beautifully welcome one. It’s a girl and due in early October 2016. Feel free to send gift cards, diapers and profuse amounts of alcohol.
A Different Kind of Suburbia

The flight to Denver International Airport (DEN) was relatively uneventful compared to other flights. It being a Friday evening, I anticipated a throng of end-of-the-week long distance commuters, but Dulles International Airport (IAD) wasn’t particularly any busier than usual. This was a welcome surprise given the TSA’s recent bad press about long security lines and missing out on the complimentary “random pat down search” I receive almost every time I fly (though the TSA accommodated me for my return flight). The only significant notes about my flight were 1) I was snuggled between two older passengers – a very tense woman who looked as though she might have a mid-flight aneurism and a perpetually-shifting man who didn’t bring anything to keep him occupied, and 2) though the plane offered entertainment, none of it was free, forcing anyone too cheap or broke to “enjoy” a repeating one-hour loop of a mildly-funny New Girl episode, GoPro infomercials and a reality show about an Alaskan outback hick family that made Sarah Palin’s clan look like a Rhode Scholars by comparison.

I was on an evening flight, so I couldn’t really take in and feel out the Denver metropolitan area or Boulder during daylight hours (my preference at new destinations). I landed around 10:00 PM, so the basic-services-shut-down-for-the-evening state of the airport left me to my own devices for finding baggage claim and the rental car facilities (the flight was jam-packed, with flight attendants “volunteering” passengers to claim their carry-ons – I was hoping to avoid this). Deciding that the absent rental car counters and vague direction signs were useless, I sought a little advice from an information desk attendant, who had no qualms with expressing her acute annoyance of my taking her away from filing nails and texting whomever. May was unusually chilly this year, and probably one of the more recent Springs where enough people were still wearing jackets and sweatshirts to mistake it being closer to Thanksgiving than Memorial Day. Tired, hungry and anxious to get up to Boulder on this dark and stormy windy and rainy night, finding the correct car rental shuttle bus and arriving at the registration annex felt like a much greater achievement than it probably was.

As a former child of East Coast suburbia, I’m accustomed to metropolitan areas being…metropolitan. Looking at the Washington, DC area on Google maps, it’s nearly impossible to tell where one suburban town ends and another begins. Driving around Denver’s beltway (E-470) the only way of knowing I was near a major U.S. city was glancing over to the left and seeing city lights on the horizon. Whereas driving around DC’s I-495 Capital Beltway means a constant, seamless urban sprawl of bedroom communities and town centers, Denver’s commuter interstate could’ve been in the middle of nowhere. Each town I passed was a solitary, illuminated island in a sea of darkened prairie.

A Brief Encounter 20 Years in the Making

I underestimated how long it would take to exit the airport and motor over to Boulder (roughly 30 to 40 minutes), so I didn’t arrive at the hotel until shortly after 11:00 PM. My room was unusually large and complete with a kitchenette and a…cooler? Granted, hunting and fishing are favorite past times out here and you can’t throw a stick without hitting a craft brewery, but I never checked into a hotel with a cooler ready and waiting for me (or else there’s a thriving organ trafficking black market in the great Southwest).


Stay classy, Boulder.

I texted the gang and Alex responded that they were finishing up a meal at the nearby Ted’s Montana Grill, just up the road in downtown Boulder. Hungry and anxious to see everyone, I sped over, only to find them inside and the doors locked. Steve and one of the wait staff let me in and I joined them to catch up for a few minutes. This included an old college (Virginia Tech) friend of Keith’s, Erik’s and mine – Bryan (in fact, he was Keith’s freshman year roommate – hence, how we met him). Bryan is currently living in Colorado Springs and drove up to see us – and this was the first time he and I were in the same room in more than 20 years. We hugged and chatted for a few brief minutes as everyone settled their checks – Bryan and his wife gave birth their first baby together last year and I talked to him about Misha and I expecting ours later this year. The restaurant was shutting down for the evening and everyone was tired (myself especially). Bryan parked a short way down the road and asked if I wanted to walk with them down to his car, but I was parked literally across the street and just wanted go back to my room – and more importantly, hop into bed. What I wasn’t aware of until the next day was Bryan left to drive back to Colorado Springs that same night, so our brief few minutes was all I had with him (I thought he was visiting for the weekend like the rest of us).
Grey Morning in the Rockies

As I quickly discovered on my Hawaii trip, jetlag from traveling west disrupts my circadian rhythm more than traveling east. Still stuck on East Coast time, I woke up earlier than expected (I really wanted to sleep in). While the clock said 6:30 AM, my body was sure it was 8:30 AM, and wasn’t about to let me fall back asleep.(1) Resigned to being awake and somewhat functioning, I spent far more time than I intended surfing TV channels for anything halfway decent as background noise. Settling for back-to-back repeats of Law and Order on TNT, I read the news, answered emails and scrolled through social media on my tablet, trying to power up with the hotel-provided coffee that was everything you expect of something labeled as complimentary. First World White Boy Problem rant - I’m still mystified about living in a day and age where cable TV is so easily available and with a seemingly endless range of channels, yet hotel TV choices remain so limited that I feel almost relieved when resorting to shows that I never watch under normal circumstances.(2)

The plan was for everyone to meet at Keith’s apartment around 9:00 AM, so I jumped in the shower and drove over, parking across the street from Keith’s complex and next to one of Boulder’s Farmers Markets and the Dushanbe Tea House. Being a little early, I wandered around the market, checking out all kinds of organic foods and assorted arts and crafts, but the light, chilly rain and fog wasn’t adding to the fun. Back at Keith’s – he, Jon and I caught up on things and checked out Keith’s apartment – a nice, two bedroom suite with 10 foot high ceilings adorned in a decorative mix of “just moved in” and “bachelor chic.”(3) Living in Boulder the past few months clearly agreed with Keith, who looked relaxed and content in his new surroundings, and Jon was still the great family man, somehow managing to raise five kids while working full-time and coach soccer.

Alex, Erik and Steve finally arrived and we continued catching up on the life and times of our random lives. They grabbed a bite to eat just before arriving, so Keith, Jon and I ran over to the farmers market and picked up some amazing breakfast sandwiches (perhaps seeming that good because their warm, savory satisfaction contrasted sharply with the gloomy weather). The woman running the sandwich counter demonstrated an odd sense of humor when asking for my name on the order, referring to me only as “Good Scott”…leaving us and her coworker wondering why I wasn’t “Great Scott.” Her response was simply “let’s wait and see.”

Though I never got confirmation, I like to think I eventually graduated up to “Great.”

(1) I’m discovering that as a I – AHEM – get older, my version of “sleeping in” has evolved from my high school days of waking up just in time for lunch to now between 7:30 to 8:30 AM. And to think, I have the sleep-deprived experience of having a newborn to look forward to in a few months, too!
(2) I’m referring to banal, stock shows that are fairly mindless to watch, and not the low-grade adult fare that could’ve been filmed in the very room I’m staying in (for those who spend a lot of time in hotel rooms, you’re welcome for that lovely image).
(3) Sparsely-furnished with functional-rather-than-stylish furniture and plenty of boxes. Sadly, no wood-plank-and-concrete-block bookshelves.


Pearl Street and a Test of Wits

In the past few years, a growing and trendy thing to do is “puzzle rooms” or “escape rooms.” The premise is diabolically simple – you’re locked in a room with nothing but your wits and cunning to find the clues needed in order to escape. A number of such places have popped up over the years providing this form of entertainment, and one of our band suggested our doing this while we were in town. As it just so happens, there’s an Enigma location in Boulder, so we resoundingly were all in for the excursion.

Keith’s flat is in the downtown area, just north of the University of Colorado and south of the trendy Pearl Street Mall – the main drag of shops, restaurants and everything in between. Walking along the brick walkway, we passed the old courthouse, a seemingly endless selection of clothing, new age and book stores, as well as all kinds of locally-owned craft brew houses, coffee shops and eateries. Amongst everything else, it was incredibly difficult fucking impossible hard to miss the occasional and distinct skunk of pot wafting about from other pedestrians and shops – a malodorous reminder that the locals fully embraced Colorado’s legalizing marijuana. Boulder proved to be more than just a beautiful corner of the Southwest – it’s also an artsy, liberal mecca in an otherwise “red state”…or as Keith described it, “Boulder is to Colorado as Austin is to Texas.” ‘Nuff said.

        

        

Back to the escape room…

Enigma is tucked away next door to Zuni, a Native American jewelry and fetish carving shop (the link is safe – “fetish” doesn’t quite mean what you thing it means here). We wove our way down what seemed like increasingly smaller staircases and hallways until we walking into the Enigma place and prepared for the fun and excitement.

As I mentioned, the rules are deceptively simple – once locked in, you’re given 60 minutes to figure out how to escape. Cellphones and cameras are strictly verboten (for obvious reasons), so you’re only allowed a pencil and paper, and the only advice they offer is “if it looks like it can’t or shouldn’t be moved, then don’t” (though they can slip hints under the door if you’re really stumped – we received one that I know we could’ve gotten by fine without). For this challenge, we took on the “Mad Scientist: Part I” scenario, which put us in what appeared to be a seemingly ordinary living room.

Obviously not taken by me - Deceptively innocent looking, isn't it?

Our coats and personal items secured, the door locked behind us, and like a famous fictional detective loves to exclaim – the game was afoot.

Given that I love surprises and morally feel it would be unfair to any reader who may try an escape room, I won’t give away any secrets. Needless to say, our wily team went to work, overturning furniture, moving around books, lifting couch cushions, inspecting fake house plants and searching through every drawer – leaving nothing for granted. The truly amazing part of the experience is it calls upon just about every bit of one’s imagination, logic, cunning and memory skills to find and figure out the clues. Between our collective skills and talents, ranging from math, to word games, to spatial and abstract relations, each of us were making discoveries, leaps of logic and deductive reasoning through this elaborate puzzle. As we tore through the room, I could only imagine how entertaining it must’ve been for the clerk outside watching via closed circuit TV. We were told that the record time for solving/escaping this particular room scenario was around 28 minutes. While we didn’t break any records (just a shade under 39 minutes), we did beat the odds since there’s only a 30% success rate.

Walking out onto Pearl Street, we were relishing our success and “Moment of Zen.” The whole experience was a definite rush – the kind you get from overcoming a challenge without any forewarning or expectation. While life and limb weren’t on the line, the air of immediacy and motivation to escape made the entire experience its own little adventure. We were laughing and practically vibrating thanks to the mild swell of adrenaline. We faced the most anxiety-inducing of tests – knowing nothing about a scenario, relying solely on our wits to successfully overcome it. We could’ve been back in high school again, sharing a connection that those who were never in our crowd wouldn’t understand or appreciate. We shared this experience as a dear group of friends – and I was reminded again as to why I value these people, keeping in touch with them over the years, and always enjoying their company. We walked the streets of Boulder with a CHECK US OUT BITCHES swagger that probably only we truly appreciated, were aware of, or cared about.

Naturally, we great conquerors were hungry and in need of celebratory sustenance and drinks. Trusting Keith’s judgment and better knowledge of downtown Boulder, we opted for lunch at Old Chicago for pizza and beer to celebrate another reunion and a job well done.

Left (From Front to Back): Erik, Steve and myself. Right (From Front to Back): Keith, Jon and Alex.

Once More Into the Breach, Dear Friends

Comfortably satiated with food, beer and high spirits (pun fully intended), we returned to Keith’s apartment to take up a small adventure/campaign that we’ve played bits of at each of these reunions.

        
Two examples of memorabilia going back a long time – Keith’s old coffee mug and Alex’s dice box.
Proof that we geeks not just live but revel in our sentimentality.

Looking upon the table, covered in character sheets, dice of all colors and shapes, rulebooks and manuals and tiny lead figures, high school could’ve been yesterday. But in all honesty, it also reminded me that I really don’t miss RPGs.

Back in high school, the game charged our imaginations (in some ways, still does for our various creative pursuits and interests), and enabled/empowered an otherwise socially-awkward, enormously intelligent, highly creative and fun/funny group of non-conformists to bond together. We attended a high school where the pressure to “fit in” came from classmate, teacher and school administrator alike. Whereas all of these wondered why anyone would pass on the traditional Friday Night Lights experience of a high school football game, we understood as only we could. At the end of every week, we raced from school to sit around a table – imagining the grandest of adventures and mildly distracting of side quests; carefully arranging those tiny lead figures on a grid map as we battled all manifestations of evil wizards, ruthless mercenaries, orcs, goblins, gelatinous cubes and dragons; or trying to figure out one of Alex’s brain teasers (all while feeding on near-stale Domino’s Pizza).(1) Granted, there were moments of shouting at each other over contested rules, baseless accusations of the Great Conqueror Wyrm Dungeon Master Alex exercising favoritism for certain players, or just silly juvenile bickering.(2) However, considering everything else we could’ve been into during that time, our parents probably still thank God, fate or blind luck that playing RPGs was the very worst of our teenage vices.

Somewhere along the way, probably lost between focusing on college, finding new hobbies, discovering those fundamentally mysterious, frustratingly-distracting things called “girls” and/or needing to earn a living, D&D became a fading memory. It was a fondly remembered staple of my childhood, the mortar binding the bricks as part of the foundation that our motely band was built upon. Just as well, it was a suspicious-but-humorous bit of cannon fodder for dates and girlfriends, who would ask the inevitable "But you don’t play it anymore, RIGHT? The funny thing is, after 20 plus years of not even looking at a Dungeon Master’s Guide, Unearthed Arcana, Fiend Folio or Monster Manual, I’m both astounded and strangely comforted by how easily playing the game comes back to me. I don’t recall every rule that we practically memorized or debated over back then, but things like making savings throws and racking up experience points for our characters…it never really goes away.

In addition to all of the memories these reunions bring back, they remind of my one major regret from that time – I didn’t save more of my sketches and drawings from back then.

One thing that’s always been clear is my family has a creative streak – my Dad and his father are/were skilled carpenters, my Mom made cooking, painting with acrylics, cross stitch, sewing or any other number of arts and crafts look easy (her mother and aunts could do anything with a sewing machine and a few yards of cloth). Even my autistic sister has her own brand of creative flair for arts and crafts (she especially loves decorating Easter Eggs and Christmas cookies).

I discovered at a very early age that I enjoyed art, which eventually evolved into drawing, especially after I began collecting and reading comic books (much to my parents’ chagrin).(3) Throughout high school, I was never without a drawing pad and a few sharpened pencils ready to sketch whatever came to mind. I spent countless hours in class, afternoons and evenings working behind a sleepy movie theater concession stand,(4) Friday night D&D sessions, or in my room drawing superheroes, arch villains and my friends’ RPG characters. My drawing habit was so prevalent that my parents bought me a drawing table as a birthday present (it’s currently sitting disassembled in a closet due to lack of space in my condo), and I even received a Minor in Studio Art in college. During my college years, Steve and I began work on a graphic novel based on our D&D adventures. I penciled and inked some truly fun and promising pages (Steve wrote the story, I was his artist). That creative collaboration was very satisfying, and I still wonder what might’ve happened if we pursued the project more. To this day, I’ll still pull out pencil and paper and draw if the mood strikes me, but it was clear in college that I’m a much better writer than artist (if I do say so myself).

Nevertheless, whole pads of sketches and drawings fell victim to countless moves, shifting priorities and just plain old crappy short-sightedness – preserved only by memory. I managed to hang on to a few pieces from my art classes and personal work in college, but anything prior to that is pretty much gone. Steve has no clue where the pages I generated for him evaporated away to, and my sketchpads are probably in a landfill or were sacrificed in a fireplace long ago. I still kick myself about not saving at least some of that work – if anything, just for old times’ sake or to remind myself of how (hopefully) far my skills had evolved since that time.(5) It’s a tough thing for any artist to lose a something they created – that work is from them, it’s a part of them. For an artist, losing a piece of their work is like of a veteran who’s missing an arm or a leg – with just the nebulous “phantom pain” as a reminder.

On the other hand, words cannot even begin to describe the titanic immense near-orgasmic satisfaction when an artist recovers or is reunited with even a small piece of work believed lost for good. As we sat around Keith’s table laughing and enjoying each other’s company again, Erik passed around a sketch I made of his character from back in high school. I was so shocked – I almost couldn’t believe that one of my drawings from so far back had survived. I could see from this one sketch how much my style and ability changed, but the tiniest bud of modest talent and evident artistic influences mixed into the drawing brought on a rush of memories.(6) I was more than a little stunned that anyone kept a drawing like this for so long – and it may very well be the last and only existing piece of my artwork from high school. If anything else, it made me ask myself why I let drawing slip away and that maybe I need to take it up again.

(1) I could be wrong, but I believe Alex once admitted that he sometimes drew up puzzles for us to stew over as a diversion or stalling tactic until he figured out what to do with us and/or the adventure we were on. In retrospect, he was so extremely adept at hiding those moments of frustration and creative logjams that he should give up his professorship tenure and become a professional poker player.
(2) “Great Conqueror Wyrm” is a title Alex bestowed upon himself back in the day. Also, the yelling and bickering was occasionally usually a result of my immaturity and some egging me on because I was very entertaining when angry…boys will be boys, even the nerdy ones.
(3) Yes…D&D…comic books…and to complete the trifecta – we played Laser Tag, as well (especially when Toys R Us held a clearance sale on the gear). I have absolutely no idea how any of us successfully managed to date, marry and/or sire children.
(4) This was at the now long-gone Springfield 1&2 movie theater. It was the town’s original movie theater before the also now gone Springfield Mall was built with its own movie theater complex. The mall stole away the older theater’s business, leaving it as little more than a rundown, falling apart relic. It scrounged by as a discount second run theater and rented out its large parking lot as a commuter lot on weekdays. Some locals championed a mild push to preserve the old theater as a historic landmark. Sadly, the developers won out, demolishing it and building a Circuit City, which ironically was eventually demolished after the store chain closed and restored the location back to a commuter lot. The theater’s sleepy venue made for long periods filled up by goofing off with coworkers since we rarely had large crowds to occupy our time. We discovered an unlocked hatch to the roof, and would sometimes climb up there for longer-than-permitted breaks. Just before it closed for good, several of us stole our names in marquee letters – mine are framed and hanging on the wall of my office.
(5) In a similar vein, I lost all of my grad school papers and projects because I didn’t think ahead to transferring those files from floppy disks to a CD.
(6) Influences on my drawing included Frank Miller, Arthur Adams, John Romita, Jr., Whilce Portacio, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri and Rick Leonardi. I was also fond of and tried emulating Patrick Nagel’s minimalist style, and studied Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo’s human form sketches.


Hunger Always Wins

We spent the rest of the grey afternoon laughing, reminiscing and catching up with each other’s lives and/or current events. The one downside of this reunion is not everyone could take the same time off, and Alex needed to catch a red eye flight home that evening. Erik gave him a lift to the airport and came back to join the rest of us for a late night bite to eat. While waiting for Erik to return, Keith, Steve and I wandered out to run an errand, only to discover that 1) we couldn’t find the store we were looking for, and 2) apparently there’s a restaurant named after me in Boulder. As we discovered the previous evening, Boulder shuts down early – most places politely asking diners and drinkers to hit the road around 10:00 or 10:30. It being about that time, we walked around Pearl Street in dire hopes of finding any place that wasn’t a bar with a band playing. Sadly, our last resort for food was the local Cheesecake Factory. As a general rule while traveling, I make it a point to avoid chain places like the plague. Not that I dislike chain restaurants (some are worthwhile), but despite their inherent comfort value in an unfamiliar place, my thinking is why would you want to eat at a restaurant you can find anywhere else or at home? What’s the adventure of traversing the planet if you’re choice of food is the mundane, familiar and/or reliable? However, hunger and group consensus ultimately trumped travel ethics, so we dove into the Factory of Cheesecake for our late night consumption.

Afterward we made our goodbyes – Steve was taking an early morning flight back to Hawaii, and Erik and Jon needed to hit the road equally early for their long drives home. The long, fun day came to a satisfactory and bittersweet end.
When planning for this trip, my choices for flights home mostly amounted to either leaving at the crack of dawn or taking a redeye late in the evening. Thankfully, I found one flight that departed around 7:00 PM, so I reserved a seat which maximized my time for the weekend. If I had known that our time together would be limited to one day, I might’ve gone for an earlier flight back. However, the extra day meant time to explore Boulder on my own, but not before I slept in and took my time checking out of the hotel.

Back at Pearl Street

After grabbing a bite to eat, I wandered the length and breadth of Pearl Street, taking my time to tour the outdoor mall at my leisure. It was Sunday, so the others milling about were in no real hurry for anything, and many looked as though they dressed by grabbing random clothes in the dark. Many were attired in the best that sport outfitters or vintage clothiers specializing in hippie wear had to offer. The most eye-catching ensemble was a grey-haired man in red sweatpants, tie-dye t-shirt, and bright purple faux fur coat.

Whether it was antique books, crystals, all manner of arts and crafts, fetish carvings or Eastern religious icons – you could find it on Pearl Street. While nothing really leapt out at me as a “must buy,” I spotted a tie-dye onesie that I ruminated about buying for Misha’s and my soon-to-be baby. For whatever inexplicable reason, I opted not to buy it…a fact that Misha still won’t stop teasing me about to this day (to say nothing about her also teasing me about a tie-dye shirt I wore in college that is probably best left forgotten).

        

        

In addition to more eccentric, comfortably-dressed homeless-but-really-not-homeless types (some of the locals seem to enjoy a thriving panhandling market, where people who don’t appear to be homeless sit out and look for handouts sporting fairly nice/trendy bags and clothes, and even light up toys to get your attention), Boulder was well-populated with street performers. As in, A LOT of street performers. Whether they were painters trying to capture life on a grey morning, roving flash mobs of swing dancers who needed to trade their caffeine-loaded lattes for bong hits, or jugglers whose tossing skills with lit torches bested their painfully bad joke delivery (I’m pretty sure this is intentional), it was hard to navigate around the onlookers surrounding them. Boulder is definitely an artists’ community, and the street performers were definitely right at home.

        

        

Heading Home

As the day moved into the mid-afternoon, the sun finally pierced the weekend’s grey canopy just long enough to show everyone that it still existed. And after that brief shot of warm light, thunderstorms began rolling into the area, heralding my hopping in the rental car and high tailing it to the airport. Dropping off the car and shuttling over to the terminal was easy enough, but the security lines were beyond ridiculous. I’m not sure why the airport was so full on a Sunday afternoon, and I expected this kind of crowd in DC, not here. Winding my way through went quickly enough (even with the expected and received “random pat down” from my friends at the TSA), and I had enough time for a beer and a bite to eat from a waitress with absolutely no concept of personal body space.

The flight back had the benefit of relatively cheap and available wifi, enabling me to watch a few things I DVR’ed (I love Verizon Fios), though I could’ve done without the person next to me who made far too many trips to the bathroom and cursed more than a turrets patient bingeing on cocaine, candy and Starbucks. Nevertheless, I arrived home to Misha passed out in bed, her cat and mine in their separate corners (my cat likes hers, but her cat doesn’t really feel the same way about mine), and Bear (Misha’s ever affectionate-but-somewhat-mentally-challenged Pomeranian) happy to see me.
DISCLAIMER: This trip account is woefully late due to an enormously busy Winter thanks to my work and personal life (a healthy blend of amazingly good and ever annoying). I know you were waiting on pins and needles for this one, my dear readers.

All Work and No Play…

2015 began with a new job at a new company (which I’ve since left to start work at another new job…make what you will of that, but proposal work has been a bumpy world since 2008) that quickly steamrolled into a lot of work. As a proposal specialist, my career generally involves herding cats pointing a gun other peoples’ heads working with other professionals to build proposals. Why do this? It’s for the big bucks blissfully challenging and rewarding sense of accomplishment ripping-my-fucking-hair-out detail-oriented and pain-staking process of developing various documents for potential clients to evaluate and award contract work for.(1) Normally, I’m coercing the so-called “experts” into writing technical content and then it’s up for me to completely rewrite edit and revise “polish up the bullshit” (figuratively if not literally…with all due respect to Mythbusters). And in case you’re wondering, yes there is from time to time, an inverse relationship between being an expert and being able or willing to write about that expertise.

However, that company needed me to do A LOT of proposal writing – not always easy considering my lack of technical expertise in…uhm…anything (which is second only to my Liberal Arts degree aptitude for asking “Do you want fries with that?”). Proposal work tends to be “feast or famine” work. Either you’re so busy that the passage of time is tracked by when leftovers in the fridge gain sentience or the DVR warns that it’s memory is full. By contrast, you can be so soul-crushingly desperate for something to do bored that counting holes in ceiling tiles becomes your raison d’etre.(2) The bottom line is you work your ass off because you know there’s eventual downtime, and that job and company definitely put that to the test.

Needless to say, when my now former boss (i.e., my boss is no longer there because they fired him – a first for me since I’ve never had a manager or supervisor let go) said his intention was to “keep me constantly writing”…and with that he established my new measuring rod for understatement. From May through November, I was writing, coordinating, tracking the progress of and/or building one proposal after another, frequently requiring others to help deal with less dire proposal efforts while I tackled the more critical ones. The wear and tear took its toll, too – burn out was becoming a serious problem and those six long months became an extended repeat of the grueling four months I went through in 2014. Something I hoped never to repeat (…and if wishes were horses…). I don’t mind working hard, but I was overwhelmed to the point of being the only one in the office who did not get to take a vacation.(3) On the plus side, I developed a lot of new and/or improved proposal material, upgraded the quality of their proposals and scored a few points with the management (for whatever that was worth now that I’ve moved on to bigger and better things).

But the reality is I needed a break. I really…REALLY needed a break.

A City So Nice They Named it Twice

As my previous blog entries evidenced, my adventures have usually been absent of participation with a significant other. Some of this is due to timing (i.e., I happen to not be involved with anyone at the time), or more attributed to my serious ineptitude lack of success in the dating arena.(4) However, as luck may have it, I was just passing the one year mark with Misha (my girlfriend) when I finally got a break in the workload, and we took advantage of the long Honoring the European Scourge on Native Americans Columbus Day weekend and head up to the City That Never Sleeps. We had kicked around ideas for taking various trips throughout the year, but my workload encroaching on my free time (even weekends) made vacation planning at best a problematic exercise.

I’ve visited NYC multiple times – in college to experience the art museums, seeing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with my Mom’s side of the family, and touring Times Square enough to last me a lifetime (as well as spotting it from above while flying to Iceland …yes, it really is that hard to miss). Despite those previous trips, I hadn’t seen nearly enough of it – especially lower Manhattan and Brooklyn – and this was a golden opportunity to see those otherwise parts unknown. I’ve always wanted to step foot in Brooklyn given it’s my Mom’s original stomping grounds (born and lived there for her first few years) and there was plenty in Manhattan I’ve never seen in person. Misha spent a large part of her youth in NYC for work as a dancer,(5) so there were former haunts she wanted to see, as well. The big plus was we stayed with a couple who are friends of hers (the wife is former dancer, too), sparing us the expense of a hotel while in the city. And if you’ve ever paid for a hotel room in NYC, you’ll appreciate what huge bonus that is.

Nevertheless, the warm-but-not-hot-as-Hell weather of a waning summer and a long holiday weekend provided an opportune break in the rigmarole to visit out the Big Apple…and check off a few more items on my travel bucket list.

New York City – Day 1 (Saturday, October 10, 2015)

New York City – Day 2 (Sunday, October 11, 2015)

New York City – Day 3 (Monday, October 12, 2015)



(1) The old joke is there are two things people don’t want to know how they’re made – laws and sausages. I humbly submit that most don’t want to know about the nature of government contracting either. Personally, I believe that if more people knew how government contracting worked, they might hate contractors more than Congress…if that’s even possible.
(2) A former coworker and I were so bored that we really did have a ceiling tile hole counting contest. At another job, a coworker best defined as an egomaniacal Millennial bitch from Hell with a mad hate-on for me (a long story for another time and place, it’s enough to say that we all hoped the door slammed her in the ass when she quit and left for another job) spent a conspicuous and suspicious amount of down time planning and implementing various “practical jokes” at my expense in a fruitless endeavor to piss me off. Her attempts included partially disassembling my office chair and hiding and/or suggestively abusing personal items (which actually amused me a few times – I appreciate a good imagination…and I’m pretty hard to offend). Despite some mediocre-rather-than-herculean efforts on her part, I never gave her the satisfaction (In fact, to this day, I’m still not sure why she hated me so much…given my personality, I’m sure I said or did something, but what that was honestly eludes me.).
(3) It’s hard to maintain a SEG (or “Shit-Eating-Grin”) when coworkers go on (…and on…) about the wonderful week they spent at [NAME YOUR FAVORITE BEACH HERE] The good news is things got very quiet after Halloween – a respite I was very grateful for.
(4) Those who know me can consider themselves politely asked to shut the fuck up please keep their comments to themselves on this subject. The rest of you out there on the Intertubes may draw your own conclusions, which may require my following up with a defiant “Go stick your head in a pig” (with all due respect to Douglas Adams).
(5) By “dancer” I mean “ballerina” and NOT “exotic.” I’m making this distinction because my friends reading this blog would go there…but that’s also why they’re my friends (don’t judge us).

Thanks for the Lovely Ride…Sorry About the Fingernail Marks…

As I may have mentioned before yes you have get on with it already I’m not a morning person, so I won’t belabor that point. Needless to say, we awoke at an ungodly early hour for getting down to Rosslyn to meet our bus. Unfortunately, it was necessary to head out well before the Metro opened for service. One major difference I’ve noticed between the Washington, DC metropolitan area and overseas is the nature of public transportation. Other places (both overseas and throughout the U.S.) tend to have more readily-available public transportation (e.g., around-the-clock buses, trams and subways), but DC’s isn’t always as ready to serve (e.g., the Metro isn’t a uniformly 24-hour service – and that’s not even touching all of the problems and accidents over the past few years). The net result is things get a little awkward when you need to be somewhere at an unusual time and don’t have or want to bother with a car. Being without a car due to living in the city, Misha is accustomed to walking a lot, but me as a dyed-in-the-wool suburbanite considers walking best left for shopping malls, infrequent opportunities to wear stylish workout clothes gym visits, crossing over-commercialized town centers to meet friends for brunch, and the ever popular dating site hobby/interest – “hiking.” Living in suburbia basically means you tend to rely on your own readily-available transportation.(1) Given the lack of Metro service(2) and our unwillingness to inflict our friends to sharing the “way too early before sunrise” fun, we opted for a service that Misha utilizes, but I’ve long denied myself the pleasure of.

I was about to embark on my first, great experience with Uber.

To give it credit, I’ve been impressed with the ease of using Uber, both with the elegance of the app and alacrity of the drivers, especially since the DC area isn’t exactly known for its gracious or conscientious drivers. This is a good time to admit that while I don’t mind friends or family members doing the driving,(3) however, I maintain a healthy and ginormous deep-seated marginal distrust of strangers driving me anywhere. This is from an experience or two with cab drivers intentionally taking longer routes to pad their fares, and a few harrowing rides with lesser-known coworkers whose driving style made me wonder if they had a death wish that by default extended to their passengers. However, Misha and other Uber users I know had generally positive comments about the service, so I decided to see what I had been denying myself all of this time. A few taps on Misha’s cell phone provided a willing-and-able Uber driver within minutes.

Now, it’s fair to say that the first sign of trouble was the driver having difficulty figuring out where my condo is, my concern soon became as intense as it was immediate upon knowing we were entrusting our lives to a driver in a Jeep with a model year that was closer to when I graduated college rather than when Obama took his first oath of office. The driver was a polite, older gentleman who offered to help load our bags into the car and a cup of mints to partake of (which I didn’t because…yes, my trust issues are that bad). The driver meant well, but my concerns about the vehicle’s integrity skyrocketed by the alarming (pun intended) number of warning lights turning his dashboard into a Christmas tree. However, we were on the clock and the only other option was rolling the dice with another Uber driver, so we loaded up and put our lives in his hands. It being early Autumn, the morning air had a slight chill that was utterly trumped countered by a car heater cranked all the way to “roast.” Thankfully, the driver hadn’t used the safety locks, so I cracked open the back window. The driver admitted he was from over in Maryland, so he wasn’t familiar with Virginia roads (and us wondering why he was in Virginia…). Between the one or two wrong turns that were easily corrected for and/or taking roads at such high speeds…I felt a slight need to apologize for my sense of survival and well being that resulted in me gripping the front passenger seat so hard that I left fingernail marks in it.


(1) Sadly, I have only the four-wheeled variety since my motorcycle was burnt to a crisp by a short-sided neighbor a few years back. I still want to invest in another bike, but travel isn’t exactly a cheap hobby and I have higher priorities these days.
(2) It’s only fair to point out that Washington, DC’s Metro system is now over 40 years old, and as implied above, saying it isn’t aging well is putting it far too mildly. In the past few years, the Metro has suffered from a whole host of service problems and accidents (e.g., derailed trains, electrical failures, fires, muggers, mimes, amateur musicians, etc.) that are best compared to anyone who is on the verge of, currently “enjoys” and/or has survived middle age.
(3) There are a few exceptions…on a more serious note, this all happened months before the Uber Kalamazoo rampage. Had that terrible event occurred before this trip, there’s no way in Hell I would’ve gotten into an Uber car (and I still wonder how Misha can do it).



The Cosplayers are Coming! The Cosplayers are Coming!

The bus ride went without a hitch – a few hours with off-and-on wifi made for an uneventful trip along a stretch of I-95 (i.e., the Jersey Turnpike) that I hadn’t been on since going out to the Jersey Shore with a friend to pick up a motorcycle he bought via Craigslist.(1) The original plan was to travel by train, but time got away from us, and when we got around to looking at train options, the fares were too high for comfort. I equate taking a bus from my college years, where bus riders all but dared the uncomfortable bus seats to ruin their kidneys while riding to and from Northern Virginia, so I wasn’t crazy about the option. Between the better seats, wifi and lack of hygienically-questionable college students, I was more-or-less pleased with the experience.

We arrived at Penn Station on a sunny, bustling New York morning. There’s nothing quite like the international mixing bowl of New York, where representatives of every race, creed and lifestyle mingle in the blink of an eye. Added to this glorious, vibrant, haphazard brew of humanity, was a sidewalk full of every comic book, video game and sci fi TV show/movie/anime characters in existence. As luck would have it, our visit fell on the same weekend as the New York ComicCon at the neighboring Madison Square Garden, which was currently overrun by an army of costumed fans.

My geek nature is beyond hopelessly evident no secret, and I like to think it’s one of the qualities Misha was partially attracted to and definitely shares some measure of.(2) However, I can say without a doubt, though with the exception of a ramshackle-at-best convention my college held one year (and mistaking that for a “convention” is akin to claiming Olive Garden is "fine dining"), I have never attended a “con.” Have I considered it? Sure, temptation has sometimes tickled my inner child who still faithfully idolizes Adam West and William Shatner on reruns of Batman and Star Trek. Though the adult, who’s a little tired of the condescending side-eye from others about my playing D&D as a socially-awkward, acne-faced teen, finds it easier to sidestep the whole “Yes, I went to a con…don’t judge me, you wankpuffin” discussion.(3) Needless to say, I was able to identify a more-than-I-should-admit-to number of characters walking around us. In a similar vein, we spent the rest of the weekend spotting (assumed to be) attendees adorned in varying degrees of ComicCon costumes or that might be ComicCon costumes (this is New York) all over lower Manhattan.


(1) Which is the worse – buying something from a total stranger via the Internet’s number one site for police posing as hookers, or voluntarily going to the Jersey Shore? I leave such weighty philosophical quandaries for better minds to fathom...
(2) Whether she admits it or not…and I won’t go into further detail about this because she is very smart, highly imaginative and has no qualms about utilizing either quality when causing me bodily harm.
(3) This is not, by any means to imply shame, loathing or otherwise negative judgment regarding my geek nature or convention attendees and cosplayers …except maybe furries, because – no…just no.



YAYYOUMADEITSORRYWEGOTTARUNBYE!

Compared to the aging DC Metro, the NYC Subway is one of the oldest in the world, and possibly one of the filthiest (based on my experiences with London’s Underground and Paris’ metro system…though both aren’t much cleaner by comparison). Fortunately, Misha remembered her way around the NYC subway system pretty well, even if she kept referring to it as the “Metro” – which I teased was due to her spending far too much time in DC (an argument can be made about that for both of us). Nevertheless, we managed to navigate our way along the crowded sidewalks and weave into and through the subway system, finally reaching the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Misha’s friend and also former-dancer Laura and her husband Matt live in the beautifully-retro corner of Brooklyn, just a stone’s throw from one of the East River Ferry dock. Arriving on their street, Misha was disappointed to find that one of her favorite local eateries was closed (including one or two other former haunts from her dancing days, as we’d discover over the weekend). I understand and appreciate her feelings about now-defunct favorite (or at least noteworthy) restaurants and hangouts – several high school friends and I contributed to a Google-based Dead Restaurant Map of Northern Virginia guide. This website equivalent of an Irish wake and pouring-one-out is monument to the fondly-missed, amusingly remembered and/or thank-[INSERT YOUR DEITY OF CHOICE]-it’s-dead-and-gone culinary establishments and remenisive testament to our collective acknowledgement of time marching on.

   

Streetside just outside of Matt and Laura's apartment.

Much like any number of older edifices I’ve been in, Matt and Laura’s apartment building had seen better days, and probably existed at least as far back as when my mother’s grandparents had first arrived in America.(1) Walking up the narrow, steep stairwell where no two steps quite lined up with one another, the air was soaked in the unmistakeable, worn and musty scents of well-trodden carpet, overtcooked spices and dubious-quality pot. It was the signature ambiance of a structure that had seen much over the decades, and as alive and immune from others’ judgment as the people inhabting it. Akin to classic old cars, this building had a character and a soul – a history expressed in stains, holes and miscellaneous chattle piled in corners, leaving one only wishing that the walls could talk about a thousand stories that they would never divulge. A few knocks on the door and we were inside Matt and Laura’s apartment, a quaint abode whose layout involved passing from the living room through the bedroom and den/dining area/kitchen to the bathroom at the other end when Mother Nature called. Photos of family, friends and Laura dancing lined the walls in the den/dining area, eclectic gargoyle paintings hung in the living room,(2) shelves full of books and DVDs occupied every corner, and hidden amongst it all were two cats coolly surveying us from the security of their secretive hovels.

Matt was up on the roof smoking, so we were initially greeted by Laura – an impossibly energetic and positive being who was more than overjoyed to see Misha and finally meet me after hearing about "her man" for more than a year. The laid back and charming Matt eventually joined us and we had a little time to get settled and talk. Unfortunately, Matt and Laura had to alter their plans with us. Matt is a huge Stevie Wonder fan and had tickets for a concert up in Connecticut, but the show’s timing fell on Sunday evening instead of Monday (as they originally thought). That being said, they were in the midst of working out travel arrangements for heading up north and coming back on Monday. A quick tour of where things were, a little chit chat about life, the universe and everything, and Matt and Laura were off, leaving Misha and I to our own capable devices.


(1) Unlike a certain Texan-by-way-of-emigrating-from-Canada politician who holds a ridiculously hypocritical anti-immigrant platform, you won’t get any arguments from this grandson of immigrants about their value and legacy to this country.
(2) Painted by Laura’s sister.


Hipster Hell Paradise

By the time Matt and Laura took off, it was mid-afternoon, and the combination of being more-or-less awake since 5:00 AM and very little food was catching up with us, and there might have been the air of traveled a bit too much lingering, so we got cleaned up and wandered out for a very late lunch/early dinner. We opted for a small Mexican place down the street since Misha’s favorite local eatery was no more, and enjoyed the beautiful outdoors at a sidewalk table on a sunny, warm afternoon. The best part of the meal were two women sitting at the next table, one of whom wearing a baseball cap embroidered with “Former Stripper” across it. Afterward, Misha observed that from a casual observation of both women and their conversation, the baseball cap was closer to an admitted fact rather than a fashion statement.

Hitting the street, we wandered in a general south-bound direction through west Brooklyn. As we wove our away toward Williamsburg, the environment I experienced was a bit different than I expected. Since Misha and I have been together, race has become a much bigger subject and a growing awareness for me given that she’s African American/Black. I understood well before we met that racism is alive and well in society, but the many realities that come with living in it day-in and day-out have been – admittedly – a slap to my “white priviledge” suburban-raised face (including a few uncomfortable revelations about myself). That being said, Misha pointed out the lack of diversity as we walked through the old neighborhood. In fact, it dawned on me as we passed one neighborhood bar after another that Brooklyn was chocked full of white, Millenial hipster and bohemian wannabees. Unlike the ethnic melting pot of Manhattan, this borough is now heavily populated with knit-hat-and-skinny-jeans-wearing, neckbeard-and-thick-frame-glasses-adorned urbanites drinking the ever-fashionable Pabst Blue Ribbon.(1) I marveled at the implications of what I saw – was the steady gentrification and rezoning of the 1990s and early 2000s transforming Brooklyn and its former ethnic-line-drawn neighborhoods into the milquetoast consistency of my native suburbia?(2) It seems that the frustrating resilience of hipsters is comparible to cockroaches surviving a nuclear war.

Adding to this, the evidence of disturbing architechtural trends popped up all around – the steady demolition and refurbishment of the old Domino Sugar Refinery, and The Edge and Northside Piers condo developments were sleek, grandiose, alien monoliths towering over the surrounding traditional brick-and-mortar Brooklyn landscape squatting around them like a deeply-entrenched resistance. As we made way toward the Williamsburg Bridge, I realized that this was the closest I’ve ever been to my mom’s first childhood stomping grounds. Part of me wanted to keep walking in that direction, but the bridge and the view from it beckoned as afternoon transitioned into early evening.


(1) Out of the can…because pint glasses are so mainstream, of course.
(2) This is a bit of an inside joke amongst my Northern Virginia friends given that, even with the DC area’s own mix of races and cultures, DC suburban areas don’t really cater to concepts such as “Little Italy” or “Chinatown.” Granted, some towns and neighborhoods have higher minority populations than others, but none are as defined quite like parts of New York was back in the day.



First Bridge Crossing and a Movie Landmark

The walk across the Williasmsburg Bridge wasn’t quite as a big a deal for me since walking across the Brooklyn Bridge was the big tradition I wanted to scratch off of my bucket list (see tomorrow’s entry). The evening was coming and it offered some pleasant views of Lower and Midtown Manhattan, with the walk plunking us on Delancy Street in the Lower East Side. Not having any particular destination for our evening walkabout, we wandered through Chinatown and into Tribeca.


   

And that’s where I accomplished the first of one of my bucket list items for this trip.

I love movies, even watching favorite ones over and over. I love reading about them, even to the point of poring over IMDB trivia pages. As a detail-oriented person, the stories behind and tidbits of funny info about movies and the people involved with them always grabbed me. Naturally, I have my list of all-time favorite movies, and among them is the classic, never-gets-old Ghostbusters. Besides being one of the funniest movies ever made, I remember seeing it with friends and all of us wondering if you could really become a “Ghostbuster.”(1) Needless to say, whenever I get a chance to watch that movie, I do, and it will always have a softspot in my heart. When Misha first suggested a trip to New York, I told her that I didn’t care where we went or stay, as long as I could visit the Hook & Ladder Company 8 Firehouse, which was the exterior shooting location for the Ghostbusters’ headquarters.

Walking down Hudson Street as blue sky faded into hues of sunset orange and purple twilight, we rounded North Moore Street...and there it was…the firehouse in all of its gritty glory.

Misha tells me that I bolted down toward the building as soon as I spotted it. I was like a little kid pouncing on a mound of presents on Christmas morning (while nearly being hit by a truck in the process). I was beyond thrilled to literally touch this piece of cinematic history, and just as excited about it as the day I first saw the movie. It was smaller than expected, and except for some of the old signs used during filming and their official ghost-adorned seal, not much differentiated itself from any other hard-working firehouse. The on-duty fireman, already heroes in their own right, demonstrated an amazing amount of patience with little kids and gawking, geeky man-boys hording around the entrance. I was grinning like an idiot and Misha was relishing my near orgasmic joy about seeing this classic movie landmark.


   

(1) The closest you can get to that kind of work is hosting night-vision-camera-format reality shows for conclusively documenting to the world your total incompetence in actually finding ghosts.


To Pee on or Not to Pee (on Trump Tower), That is the Question

Still happily bouncing along the sidewalk, we walked to Battery Park and caught the sun passing under the horizon, people watch and try to take pictures of the Statue of Liberty as boats bobbed past it. Still feeling like seeing other parts of the city, we hopped on the subway and went uptown to the Metropolitan Opera (“the Met”), Misha’s old stomping grounds.(1) After a little reminiscing about her dancing days and where she used to live, we were heading back downtown as our late-afternoon lunch was wearing off. This included a second pass by Trump Tower, which I was sorely tempted to pee on its sign the first time we walked by it, and Misha dared me to do just that on our way back (in a case of hindsight being 20/20, I wish I had knowing what a ginormous cluster fuck he’d be in the 2016 presidential race).

   

Views from Battery Park.

The nice thing about metropolitan areas is you’re never at a loss for places to eat, but by the same token, sometimes you have to read more than a few menus before you find something you want…or at least sounds good. After passing on a few eateries due to “not feeling their vibe” as we read their menus, we settled on the loud, but satisfying The Smith Sitting next to a family who were getting progressively louder thanks to their increasing intake of alcohol, we gnoshed on sliders and gormet mac n’ cheese. The place was thick with couples on date night, tourists, pre-theater diners and families enjoying a night out. It wasn’t a bad place to eat, just a lot more trouble than we wanted to get some food in us at the end of a long day.

After eating and stepping back outside into what was a beautiful night, we hopped on the subway back to Brooklyn. We were both exhausted and my feet were killing me.

Speaking of which, I need to pause for a moment here – over the years, I’ve used a trusty pair of Timberland light hiking shoes on the majority of my travels. They’re comfy, are light enough to sit through long plane rides in and heavy enough to handle just about any terrain you come across in regular travel (though Iceland was a bit of a test). They’ve become like a pair of favorite slippers – broken in and hard tested over the years and miles as my ever-ready and able travel partners. Sadly, a few times before this trip, and especially after today, it was dawning on me that they may be nearing the end of their usefulness. In fact, I knew right then and there that these durable shoes were already on their swan song adventure. The soles felt flat and the treads were worn, and I also realized that I was stuck with these hikers for what would be a lot more walking tomorrow.

I braced myself for that challenge as we got back to Matt and Laura’s apartment and subsequently passed out (I don’t even remember falling asleep).


(1) And coincidentally, another shooting location for Ghostbusters (where Peter Venkman meets Dana as she’s leaving her orchestra rehearsal). Don’t roll your eyes – I warned you that I’m kind of movie geek nerd fan.

We awoke the next day to sunshine and much more energy after the previously long day. We definitely needed the rest and Matt and Laura’s cats were kind enough to not disturb us overnight (though I suspect they may have tried cuddling up with us at some point during the night). Misha ran downstairs to grab some breakfast sandwiches from the local grocery, we got cleaned up and headed out for what was already looking to be a beautiful day (the morning air was still a bit on the chilly side, but there was the promise of it warming up).

A Boat Ride and the Big Bridge Walk

Not to miss out on more touristy goodness, our morning plan consisted of walking over to the East River Ferry’s Greenpoint landing (just a couple blocks from Matt and Laura’s pad). There was a little bit of wind coming off the water, so it was a chilly wait for the ferry, which promptly arrived and was already full of tourist types. As the ferry continued its way downriver, we were treated to a better view of the new architecture clashing with the older Brooklyn buildings, while listening to any and all manner of different languages around us. New York may suffer from a fading reputation as the immigrant gateway to the United States, but it’ll never lose its reknown as a melting pot for those from every corner of the globe. The boat ride made the chilly wind on the dock seem like summer by comparison, but it also provided fantastic, dramatic views of Lower Manhattan and as we passed under the Williamsburg and Brooklyn bridges, the latter being our final destination.

   

   
Top: The view from the dock, and passing under the Williamsburg Bridge.
Bottom: Passing under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Call it touristy, call it tradition, even call it cliché, but some things are worth being labelled as such – kissing the Blarney Stone, using forced perspective to look like you’re keeping the Leaning Tower of Pisa from falling over, fruitlessly trying to make the Queen’s Guard smile at Buckingham Palace, assuring a celebrity that you’re their biggest fan while the security guards pepper spray you, and of course(1) – walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. While it’s hardly the oldest, tallest or most technically-formidable structure ever designed and built by human hands, there are fewer American landmarks that are quite as iconic. Its image alone represents one of the world’s greatest cities. To walk across it heralds one’s unofficial entry into Lower Manhattan (or Brooklyn should you be headed in the opposite direction). Nevertheless, if you’ve never walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, then you’ve never truly visited New York City.

It was Sunday, so the bridge was full of tourists doing their Kardashian impressions with their selfie sticks.(2) Meanwhile, the natives and locals were doing their best to either hide their thinly-veiled disdain of visitors, or openly bitched and moaned about the necessity of laws against tourists (and definitely more so for those fancying themselves as amateur travel blog writers). Nevertheless, the fortunate weather offered amazing views as we crossed above the East River, taking in the ever-growing Manhattan ahead of us, the dwindling Brooklyn behind us, and the countless boats racing along or lazily going no where in particular. Like our fellow visitors, we made our share of stops along the bridge span to snap a picture or two, and kick ourselves for not having brought along a padlock to commemorate our relationship, as many others do (though not really with the city’s approval). Eventually, we arrived in lower Manhattan, right in the middle of the activity along Park Row by Pace University and City Hall.

   

(1) I’ve “been there, done that” – as the kids may or may not say these days – for one of these…you are free to guess which one (HINT: it involves hanging upside down at an Irish castle).
(2) As a bit of an inside joke, Misha and I keep a running tally of people we see using selfie sticks. As a form of entertainment, it helps me process through my unmitigated hatred of selfies, although Misha occasionally flips flops about whether or not she wants one.



Ground Zero

I remember being home sick from school back in 1986 when my Mom called, telling me to turn on the TV for breaking news report about the Challenger Space Shuttle exploding. I remember walking into my college dorm after my evening Life Drawing I class(1) - every TV airing CNN as we bombed Bagdad and heralding the beginning of Desert Storm (not to mention half the guys in my hall calling their parents about whether they would be drafted). I remember being out to dinner at a really nice steak house with my family when the staff dropped everything and crowded around the bar's TV to watch O.J. Simpson’s now infamous Ford Bronco police chase. I also remember one of my closest friends, Michael, calling me early on a Saturday morning, telling me to turn on the TV because the Columbia Space Shuttle broke up over Texas.(2)

And then there was September 11, 2001.

9/11 started out like any other work day – fighting my way through Northern Virginia rush hour traffic en route to work. As I pulled into the office parking lot, the radio morning show unknowlingly made such a near flippant report of a plane crashing into one of the now former World Trade Center towers, that I mistook it for something about a small, single engine plane and no big deal (relatively speaking). By the time I walked into the office, radios were blaring, worried/distressed/panicked/near-hysterical coworkers were running around, and no one could bring up any of the news websites because everyone in the western hemisphere was online and trying to find out what the Hell was going on. I turned on the radio at my desk (which became very popular due to lack of access to online news sources – we listened to the Don and Mike Show for most of the day as they covered the news) and quickly realized that things were obviously much more serious than a small plane accident (one DJ on the radio became so hysterical that his female newscaster slapped him on the air). By some miracle, I was able to trade a few emails via my then AOL account to check in with parents and friends, but ridiculously overwhelmed phone lines made it impossible to call anyone until later that afternoon.

Since that day, I always had a need/want to see Ground Zero in New York City. I’ve been to a few other sites with infamous, historical significance – the Tower of London, the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, Gettysburg – but never a place where I witnessed history as it happened (albeit via television). I suppose it’s due to a morbid sense of curiosity – a fascination with seeing those places, but in a strange way, visiting Ground Zero was also paying respect to the fallen, and those who fell as events unfolded in the tragedy’s aftermath.(3)

After some wandering and a few wrong turns, we found ourselves at St. Paul’s Chapel. It’s a sobering place – quiet, stoic, but still blanketed by a apprehensive air that begins at its fenceline and permeates over the church grounds. One step inside the chapel was enough for Misha, she wasn’t up for the memorial inside, which was hard even for me – and neither of us were even thinking of visiting the museum (even if we were motivated to go in there, the wait was ridiculously long). The shrines to the victims, the rescue personnel and the event itself were tough to take in – one memorial is made of up fire fighter gear, still grey and weathered with dust and grit. I stayed long enough to pay my respects, light a candle and then meet Misha outside in the warm sun. We walked over the the official memorial, and stood at the North Pool, and again, the impact of what was once there and what happened sinks in. The former towers' footprints look both larger and smaller than you’d expect, and the new One World Trade Center’s architecture seems odd and out-of-place compared to the former twin towers. Something about the new tower's crystal modern, shiiny glass look just doesn’t ring true with New York’s grey concrete and steel pallet. I'm reminded how sSome of the Washington, DC memorials have signs asking onlookers to maintain a “respectful silence” due to who or what the memorial represents. At Ground Zero, no one needed that reminder.

   

(1) In college, I received my BA and MA in English, but I minored in Studio Art and nearly a second minor in Theater (which I’m still kicking myself for not completing). Truth be told, my Life Drawing I professor – Dr. Graham – still remains one of my favorite teachers. He was a big, burly black man from Chicago with a warm, friendly presence and gentle, sing-song voice (all ironic considering his otherwise intimidating appearance) and a strange fascination with my last name. While this constantly fedora-and-scarf-clad bear of a man and brilliant artist referred to most every other student by their first names, he always called me by my last name. When I finally asked him why, he enthusiastically told me he loved the sound of it, though another professor added that Dr. Graham did that for students he liked or appreciated. I had one semester with Dr. Graham, but I remember every moment of it – to this day his guidance comes to mind when I try my hand at sketching or drawing. However, despite some potential talent I showed back then, it turns out I made for a much better writer..but don’t just take my word for it.
(2) Yes, I realize these historic references offer more-than-obvious clues to my age. Now you kids turn down that damn "music" and get off my lawn…
(3) And you can bet I wasn’t a fan of the Bush Administration. In fact, I still wonder why members of that administration still haven't been arrested for crimes against humanity.



The Best Bouncy Castle EVER

Our stomaches growling made for a good excuse to leave Ground Zero and do something about lunch. We made our way into a gourmet-esque food court, and after heavily considering several of the tempting options, went for burgers and bacon lard-coated sweet potato fries that were worth every health-endangering calorie (in fact, Misha and I still go into “Homer Simpson drool mode” whenever we think about those fries…no, seriously, we do). We debated what to do next as we inhaled lunch - for all intents and purposes, we had seen just about everything on my wish list (except for the Statue of Liberty, but decided on saving that for Monday).

In lieu of other ideas, Misha suggested heading up to Midtown to see a store or two she used to frequent back in her dancing days and visit the Museum of Sex. A subway ride later, we were stomping along Fifth Avenue, trying to get our bearings in full view of the Empire State Building while hunting for the strangely elusive museum.

And then we were stopped cold in our tracks.

What’s the big deal, you ask? In most places, not much, but New York is the only place where you’ll find a tall, bald, sunglasses-adorned elderly woman in a tube top, “Daisy Duke” jean shorts and stiletto heels. It wasn’t enough that she could barely stand up straight and needed the help of her matchingly-dressed male partner, but she half-strut/half-waddled while OWNING her look. She didn’t care how much she advertised every inch of her plastic surgeries, inspired baseless speculation about a possible career as an exotic dancer/sex worker, or offered an unrequested view of stretch marks and varicose veins that scrawled down from her ass to her ankles. No, this was the very definition of “YOU CAN’T HANDLE ALL THIS JELLY.” You couldn’t – wouldn’t – dare judge her, just watch in astonishment and recognize that you were granted the priviledge of bearing witness to something wholly, strangely magnificent.

But moving on…

This being my first trip since Iceland, you might think there’s something wrong with me considering that one of the highlights from visiting Reykjavik was a museum dedicated to male genitalia (in all of its human and non-human forms). You’re probably musing about my ignoring New York City’s famous art museums (several of which I visited back in college) to see one dedicated to sex. On the other hand, you might be thinking “Who wouldn’t want to see a sex museum?!” (and if you’re of the latter variety, then we can be friends).

If I haven’t mentioned it before, I have an autistic sister who absolutely loves gift shops. It doesn’t matter where we go or what we see, the gift shop is the true highlight for her. Not that she really ever needs anything from a gift shop (though admittedly, I collect shot glasses and magnets…don’t judge me), but it’s definitely her thing. Museums, Disney World, hospitals – if they have a gift shop, you can bet she will pay it a visit. Sufficeth say that the entrance to the Museum of Sex is their gift shop, which is really more of a pedestrian adult novelty store, and consequently one gift shop I hope my sister never visits (not that she would understand what most of the items were, but I've also learned not to underestimate her). Even better, the average New Yorker pushing along a stroller or had a child in tow didn’t blink twice at the every and all manner of marital aids adorning the gift shop’s street-facing windows.

The museum is an interesting mix – a respectful, historical account of pornography and erotic art exhibits – some painfully obvious to understand, others requiring modest-to-more-absurd-levels of imagination. There are old cartoons, antique toys, and even a pair of original model Real Dolls (WARNING – THIS LINK IS EXTREMELY NOT SFW), famously reported on HBO’s Real Sex (Episode 22). The museum is the kind of place where one should really think twice before saying things like “Oh yeah, I’ve seen that before!” or “I remember those – man, those takes me back!”(1) However, the true highlight of the museum is the Jump for Joy (link also NOT SFW) – basically it’s an indoor bouncy castle made up of giant boobies...of all shapes, sizes and colors.

Did we pay a few dollars extra and bounce around and off of giant boobies?

Absolutely.

Did we unapologetically enjoy it?

Yes, yes we did.

Did we hope that everyone who was in that room had all of their clothes on?

Dear Lord, yes.

   

(1) I know of them because I saw that episode on HBO. No, really I did…ugh, bite me…


A Reunion, Pizza and Hard Cider, and a Cat on my Back

The warm, late afternoon was quickly turning into a cool, early evening. After trading a few text messages, Misha managed to arrange a quick reunion with one of her former dance students. We met up with her on the outskirts of Harlem, smack in front of the famous Tom’s Restaurant. Misha’s former student is now attending Columbia University and both had a wonderful reunion catching up in the ever-brightening light of the famous restaurant’s red neon sign.

Afterward, we were feeling every single bit of the past two days and my feet were screaming in protest thanks to my not-so-gracefully-aging footwear. Laura let us know that she returned early – it turns out that the Stevie Wonder concert was Monday night and she had to come back to finish some work anyway, leaving Matt to enjoy the concert. We met her back at the apartment, went hunting for an open grocery store to get a six pack of hard apple cider and chomped down on some pizza. I vaguely remember falling asleep as Misha and Laura chatted well into the night, and one of the cats graced me by curling up on my back, which I hadn't the strength of will nor any actual, physical strength left to do anything about it.
A solid night’s rest behind us, today was promising to be just as beautiful as yesterday. Waking up was a careful exercise of getting out of bed and tiptoeing past Laura (who graciously slept in the office/dining room, giving us the bed for one more night) to get cleaned up.

You Know…Maybe Next Time…

Two things I’ve always wanted to see, but never had the chance are the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. As the grandson of immigrants on my Mom’s side,(1) the history there has always been of interest to me. Given no other agenda for the day except catching our bus later in the afternoon, we hopped on the subway over to Lower Manhattan to see about going over to Liberty Island. When we arrived, it was clear that 1) we probably should’ve pre-ordered tickets, and 2) to step foot on the island meant going through a security screening after a 90 minute wait in a very long line. The options were to either wait in line if we went on the island, or try for a ticket on a boat tour IF we could get one early enough in the afternoon before we had to leave.(2) After a fair amount of stewing over our limited options, we decided that the statue wasn’t going anywhere, and chances are we’ll visit New York again (in fact, we may do so as early as June 2016) – so best save that for a later time.

Since we were in the neighborhood (quite literally next door), we opted for an early lunch at the Pier A Harbor House, for raw oysters (good, but we’ve had better) and one of the best Dark and Stormy’s EVER. We made one more trip to midtown to visit one more store Misha used to haunt back in the day, then made our way back to Brooklyn.


(1) To be fair, my grandfather was born in Brooklyn, but my grandmother was a toddler when she came to the U.S.
(2) And though visitors are allowed on Liberty Island again, they’re still not allowed to get close to or go inside the statue.



A Loaded Passenger on a Loaded Bus

After saying our goodbyes to Matt and Laura and collecting our things, we treated ourselves to getting over to Penn Station via a car service, driven by a man with such a thick, presumably Russian accent, that I almost mistook him for speaking something other than English. The bus heading home wasn’t quite as nice as the one we rode up to New York, but we didn’t mind.

In my modest amount of travel experience, I’ve had the opportunity of sitting next to my fair share of farting, snoring, nosey, pleasant, talkative, irritable and cooperative fellow travelers. Most have been decent enough, and if you don’t remember who you were sitting next to, then the journey couldn’t have been all that bad with them, right? However, a young woman sitting behind us made a serious mistake – she sat in a window seat. The old rule of unassigned seating is if you sit in a window seat, then you’re inviting any and everyone coming on board to sit next to you. Not that claiming an aisle seat is a guarantee of keeping away possible riff-raff, but it’s a bit more of a defensive way of saying “Move along, freak…I prefer sitting alone.”

As other passengers boarded and claimed their seats, a disshelved, not-quite-himself type of man stumbled on, looking as if he got dressed in the dark and smelled like he shampooed in Grey Goose and conditioned with Bacardi – almost enough to make him a walking fire hazard. He was the type of passenger you do your best not to make eye contact with – not out of fear, but to avoid the “Why yes, I would enjoy the pleasure of your awkward company on this long trip” said-no-one-ever connection. Whether because he saw a seat next to a pretty girl or just didn’t care where he sat, our drunken fellow passenger decided to avail the young woman behind us to his charming demeanor.

Not being 100% sure of what tipped him off, but whatever otherwise “peaceful conversation” he was having with the young woman quickly went south. Her voice had taken on a harder, more direct tone as his slurred slurred speech was thick with an underlying anger and abusive tendancies, as well as more colorful language and name calling. Needless to say, the young woman was no longer happy about who was sitting next to her (to say nothing of Misha and I as we got more than alarmed about him). The woman even had to force him to let her out of her window seat just so she could move to another part of the bus, but not before she had a word with the bus driver, who promptly engaged in a brief conversation with the drunk. He insisted he didn’t have any alcohol on his person, though the driver let him be without much confidence in his assurances. Fortunately, the woman found a better seat and the drunk spent most of the ride out cold behind us. The only exceptions were taking a nip from a bottle of something he obviously hid in his bag and mumbling slurred explicatives about DC area traffic.

Arriving back in Rosslyn, we kept a close eye on the drunk who seemed to be heading in our same direction toward the local Metro station, but kept on walking once we met our Uber driver at the rendezvous spot (who was a much more positive experience than our previous Uber experience).

Farewell, Old Friends…

After unpacking and getting back into the routine of work and everyday life again, it was time to bid a fond farewell.

It's fair to say that I'm a sentimental type, and my most prized possessions may not be worth much on a monetary scale, but priceless when it comes to memories. My condo is decorated with all kinds of keepsakes and knick knacks from childhood, college and all through my adult life - marking the passage of things gone by, experiences to share stories about, and offer proof that I had been somewhere or done something. And that even includes certain articles of clothing. For example, one of the last things my grandmother (Dad's side) gave me was a pair of cowboy boots that I faithfully wore for years, even resoling a couple times despite protests from the cobbler to let them go, before storing them in their place of glory in the back of my closet. I haven't worn them in over a decade, but grandma gave to them to me (went out of her way to take me to the store to get them - including her attempt to play cupid between me and the chashier, whom she ended up not liking after all due to her then going through a divorce/having an array of less-than-artistic tattoos) and I won't get rid of those boots for anything.

But, at long last, the moment had arrived to retire my tried and true traveling partners, my old Timberland hikers. They’ve tracked their fair share of miles across mainland Europe and the U.S. - enjoyed the tropical embrace of Hawaii, endured the streets of New York twice, the twists and turns of Bordeaux and Paris, the elemental beauty of Iceland, the rolling hills of San Francisco and endless blocks of downtown DC. They’ve been through enough airport security screenings to practically glow in the dark from x-ray exposure, and been through mud, grime and all things unspeakable – both rural and urban. Sadly, their finer days now behind them, they go on to that great hiking trail in the sky as they’re replaced with a new pair, surely bound for more adventures and memories to come.

Iceland - Introduction (October 2014)

So…Where Next?

January 2014 arrived with 2013’s slightly nerve-wracking holiday season in the rear view mirror and an amorphous new year loomed ahead – a veritable tabula rasa of potential and aspirations, untapped dreams and a crap load of cluelessness. The company I work for was bought by another firm just after Thanksgiving 2013, so the powers that be were still sorting out the merger’s finer details and implications, and the government was doing its usual ramp up after its traditional holiday slow down, so I had a little time on my hands. The moment was ripe for my imagination, already sparking up with ponderings about where and what would be my next big adventure. After two very enjoyable and rewarding domestic trips last year – white water rafting in West Virginia, and attending Nunway 5 and a gay wedding in San Francisco – I definitely had a hankering for a more exotic journey (if one can imagine something more exotic than a wedding attended by drag queens…I leave that for meditation and deliberation in another forum).

But what sounded good for this humble and indecisive traveler? Europe? That’s always an option given how much of it I haven’t explored and experienced, but I wasn’t feeling the lightning bolt of inspiration or insatiable craving for it (even after regretfully passing on – because of work commitments – not one but two opportunities for visiting Italy last year, and a Spring river tour of Vienna, Prague and Budapest). Australia and/or New Zealand? A THOUSAND TIMES YES, but a trip of that magnitude is a minimum investment of two weeks and a price tag that’s a just outside my allotted travel budget. The Caribbean? Ah…now that sounded really good, especially when the closest I’ve been there since the Caymans in March 1997 was a South Beach/Miami visit a few years ago (which is notoriously symbolized and summed up by my receiving the mother of all sunburns). I mused about how badly I wanted an island vacation – warm sun, generous amounts of rum and scantily-clad people…that idea had an undeniable appeal. Although you’d think I would’ve learned my lesson about clothing-optional beaches and resorts after some of the people I saw – or rather, parts of them that I saw – on South Beach (HINT – don’t believe your porn movies, kids!).

Then the great Paul Cathcart, master and commander of his Never Travel Solo group, posted the magic question on Facebook did anyone have any ideas for trips in the coming year? Immediately, I mentally ran down my checklist of dream vacation locales, a list that gets longer the more I read or hear about new and amazing places on the “see before you die” checklists. However, for this time around, my only decisive qualification for locales was “must be outside of the United States.” As I was drafting a few ideas (including the Caribbean) in my comment response, something strange came over me – dubious if it was the Force, impulsive inspiration, the little devil on my shoulder or something toxic I ate influencing my judgment, but I nevertheless found myself typing the word…Iceland.

Hmmm…okay…Iceland. I guess that…wait – ICELAND?

As other Facebook users posted approving comments and “Likes” for this frozen wonderland of a destination, my mind quickly berated me about the logic behind such a bold and suspicious suggestion:

Hey, ‘sup? So…uh yeah…y’know, it’s cold in Iceland. As in, FREEZE YOUR ASS OFF cold, right? It’s basically the polar opposite of the Caribbean. The native dress is wool sweaters – NOT BIKINIS. It has glaciers, is a stone’s throw below the Arctic Circle, and doesn’t see daylight for months. The number of mammal species living on it can be counted on one hand. And less we overlooked the fact, the entire island is a GIANT FUCKING VOLCANO. It has geysers, and hot springs and tectonic plates (OH MY)! It’s second only to Australia, an entire subcontinent of flora and fauna that will kill you…EVEN THE FUCKING CUTE ONES. Save a few bucks and camp on top of Mount St. Helens instead, because nothing screams (figuratively and almost literally) “BEST. VACATION. EVER!” like a selfie taken while running for your life from a pyroclastic flow.

shut-up-and-take-my-money-9299-1920x1200Internal monologue be damned, but the fact of the matter is everyone I know who’s visited or lived in Iceland has loved it and enthusiastically recommended taking the trip. The clincher was Paul’s draft itinerary that hit or covered just about everything a tourist should do with a week there. Plus, Reykjavik has gained a reputation as a must-see travel locale, so maybe it was worth a hop over there to see what all the fuss is about. I shared the itinerary with friends and family, and while a few were tempted (my parents heavily debated going on the trip), previous commitments and limitations clashed with the trip and its early October target dates (though works out well for me as things slow down for me in October). So by February I had written my deposit check and cleared the time off with my boss.

Get Ready ‘Cause Here I Come

The joke in my family is it rains whenever I visit them.

20141009_072510Since they re-located from Northern Virginia to Virginia Beach,(1) I try visiting my parents and sister as often as I can, but it always seems as if black clouds follow me…no, I mean that quite literally. We live in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and like so many places proudly boast, if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. It’ll be “sunny skies and warm temps” in the morning, but OH MY GOD WE’RE GETTING SNOW! IT’S THE END! WE’LL BE EATING OUR OWN CHILDREN! SAVE YOURSELVES! by lunchtime. The previous winter was a brutal onslaught of snow every other week (a nearly factual statement), where accumulation predictions started as “a mere dusting” and steadily increased as time went on, finally topping off at “record-breaking” amounts as flakes started hitting the ground.(2) Spring and Summer bring about their on-and-off bouts of rain, and sometimes my Mom hoped I’d visit so there was no need for marching around and watering the plants. Work had been wildly busy this past Spring, and remained that way throughout the Summer, so I couldn’t visit nearly as much as I wanted. However, I slipped in a little extra time off over this past Fourth of July weekend, just a the day before Hurricane Arthur “ripped” its way up the East Coast. Apparently, my tenuous connection with Mother Nature was upping its ante from proclaiming merely bad weather to full-on Acts of God (though in all fairness, Arthur was much ado about nothing for a hurricane).(3) I’m thinking of applying as a Herald of Galactus for my next job – I could use the career change.

So of course, just a scant two months before my trip, the Bardarbunga volcano woke up and cleared its throat. In truth, I find this far-too-convenient convergence of my travel plans and potential natural disaster a little intimidating because 1) my visiting Australia and New Zealand someday means that’s when the great asteroid will smack into the Pacific, and 2) the 2012-end-of-Mayan-calendar-apocalypse wasn’t a hoax or an urban legend, but actually me being in a good mood that year.(4) Thankfully, the volcano played nice and the Iceland trip moved forward without a hitch.

In previous years, my trips have had minimal impact on my normal life since I wasn’t married or in a relationship (at least, nothing serious), and my only domestic snag was for a good-natured friend (and/or one who enjoys me owing them favors) checking in on my cat while I was away. This time around, the trip fell right on the six-week mark with someone new (a wonderful, beautiful woman who also, as it just so happens, enjoys reading this blog), and we even discussed the feasibility of sneaking her there in my luggage (I still argue it could’ve worked). Sadly, we didn’t have time for fine-tuning the logistics or hire a good smuggler, so it meant a week apart.

Admittedly, I can pack a bit like a girl because I like having a few options when there might be unpredictable weather while I’m traveling. In this case, the weather reports were predicting a mixed bag of conditions in Reykjavik (care of the North Atlantic’s less than cooperative self) for the coming week, plus there was the added complication of figuring out what I’d need for a glacier hike and a horse ride (insert 1980s movie montage of raiding big chain outfitters and interviewing hardcore hikers). Surprisingly, I fit in a week’s worth of clothes with extra gear and room left over while staying under the 50 pound luggage weight limit.

Iceland – Day 1 (Saturday, October 4, 2014 – Sunday, October 5, 2014)

Iceland – Day 2 (Monday, October 6, 2014)

Iceland – Day 3 (Tuesday, October 7, 2014)

Iceland – Day 4 (Wednesday, October 8, 2014)

Iceland – Day 5 (Thursday, October 9, 2014)

Iceland – Day 6 (Friday, October 10, 2014)

Iceland – Day 7 (Saturday, October 11, 2014)

Iceland – Day 8 (Sunday, October 12, 2014)


Iceland-political-map

Reykjavik

(1) Like many people in the Washington, DC area, I’m not a native of Northern Virginia. My Dad is a former Army officer and his last duty assignment was at the Pentagon, and the old joke is once you’re in DC, you never leave. Although my parents eventually escaped this den of power mongers politicians and lobbyists, societal remora social climbers and gold-diggers, and egocentric douchebags bigwigs, my own career path lends truth this sentiment.

(2) This being an area where just whispering the word “snow” means school closings, traffic accidents, and panicked mobs empty out grocery stores because all of the bread, eggs, milk and toilet paper in existence will surely abate the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

(3) Oddly enough, my Hawaii trip was in March 2013, but the islands didn’t get hit by back-to-back hurricanes and an earthquake until August 2014. I’m still figuring that one out. No need for a mahalo, Hawaii. You’re welcome.

(4) In a similar vein, I’m still supremely disappointed that the Year 2000 (Y2K) glitch didn’t destroy all of the computers like everyone feared (and I hoped for). I’m chalking that up as it being a technological event and not a natural one, but damn it, I was well-positioned for a great back up career as a for-hire typist.

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20141004_180440Tumbleweeds at an Airport?

I can be nervous spastic neurotic a little bit antsy about making my flights, so I err on the side of caution by arriving at airports a little earlier than I need or should.(1) Some of this is my excitement for a trip and/or imagining all possible things that could happen, and the rest because getting through airport security is a crap shoot at the best of times. My parents had one Hell of a runaround last year in Dulles International Airport (IAD) being bounced around multiple check in counters all over the airport for their flight to Italy, and my imagination had me anxious about going through a similar marathon of frustration, sweat and ignorantly yelling at hapless/fellow-victims-of-the-system airline employees. On top of all of this, I tested my new girlfriend’s resolve because of my pre-occupation obsession fixation on running last-minute errands and squaring away final preparations, despite my flight not departing until that evening. I’ll say this for the record, she has a saint’s patience – anyone else probably would’ve slapped the shit out of me (my guess is she was far more tempted than she let on). I arrived at Dulles early Saturday evening with a solid two-and-a-half hours before my flight. A quick goodbye to the friend who gave me a lift, I lugged my bags out of their car, I rushed into the airport and…it was practically deserted.

Dulles services the DC area and consequently is one of the busiest airports on Earth. I’ve been there with throngs of people heading off for Spring Break, picked up and/or dropped off friends and family alike during busy holiday travel seasons, and until now, thought I’d seen it all. This was a new one for me – the airport was practically a ghost town. Images of a dusty western town long since abandoned came to mind, the only thing missing was the quiet howl of wind kicking up tumbleweeds and swirls of dust. I almost expected the Scooby-Doo gang racing around and finally unmasking Old Man Withers as he kvetched about how he would’ve gotten away with his haunting scheme if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids. I couldn’t help wondering if the early stages of panic had started regarding the recent news about airline passengers infected with Ebola arriving in the U.S. My mind was ablaze with visions of hazmat suit-wearing CDC teams spraying me down in a chemical shower, sunglasses-adorned men in black kidnapping me, or Milla Jovovich gunning me down as a zombie in another craptacular and hopelessly unnecessary Resident Evil sequel. The TSA raising the ante from passengers taking off their shoes to stripping down for body cavity searches seemed preferable by comparison.(2)


TSAAnd speaking of security…I must be on the TSA’s “Passengers Who Enjoy Being Felt Up by Government Personnel” list, ensuring that I get a free pat down EVERY…FUCKING…TIME I go through airport security. For whatever reason, my touristy, suburban white boy appearance is the new “Terrorist Watchlist” look. Nevertheless, the TSA was consistent as ever and kindly did their routine best of copping a feel without asking me to turn my head and cough or taking me out to dinner and a movie first. On the bright side, with barely 20 other passengers in line with me, I was through security in a record-breaking 12 minutes (an all-time record), leaving me with more than two whole hours of free time on my hands at a near-dead airport on a Saturday night.

The flight is almost six hours, so I “treated” myself – a ridiculously undersized while grossly overpriced crab cake sandwich, fries and beer at one of the airport’s big chain, generic “microbrewery” eateries across from my gate. Months earlier, Paul hosted a couple of pre-trip get-togethers for breaking the ice with interested travelers who didn’t know him and answer any of their questions in-person.(3) I attended the meetings, only vaguely remembering who the other attendees were, but as I finished dinner and settled in at the gate,(4) some of the faces started looking familiar. I was wracking my brain, wondering how many complete strangers standing around me might be among the 18 people going on this trip. Beyond the few somewhat familiar faces, I couldn’t tell. Paul had also set up a Facebook page for the trip, so I posted on the group’s wall about where I was at the gate for meeting up with anyone before boarding. Soon enough, a small crowd of us gathered and were re-introducing ourselves and kidding around. Before we knew it, the announcements began for boarding the plane.

The Icelandair flight was booked solid and as I slowly crept down the narrow aisle, I found a man and his two daughters filling up my row, including my seat. I greeted them friendly enough and the father asked if it was time for his kid to move. I suggested taking the other seat so the kids could stay together, but a pretty-yet-severe looking flight attendant who overheard us sternly ordered the kid back to their assigned seat and that I should plant my ass in mine (apparently, Scandinavians are a very law-abiding bunch). Nevertheless, the flight was gloriously uneventful (i.e., no dramatically bad weather, no flight emergencies, no Ebola outbreaks, no screaming babies, no “silent but deadly” farting passengers next to me, etc.) and I even nodded off for a short while.(5)

(1) My long-time friend Stephen H. (jharish) experienced this a bit when I visited him last Fall in San Francisco, and he demonstrated far more patience with me than I probably deserved.

(2) And if you’re good, they’ll apply lubricant on the rubber glove.

(3) In fact, Paul used me and this blog as a reference for some travelers who wanted more background information on him, his business practices and testimony as a tour planner and guide. Something I’m always happy to do for him because, quite simply, he’s the best.

(4) By way of the men’s room. First rule of airline travel, never board a plane without relieving yourself first.

(5) I usually avoid sleeping while flying because I have a difficult time getting comfortable on planes…and I snore.


Where the Hospitality is Warmer than the Weather

A year and a half ago, I left a chilly, grey, snowy DC area and arrived at a sunny, warm and vibrant Hawaii. This time around, the situation was the reverse – I left the DC area on the cusp of early Autumn and its comfortably warm days and cool nights, and arrived at a rainy, chilly and grey Iceland. Keflavik International Airport (KEF) didn’t seem like a large airport by any means (this becomes relevant when we left Iceland), but the duty free shopping area on the way out was enormous and populated by fellow travelers who were wasting no time in stocking up on tax-free items…mostly booze. One weary-looking world traveler had commandeered a luggage cart for wheeling away a beer stash that was larger than his actual luggage (being dragged behind him).

Icelandair times its flights on a schedule that arranges flights arriving and departing at around the same time, so flights from the East Coast were landing around 6:00 AM that morning. While most of us flew on the Washington, DC flight, a few of our party were en route from Boston, and combined with winding our way from baggage claim, through customs and finally the airport entrance, we trickled out in spurts, converging around a bleary-eyed Paul.(1) The area we waited in was adjacent to an exit, so mercifully brief but intense blasts of chilly, rainy air greeted us as we patiently waited for the rest of our party. We marveled at one family arriving from Florida, decked out in their uniforms of tank tops, shorts and sandals (I couldn’t tell, but I’d bet vital parts of my anatomy that their tattoos all matched).

Finally all gathered together, we marched out into the rainy, windy outdoors and loaded up on the bus. Keflavik is stuck out on the end of the peninsula that stretches south and west from Reykjavik, making for a 45 minute ride into the city. As the bus rolled along, we drove through the pea soup fog-enshrouded countryside, getting a muted first look at Iceland’s lava rock and mossy terrain. As we entered downtown, we drove through what can best be described as the largest, most neutral-colored stretch of suburbia one can imagine, arriving at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, still early in the morning. Things were hopping in the hotel lobby as a large tour group was checking out, leaving us red-eyed souls in painfully patient expectation about who’s rooms were ready and who would be camping out in the lobby for the next few hours. Those of us with single rooms were ready and checked in immediately, while more than a few sharing rooms were left waiting a while longer.

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Top: My room and the hotel. Bottom: The view of eastern, downtown Reykjavik from my window.

DSC02292The Hilton’s décor and design followed the traditional Scandinavian aesthetic of clean lines and neutral pallets, with bolder accents (most notably in the hotel’s Vox bar and restaurant). After the moderately long and uncomfortably warm flight, walking into a clean hotel room and eyeing what I hoped-beyond-hope was an as-comfortable-as-it-looks bed was just what I needed. What caught me off-guard, and presented itself as my first challenge to fix, was that the lights wouldn’t turn on no matter what switches I flipped. After five minutes of aimlessly searching around and exhaustion-fueled swearing, I finally spotted the room’s Main Switch, complete with universal HEY MORON, INSERT YOUR KEY CARD HERE icon, right next to the room door.(2) Oddly enough, the room was outfitted with a bed, comfy chair, desk and armoire, but no dresser, so my suitcase sat in a corner and took on double duty. Also, despite the chilly but quickly-lifting rain and clouds, the room was unusually warm, resulting in me shutting off the radiator and opening the window.(3) The bathroom was larger than I expected, but still smaller compared to my American standards, not that it’d stopped me from taking a desperately-needed shower. By the time I got out of the shower, the rain clouds had almost totally cleared, offering a great view from my street-side room, and I could see most of the eastern side of the city, with the impressive Esjan mountains across the bay.(4) A quick scan of the TV channels revealed that I was at the mercy of mostly Icelandic-speaking shows or channels, with only Euronews (cycling the latest three headlines every five minutes) and two BBC channels (showing either news, nature programs or cooking shows). Cleaned up, comfortable and worn out, I collapsed on the bed (definitely comfy) and passed out within minutes.

(1) Who had been up a bit late the night before…but a little more on that later.

(2) Yes sir, that Liberal Arts education was worth every penny…

(3) It turns out that many of my travel group did the same in their rooms, too. I generally prefer things on the cooler side and hate feeling too warm, and we’d discover that most places in here kept their indoor areas on the warmer side, and I seriously believe that only a handful of larger buildings actually need air conditioning in this country.

(4)
Snow covered the peaks the day we arrived, but had almost completely melted by mid-week.

Things will be Great When You're Downtown

San Francisco, Honolulu, Bordeaux, Killarney, Munich…I love walkable cities. Whether they’re just small and therefore more easily accessible, or have convenient public transportation (bus, subway, tram), I love places where you can practically (and often literally) walk from one end to the other. This probably comes from a combination of American-brand urban sprawl making public transit less practical for outlying areas and traditional feelings of independence making us reliant on more private modes of transportation. There are few things as liberating as not worrying about parking, filling up at a gas station or convincing the state inspector that your worn-to-the-mounting-plate brake pads should be passing inspection.

Before retreating to our hotel rooms for post-travel R&R, Paul announced that he was leading a walking tour of downtown Reykjavik that afternoon, and the meeting point was the hotel lobby at high noon. I was in a dead sleep when my “spidey sense” woke me up with a start, and a glance at the room clock revealed that it was almost a quarter after noon. Grabbing my jacket, assorted personal items(1) and chewing gum for killing off the I-was-sleeping-and-have-dry-mouth-bad-breath-from-Hell taste, I raced downstairs where one or two of my merry band were waiting. As it turns out, the hotel room clocks are set 10 or 15 minutes ahead of the correct time, which would be both handy and annoying as the week rolled on. Soon enough, a few others and Paul arrived and we headed out.

One of the first things you notice about Iceland is that it’s windy. REALLY windy. While the wind significantly died down later in the week, it was always there. So much so I wore a baseball hat as often as possible, and bought one on the day I neglectfully didn’t bring it with me for our Golden Circle tour . The Hilton Nordica is on Suðurlandsbraut, which becomes Laugavegur a few blocks down the street and the main drag into and through the shopping district, less than a mile from our doorstep. We quickly discovered that, if you can tolerate the chill and windblown hair, a walk into town was often more convenient than waiting for a bus. Paul took us on a dime tour of downtown, pointing out various shops and eateries and landmarks that would get a closer look at later on. We noticed some of the local oddities, such as the Chuck Norris Grill (based on the conflicting reviews, I’m not sure we missed out much on not eating there) and Lebowski Bar (which we checked out, but didn’t eat at), and apparently Reyjavik’s own Hare Krishna temple.

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Reykjavik is definitely a working town. Iceland has approximately 300,000 people living on an island that’s roughly the size of Virginia, and two-thirds of that population is in the world’s northern most capital, so a lot of trade and work happens here. The closest American comparison I can make is a northeastern fishing village (I mean that as a compliment). And the whole place’s local dress code consists of those who buy their entire wardrobes from REI, hipsters who love skinny jeans far more than anyone EVER should, and working class heroes who don’t give a shit…about anything. On the whole though, everyone here is polite, even friendly, and happily help out when asked for directions or about local etiquette.(2) As an added bonus, most of the locals speak English, and especially without a “You could at least TRY speaking our language” attitude.(3)

Hofnin - Tom DiehmAnother thing I noticed as we walked through town was the lack of big chain (or at least recognizable) restaurants and stores. There were brand names we recognized in many of the stores, but the only identifiable, American big chain label we saw with any real frequency was Subway (apparently, Icelanders LOVE the chain and definitely not McDonald’s). As time went on, we were hard pressed to see more than a handful of recognizable chains, though we did spot at least one Ruby Tuesdays, TGIFridays and Quizno’s. Personally, I consider it almost a moral violation to eat at a place anyone can find on any street corner that slings the same practically-machine made, boring food back home. And speaking of food, as we finished our foot tour, it was mid-afternoon and growling stomachs were a reminder that some of us hadn’t eaten since flying over the southern tip of Greenland. We debated a few places we passed, but spotted a little place by the harbor called Hofnin and a quick review of the menu confirmed that this was the place for a late lunch. Our first meal in Iceland consisted of generous servings or bread and a plateful of creamy fish stew deliciousness that was as satisfying as it was long lasting. The owners there were kind enough to give us a quick lesson on the ideal local brands of drink to imbibe (they recommend Reyka (high-quality vodka) over Brennivín (which we would eventually try), and especially if we dared the infamous local delicacy Hákarl (fermented shark).

We met for a happy hour at the hotel bar in the early evening, reviewing the night’s plans, the week’s itinerary and addressing any issues that came up after arriving and getting settled in Iceland. Always up for trying something I’ve never tasted before, I opted for Egils Gull – a light lager (5%). From what I’ve read, Reykjavik is more of a “beer and a shot” kind of town, and honestly, I was expecting/hoping for something tasty and interesting, but had a pint of the Icelandic equivalent of Miller Lite instead.(4)

(1) In the course of getting dressed, I discovered a very clever way of securing my neck stash/body belt under my clothes that was both much more comfortable for me (neck stashes and body belts are necessary evils when traveling) and difficult and trickier for any would-be pickpockets. Your move, mother fuckers.

(2) For example, they rarely jaywalk and we got more than a few dirty looks if and when we did.

(3) There were a few rare exceptions, such as having dinner at one or two places where the wait staff was far less than thrilled about a table of obnoxious Americans (…not that I blame them).

(4) This pretty much sets the tone for all of the local beers I tried. However, I’m honestly shocked that Iceland produces a handful of regional wines.


Lights! Camera! Nothing!…and Musical Chairs on a Bus

Afterward, we headed out for the trip’s first scheduled event – seeing the Aurora Borealis (a.k.a., Northern Lights). As a long-time astronomy buff, I’ve always jumped at the chance for sky watching. I spent more than a few nights in high school out on the back porch with my telescope, spying anything I could through the relentless pea-soup, light pollution haze of Northern Virginia. A college girlfriend of mine was in the Virginia Tech Astronomy Club, and enjoyed multiple trips out to the school’s meager observatories for viewing Saturn and its rings, Jupiter’s Galilean moons and the odd nebula or two,(1) as well as spotting one or two comets passing by one year. While not strictly an astronomical phenomenon, one of the items on my bucket list was seeing the Northern Lights firsthand, and I finally had the chance. Knowing we’d be exhausted and jetlagged, Paul still planned this excursion because the tour groups take customers out for free again if the lights have a little cosmic stage fright.

We piled onto a bus with several other groups (i.e., a VERY full bus), and rolled out until Reykjavik was little more than a string of lights on the horizon. And judging by the last gravel road’s abusive attitude toward our kidneys, we were way out in the boonies. As we piled back out, flashlights were at a minimum for preserving our night vision, though that didn’t stymie the occasional flash of someone’s camera and nearly blinding us as we stumbled over uneven, moss-covered lava rocks. The wind was still whipping up a bit so we were bundled up against the chill, and the tour guides insisted that “conditions were ripe” for seeing lights that evening.

Almost 20 minutes later, we were shivering and the sky was little more than twinkling stars and a few wispy clouds. Tourists were staring up into the sky, tour guides stamped their feet, and the once-in-a-while a douchebag driver passing by would kindly insist on keeping their high beams on no matter how much the guides or tourists yelled at them or saluted with dirty hand gestures.(2) A few more minutes of chilly anticipation later, the tour guides loaded us back onto the bus for trying another location (would moving a few miles down the road really make that much of a difference for such large scale phenomena?). We had no sooner gotten in our seats and the bus engine rumbled to life when someone yelled out that they saw lights forming in the sky. We stampeded out of the bus and back into the chilly field and indeed saw a hazy, grey/green swath stretching across the sky. At first glance, it looked like little more than an odd cloud, something anyone might see anywhere else, but as we watched, it gently curved and deepened in color. Immediately, everyone planted themselves on the ground and steadied cameras started clicking. I fumbled a bit with my own camera, trying my best with adjusting to night settings without seeing a damn thing, and started taking whatever shots I could get. Eventually, the lights dimmed and faded away, and the relative warmth of the bus beckoned us back in.

Over the next hour, the lights appeared two or three more times, resulting in multiple exoduses in and out of the bus for a glance at the lights and taking more pictures. Each appearance was much more impressive than the previous, as the lights came back brighter, more structured and active each time. Unfortunately, bumbling around in the dark, I was reminded about how petty and territorial people get over ridiculous shit. The one down side of the multiple runs outside is the resulting game of musical chairs, where more than a few people took seats where others had previously been sitting, causing a bit of disruption for those in need of relocating. I didn’t mind this since most people had their personal belongings with them, and a few of us specifically picked new seats that were clearly empty. However, many didn’t share our “one seat is as good as any other” philosophy, garnering reactions ranging from “Whoops, I was sitting there, but that’s okay” to one stubborn Asian tourist who – rather than speak to me (in any language) – simply grunted and glared (as fiercely as a five foot tall Asian man can) at me in the aisle until I removed myself from the one seat he MUST sit in (I would’ve held my ground, but the bus driver was getting impatient). The long day was definitely catching up with me and mild irritation was germinating into me getting punchier each time someone communed with their inner child, effectively whining “but that’s MYYYY SEAT,” and ultimately I was so tired that causing a fuss wasn’t worth the trouble.(3)

Nevertheless, on the way back into town, everyone was comparing pictures, some of which were excellent, and also confirmed my belief that pictures of the Northern Lights frequently look more impressive than the actual lights themselves. Unfortunately, when I checked my camera, I marveled at the snap shots I took of spectacularly-framed and captured…black boxes.

Fuck it.

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Pictures courtesy of Tom Diehm.

(1) Though some may have questioned why we visited an astronomical observatory on more than one cloudy night.

(2) It’s almost a comfort knowing that the DC area doesn’t have a monopoly on asshole drivers.

(3) I didn’t want to be “that guy” and chances are I would’ve gotten my ass kicked anyway.

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Morning greeted us with a bit more rain and grey clouds…and more ever-present wind, but the weather reports favored it all passing by the afternoon, with temperatures even reaching unseasonably high mid-50s through the week. This was a little bit of a surprise given that I packed for early-Winter conditions and now almost wished I snuck a pair of shorts in my luggage (special emphasis on “almost”). Given the long travel day, late night Northern Lights tour and inevitable jetlag, our itinerary was light until the afternoon, giving us ample opportunity for sleeping in. My habits favor me being a nightowl, but I’ve noticed that my sleeping in practices have been declining as I get older. I’m not entirely happy about this given its implications, but on the plus side, I’m better at getting to work on time. So oddly enough, despite returning around 1:00 AM the previous night, I was awake, cleaned up and ready for today by 8:30 AM.

The Hilton Nordica serves a breakfast buffet that was included in our room rates, and it offers any and everything you could want – traditional eggs/bacon/pancakes, fruits, pastries, cereal, skyr, and even deli meats and fish.(1) Unlike previous group trips where we didn’t always have a central time or place for regular gatherings, breakfast became our unofficial daily meeting for comparing notes on the previous day’s activities or preparations for the day ahead and making tentative plans with any free time. Connections were more easily made and added bit of cohesiveness that at least I appreciated and enjoyed.(2) One of our Boston travelers commented this particular morning about another man in our group relentlessly teasing and giving her a hard time yesterday, and we explained and teased her about his "schoolboy punching a girl in the arm" crush on her.

(1) Although I love breakfast foods, I don’t eat breakfast much during the week. My workday habit consists of grabbing a banana or cup of yogurt that I eat at the office. By way of experimentation, I’ve found that, unless I’m cooking with it, I really don’t like Greek-style yogurt, but I found skyr tasty and it has a nice texture. For the record, and though I love it, I’m not a fan of fish and/or seafood in the morning.

(2) We met in groups of ranging from two to eight depending on who was downstairs at the same time. There was a clique of four people who almost always ate apart from us (as well as stayed together on excursions), so we didn’t get to know them as well. I guess we weren’t worthy of the “in crowd.”


Man About Town

Our rally time for this afternoon’s tour of Reykjavik’s landmarks wasn’t until noon, so I took advantage of the free time for a little neighborhood exploring around the hotel. Walking uphill and then east, I found that the hotel was on the western edge of an industrial area, with a mix of other hotels, home décor and hardware shops blending into more professional services storefronts. Walking along, I discovered a place called Joe’s Diner, which looked pretty questionable, and based on the few reviews I found on it online, I did myself a service by not eating there. Though I couldn’t help thinking of my friend Michael (the same one on the San Francisco trip last year), who has a penchant for greasy spoons and diner-esque eateries. The appeal is based on a shared love of stick-to-your-ribs food that – almost by definition – isn’t necessarily good for you while being so damn tasty, and that it’s usually cheap. I also spotted a British pub sports bar and a decked out Series 70 Toyota Land Cruiser that I know at least a few friends would covet.

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Heading south and downhill from the hotel, I explored a sports complex complete with a football/soccer stadium, gym and indoor pool. The striking thing about the gym was the rather…phallic monument in front of it, looking more like an adult novelty store display than a symbol of fitness and human perfection. A gym member walking out toward the parking lot said something in Icelandic, and given the wiseass smile on his face, I’m guessing it was something either at my expense and/or in regard to my sexuality.

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Experiencing History – Living and Dead...and Comically Nightmarish Sculptures

10689947_10152330300817691_4622982867356920482_nMeanwhile, back at the Hilton Nordica…(1)

Gathering downstairs for our afternoon tour of greater Reykjavik, we situated ourselves in one corner of the lobby, and I couldn’t help noticing a small crowd of people (mostly Asian) who were accompanied by two VERY large, VERY solid-looking men. The men had a certain “DON’T FUCK WITH US” coup d'oeil, looking far more serious than almost anyone else, and were scanning the room and crowd like predators. Minutes later, one of the elevators opens and another small and similar group walks out. Among them is a small, slim, mature Asian woman all decked out in black, complete with a stylishly tilted fedora and sunglasses that she could see over. And it’s none other than the legendary/infamous Yoko Ono. As it turns out, she visits Iceland annually for the Imagine Peace Tower lighting celebration, held on John Lennon’s birthday (October 9), and is subsequently turned off on December 8 (when Lennon was shot and killed). As the shock and awe of her walking by faded, one or two of our crowd were slick and quickly snapped pictures of her. By the time the rest of us were doing our best impressions of opportunistic paparazzi grabbing at our phones and cameras, her body guards blocked her off with a “NICE TRY BITCHES, NOW PISS OFF” scowl.

We piled into the bus and took off, heading down the same main drag we walked yesterday, with the guide explaining the ins and outs of the shopping district that Paul had previously summarized for us. However, a convenient intersection stop more or less…aroused…our attention because of the grand view of the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which many of us vowed right then and there to visit before leaving Iceland.(2)

First stop, we arrived at the Hallgrímskirkja Church, Iceland’s tallest and largest church, and that’s no mean feat for a small island. The church, now one of Reykjavik’s iconic symbols (if it has that many), can pretty much be spotted from anywhere since it’s built on one of the highest hills in the city proper, and how can you not love a church adorned with a Viking statue out front (of Leif Erikson no less)? The church’s interior has the clean lines of Scandinavian décor, and being a Lutheran church, it reminded me of some Protestant churches I’ve seen – a strange mixture of Protestant artistic sensibilities and an Ikea showroom. The architecture itself is modeled on traditional church architecture with the outside emulating the island’s lava flow landscape...though it struck me as less organic and more stylistic in form.


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Despite my surprise of not bursting into flames at a house of worship, we snuck in a short excursion down by the harbor, getting a closer look at one of Iceland’s coast guard ships (the extent of the country’s “military infrastructure”) and a whale skeleton (which I sincerely hope wasn’t hunted just for the sake of becoming a trophy in a boat-turned-gift-shop). As we circled around and out of the downtown area, the bus took us by Björk’s house, a strangely modest and low key dwelling (my expectations were for something more…interesting I guess? I mean, it is Björk’s house…). Our next stop was the Perlan (“The Pearl”), and I decided right then and there that I had found my future superhero headquarters. The building is a set of former water storage tanks that were converted into an exhibition and convention center, and houses a supposedly very good restaurant in the top floor dome. An added perk is the dome turns, giving diners a changing view of the city and surrounding area. You can see the entire city area from the 365 degree view on the hill it sits on, across the harbor and the President’s house (a modest little home that looks like a nice place to meet a world leader for tea).

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Top: The whale skeleton and Björk's house. Bottom: The Perlan and the view from on top looking at downtown Reykjavik.

Next, we visited an art museum that convinces me that what Scandinavian’s might call “abstract” or “whimsical,” seems more “disturbing” and “suggestive.” We arrived at the former home of Ásmundur Sveinsson, apparently a well-loved local artist whose home looks like a long lost setting piece for an old Star Trek or Doctor Who episode. Surrounding it are the artist’s sculptures, which he apparently wanted accessible to the public, and especially for children. With all due respect to one of Iceland’s more beloved artists, I pride myself on keeping an open mind about most art, but a few of the sculptures here struck me as borderline nightmarish in a “set design for Beetlejuice” kind of way. Also, it seems the artist wasn’t very concerned with underwhelming onlookers regarding the male anatomy…whether envisioned realistically or symbolically.(3)

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I’m almost certain Tim Burton has been here.

DSC02434Heading back into town, we dropped by the Höfði House, a small piece of Cold War history where Ronald Reagan (one of the few Republican presidents I like) and Mikhail Gorbachev met in 1986 for negotiating the inevitable end of decades of tension (only replaced by more in the past few years). Having a healthy appreciation for history, this was one item on our itinerary that I was definitely enthusiastic for, especially with some of the things I’ve read about it (any place where the local government’s official policy is neither confirming nor denying that is has a ghost is worth visiting). Unfortunately, the house was closed, so no luck seeing its artifacts, and no ghosts were seen as were walked around outside.

Not far down the road, we stopped for a look at the Sólfar (“Sun Voyager”) sculpture, which some argue is a vision of a Viking ship or a “dreamboat” since the artist was very ill when he designed it. This ended up being a lot of fun for my group since, like the art museum, people were welcome to climb all over it…and we did.

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(1) Must be read in Ted Knight’s voice.

(2) And we do check it out.

(3) A few visitors taking suggestive and humorous pictures of some the said sculptures’ anatomical features and general snickering justifies this point of view.


The Harpa and Dinner


DSC02456Our final drop off was downtown at the Harpa, Reykjavik’s concert hall. Our guide informed us that completing the hall became a matter of national pride back in 2008 when the economic troubles at the time pretty much devastated the Icelandic economy. While visitors could wander inside and check out the main areas, the hall itself was closed to the public, but one of our group went back a few days later for an inside tour and he said it is magnificent inside.

A long afternoon outside in the wind, combined with growling stomachs convinced more than a few of us that sustenance Icelandic style was in order. After some debate, wandering and brainstorming, we took up a suggestion for a two-course meal…at two different places. First up, we invaded Saegrefinn ("The Seabaron"), a hole-in-the-wall joint that serves a host of grilled, skewered meats and seafood, but also their famous lobster soup. Chilled and hungry, our appetizer was a modest bowl of curried broth deliciousness with incredibly tasty bites of langoustine lobster. While there, Paul ordered a small plate of grilled minke whale. Now, I know what you’re thinking, YOU ATE WHALE?! HOW COULD YOU?! It’s bad enough that I can claim having tried sea turtle (legally farm raised in the Cayman Islands…not that I feel any less guilty about that), but whale? Apparently, minke whale is considered “not at risk,” and if it helps conservation efforts, is much better off not being eaten anyway. Imagine a tough form of beef with a very unpleasant fish taste to it. Most of my crowd had a similar reaction, although on person not only liked it, but apparently he ordered it for dinner at another restaurant a day or two later. Warm again, but still hungry, we marched almost literally across the street to Icelandic Fish and Chips, which we were told was the place for good fish and chips. We were a large party, so the wait staff made us order from the group menu, bringing out huge piles of tantalizing fried blue ling and cod, served with four kinds of sauce (basil and garlic, coriander and lime, chili and roasted pepper, and traditional tartar), steaming hot and with just the right amount of residual grease. The chips were heaping bowls of hot, garlic roasted potatoes (with chunks of garlic so big that they’d keep away vampires for decades), and so good that the bowls were empty and practically licked clean.

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Well fed, warm and now getting into evening, we split into smaller packs for either hopping on the bus or walking back to the hotel. I opted for walking as a karmic gesture for what I just ate, arriving just in time for nodding at Yoko Ono as she headed out for a night on the town. A few nightcaps at the hotel bar and we were done for the day, especially since tomorrow meant a very long and highly anticipated day outside.

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I can admit that I’ve watched far too many dumb sci fi movies, even while knowing they’re stupid, I can’t help watching them either for sheer entertainment value, tearing into them like Cinema Sins does on YouTube, or just for the old MST3K treatment. In anticipation of today, my imagination was rolling weeks ahead of time with visions of scientists in arctic gear stomping around an icy landscape, doing hey-look-we’re-doing-sciencey-movie stuff (and now tempted with comparing the opening scenes from The Day After Tomorrow and anything aired on Discovery or National Geographic about glaciers). I awoke with my thoughts anxiously cranked into high gear about what expect today. It’s moments like this that remind me about why travel is such a great experience – wondering what a new place or experience will be like and ruminating on and/or writing about it later.

Everyone was up bright and early and eating their body weights in breakfast as a “power up” for the hike, as well as some still debating about clothing and gear. Until now, I planned on freezing my ass off since 1) I expected winter-like weather in Iceland, and 2) this was a walk on a giant hunk of ice. But our arrival heralded unusually warm weather, so now the big debate was what clothing is best for this trip? As I mentioned earlier, I packed a few options in preparation for changing circumstances, mainly underarmor and different outwear for layering up. The ski jacket I brought with me on the trip was specifically for the glacier hike since it has a removable and waterproof out shell and high tech thermal layer. Stupidly, I didn’t invest in a pair of rain pants, and the hiking pants I brought along were only “water resistant,” so they had their work cut out for them. One of our group arrived earlier and already did another glacier hike, reporting that no matter what happens, just count on getting soaked.

Le Voyage dans la Lune(1)

We piled onto the bus and got comfortable for the near two-hour drive ending at a tongue of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier. After a foggy ride from the airport, a nighttime jaunt out for the Northern Lights, and remaining in the city proper until now, we finally had a glimpse of Iceland’s rural landscape. The tour guide was chatting the whole way out, so there wasn’t much by way of napping on the bus, which was fine for me because I wanted a look at the scenery.

Iceland has a stark, elemental beauty – almost like being on a different planet (as it turns out, several movies have used Icelandic locales for that very purpose, and NASA even sent astronauts here in the 1960s for moon landing training). We passed large swaths of rolling lava fields and a few rare, sparse grasslands with the wandering herds of lambs, goats and even some cows. Being an East Coaster, I’ve lived most of my life within sight of foothills that eventually turned into the Blue Ridge Mountains. For me, there was a strange fascination with large, imposing, dramatic ridges and peaks sprouting up out of otherwise flat, rolling fields of moss-covered volcanic rock. We drove around and over tall, dark walls of rock, with moss stretching up them as high as it could, and snow reaching as far down as possible. Occasional waterfalls spouted from hidden fissures, ending in waves of mist and faint rainbows. We had a taste of those ridgelines every day in Reykjavik, but out in the country, you felt like you had traveled much further than the North Atlantic and civilization (and this was a few hours outside of the city – I admit I’m more than a little curious about driving the Ring Road someday and seeing the rest of the island).

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We made two stops en route, one at a gas station/rest stop for stretching our legs and grabbing drinks and snacks, and then at the entrance of a farm that had been in the news back in 2010 when the volcano under Eyjafjallajökull erupted, causing all kinds of havoc with air travel. The historical markers and pictures posted there leave little to the imagination about how apocalyptic and pants-soiling it must’ve been, seeing a volcano more or less blowing up in your backyard. Considering that I live in a place where the biggest calamities we contend with are garden variety snow storms (often causing accidents hours or days before the first snowflake) and swamp-like heat and humidity (with everyone praying that their AC doesn’t break down), I don’t exactly feel justified in bitching about how bad it is living there anymore. Here, Act of God takes on a much more appropriate and intimidating meaning.

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Shortly afterward, we arrived at the rally point for today’s hike, which was little more than a few vans with hiking gear and a café housed in small, ramshackle building, and all at the end of a gravel road that’s absolute murder on your kidneys. Everyone geared up and waited in line as the guides sized and handed over the clamp ons for marching on a giant block of ice. The safety speech the guides gave reinforced the fact that were inherent dangers with this activity, and that the ice axes being handed out were “MOSTLY for use as walking sticks.” Imaginative wonder and enthusiasm were now mixed with a touch of sudden dread.

The particular area we hiked was known for having rainy conditions 300 days out of the year and it felt like it with wind and rain pelting us the whole time. It varied from full on gale-force winds and downpours to gentle breezes and light misting. It was a 40 minute uphill hike ending at the glacier’s edge, resulting in a tough walk with the multiple layers and a ski jacket working against me in the mid-50 temperatures. Marching over rolling and muddy terrain, the view slowly changed from grassy and moss-covered ground to black, wet soil and rock. As we approached the edge of the glacier, the landscape looked more like the Moon – just hard, rocky terrain, nothing green and everything you wore got instantly dirty. The wind and rain intensified, the temps dropped and suddenly I was glad for every piece of clothing I was wearing.

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We stopped just short of the glacier, putting on our clamp ons and making sure jackets were zipped up and gloves and hats in place. I was vaguely reminded about accounts from astronauts who walked on the Moon, complaining about what a menace the lunar soil (or regolith for you science types) was – collecting on and spreading everywhere. Some even joked that they wore more of the Moon on them than in the samples they collected and brought back. Getting ready for the glacier hike, I felt the same way – as soon as you knelt or sat down, black soil and gravel smeared and covered everything.

The guides explained the technique for walking on the ice – feet apart and stepping straight down, making us look like a bunch of bundled up Frankenstein monsters stomping about. And as graceless as that looked, climbing down a 15 foot rope and then climbing up onto the glacier was a new lesson in humility. Nearly every one of us either took a tumble down the slope or slipped and fell on the ice.(2) As we started up the glacier, the guides also informed us that the hike wouldn’t be as long as planned – other groups coming back reported much higher than normal wind conditions (which we were prone on believing given the maelstrom we stood in), so trips higher up the glacier were very hazardous.

Standing on the ice, with the guides (one of them is a geologist) giving a summary of basic high school earth science, we fought (and often lost against) howling winds spraying us with near constant waves of rain and mist, whose relentlessness was matched only by the magnificent rainbows they produced. It was another world of ice, with jagged outcroppings of gravel-covered ice (sometimes called Huldufólk, or “trolls”), sharp crevices and a pallet of colors ranging from black and grey to white and pastel blue. All of which surrounded by hard, jagged walls of dark rock. What I didn’t expect was the sheer amount of water covering the ice, cascading around and running downhill through the crevices. It wasn’t just the unseasonably warm weather, as the guides pointed out a distant pond/lagoon on the far side of the glacier, which was where the ice had been as little as a year or two earlier. The hike we made uphill was a result of the receding ice, and the pond marking where they originally began glacier hikes. There’s nothing more eye opening than seeing the dramatic effects of global warming firsthand.

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(1) The French silent film A Trip to the Moon.

(2) I went cave repelling a few years ago, and that still ranks as one of the hardest adventure activities I ever tried. Climbing down the rope and up onto the glacier is a very close second place.


Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls(1)

The hike back from the glacier was uneventful and thankfully downhill, as well as feeling relatively more comfortable in the lighter wind and rain. We had just enough time for grabbing some water and a quick snack at the café, then we were back on the bus. Our last stops were checking out the Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls. I got out for a look at and get some pictures of the first waterfall, but decided that the warm bus and comfy seat weren’t worth giving up for the other waterfall (in fact, I slept through that until everyone was getting back on the bus).

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(1) Apologies to TLC.

Skunky Beer and Fermented Shark


20141007_180353It was just after 7:00 PM by the time we got back and we were starving for obvious reasons. We spent a few minutes in the lobby debating options for dinner, and it was pretty clear that the consensus was for the famous Café Loki – a small eatery that boasts traditional Icelandic cuisine and has been featured on more than a few food and travel shows. After a long, hot shower and a quiet internal debate about making the trip into town or just going downstairs, I met the others in the lobby and we took off downtown. The restaurant is literally across the street from Hallgrímskirkja, making it easy to find. Inside, the place is small, intimate and just the kind of place you don’t want a group of noisy, obnoxious Americans wandering into – as evident by the looks on the other diners’ faces. Nevertheless, the wait staff were more than polite and patient with us (probably more than we deserved).

I opted for the meat soup (think chicken soup, but made with lamb) with toast and lamb pate, while others tried the mashed fish (a combination of white fish, potatoes and cheese). I took a chance and dared trying another local beer, this time Thule (pronounced “tool-ay”) and wish I hadn’t. It’s a relatively low alcohol content (5%) and had a definite skunky quality, reminding me of an even more unpleasant version of Heineken (which I can’t stand). However, the night’s big accomplishment was most of us attempting Iceland’s infamous contribution to cuisine based on a dare – Hákarl, or fermented shark. The local shark is inedible (i.e., poisonous) until it is processed and aged, leaving behind a meat with the consistency of tofu and smelling like Windex on steroids. Anthony Bourdain (who is a very big and obvious influence on my writing) once described this “delicacy” as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten, which I completely agree (even the minke whale we tried was better than this). Traditionally, one should have a shot of Brennivín with the shark, but we didn’t do that, and as it turns out, I’m kind of glad we didn’t (more on that later). The smell was so bad that once dinner was served, I immediately handed back the bowls the shark came in because of the lingering smell.

A bus ride back to the Hilton Nordica, we were well-fed but exhausted. I made it back to bed with the intent of writing up my notes for the day, but only succeeded in falling asleep with the nightstand lamp on.

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Interlude

The morning greeted Iceland with a crystal clear, blue sky and bright sun. I awoke in a tangled mass of comforter and pillows, and I’m reasonably sure it was the same position I fell asleep in last night. One oddity in the living arrangements here was not having a top sheet on the bed – just a duvet-wrapped comforter and fitted sheet around the mattress. My reaction, which was shared by a few others, was wondering if housekeeping forgot about the top sheet, but apparently this is normal for Iceland. Of course, as tired as I was last night, I could’ve been dropped on one of the weird sculptures I saw the other day and still had a good night’s rest.

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Note the snow melt on top of the peaks.

Some travelers pack as much as possible into every moment they’re in a new place, but I relish having some down time. Sometimes you need that odd day for catching one’s breath and recovering from earlier exploits (i.e., from too much exercise and/or alcohol…or both…), getting a few routine tasks out of the way (i.e., buying new additions for my shot glass and fridge magnet collections), and preparing for what’s coming up (i.e., taking extra Advil). And in what may be the definition of a First World Problem, I kind of enjoy the odd rainy day when vacationing at the beach – because yes, despite what your average frat boy will tell you about Spring Break, you can get too much sun and fun.

Today was scheduled as a free day, so I took my time getting cleaned up and heading downstairs for breakfast, where others from the group were eating and comparing/debating agendas for the day. Paul arrived a few days before the rest of us, making sure everything was in order, reservations confirmed, etc. (one of his line of work’s best practices, and it does not go unappreciated by people like me). In that time, he apparently made a new friend who joined him at breakfast this morning, a fellow female travel consultant, who was in town on business. After a short but fun conversation, as well as another passing encounter with Yoko Ono (and again, making strange and slightly awkward eye contact with us), Paul’s new friend was heading out to catch her flight home. Unfortunately, this left Paul at the mercy of our good-natured teasing about his new “friend,” and frankly, this was the first time I ever saw him blush.

I’m a Whale Watchin’

A few months back, one of the others posted a link for superjeep tours while here, which sounded like a great idea for our free day. However, talking with the few who were definitely going, it was clear that the excursion meant being outside and on the road (or off of it) all day. I was still a little weary from yesterday’s long adventure, so I opted out of going, and signed up for a whale watching tour with others. Since the cruise didn’t start until Noon, I camped out in the hotel lobby and got caught up on emails and typing up my trip notes.

The whale tour boats and ferries were down by the docks and ours took us out past the harbor, just on the edge of open water in the North Atlantic. For the next two hours, we ran around in hopes of seeing whales passing by, and for two hours, we saw mostly birds and a lot of dolphins swimming around and chasing the boat. Finally, we spotted at least one whale (we’re not sure if it was the same one popping up a few times or several), and then made our way back. One aspect of the cruise that wasn’t lost on us – the snack bar was very well stocked with candy, crackers, soda, water, cans of beer and tiny bottles of alcohol. Though judging by some of the green faces I saw, I’m not sure a mini-bottle of scotch would’ve helped them much. Once back on shore, we made a pit stop at the Seabaron again for a snack of lobster soup for holding us over until dinner, and after a little bit of confusion with the bus schedule, found our way back to the hotel.

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The Accidental Tourists

DSC02586A group of us made dinner plans for the bistro Brasserie Askur next door (Paul gave it high marks). A few of us wandering downstairs earlier than planned, so we had a drink or two at the hotel bar, recounting our day and observations of the trip so far. Some of the others who went on the superjeep tour had a much more interesting day where one jeep got stuck on a glacier and another broke its axle. The main issue was their getting a refund, which they eventually did get a partial one.

All during the conversation, I noticed a woman at the next table listening in on our conversation. Her name was Julie and she was an Australian “on holiday” who arrived today…sans her luggage. She was on a tour with friends and while they were staying in mainland Europe, she wanted to see Iceland instead, however, being stuck with literally just the clothes on her back and not much else wasn’t really part of her plan. We talked for a bit and then made our way out to the restaurant. Sadly, we never saw Julie again.

The bistro was a little overpriced, but worth it, where we ate lamb chops and tenderloin, and one of our crowd even ordered roast foal, though a few others balked at the idea of eating horse (I know, as opposed to the minke whale I tried yesterday…), despite his insistence that it was good. Honestly, I can’t blame him for trying horse. In fact, I’m a little jealous that I didn’t see it on the menu. On the other hand, my sense of gastronomical curiosity has resulted in my trying a few things I wish I hadn’t – most notably poi, now fermented shark and a dessert in East Berlin that is still best described as a “mystery” (and not in a good way). The waitresses were clearly less than happy about serving us (again, obnoxious Americans), but no one came down with food poisoning, so I consider that a win in my book.

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Jetlag is an odd thing, especially since I’m a night owl by nature. No, wait, let me rephrase that – I am not, under any circumstances, what you would call a “morning person”(1) – so recovering from west-to-east jetlag is usually pretty easy for me. It’s like pulling an all-nighter and fighting through the following day…which I’m used to from old habits, college and work. On the other hand, east-to-west jetlag hits me like a freight train, which I experienced in spades last year in Hawaii. However, for some reason this time, and despite having adapted easily to Iceland’s four-hour time difference, I found myself staring at the ceiling just minutes before 6:00 AM. Needless to say, I was alert and cleaned up in time to watch a sunrise over Reykjavik, which was worth getting up for.

An observation that has been floating around in my head since I arrived here, but didn’t really sink in until now was how quiet this city is. My room faced the main street the hotel was on, so you’d think I’d be sick of hearing cars and buses going by at all hours. But watching what effectively passes for Reykjavik’s rush hour (as in, not even worth comparing to anywhere in the U.S. that’s bigger than Mayberry), I realized that I can’t recall hearing a single car horn, police or rescue siren or car crash. Not even music pounding through bass speakers that cost more than the car itself. For that matter, except for the coast guard ship in the harbor and one noted occurrence of hearing a siren a few days later, I can’t recall seeing or hearing any representatives of the local authority on the whole trip. Considering how the most dangerous objects in anyone’s household here were kitchen knives, I was pondering a few things about American culture.

(1) Your honor, I present the court with Exhibit A – testimonies from my parents, former teachers and professors, several ex-girlfriends, and if my pets could talk, they would tell you that the standard punishment for dancing on the bed in the morning is a vicious and decisive sweep of my arm, as well as an angry blue streak of expletives with varying meanings.

The Golden Tourist Trap

I went to Disney World years ago, back when one of my cousins worked there, and he was celebrating his birthday by having my uncle and aunt, as well as my mom, dad and sister visit. My lack of zeal regarding the trip wasn’t because I hate Disney (I enjoy their movies, but I’ve always been a Looney Tunes aficionado), or that I didn’t love my extended family (I do). It’s because of my preference for places with a history and culture ripe for exploring, rather than resorts that are artificially-gorgeous vacuum cleaners for people’s money (this is probably why I’ve never been particularly motivated about cruise ship vacations).(1) While we did genuinely have fun and enjoy ourselves,(2) Beautiful people singing It’s a Small World After All feels a little less genuine as they usher you toward another shop full of soon-to-be-forgotten kids toys and/or future garage sale items. Now, admittedly, my one touristy habit along these lines is collecting magnets and shot glasses, but that’s really it, so gift shops are mostly lost on me (not unlike buffet-style restaurants).

Moving on…

After breakfast and our daily Yoko Ono hotel sighting, we piled into a tour bus for a tour of the famous Golden Circle.(3) This is a popular tourist route because it hits several natural wonders and man-made sites that are all conveniently within an hour or two of downtown Reykjavik. Some versions of this route include a couple of Iceland’s power plants, but we were opting for seeing more of mother nature.

Our first stop (and only manmade locale) was the Fridheimar Greenhouse, one of several Iceland is experimenting with growing crops all year long in for a place with a not-ideal-for-agriculture climate. One of the greenhouse’s guides pointed out that Iceland’s increasingly tourism-based economy came with an unsettling downside – larger food requirements. The number of tourists visiting Iceland has been climbing since 2000, meaning a for-the-most-part-previously-self-sufficient country must import more food or develop new ways of producing its own. Besides row after row of tomato plants hanging in a giant hydroponic garden, bright lights simulating the sun were so bright that you took off your jacket or started sweating, there were very real bees buzzing about on their pollenating rounds from artificial bee hives (made of cardboard). And the facility’s entrance and exit? A makeshift gift shop selling just about anything you can think of made from the produce grown there (kudos though for it all being native resources and keeping the money local).

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Moving on, our next stop was the Geysir Hot Spring Area, home to the Strokkur geyser and is the first geyser ever discovered by Europeans. The first thing that hits you as you walk the path toward Strokkur is the smell. Being a result of Iceland’s volcanic nature (like many things here), the entire area was churning up blistering hot water and steam, and combined with brutally high winds, there was no getting away from the heavy scent of rotten eggs. It was also mildly discomforting that a park requires posting a health warning for visitors given the nature of the sites there. We couldn’t help noting the sign's “Respect fences and barriers – for your own safety” warning) as we watched a couple walk toward the far side of the geyser (and off the paved path), only to be drenched by the geyser as we approached it.(4)

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Strokkur goes off every five to ten minutes, so we patiently waited through several eruptions (and unyielding and powerful wind that was freezing us where we stood), trying to get the best pictures possible as steam and water sprayed into the air. Walking back, the park has a combination dining hall/gift shop, offering everything from wool sweaters, leather coats, t-shirts, magnets, and coffee mugs…to underwear and condoms.


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No, really.

Afterward and not far down the road, we checked out the Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”) waterfall which is as breathtaking as it is deafening. It really is an impressive site and one that you can practically stand on top of, with the roar of the falls overwhelming everything and making everyone there effectively deaf and mute by comparison. Probably the only equally amazing site was Paul, who was marching around and taking pictures in nothing more than a pair of shorts and a t-shirt while we were chilled by never ending high winds. Oh, and we stopped at the gift shop before leaving for the next stop.

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By mid afternoon, we reached our last stop and one that I had been looking forward to the whole day – Þingvellir, Iceland’s first national park. The park grounds are famous for being the site of the first Parliament in history (930 AD for you history buffs), as well as the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. We were dropped off at the bottom of a trail that leads to an overlook of the entire valley, and there was definitely a thrill of standing on one tectonic plate while looking over at the other one. It’s a view that I’m already eager for comparing to the Grand Canyon someday.(5) And we made sure to stop at the gift shop/shack there before heading out…because, y’know…we’re tourists.


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(1)
I grant you, that may apply to just about anywhere in the world that’s a popular tourist destination.

(2)
In the interest of full disclosure, we ate great food and my mom observed that we were never once bitten by a single mosquito. That, and my sister (who is autistic) had the time of her life with the princess breakfast, and staying for the end of the day parade/fireworks/watching Tinkerbell “fly” up to the castle. Coincidentally, my sister LOVES gift shops.

(3)
Not to be confused with the Golden Fleece, the Golden Egg or the Golden Mile.

(4)
They were okay afterward, luckily being in greater danger of dying from embarrassment than anything else.

(5)
In point of fact, I saw the Grand Canyon way back when I was six years old, but I just remember bits and pieces of what I saw there, so another trip is definitely worth it.

DSC02729Dinner was a Surprise


By the time we arrived back at Reykjavik, it was late afternoon/early evening, and made a pit stop at the hotel so those of us who wanted to could hop off. The rest went downtown in hopes of taking one of the ferries out and seeing Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace memorial lighting ceremony. Cold and hungry, those of us at the hotel ran upstairs, cleaned up and wandered out for dinner. We walked downtown, hoping to eat at the highly rated Ban Thai restaurant, but a handwritten sign in the window made clear that it was closed until that following Tuesday. Stomachs grumbling and patience wearing a little thin, we continued walking and considering options as we passed them by, finally opting for the Nepalese Restaurant (try as I might, I couldn’t find a single website for or mentioning this place), which looked a little on the “hole in the wall” side of eateries, but the menu looked good and hunger won out over caution and lack of local knowledge. We were rewarded for our curiosity as the food was not only good, but AMAZINGLY good, both comfortably warming and filling us up.

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20141010_055131Playing Amateur Paparazzi

Up until this morning, I caught myself taking the unseasonably warm weather for granted. As I woke up and looked out the window, I noticed the room was slightly cooler than it had been previously (I was still keeping the window cracked open), and frost covering everything outside that wasn’t concrete or asphalt was a huge reminder that winter starts earlier in Iceland than in my neck of the woods. Dressing more warmly was the order of the day, so it was time to break out the heavier sweater I brought.

The only planned item on today’s itinerary wasn’t until later in the afternoon/early evening, so we had the day to ourselves. At breakfast, we revisited our shared intention of checking out the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which we spotted on Monday during our bus tour of the city, as well as wandering over to the Reykjavik Zoo just a few blocks away from the hotel.

As we talked and ate, someone mentioned that Yoko Ono was having breakfast with the mayor at the other end of the hotel restaurant from us, so I wandered over out of curiosity. Sure enough, she was sitting at a table with the mayor and both of their entourages, as well as a team of photographers circling the table like vultures over a fresh kill. Despite my healthy respect for people’s privacy, I figured she’s in a public place and it wouldn’t hurt to sneak a picture with my cell phone, which I promptly did. I’d no sooner taken a picture, when a curt and definitively Scandinavian-sounding voice yelled ”HEY! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” As I turned, I was face-to-face with a severe-looking blonde woman with piercing grey eyes, blonde hair pulled back so tight her eyes bulged and a clear sense of disdain written across her stern face. I figured that I could’ve said anything and it wouldn’t have mattered, so I opted for complete honesty and explained that I was just taking a picture. She gave me a rapid fire lecture about it being a private event as I walked away (though I contemplated lecturing her that it was a public place, but whatev… as the kids say these days), and since she didn’t pursue me or have one of Yoko’s bodyguards rearrange my internal organs, I let that particular sleeping dog lie.

Zoos Can be Charming and Creepy

It was mid-morning as we stepped outside, but the air still had that early morning crisp you feel at daybreak, complete with seeing our breath, frost still lining grass and a chill that snuck into any opening it could find. Walking kept us warm as we arrived at the zoo entrance, which was both eerie and whimsical at the same time – especially since at first glance, it looked deserted…in a hey, that’s not normal…set up for a fan-made horror movie kind of way. It was an odd mix of my own local town’s zoo and the set of Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, complete with an unused merry-go-round.(1)

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As we walked through the zoo, we finally saw other people wandering around – at least one couple who were also tourists, a few others who I couldn’t guess about, and a group of kids with their teacher. The zoo had a collection of reindeer, a few seals doing tricks for the kids, a minx that was dedicated to proving what mean little bastards they are, some everyday barnyard animals, a pair of very friendly Icelandic ponies horses who loved being pet, and a whole pack of artic foxes (the island’s only native mammal and only one until humans arrived).


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(1) First, the Reston Zoo is barely more than a glorified petting zoo whose only claim to fame is – ironically enough – the now former zoo director being arrested for animal cruelty. Second, if you see nothing else that better defines the awesomely cheesy quality of late 1970’s TV programming, then this Kiss movie (which the band still hates with a vengeance) is the one for you. Trust me, it’s a beautiful, so-bad-it’s-fucking-wonderful movie best watched with friends MST3K-style…and/or while drinking.

DSC02795A Museum Erected for Stiff Attention

Ever since we spotted the Icelandic Phallological Museum, my curiosity had been aroused about why this place sounded so familiar. The thought kept poking in and out of my subconscious, and best as I can tell, it must’ve come up in something I watched on TV (thanks, HBO). While many of our tour group blew off the place, several of us had been stroking each other’s sense of adventure to visit the museum and today we rose up for the challenge. The museum’s store front is plain and neutral, and the small lobby consists of the museum’s gift shop and clerk desk, manned by the place’s founder and owner Sigurður Hjartarson – a quiet, unassuming and polite man who struck me as having seen more than his fair share of obnoxious American tourist “dicks.”(1)

Walking inside, the museum wasn’t as impressive in size as you’d be led to believe – barely any bigger than a two or three bedroom apartment, but with dried, embalmed and otherwise preserved members from all kinds of species. The largest and unavoidable specimen is from a sperm whale (measuring in at around six feet long), and the smallest from a hamster (under a microscope). There were schlongs from deer, bears, dogs, and even one confirmed human appendage – all in varying degrees of identification depending on their condition and preservation. Old cartoons and newspaper ads and clippings lined the walls, and one room was dedicated to sex jokes and toys (though frankly, I’ve seen more imaginative ones elsewhere). Given our somewhat mixed crowd, it was hard not smirking or even laughing as some of the women in our crowd got caught up in a detailed discussion about what they prefer from their men while inspecting animal parts. Having seen the museum at length, we broke up – some returned to the hotel, and a few of us wandered around to wrap up shopping and/or check out a few last sites.

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(1) Yes, any and all puns here are intentional (as if you didn’t know that).


DSC02807How Much Cocaine Did the Host Have?

Many years ago, on my first European vacation, I toured the Stella Artois brewery, which was a liberating experience because I was 19 and the then drinking age in Europe was 18 (I’m not sure if that’s changed since then), and they were serving free samples. Needless to say, by the time we left, we were little more than a mass of tipsy teenagers and worried-beyond-belief-hoping-and-praying-they-wouldn’t-be-sued teacher leaders (to the best of my knowledge, they weren’t sued).

This evening’s entertainment was visiting the Ölgerðin brewery, nestled in the city’s industrial district, just a short bus ride from the hotel (in fact, I almost wonder if we should’ve walked there). Not only a brewery, the place was also the city’s (and possible whole island’s) soda bottling plant, and in what seemed to be today’s theme, not as large or impressive as expected, with the tour taking just a few minutes (by contrast, Stella Artois’ brewery is enormous). Our hosts were two women – one was a painfully thin British girl who can best be described as a struggling actress who had done way too many lines of cocaine before running on stage. The other was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed local beauty who had a certain Angelina Jolie look and referred to everyone as “my dears” in a voice like silk. They took us through a comprehensive account of Iceland’s drinking history, including their own Prohibition era and then attempts to bring back alcohol in the most God-awful concoction ever. Naturally, they made a mix of the concoction for us to taste test. Having already tried a few of the local brews, I already wasn’t too impressed with Icelandic beer, so when they started making a mixed drink consisting of the Icelandic equivalent of Milwaukee’s Beast and Brenninvan, my expectations were already pretty low…and that horrible drink was probably enough for washing away the taste of fermented shark, but not nearly appetizing enough for drinking until I didn’t care anymore.

About a dozen of us went downtown afterward hunting for dinner, but it was Friday night and the locals were out and every place packed, so the logistics of getting a large group into one restaurant was not happening. As we split into smaller groups, we came across a VERY energetic and drunk crowd of what we guessed were Germans and Icelanders, whose leader was pissing up against a wall for all to see. Eventually, having broken down into more manageable teams and losing the literally piss drunk locals, a few of us wandered into a dive bar with a scattered crowd of tourists and older locals, and a huge number of college age kids. The place had an awesome 80s theme going on with waitresses wearing neon-colored clothes, complete with off-the-shoulder baggy tops and heavy metal hair band coifs. Feasting on what was not the best burgers ever, the tasty stout (not local) made up for the food and brewery fare. A short hike into town and then a bus ride over to the hotel got us back just in time to meet up with some of the others for a few drinks before calling it a night.

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The mood amongst my fellow travelers was a bit more subdued this particular morning. Traveling is fun, but it can eventually wear a person down. The rigors of departure from familiar routines and places, being active every day/more than normal, and constantly keeping warm were taking their toll. Long faces and slightly temperamental demeanors made it clear that travel fatigue was settling in, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about looking forward to heading home, too. Not that I wasn’t enjoying myself, my fellow travelers or everything Iceland offered, but home means returning to the accustomed and comfort, and you miss friends, family and your own bed.

In the weeks before my trip, I made a concerted effort of ensuring everyone in my office knew I’d be overseas with limited resources in case anything came up. With just a tablet and cell phone (both only useful for email within range of wifi signals…which Iceland has plenty of), there wasn’t much I could do should a situation arise or project pop up. That and the company I work for has a crowd of particularly demanding, Type A personalities running it who notoriously check their emails and work through their own holidays and vacations, and I had been pulled into that same trap a few times working there. This time, I was determined to not do anything work related, and beyond checking my work email a few times just to make sure I didn’t miss anything critical, all was mercifully quiet on the western front.

In short, I may have been missing home, but I wasn’t missing work.

Lava Trails to You…(1)

Most of us spent the rest of the morning packing and getting ready for tomorrow since we were leaving the hotel early and not coming back. We eventually all met back in the hotel lobby and eagerly waiting for the tour bus which arrived 30 minutes late. While waiting, the hotel was particularly busy today with Yoko Ono and her crew checking out and new groups checking in, so the lobby was teaming with people. The bus finally arrived and it was an hour’s ride out of the city for our horseback ride through a lava field.

We arrived at the Íshestar ranch, along with about a dozen others in addition to our crowd, making for a very full lobby and long wait as people checked in bags and purses (not recommended to bring along the ride for obvious reasons, though a few dared to bring their cameras anyway…myself among them). Then they had us watch a 10 minute video on horseback riding.

Holmes HorsesThere are many times in life where I questioned or doubted myself or my judgment – whether majoring in Liberal Arts was a good idea in college, dating one or two ex-girlfriends, and why I rode my motorcycle through a tornado cell.(2) Having ridden on horses a handful of times, I can safely say that 1) I didn’t miss my calling as a rodeo contestant (or clown), and 2) horses still intimidate me. The running joke regarding Icelandic horses is the rest of the world calls them “ponies,” but your average, patriotic Icelander will argue with the ferocity of a drunken football fan defending his losing team that the local breed are, in fact, horses. While this particular breed didn’t seem all that bad, even with the number of hours I’ve spent on a horse counted on one hand, I can tell you that the lack of time for that video covering the basic rules of riding was…worrying, even if these were just worn in trail horses compared to wild stallions.

After a brief Q&A that didn’t necessarily ease the more anxious among us,(3) and gearing up with a few last words of advice (“Here’s your helmet – remember, falling off the horse is bad!”), we were given a vital choice – do we wear whatever footwear we had on or change into ranch-supplied riding boots? While my own farm and ranch experience is EXTREMELY limited, one thing I do know is where there are lots of animals, there will be lots of what they leave behind. And I’ve seen just enough horses taking care of business, so it was no stretch of my imagination envisioning a field covered more in manure than soil, so I and just about everyone else opted for the riding boots.(4) Out by the staging pen, they walked us over in small groups and matched us with the right horse like a barnyard version of speed dating (“Hey, I’m a Libra! What’s your favorite food, oats or hay? ME TOO!”), and then gave us a few pointers on mounting our mount. I can only assume, since we didn’t tip the wranglers afterward, that their true gratuity was in watching a bunch of inexperienced tourists make the most graceless and borderline incompetent attempts at swinging our legs over a horse. There was also a bit of anxious waiting while everyone was safely (if not elegantly) put atop their rides, as some horses cozied up to their friends, got mildly ornery or looked bored as Hell. The one rule-of-thumb I remember from a previous horse riding experience was make sure you show the animal who’s boss, which is sometimes in conflict with my own particular brand of laidback demeanor. But I’m proud to say that I showed this middle-aged, diminutive horse that I was a force to be reckoned with, especially when he did what I told him to.

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The ride was a peaceful two hours, going out in a large lava field. It was mid-afternoon, but the daylight here was quickly dwindling this far north compared to those of us from more southern tracks of life, so it felt more like late afternoon. We rode past moss-covered lava rock, passed by and under small outcrops of trees, and awed at jagged mountains on the horizon. While I was having marginal success keeping my own ride in line, the woman in front of me had far less dominance over her horse, which was very eager about stopping and eating at every opportunity. The net result was the frequent re-arrangement of our riding order as other horses followed suit. Paul was riding fairly close behind me, and while he was making his best effort at taking pictures from horseback, we occasionally heard sudden bouts of alarm from him as his horse made sudden stops. Toward the end of the excursion, as we were riding downhill, his horse made another stop, causing Paul to exclaim with both genuine and worrying alarm “NOT WHILE WE’RE GOING DOWNHILL! NOT WHILE WE’RE GOING DOWNHILL!” Fortunately, he didn’t fall off of his horse, but we did wonder what was in store for him at the time.

(1) My apologies to Dale Evans and Roy Rogers.

(2) I regret nothing regarding two out of three of these.

(3) In other words, me.

(4) Given my particular distaste for wearing footwear worn by other people, you’ll rarely see me in a bowling alley or skating rink. However, facing the prospect of traveling home with hiking boots covered in Eau de Merde de Cheval along with everything else in my suitcase, I bit the bullet on this one.


Three-Course Meal, Street Style

By the time we made it back into town, it was early evening, and grumbling stomachs were trumping other considerations (i.e., tired, dirty and probably smelling more of horse and barn than I’ll ever admit), so several of us opted for being dropped off downtown in search of our last supper in Reykjavik. As several of us hadn’t had a crack at the famous local food trucks and huts, our first course was at Reykjavik’s famous flagship Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand. Since 1937, this hot dog stand is rumored to have served the majority of Icelanders, and is famous for Bill Clinton visiting it back in the day. Most of us ordered a dog (loaded with “the works,” of course) and moaned at the sheer amount of happiness in our mouths. Literally around the corner from there is the Lobster-Hut, a food truck serving all things lobster, especially their amazing lobster rolls, packed with mind-numbing, foodie orgasmic goodness. Still hungry and now chilled, we walked back toward the hotel and through downtown, eventually stopping at K-Bar, which one of the horse ride guides recommended to Paul. It was billed as “good Korean food” but only just barely Korean, and the specials for the evening were for the happy hour (which we arrived just in time for) – fried chicken and some kind of lager, or calamari and a pint of Hoegaarden – served in the most enormous and heaviest pint glass I’ve ever laid eyes on. Now comfortably fed and satisfied, we trudged back to the Hilton Nordica (with brief pit stops for some last minute items) and into badly-needed showers and bed, because tomorrow would be a very long day.


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Having done a bit of traveling these past few years, something I’ve come to expect, but still can’t quite get used to, is leaving a place. It’s a strange feeling, developing a connection with a locale that you’re only at for a short time, and then leaving it for home. I’m amazed at how I can, in a brief amount of time somewhere, pick up new habits and routines, and become familiar with new customs and faces. Like many people, I’m a creature of habit and find my “comfort zones” when traveling and use them as the foundation for jumping off into and returning from new experiences and adventures. Reykjavik’s small town vibe, its friendly and helpful people, and environment far removed from my own had an instant appeal that was proving tough to shake off, and I could appreciate the number of Americans we encountered this past week who picked up everything and permanently relocated here. Throughout the week, I met several fellow Americans working in stores or restaurants. When asked why they lived here, one said they came here as a student and simply didn’t want to leave, and others wanted to get away from whatever was back home and try something different. More power to them because I’m not sure I could live that far away from my friends and family (though it may be because of those factors that these expats came here in the first place).

Needless to say, while I looked forward to sleeping in my own bed and seeing friends and family again (and a new girlfriend this time), another part of me was sighing “Fuck it, just sell everything and stay here.” Sadly, when you have roots as deeply planted back home as I do, that little voice is just not loud enough to overcome the reality of its suggestion. And if I’m honest, the girlfriend wasn’t keen on living in the cold either, so staying here wasn’t such an all-consuming temptation after all.

Where The Lifeguards Wear Parkas
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Our flights weren’t until later in the afternoon, and after breakfast we checked out and hopped on our bus, stopping at the famous Blue Lagoon spa. Just 20 minutes from the airport (40 minutes from Reykjavik), many visitors and tourists see the spa en route to the airport before leaving Iceland, and we were following true with the tradition. Like the previous two days, it was cold and slightly windy, making the idea of hopping into a warm manmade hot spring even more inviting.

If the Blue Lagoon had any downside, it was the cattle car process they had in place for checking in guests and moving them along to the locker rooms. Given our tour group’s size of 18 people, we held up the line a bit as Paul patiently negotiated with the baggage desk and ensured our bags were squared away while we went into the spa.(1) Then there was getting through check in, which is a bit like trying to fight your way into a New York City subway station at rush hour, complete with irate guests amongst the crowd. Finally inside the locker rooms, Iceland’s strict rules of hygiene were guardedly followed as all of us changed into swimwear and showering before heading out.(2)

The spa offers a small lobby area leading to the pool, with a meager and overpriced snack counter and a true shortage of chairs if you want to hang around inside for a bit. The place had a bit of a claustrophobic feel to it with so many people coming in and out, and I can only assume that the lobby was purposefully designed small for coercing guests into going outside. We were anxious to hop into the water and marched through the heavy doors…and into brutally cold, sulfurous air. Quickly reminded that we had just doused ourselves in showers, the frigid air turned lukewarm water into steam immediately rising off bare skin and gave we men what we thought was the most instant and alarming case of shrinkage imaginable (keep reading…). Wasting no time, we pounced into the hot, milky white/blue water.

If you’ve even sat in a hot tub at a ski resort, then you have a small idea of what the Blue Lagoon is like – bubbling hot water meeting freezing air, sending clouds of steam everywhere, with people milling about in the wonderfully warm and relaxing water. The best facet of amusement was everyone applying the silica-based facial mud masks, leaving everyone looking like they had been given the mother of all facials, and all while splashing at each other and imbibing drinks from the waterside bar. As you swam or wandered around, you found pockets of comfortably warm or unbearably hot depending on your tolerance, and one of the popular spots was a waterfall that beat down on you like a masseuse in a Turkish prison. Above all, the surreal part was seeing all of these guests enjoying themselves, dressed as if they were on a tropical beach, with lifeguards patrolling around in arctic parkas and ski pants.

We had several hours to kill at the spa, and a few brave souls brought their cameras along, though Paul had a waterproof one to ensure he had incriminating pictures of us in our facial masks. Soon enough, my time management-sensitive side, hunger and wrinkled fingers like I’ve never seen before convinced me that it was time to get out and get cleaned up. If walking out of the locker rooms en route to the hot spring water was a new experience in cold, getting out was far worse since the spa’s water was much warmer in contrast to the air. Nevertheless, I ran inside, took a full shower (nice that they provide shampoo and body wash) and got dressed. I was a little ahead of myself, so I bundled up and went outside to get some pictures of my own, then wandered back to the main area.

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By happy coincidence, I ran into a few of my group who had also cleaned up and were hungry, and we grabbed a table the spa’s Lava Restaurant. Our timing was perfect because within a few minutes of sitting down, the lunchtime rush started lining up behind us – a small but growing crowd of people back in their street clothes like us, in terry cloth robes, or still bravely marching around in swimsuits of all shapes and sizes.(3) All of us ate a lunch of grilled blue ling with langoustine that left you wanting to lick the plate. By the time we finished, it was closing in on our time to hop on the buses, so we made it out to the parking lot and mounted up for the short ride to the airport.

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Scenes from an Icelandic restaurant...(4)

(1) I’m not sure if Paul noticed or heard them, but some of the visitors behind us were grumbling a bit because of the delay thanks to our group. I can’t blame them since I’ve had my moments of frustration waiting for others ahead of me to get on their merry way, and seeing a small army of us with our luggage in tow would’ve made me just as impatient and grumpy. Regardless, it’s another example of Paul’s dedication to customer service and marvel at watching him keep a cool head while working through complicated arrangements or negotiations while people are getting irritable about the resulting inconvenience.

(2) I mean this literally. The spa has attendants patrolling the showers, ensuring that everyone rinse off before getting in the spa water. Fortunately, they provide semi-private stalls, but there isn’t much hiding from the patrols as they walk by.

(3) Thank God I was spared fighting my lunch coming back up in view of someone in his Speedo swim briefs.

(4) My apologies to Billy Joel.


20141012_121959I Don’t Remember the Airport Being That Big When We Arrived

Putting U.S. airports to shame, Keflavik International Airport (KEF) has an automated check in so with just a quick scan of your passport or credit card, you have your boarding pass and luggage tags within minutes. Unfortunately, security is just as strictly routine, so our collectively being impressed by the check in was immediately daunted by the long lines waiting to go through the security checks. Oddly enough, I recalled the airport seeming much smaller when we first arrived, but walking through it this afternoon, it seemed much more enormous, and a never ending shopping mall of a duty free paradise. Check in and security had broken us up a bit, so I spotted some of group all over the place as we found our way down to the gates. Unlike other airports, this one only had so many gates, and instead of each gate having its own lobby/waiting area, they all shared the same large one, where a bunch of us eventually settled at. Finally, it was time for boarding, so we said our goodbyes to those on different flights (most of us were on the same flight back to Dulles), and as we walked outside, we were amused by the plane. Icelandair names its planes after the island’s natural features and sites, and our plane’s moniker was for the same glacier we hiked on just days earlier – Eyjafjallajökull.

Blissfully, the flight home was peaceful with the exception of one of my group next to me who was suffering from a mildly irritating combination of ADD and hyperactivity, so she changed positions and whatever she was doing every five minutes (including her watching my riveting play-by-play completion of several crossword puzzles). However, the news over the past week was heavily focused on the Ebola outbreaks happening in Africa and cases turning up in the U.S., and not to make light of the tragedy, but it did offer one bit of humor for me at customs. News coverage was being very clear about the alarm from politicians and populace alike for quarantining anyone from countries dealing with Ebola, paying special attention to anyone who had been in more rural or farming areas. On the flight back, I checked off that I had in fact been to a farm while overseas (technically two of them), and as the customs agent saw this, she exclaimed “YOU WERE ON A FARM?!” looking particularly alarmed until she flipped the form over and sighed “Oh, it was in Iceland…”

Nevertheless, it was good to be home.

San Francisco (November 2013)

Life has a strange way of offering second chances.

Let's hop in the H.G. Wells’ chair/Police Box/Bill and Ted's telephone booth/DeLorean wayback machine to a year ago. I was supposed to embark on a winery tour of the Napa and Sonoma valleys, finishing up with a few days in San Francisco. Sadly and frustratingly, I was forced to cancel my plans due to work commitments and live it up vicariously through friends who went, feeling destiny slowly twisting its knife in me as they posted pictures and updates on Facebook.(1) The last time I spent any quality time on the West Coast, I still believed in Santa Claus, Jimmy Carter was in the White House, disco was gasping its last breaths, and a quaint little sci fi flick called Star Wars was getting some buzz. I have bits-and-pieces memories of my family’s big road trip from Olympia, WA, down the West Coast to Los Angeles, and then East toward Virginia during that time.(2) The City by the Bay was among our stops, but I was so little that I barely remember any of the experience. Having been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of my geek standing (Multiple times, too. I have the worst lawyers…), I’ve always been fascinated about how and why San Francisco is such a major time travel nexus.(3) So, between my travel/tourism agenda and my sci fi interests, saying this city was high on my travel bucket list is putting it mildly, and I was really disappointed about missing last year’s California adventure. Fortunately, earthquakes hadn’t turned the city into a mutant zombie apocalypse wasteland, nor had Lex Luthor nuked the San Andreas Fault and dropped the West Coast into the Pacific Ocean in the past year (Seriously, I’m glad my lawyers negotiated my case down to “geek” from “misanthrope”).

And, being too kind, fate offered another opportunity for this young man to go West.

Earlier this year, my friend Steve H. (jharish
) and I were talking about a big drag queen fashion show charity event his partner Joël (pronounced “Jo – el”) produces and directs called Project Nunway, and between Steve’s enthusiasm for the event and my own curiosity about all things creative/artistic, counter-culture and non-comformist, I was definitely intrigued about seeing and experiencing it (and honestly, isn’t just about anything involving drag queens going to be pretty damn great?). It was also a big opportunity to see the world Steve built and adopted on the West Coast, something I know he’s wanted to share with his older friends for a long time. Coincidentally, with same-sex marriage recently becoming legal in California, Steve and Joël decided to tie the knot the same weekend (Project Nunway was effectively their bachelor party). Despite Steve’s awareness of my potentially being the one guest in the back waving his arms and yelling “DON’T DO IT! IT’S A TRAP!”, he invited his nearest and dearest to attend his nuptials.

My friendship with Steve dates all the way back to high school, when he first spotted me reading a beginners gaming manual in our study hall/world history class.(4) Later, while waiting for a ride to pick me up after school, he shuffled up to me, mentioned that he spotted me reading said gaming manual, and hit me up with the first line I remember as if he said it yesterday: “You have a big zit on your face…can I pop it?” Whereas others might tell him what to go do with himself in less-than-polite terms or cautiously back away while making as little eye contact as possible, I knew right then and there that this blonde-haired dude with his rascally smile and a too-clever-for-his-own-good twinkle in his eye would be a great friend. As time went on, he introduced me to his then gaming group, and consequently I found a circle of guys whom I’m still friends with to this day. Luckily enough, two more of our childhood friends from that same time – Alex and Michael (mphtower
) traveled out for the wedding, too.

Being a socially awkward, geeky kid, I was used to meeting and knowing some off-the-beaten-path types, and where some might appreciate or demand “normal” friends, I was always drawn to and/or enjoyed a more diverse motley eclectic circle of friends and acquaintances. They say travel broadens the mind, but I embrace the philosophy that a broad spectrum of eccentric personalities and friends is just as vital to enjoying a full life, too. The vast majority of the personalities I’ve crossed paths with more-or-less classify as “whimsically strange,” “charmingly unusual” and/or “mostly harmless,” though once in a while you meet a freak of nature who requires pre-emptively blocking them on social networking websites (sometimes while still being introduced to them). For that matter, Steve’s own adventures and encounters in his long road of self-discovery make my own seem tame by comparison.(5)

Nevertheless, Steve and I often compared notes about meeting new friends, dating and relationships, but I comforted myself with knowing that my attracting batshit crazy emotional train wrecks problematic women, as well as my own fumbling attempts at promising relationships might be trumped by Steve’s lifestyle making him the “last man standing” in the “settling down” department. And as our circle of friends tends to cleverly disguise our mini-reunions as each other’s weddings,(6) I was starting to feel like the last upstanding participant in a game of musical chairs. Be that as it may, Steve has walked a long and winding road to reach the happiest day of his life, and I was more than honored to finally meet his long-time partner Joël and share their special day.

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San Francisco – Day 1 (Thursday, October 31, 2013)

San Francisco – Day 2 (Friday, November 1, 2013)

San Francisco – Day 3 (Saturday, November 2, 2013)

San Francisco – Day 4 (Sunday, November 3, 2013)

San Francisco – Day 5 (Monday, November 4, 2013)

(1) Allowing friends to ruthlessly pour salt in each other’s wounds since 2003.

(2) My Dad was an Army officer while I was growing up, which meant that we picked up and moved every few years, and our two years in Washington was the only time spent on the West Coast. While living there, my parents finished the basement of the house we lived in, and in 2010, the current residents were renovating the house. While demoing the place, they found my Mom’s “time capsule” where she wrote both mine and my sister’s names inside the walls. The residents were curious about the names and did a Google search, finding me on Facebook and sharing a few pictures.

(3) For example, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

(4) I won’t tell you what the game was, but the title involves subterranean passages and fire-breathing lizards. I thought I was being pretty sneaky about reading it, but apparently I wasn’t. Also, that world history teacher was a huge influence on me, given his encyclopedic knowledge about history and his constant encouragement to always learn and keep an open mind. Sadly, he was “invited to retire” later because, among his other alleged and possibly questionable proclivities, he enjoyed rearranging the class seating whenever the cheerleaders wore their short-skirt uniforms…not-so-coincidentally moving them to the front of the classroom.

(5) I plan on incorporating elements of his experiences into my own fiction writing and base characters on people he’s come across over the years. For better or for worse, it’s because of Steve that I was well aware of what “furries” were long before the infamous CSI episode featuring them. However, I’m still jealous that Steve has met and hung out with Annie Sprinkle.

(6) With the exception of this past summer.
I’ll Be Gentle, Virgin America, It’s My First Time…

Michael and I flew out to San Francisco early Thursday evening.

I heard good things about Virgin America for a while now, and their competitive air fares were more than a little tempting, so I was looking forward to flying on their friendly skies. The timing for the trip couldn’t have been better with a major proposal due the day before I left and nothing else on my immediate radar screen, so I was free and clear to get the Hell out of Dodge for a long weekend. Arriving at our gate at Dulles International Airport (IAD), Michael and I discovered that it was strangely not that crowded with other waiting passengers, and once on board, the flight was barely half full with many of us stretching out in whole rows to ourselves. Though I’m not the most frequent flier, I can only think of one or two times where I had some extra space on a flight, but enjoying a whole row in a transportation industry where passengers are little more than cattle to be packed inside is almost unheard of. Virgin America lays out a swanky-looking plane with indigo mood lighting and an “original” safety video (or as Alex puts it, “The move towards comedy as an acceptable discursive mode for flight attendants is deplorable”). The plane has some nifty bells and whistles, too – everything is run through an interactive screen on each chair, offering wifi and movies (none of which are complimentary, as previously thought), music, live TV via satellite, and all of your food and drinks. The screens also provided an instant messaging app to text other passengers (And if you think spelling and grammar takes a turn for the worst in normal instant messaging and texts, imagine trying to type them during mild turbulence), which Michael and I used to discuss if one of us wanted to change seats after takeoff since we had the extra room. At first, I thought this is a pretty cool feature, but in retrospect and given my complete lack of faith in humanity, it isn’t a huge leap to imagine it as creepy or awkward if someone IMs the wrong seat or enjoys sending unwelcome greetings to other passengers (if you could send pictures on it, Anthony Weiner would be banned from Virgin America for life). After a fairly uneventful flight of napping, chatting and watching Ghostbusters (it was aired on one of the cable channels and it was Halloween after all), we arrived at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) feeling like it was the middle of the night instead of the 9:30 PM local time.
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Our mutual friend John W. picked us up at the airport and gave us a lift into the city (John W. is a notoriously nice man, and I can’t stress that enough). Since we only snacked on the flight, Michael and I were starving and eventually we stopped at a Mels Drive-In not too far from my hotel. There was a definite Halloween crowd, most notably a table near us populated with the Scarecrow, Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West (all male, of course), and the burgers were pretty damn good. Michael even coerced John W. into ordering a slider despite his “I already ate” protests. Silly human, resistance is futile.

You Can Check In Anytime You Want, But You Can Never Leave

Michael was staying at John W.’s in the suburbs, so they dropped me off at the Hotel Majestic, a century-old boutique hotel that amazingly survived both of the big 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, and consequently, is the longest-standing hotel in the city. According to Steve, the hotel underwent a badly-needed facelift and renovation after seeing better days to keep the turn-of-the-century classic architecture and décor reflected its history and origins. And after the ravages of time, the wear and tear of countless guests, as well as the earthquakes, you’d be hard pressed to find a level floor or square corner in the place. Chances are, if you rolled a marble from any point on the top floor, it would eventually find its way down to the foyer/lobby. Describing my room as “cozy” might be a bit generous given its tight space, but the well-worn, antique charm made up for that. The only exception being a lack of water flow regulation in the plumbing, which interrupted otherwise pleasant showers with apocalyptic jolts of arctic ice water or red-hot magma, quickly followed by free lessons in advanced swearing for anyone within earshot. I don’t think the room needed an armoire as big as a bank safe, especially given the sufficiently tiny dresser, but it matched the antique furniture in the room. Also, I couldn’t help noticing that the window was right next to a fire escape and the window-mounted air conditioner wasn’t doing much. Steve warned me that San Francisco was known for its “cool summers” and “warm winters,” and we arrived there while strangely warm for this time of year.

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By the time I was settled and mostly figured out the nuances of squeezing through navigating my room, Steve texted me about meeting for a drink, so he walked over to the hotel (just a few blocks from his and Joël’s apartment) and we discovered that the stairwell by the elevator leads up to the roof, and consequently, the fire escape that descends past my room window, thus ensuring my closing and locking my window whenever I stepped out. Steve’s apartment is nestled in the northern end of the city, surrounded by Japantown to the West, Nob Hill and Pacific Heights to the North, the Tenderloin to the East and South of Market and the Mission District to the South. I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed as we journeyed into Japantown – it was San Francisco on Halloween and most of the bars were either winding down or already closed. We passed by one or two clubs, filling the still night air with pounding and throbbing house music while partiers smoked outside in costumes of varying levels of completeness and quality. I was fully becoming aware of just how tired I was when I stopped and stared at a parked stripper tour bus in front of one club with its window shades raised, offering an invitation in the form of two nice-girls-working-their-way-through-college consumating marital relations with a pole. A bit frustrated by the bar situation and not really up for a stripper-mobile ride, we hoofed it back to Steve’s building where we went up to the roof to see the grand view from up top and he detailed the general set up for his wedding ceremony there. The idea was to hold the wedding in a non-traditional setting, and at one point they considered flash mobbing the ceremony. By this time of night, exhaustion was finally catching up with me, and since I needed to get up early for the next day’s activities, I shuffled back to my stuffy hotel room and collapsed.
In keeping with my usual traveling habits, I didn’t sleep well, and woke up in a sweat on top of that. Beyond the first night acclimation to a new bed/sleeping environment, the unusually warm weather and room’s lack of airflow made my room stuffier than nature ever intended (it took me the following evening to find a happy medium between the room’s window-mounted AC fan and the open window).

Alex wasn’t due to arrive until that evening, Michael was working through the day and Steve was tied up with errands and other logistics for the coming big weekend, so I purposefully reserved a tour on Alcatraz Island for this morning. Since I was without a car, Steve suggested the Route 38 bus, which should take me almost all of the way to the pier area. This was also an opportunity to get in my first impressions of the city and a feel for the local vibe and culture (while risking the chance of locals feeling me in return).

Observations En Route to Prison

San Francisco is often described as America’s most European city, and until now, I didn’t get what that meant. The first thing that hits you is it’s a dense city, making the most of not a lot of space with a combination of tight, sometimes way too narrow streets and weirdly broad main avenues, along with buildings designed to fit into whatever space is available. The fact that this kind of dense city planning incorporating the region’s rolling, hilly terrain makes for some dangerously misleading map reading. Everything on a map here looks like a relatively short walk, until you realize that 1) this city’s blocks are longer-than-average city blocks, and 2) you don’t necessarily walk around San Francisco, but sometimes you climb around San Francisco. The immediate perks to this are there’s no shortage of amazing views and you get your cardio workout whether you want it or not. It isn’t the tallest city for obvious reasons,(1) and outside of the financial district, there aren’t a whole lot of “tall” buildings. I feel that certain cities have their own, unique overall color scheme – New York City’s moody shades of grey, Washington, DC’s stoic palette of neutral off-whites, Honolulu’s tropical shades and floral hues, and Miami’s kaleidoscope of bright and intense pastels. San Francisco’s spectrum is a comforting range of warm beiges and earth tones,(2) giving the city an ironically warm look despite its climate’s chilly reputation.(3) There’s also an emphasis on older architecture and the arts, a huge focus on good food, and a diverse, cosmopolitan attitude that brought back memories from wandering through Bordeaux.

Steve described San Francisco as a “young” city, and you can feel that kind of energy while walking around. The people are a little nicer and welcoming, the styles and colors more diverse and vibrant. It’s the kind of place where people don’t hesitate to give a dollar to a complete stranger in need, or another leaving a free pair of repaired and shined up shoes on a street corner with a note for any homeless person who might need them.(4) I was experiencing a similar culture shock here that I felt in Honolulu, where the East Coaster defensive posture and mindset not only didn’t belong, but seemed ridiculous by comparison. It’s no wonder that this city was one of the central points of the hippie movement and is the “alternative lifestyle-friendly” locale of today. In fact, if I noticed any real blight on the city, it’s the ever present homeless population.(5) As a long-time Washington, DC area resident, I’m accustomed to seeing (a polite way of calling myself apathetic) the homeless quietly curled up by national monuments or panhandling on a sidewalk. Earlier this year in Honolulu, I was taken aback by that city’s rampant homeless problem, where its breed of homeless are a similar to their “always seen but never heard” DC kin, but San Francisco’s homeless are more proactively vocal and engaging. Whether walking down a street or sitting on a bus, sooner or later a chatty hobo is almost certain to try and get your attention, as well as whatever is in your wallet.

The bus route eventually dropped me off near the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, which is at the opposite end from Fisherman’s Wharf and the Alcatraz ferry at Pier 33. Whether it was a sixth sense or just my own cautious behavior about touring new places, I left the hotel earlier than I originally planned in the not entirely unheard of circumstance that I might screw up my getting there. With some extra time to enjoy the view by the bay, I took up the walk down the Embarcadero on what was turning out to be a beautiful and quickly warming morning.

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(1) I was surprised to find that the Transamerica Pyramid isn’t that tall compared to other noteworthy towers. I’m still not sure why this irks me.

(2) I may be on to something, too.


(3) “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” – Mark Twain.

(4) A group of us witnessed both of these events on our last night in the city.

(5) Read
Shame of the City for more details.

Welcome to the Rock(1)

Alcatraz has three gift shops.

You’d think that with all of this island’s history, notoriety and scenic views, I’d be distracted from this trivial fact, but you’d be wrong.

The Alcatraz tours’ website recommended reserving a ticket in advance of visiting the city, and judging by the crowds lined up to get on the ferries, I’m glad I did. The place was bustling with people from all over the world (I lost count at hearing six distinctly different languages) and the ferries were filling up to capacity each time.(2) Overhearing some of the other tourists, it was clear that not ordering tickets in advance meant taking your chances with going over to the island that same day, reminding me of the mad dash at the Pearl Harbor welcome center to get tickets before they sold out for the day. I overheard more than a few conversations of others bemoaning getting late afternoon ferry tickets when they were there first thing in the morning. And once on the ferry, as soon as the engines growled to life, the wind instantly replaced the near-summerlike temperatures, leaving me shivering like a dog in a vet’s office and with far too many appendages experiencing record-breaking levels of shrinkage.

I can’t quite explain my fascination with Alcatraz. Maybe it’s the island’s notoriety, maybe it’s the historical romance and mystery associated with it thanks to movies and TV shows, but it’s one of those places I always wanted to see for myself.(3) I tried using the audio tour while going through the cell house (it was included in the ticket price), but the droning of former prisoners and guards badly reading copy text started to feel like the visitors were meant to suffer, too. Touring the cell house made you appreciate the cramped living conditions and claustrophobic nature of the place, the bullet marks from previous riots were sobering, the view of the city and bay from the yard was a fitting taunt for the prisoners, and the graffitti from the Native American occupation was a bit symbolic of this island's unhappy history. Walking around the grounds, you get the perspective of just how small the island is and how a mile and a half to shore was a Hell of lot further than you’d imagine (or want to swim in given the chilly water).

After a few hours of walking around, taking pictures and otherwise soaking up the history, I couldn’t help but notice the fact I mentioned above. The main dock has a gift shop, the cell house has a gift shop and the administration building has a gift shop – all selling the same stuff. By contrast, we’re not talking about Disney World gift-shop-on-every-corner levels of blatant capitalism, but Alcatraz isn’t a big island, so it seemed a bit much, even if the proceeds went to funding the park service. And this isn’t including the “last chance to get a buck out of you” gift shop back at Pier 33.

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Top: Alcatraz's "welcome sign" at the dock and the lighthouse (the burned out Warden's House is in front).
Middle: The yard. Strangely, it's far smaller than it appears here.
Bottom: "Braodway" and I believe Cell Block A inside the Main Cell House.


(1) You’re required to read this in Sean Connery’s voice.

(2) In the weeks leading up to this trip, I was wondering if the government shutdown, which famously hindered national park access across the country, might last long enough to nix my tour plans.

(3) It’s stupid and fun to watch, but I love the Nicholas Cage/Sean Connery movie The Rock. By contrast, Clint Eastwood’s Escape From Alcatraz is boring as Hell.


The Dress Rehearsal

It was mid-afternoon when I finished up at Alcatraz and I was ready to go back to the Majestic and sneak a nap in. An hour or two later, Steve texted me to come over and hang out, so I jumped in the shower and headed over to his place.

As I said earlier, Steve’s journeys and interests led him to meeting an eclectic range of people from all over the world. So, when I arrived at his apartment, two of his friends from those previous adventures were there – both people he first encountered online and eventually met face-to-face. One was a big guy named John (not the same one who picked up Michael and I at the airport), who’s a genuinely nice man and an awe-inspiring encyclopedia on…well, just about everything (just watch out when you get him started). The other was Steve’s friend from Amsterdam, Arnoud, a tall Dutchman with a European’s traditional ignorance of the average American’s supersized personal body space (i.e., mine). We hung out for a while, getting to know one another and trying some of Steve’s selection of favorite rye bourbons and whiskies, including Angel’s Envy, which is a first for me since I’m not a big rye fan. Steve pointed out later that Angel’s Envy is usually the “starter rye” for drinkers new to them.
marysBreast
Given my tendency for abstract thinking and spatial relationships, I was fascinated with the layout of Steve and Joël’s apartment. The living room/kitchen area is trapezoid shaped, with the dining room on one end and the foyer/hallway leading to the bathroom and bedroom at the other, complete with a giant bean bag chair in place of a couch and more crystals than in any of the local New Age shops. It’s technically a one bedroom unit, but they converted the smallish dining room into their bedroom and the bedroom into their office and entertainment room. Similar to my condo, but with a bigger expanse, the living room main window wall is along the narrow balcony, offering a nice southwestern view of the city, especially of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption  (a.k.a., St. Mary’s Cathedral) across the street, which at the right time of day, the shadow along its side is nicknamed “St. Mary’s breast.” None of us could agree on whether this is a coincidence or an architect’s elaborate practical joke, as well as if said architect was struck by lightning for it.

As time passed by and stomachs began to growl, we wandered out and made our way over to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) to grab a bite to eat and see the Project Nunway V dress rehearsal. To get there, we walked through the Tenderloin, one of the worst (if not the worst) neighborhoods in the city, and where Steve wisely cautioned that cell phones go in your pocket and eyes stay up. Even without that warning, you’d have to be Helen Keller in a sensory deprivation tank to miss that it isn’t a friendly part of town. Street gangs survey any and all passers-by, tetanus and hepatitis shops pose as not-exactly-high-end strip clubs, and homeless litter the sidewalks. The sad state of this area fills every crack and soot-stained crevice, and it was the only area where I didn’t feel much of the city’s friendly, positive vibe. It also meant that making eye contact was an open invitation for a mugging attended by a street full of “mob witnesses.”

After eating at what amounted to a surprisingly good gourmet food court across the square, we checked out the YBCA to see some of the dress rehearsal. Stage hands were running back and forth, partially-costumed gay men practiced their strutting, MCs and other show people worked on lines and blocking, and in the center of it all was Steve’s partner Joël. One of the show’s MCs was Jane Wiedlin, former lead guitarist of the The Go-Gos,(1) and the other was Sister Roma, a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Debate still rages about how sober (or not) Jane was during the rehearsal (and at show time the following evening).

Part way through the rehearsal, Steve was caught up in the frantic energy and was buzzing about talking to friends and acquaintances. It was surreal watching Steve caught up in the venue’s activity, emulating and reacting to the hectic energy and enthusiasm filling the place. As a fellow Libra (Steve and my birthdays are only five days apart), I consider myself fairly empathic to other people and social gatherings’ energy (the “vibe” if you will), but it’s impressive to Steve feeding off of and immersing himself in the moment, despite his own protests of being an introvert. Whereas my own inhibitions and introvert tendencies motivate me to sit back and observe the action around me in a large crowd, Steve jumps right in, almost as naturally as breathing, or as he puts it, the trick is getting them to talk to you. It’s something we’d see again during the wedding reception, and it’s a quality of his that I admire. Libras are supposed to be “social butterflies,” and while I work fine one-on-one or in smaller crowds/groups, large gatherings always bother me, whereas Steve handles them with ease. As the evening went on, he introduced us to the costumer who was preparing the wedding outfits and gave is a peek at Joël’s Project Nunway costume for the big show.(2)

Since the dress rehearsal was going to last well into the night, and our chances of meeting Joël were pretty slim, Steve suggested stopping for a drink on the way back and led us to the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, which is home to a jaw dropping venue – The View. By itself, the bar offers some tasty (if not wildly expensive) cocktails and bar food (the tuna tartar was crazy good), but the giant, round vista window overlooking the city made it worthwhile. Steve joked that the window looked like something out of the Emperor’s Throne Room from Return of the Jedi, and since then that’s all that comes to mind when I think about it. It being a Friday night, the bar was busy and we settled for one of the tables toward the back and away from the huge window. Along with some of the other eager and ready patrons, we kept a close watch on the window-side tables, occasionally trying to swoop in like hawks and claim any newly-available window-side perch. After a few fruitless attempts to beat others (i.e., mad dashes mixed with our best…if not most graceful…attempts at emulating Olympic hurdlers), luck/fate/karma smiled upon us as I spotted a couple leaving a table near the center of the vista. Tagging Steve as a heads up, I bolted toward the table like Wyle E. Coyote after the Road Runner, nabbing the highly-prized table. Finally victorious and satisfied with drinks, company and an incredible view, it was a pleasant end to a very long day.

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The View's window during the day.

(1) According to Steve, one of the ideas floated for his and Joël’s wedding was Jane officiating since she’s an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out for whatever reason, and then she was supposed to attend the wedding as a guest, but didn’t make it due to a little too much fun at the Project Nunway after party. Given their being huge music aficionados, Michael and Alex were bitterly disappointed about not getting to meet her.

(2) The one piece of Joël’s Project Nunway costume that we couldn’t help fixating on was the headpiece, directly inspired by the Bene Gesserit costumes from the Sci Fi Channel’s Syfy’s Dune miniseries.

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