Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Snaefellsnes! (God bless you)

So, on Sunday, I took a tour of the Snaefellsnes peninsula. I signed up for the day tour, but was upgraded to the luxury tour with gourmet dinner and aurora borealis on the way home! I think because I was the only one who wanted to do the day tour, and it's a small company, so they were only going to do one or the other. On the one hand, this was great - I got the fancy tour for the price of the less-fancy tour! On the other hand, it was an incredibly long day, longer than I was prepared for. I was picked up at my hotel at 9AM and didn't get back until 11:30PM. 14-and-a-half hours in a minivan with a bunch of strangers! Woo-hoo! On the website, they say the tour is 10-12 hours, so it's not like I thought I was going to be back in time for dinner or anything, but still.


Oh, wait, was I bitching about something? Aside from the grueling 14-hourishness of it, this tour was amazing. At 9AM, it was still very dark, and the streets were deserted. It felt like the middle of the night. We picked up sandwiches ("We won't stop for lunch - we have so little light," our guide said) and piled into the minivan. By the end of the day I was VERY glad I got one of the bucket seats and didn't end up crammed into the back seat. If I were a nicer person I guess I would have volunteered to switch seats with someone else, but I'm not, so I didn't!

We drove north from Reykjavik, in the dark at first. After maybe an hour and a half, we stopped at a rest stop in Borgarnes, the last "city" we'd see for the next several hours (it was a tiny supply town for the surrounding farms - maybe a few thousand people). We stopped at a couple of places to take photos of a volcanic crater (above) and the Snaefellsjokull (a glacier, behind the mountain below).


We visited a natural hot tub, where we hung out in 100+F water while freezing wind blew across the field. I am still washing the peat out of my swimsuit. While we were in the pool I tried an Icelandic delicacy called hakarl, or fermented shark. According to the wikipedia entry Anthony Bourdain called hakarl "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he had ever eaten. Tony speaks the truth! I chewed, and chewed, but I couldn't make myself swallow it, and after I'd gagged twice I spit it out and threw it away.

I attempted to wash the shark taste out of my mouth with brennivin, traditional Icelandic schnapps made with potatoes and flavored with cumin. Brennivin will never be my favorite taste (and for what it's worth it's apparently the favorite tipple of the Icelandic problem drinker) but it's a hell of a lot better than hakarl.

Snaefellsnes is gorgeous, and, in the winter at least, it feels completely deserted. We hardly saw any other cars; we passed occasional farms with Icelandic ponies or sheep roaming around outside, but didn't see any of the farmers.


It was bleak, but stunning. Our guide talked about how Icelanders traditionally have a kind of adversarial relationship with nature, and haven't always seen it as something to be preserved, but rather to be defended against. You can see where they were coming from.


Really otherworldly. Driving through a lava field while listening to Sigur Ros was pretty amazing. (Also, Icelanders talk about Sigur Ros a lot. And Bjork.) We had a great dinner (amazing fish soup, yummy lamb, and apple caramel cake) and then we saw the Aurora Borealis on the way home, huge and gorgeous. There was a new moon and the sky was completely clear. It was as many stars as I'd ever seen in my life. I was freezing cold and exhausted, but taken all in all it was a great night. I just wish I'd know how long it was going to be; I would have gotten some more sleep the night before!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Iceland, take 2

So, this past weekend I went to Reykjavik again. It was a lovely trip. I went by myself and didn't re-do any of the things I did when I went last year, except for eating lobster soup (humarsupa) at Sea Baron again.

And I saw the Northern Lights! And utterly failed to get any kind of a good photograph of them.

My best shot.

They were huge, and gorgeous. I saw them on the way home from a VERY LONG small-group day tour to the Snaefellsnes peninsula. I was completely exhausted and out of sorts but then we got out of the car and the lights were taking up what seemed like half the sky (actually they were probably about 120 degrees wide and 60 degrees high). They were moving and shimmering and streaks kept appearing and then disappearing. It was pretty damn sweet.

One of the people on the tour, a very nice French girl who worked for the tour company, was trying to explain what causes the aurora, leading to a very funny and odd conversation.

B: It's because of the... I don't know how you say the word in English... "Yawn"?

The English speakers in the car: Yawn?

B: You know? Yawn? The yoan?

Jonas, the tour guide: What, me?

B: No, no the yawn? With the charge of electricity!

English speakers: IONS!

Hah, it was the exact same word just pronounced differently, and we spent probably five minutes going back and forth like this. If she'd just spelled it, we would have gotten it much sooner. It reminded me of one time I was talking to a French-Canadian girl at the museum of science and she was trying to ask me if the monkeys were "amiable", but pronouncing it in this half-French, half-English way. I had no idea what she was talking about. One word, two languages.

Monday, September 27, 2010

At home for fall

What with the solstice last week I can feel the days drawing in. I love fall, but it always reminds me of the opportunities I missed during the summer. Now that the sun is setting before 7PM I can't help but regret the post-dinner hikes and bike rides and runs I didn't take back in June and July when it was light until nine. And soon enough it will be dark when I get home from work.

Seriously, though, I really enjoy fall and winter! There's something enjoyably primal about battening down the hatches (or at least putting those plastic storm-window sheets over the windows) and curling up with a hot beverage and a throw blanket or two. In my last apartment we had no control over our heat (steam radiators controlled at the building level) so I am really looking forward to having control of my own heat this winter. And on the gas company website I was able to see how many therms the previous tenant used over the last couple of winters, so I'm geekily looking forward to seeing whether I can use less gas than she did. I lead an exciting life.

Also on the energy-saving front, I replaced most of my light bulbs with fluorescents yesterday. And while I was at it, I washed the old-fashioned glass shades on the ceiling lights in the sink. Man, were they gross. One was full of dead ladybugs. So I'm glad I got that cleaned up. Next: cleaning out under my range top. A couple of weeks ago I spilled something down there and when I went to clean it up, I discovered that no one had cleaned under the range top in a long time, maybe not since it was installed (and it is an old stove). I started cleaning it up, but it was just too much work with the tools and products I had at hand, and I have not been able to bring myself to open up the range top since. I'm not sure what I'm going to need to use to clean it up... hopefully I won't set anything on fire in the process. At least there weren't any ladybugs.

Oh, and speaking of my stove, yesterday I baked bread in a covered casserole and it has the awesomest crust in all the land! If you have not tried baking bread in a casserole or dutch oven or whatever, can I just very very strongly recommend that you do so? The bread itself was only OK, because I only decided at around 5:30 that I wanted fresh bread to go with my pumpkin soup, so I couldn't give it as much rising time as I would have liked and still eat it that same evening, but it was not bad at all for 2-hour bread. I can't wait to bake a nice bread that I make with a proper sponge and everything in the pot. Yum.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Glorious food

I went to the Northampton farmers' market on Saturday and I got seriously the best peaches I think I have ever eaten. And the tomatoes were great too. I always either underbuy or overbuy at farmers' markets - I can never seem to accurately gauge how much vegetables I'm going to want to eat in the next few days. I guess I didn't completely underbuy this time; I still have most of a head of lettuce in the fridge, and half a cucumber, and there's another farmers' market today. But I definitely didn't buy enough tomatoes.

These weren't heirloom or anything but they were the kind of tomatoes where you cut into them and you are just startled by the rich, gorgeous color of them. And they taste... dang. I ate them in salad with a little vinaigrette, mixed some, chopped, into guacamole (perhaps a waste... I'm not sure), made salsa (so good).

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a bunch of kale that someone from work had gotten in a farmshare or something and did not want. I am not a huge fan of kale. First, I made the mistake of trying to just eat it sauteed. This is not a good way to eat kale for me, especially summer kale (winter kale can be a bit sweeter). Then I mixed some of the leftover sauteed kale into pasta with pesto and tomatoes (not the glorious tomatoes, just some pretty good tomatoes). That wasn't bad.

Then last night, I thought, you need to either use that kale or throw it away, and it might have too much oil on it to compost even. So I made a bread pudding with some bread ends I'd stuck in the freezer. It was so good, I ate the whole pie plate full (which wasn't quite as bad as it sounds... though it was still a lot of food).

Here's my recipe for bread pudding with kale:

1-2 cups of cut up bread (supermarket baguettes in my case, but any bread will work)
2/3 cup of milk (would have used more but I was running low and wanted to save some for coffee)
2 eggs
2 oz or so of cheese, grated or cut into 1/4 inch dice (I used gruyere)
1 cup precooked kale, chopped into bite-sized pieces
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350.

Put the bread in a 8-inch baking dish or 9-inch pie plate.

Warm the milk (should be hot, but not boiling or burnt) and pour it over the bread. Let it soak in for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, lightly beat the eggs with the salt and pepper.

Add the eggs, cheese, and kale to the pie plate and stir until everything is pretty evenly distributed.

Pop it in the oven for about 30 minutes (or go work on adjusting your TV wall mount and forget all about it until it starts smelling delicious). When it's done it should be golden on top, and if you put a sharp-bladed knife into it it should come out fairly clean.

Chow down.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Western Mass(achusetts)

So, I've been living and working in the Pioneer Valley for over a month now, and I'm actually liking it very much. I'm not entirely comfortable with how much I'm driving (from a financial and an environmental standpoint) and I have no friends (if you're in the Five Colleges area and want to be my friend, let me know!), but I am kind of a loner anyhow so that doesn't actually bother me much (it bothers me a bit how little my friendlessness bothers me, but that's getting silly).

Anyhow, this weekend my mom and my sister came to visit me on Saturday and we went for a nice bike ride and did some shopping in Northampton and had a slightly excessive lunch. After a very good tired sleep I woke up on Sunday with no particular plan besides possibly building a window seat in my bedroom, but I really need to price out foam and cushions before I can make that a reality. So instead I gave myself twenty minutes to tidy up the apartment, then I got in my car and drove to MASS MoCA.

MASS MoCA is a modern art museum in almost the very northwesternmost corner of the state, in North Adams, about an hour and a half away from me. The museum is housed in old mill buildings, and there is a lot of exposed brick and industrial-looking business, and honestly it would be a pretty cool place if they just let you wander around the old buildings! But instead they've filled it up with modern art, which is also cool.

This was one of my favorite pieces I saw - it's called Re-projections: Hoosac, and it's by Tobias Putrih. It's made of hundreds (thousands?) of pieces of monofilament fishing line strung across this very long gallery and lit by a spotlight maybe two-thirds of the way down. It's tunnel-shaped, and it slopes, so you can get right inside it like these people are doing here. It's incredibly disorienting! Turns out I love large, disorienting pieces of modern sculpture. Although it's completely different in execution, walking inside the tunnel reminded me of some of the Richard Serra pieces I saw at the retrospective at MoMA a few years ago.

I also really enjoyed the huge Sol Lewitt retrospective. I'd never heard of Lewitt before (in this respect he is like most artists of the last 100 years, I'm afraid) but he was a conceptual/minimalist artist, and most of the things on display at MASS MoCA are huge wall drawings/paintings. Lewitt would conceive the drawings, and then draftspeople would execute them. Some of the drawings I saw were never executed in his lifetime, which is kind of interesting.

Here is a video of the installation being, um, installed:

SO COOL. Would it be blasphemous for me to decorate my new coffee table ($6 at Goodwill! Ugly!) in the style of a Sol Lewitt drawing? I'm not sure I care. That video makes me want to get out the masking tape, big time.

When I saw the paintings and read the label copy and understood what they were, I thought, "He's like John Cage, but for visual art!" But I guess it is still even a little stranger to do this for visual art; most composers intend for other artists to interpret their work, but most visual artists do most of the execution of their work themselves. Though I can think of exceptions on both sides of that equation.

On the way home a bald eagle flew right over my car as I crossed a bridge. The Mohawk Trail (Route 2) is a stunning drive, and I can't wait to do it in the Fall. I stopped in Shelburne Falls, which is an adorable little town with a garden on an old trolley bridge and interesting geological features. Then I drove the rest of the way home along the Connecticut River, but I skipped the interstate so I was on nice little secondary roads most of the time. I drove past tobacco farms! I didn't even know there were tobacco farms in Massachusetts (though I knew there were in Connecticut, so I guess why not). First I noticed the strange barns where they dry the leaves, which seemed vaguely familiar (either from seeing them in Virginia or from photos, I don't know) and eventually I put two and two together.

Anyway, an excellent (non-lazy) Sunday.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

One blog

So, I've decided that instead of having a travel blog and a crafting blog, I'm going to just have one blog and it's going to be about more than just crafting and travel (though it will occasionally be about crafting and/or travel), and I'm going to update it at least a couple of times a week, hopefully more often.

And of course, now that I've said that, I feel like I have nothing to say.

But I do, kind of! I will talk about a recent Sunday I spent in Maine.

I went to an annual church service at a historic church, which shall remain nameless. They only open this church up once a year, and a guest pastor comes to preach at one shortish service, and then they lock the church back up until the next year (unless someone wants to get married there in the meantime). There's an organ with foot-pump bellows, box pews, the works; it's not in great condition (think peeling wallpaper, stained ceiling) but it's old, at any rate, and has a certain charm.

As you might guess, this service attracts a fairly... mature crowd. There were a few people there in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, and two adorable children had been brought in to ring the church bell, but for the most part the congregation ranged from Old to Really Very Old Indeed.

Anyway, the minister was giving a sermon about how he had gone to Tanzania to train bush pastors who could not even afford bibles. Which, to me, raised the question, "Why didn't you give them bibles, then?" He did say that the conference he was at distributed 50 bibles, but seriously, I don't understand why there should be a limit to the number of bibles they're distributing. For the cost of this guy's and his wife's plane tickets to Tanzania, surely they could have photocopied at least a few hundred Kiswahili New Testaments. But perhaps I am missing the point. And I digress.

About halfway through the sermon, one of the members of the congregation collapsed. It was pretty scary. At first the minister kept going and we all tried not to pay attention, because it wasn't entirely clear what was going on, but it quickly became clear that it was serious, and my cousin (who was an EMT 15 years ago) and another woman (a nurse) ended up performing CPR before the ambulance came.

The minister had most of us leave the church and wait out in front while all this was going on. I'm not sure this was actually such a good idea; it took so long for people to get out of the church I was genuinely afraid that when the ambulance got here the EMTs wouldn't be able to reach the patient because the aisles would be clogged with very slow people using walkers and canes, and I considered trying to get everyone to sit back down. (It wasn't an issue - the aisles were clear by the time the ambulance came. And who knows, maybe someone else would have collapsed if we'd all stayed in the stuffy little church.)

The man who'd collapsed was conscious when they got him into the ambulance, and I hope he is OK. My cousin (the one who resuscitated him) hadn't been planning on going to the service, but decided to go because her dad usually goes but was out of town and disappointed about not being able to make it. Anyway, here's to my cousin and to that nurse, for saving that guy's life! Without them, it would have been a tragic service.

So, after the ambulance left, we all filed back into the little church (slowly) and after a prayer of thanksgiving, the pastor picked his sermon right back up where he left off! And didn't appear to change a single thing about it, even though he had mentioned earlier in his sermon how much we take for granted having access to medical treatment! I am not minister, but I tell you I could think of twelve ways to incorporate the actual events of the day into that sermon, none of which this minister took advantage of. I suppose he was rattled just like the rest of us, but really, missed opportunity.

Then we went back to my family's cottage, where there were more family members, and we had a nice cookout which I had to leave Way Too Early because of my long, trafficky Sunday-afternoon drive home. It was an odd day; a strange combination of sleepy and intense.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

It never hurts to ask

I went out to Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, and because it was significantly cheaper I flew through Chicago, rather than direct. Not ideal, but liveable on the way out (although I was really annoyed when they gate-checked my bag from Boston straight through to LA - if I was going to check a bag, I would have packed completely differently!).

I was really not looking forward to the trip home, though - I was scheduled on a red-eye flight to Chicago followed by an early morning flight to Boston. I was tired and ready to go home by about 5PM and my flight didn't leave until 11:30. So I decided to go to the airport a little early and see what my other options were. The little check-in computer was uninterested in letting me change my flights BUT it also asked me if I would be willing to give up my seat on the Chicago flight, which was overbooked (as near as I could tell, another Chicago flight had been cancelled).

"Hmm," I said to myself, "this seems like an opportunity - the airline doesn't want me to go to Chicago, and I don't want to go to Chicago either!" After a half-hour of wandering around the terminal and checking on the little check-in computers to see if there were any other flights available, I found the customer service line. Which I then waited in for 45 minutes.

Easily half the movement of the line was people getting frustrated and walking away (yikes!), but I persevered. I was wearing comfortable shoes and I had podcasts to listen to. But finally, I got up the front of the line, just as boarding was starting for the direct LAX-BOS flight!

I explained the situation to the woman at the desk, and she said, "If it'll make one of the Chicago people happy, no problem. But I have to type like the wind!" She gave me a boarding pass and said she didn't know if it was a good seat or anything but I figured I didn't have a particularly good seat on the Chicago flight, and this way I didn't have to go to Chicago. And when I boarded the plane, my seat was a perfectly nice window seat and, get this, the seat next to me was empty! I think it was the only empty seat on the plane!

I got home hours earlier than I expected, I didn't have to get off the plane in Chicago at 5AM (5AM Chicago time, so 3AM LA time), and I got to spread out and take as much sleeping room as I wanted for the whole flight. It was awesome. All it took was 45 minutes of waiting in line, and let's face it, I was already in the terminal and it's not like I had anything better to do with my time. I felt triumphant. Travel Win!