In which I learn the price of wool from one of my patients, and the kids footwear budget drops considerably

It is perhaps unsurprising that we would find ourselves in a bit of the doldrums over the last few weeks.

It’s pretty normal in the world of expat psychology, where at some point you start to miss all that you had at home, like your friends at home, or your kitchen, or having a goddamn garbage disposal. It’s part of the usual adjustment process, but it can leave you with questions about whether or not you did the right thing by moving halfway around the world. Eventually this is followed by another up, then downs, until you reach a homeostasis of expatriation, or just another middle ground.

Even New Zealand seemed to have it out for some of us. One day it was a “mufti day” which meant that the boy could wear whatever he wanted instead of his uniform. Deciding that he loved his uniform, he decided to accessorize only with his Stitch hat with the big flappy ears. He left the house to walk to the bus stop. Eric was drinking a cup of coffee on the balcony overlooking the street.  Suddenly, he noticed a commotion below him. The seagulls had left their usual post on top of the street lights to dive towards our son. The boy was being bombarded by a flock of seagulls who apparently thought that he, in his hat, was some kind of tasty large worm. The boy ran down the sidewalk, frantically waving his hands over his head to ward off the gulls, who squawked in frustration at being blocked from their breakfast. An older man walking along the beach stopped and stared at the scene, while we howled with laughter.

As if to troll us, our new place is decorated with all sorts of seagull paraphernalia that seems to have been put up with a permanent sticking charm. The boy doesn’t wear his hat indoors here, for fear of calling out the avian demons. They’d probably leave their paintings to attack in the middle of the night.

The girl has melted into school, and is having a ball. While she hasn’t made a lot of friends yet, she bounces out of bed every morning so excited about going to class. She loves her teacher, and one thing we’ve seen is that creativity is far more valued here than it is at home. Her homework, or “home learning” as it’s called here, is entirely open. Every two weeks she gets a sheet of paper with a variety of options for home learning – you can choose artistic options, math options, writing – so that every kid can find something to interest them at home, but without the rote tasks that homework seems to be back home.

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Homework for two weeks! You are expected to pick as many as you want to do and share at the end.

The boy is likewise enjoying school, and has a first playdate set up for this weekend. He was initially feeling a bit down about it, as NZ kids are quite sporty, and he’s…not. But he’s found his own little group of nerdlings as he does, playing chess in the school library at lunch and just this week has started introducing Dungeons and Dragons to his crew. His highlight of the last week was when he “accidentally” locked his shoes in the house when he left for the bus (we’d all already left for other destinations) and “had” to go to school barefoot. Upon arrival at school he was given the option of wearing a pair of the extra shoes they have at the office, but he declined.

As for me, the hospital work keeps on. Despite my years of experience back home, learning new medications and new systems leads me to feel like a new resident much of the time, which brings back all the traumatic PTSD I have related to that time and leaves me feeling unconfident.

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These signs are all over the hospital. What sort of zombie apocalype are they expecting?!

So many times I’ll casually ask for something that Americans would see as completely normal, only to have it thrown back at me. I had a patient who had fallen and had a nasty scrape where he’d lost a fair amount of skin. Unthinkingly, I said, “let’s put some polysporin on it and cover it with a nonadhesive bandage.” The resident I was working with looked shocked. Absolutely SHOCKED. “We…shouldn’t do that. It’ll lead to antibiotic resistance.” I paused, knitting my brows, and replied, “so…you can’t just get an antibacterial ointment over the counter here? What do people put on cuts?” “We just tell them to put hydrogen peroxide on,” he replied. He then proceeded to look up antibiotic ointments that were available in the hospital, and after a search of five minutes finally came up with one that they had that used a different mechanism of action less likely to result in resistance.  WHEW. I was kind of left feeling like, “Who’s the attending here?” and wanting to say indignantly “I AM! I’m the attending!”

Sometimes people think I’m a blinking idiot because it seems I can’t grasp a basic idea they’re talking about, when it’s just that I can’t understand their accent. They then go into details of whatever they were describing like I’m a moron, at which point I’m too embarrassed to correct them and say that it was their accent I couldn’t understand since of course, I’m the one with the accent. I had a patient who was telling me that he had “hot tack” a few years ago. Thinking that this was some Kiwi traditional therapy or something, I asked what “hot tack” was, only to get a quizzical look from my resident as she described “Hot tack? Well, it’s when the heart doesn’t get enough blood and then doesn’t work as well, and they get chest pain?” Oh.  A heart attack.  Great, now both patient and my resident think that I don’t know what a heart attack is. There goes any credibility I might have had.

That said, I continue to be amazed by the relative reasonableness of patients regarding their medical conditions. I’ve had far more conversations with ill people about their potential for death, and all of the elderly people I’ve talked with have expressed to me that they don’t want any aggressive measures to be taken and that they understand that this could lead to their death.  These are different than conversations like this I have at home, where usually the question is asked to someone who is not in extremis, and even then limits to “what can be done” is not typically discussed. People will talk about not wanting to be resuscitated, or be put onto a breathing machine, but smaller discussions don’t often take place, and there is a different attitude towards end of life.

I do feel like I can be more relaxed overall with the patients here, chatting with them and able to bring more humor into our interactions. I’ll leave you with a story from last week.

I performed a procedure to remove excess fluid from someone’s belly, and it takes a while to get the fluid out slowly as we don’t have the handy vacuum sealed flasks here that whoosh it out in a matter of minutes.  Over the 30 minutes I sat in the room, I chatted with the patient, a Maori person, and his daughter in the room. They live out in farming country, and I asked what type. “Cows, ship, pigs. All sohts of animuls.”

“Do you raise the sheep for meat or for their wool?”

“Wull. You can do it foh both…but listen to this. Theh was a farmah who hed his whole flock stolen! And thin two wiks latah, the entiah flock was returned to him, but they’d all bin sheahed! I said to myself, ‘theyah’s a man who knows the price of wul!’”

“Wait,” I said, “They brought the sheep back and no one noticed?”

“Oh yeah!” the daughter said, “And that’s when I said you know thet wasn’t no Mowri pehson stealin’ the ship because we would have kept those ship and fed them to our families!”

 

-s

In which a bit of Iceland comes to New Zealand, or…I knit another sweater

Remember back in June, when my real excitement in Iceland was picking up some Plotulopi yarn? It’s found it’s way into a sweater!

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Look like you’re in love, the photographer said…I ended up simpering

It took me a while to find a good pattern. A lot of the traditional Icelandic sweater patterns look, well…old, and not particularly pretty or stylish. The other finalist was the pattern below, but I felt like it wasn’t as modern looking, and I loved the geometric shapes of this one and the details on the bottom and the sleeves.

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Grettir from Brooklyn Tweed, the rejected pattern

 

The yarn is untwisted roving, which means that it breaks apart very easily. Try to imagine using fluffy bolts of cotton candy to sew together a leather jerkin, and you’ll have a decent idea of what it’s like to knit with. As with many things involving knitting, I try to find a metaphor in this, and for this project it was learning exactly how much tension and pressure to hold the yarn with. Too little, and the yarn would loop and sag unattractively in the stitch. Too much and it would simply tear apart. A happy medium existed, though it took a while to find it. Extrapolate that to a life lesson as you will.

 

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Neckline close up

 

The other difficulty was that I the pattern I’d chosen called for this yarn to be held singly, though it’s usually knit double. I swatched both and greatly preferred the double thickness, creating as it did a lofty and cozy fabric. With a sigh, I pulled out a calculator as using a bigger yarn meant that I’d have to do math to figure out the new sizing. I figured out that if I just followed the instructions for the smallest size, it should work out okay.

It almost was, until the very end. While I’d been able to change the horizontal measurements of the sweater with fewer stitches and I could simply knit fewer rows to make the length correct, this didn’t translate with the neck of the pattern where you can’t just cut out rows. The first iteration of this did not work well, and I looked like I’d made a sweater for a thick-necked giraffe.

 

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The pic I sent to my phone a friend, thick necked giraffey sweater

After a telephonic and picture consultation with a knitting friend back home, I ripped back to the middle of the yellow diamonds, switched to a smaller needle and began decreases in the black areas between to hide them and maintain the pattern. It worked pretty well! I wish I could tell you that this sweater was 100% perfect to me, and it almost is. Trying to account for vertical gauge and burned by the extra fabric Eric’s sweater had in the shoulders with all the short rows, I knit fewer of them and I wish I hadn’t. I would have preferred the sweater come up a bit higher in the back, and I wish I’d knit the sleeves just a touch longer but overall I’m pretty happy with it! I especially love the shaping in the waist, which is key in such a big bulky sweater to avoid making one look like the Michelin Man.

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Next up, to finally finish all the socks for the kids I’ve promised them and have completely ignored. Of course, now that they run around barefoot like all the other Kiwi kids, I wonder if I should even bother.

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Sweater in action along West End, Ohope Beach

pattern: Telja by Jennifer Steingass

-s

In which I start my job as a doc in New Zealand

I knew I’d have a lot to learn working as a doctor in a new country, but I didn’t think it would start before I entered the hospital.

I walked up to the hospital on my first day of work, held my badge up to the double doors and expectantly waited for them to open for me. They did not. I flashed my badge a few times, looking like a proper idiot, wondering if the doors weren’t working. I then realized that I had to manually open the doors here and walked on in. I had two days of a gentle orientation before beginning to see patients, where I got a tour of the hospital, filled out important paperwork and was introduced to nearly everyone and welcomed warmly.

On Wednesday, it was time to start the real doctoring.

Things run a lot differently here than I’ve been used to. Some of that is simply because I’m working in a small rural hospital instead of the large urban center I was at. Some of it is because I’m working with the New Zealand medical system, and some is because I’m taking care of New Zealanders and not Americans, who seem to approach their healthcare quite differently.

I came into morning report, a gathering of the doctors on for the day, the head nurse, physical and occupational therapists, pharmacists and other members of the care team. We listen to the new patients admitted overnight and then run through our list of patients to see what is needed from members of the care team. I picked up my list of five new patients to start seeing that day and met up with my house officer. The training system in New Zealand is beyond my capacity to understand – from what I can tell, the educational level of the H.O.’s is about that of a 3rd or 4th year medical student, but they function much as interns. It’s also not necessarily linear in a way that’s incomprehensible to me. My house officer, upon later conversation, casually mentioned that he was going to quit to go travel for 6 months and planned on returning. I’d like to find a residency in the States that would let that happen!

I went to see one of my first patients, a man who needed a procedure done to drain fluid out of his body. He was on a blood thinner, though, making it more dangerous. I approached this the way I do with my American patients, carefully explaining to him and his family the risks and benefits of the procedure, the possibility of increased bleeding, what we would do to prevent this from happening, and how we couldn’t do much if bleeding happened. I asked at the end if he would like to think about it and we could return later, which would be pretty typical at home. “Nah, I guess we’ll just go for it.” I blinked a few times, as it seemed a bit too easy. “You’re…sure you don’t have any other questions?” “Nah, if it’ll help me feel better let’s just do it.” We set up the procedure for the next day, and it went swimmingly.

I saw another patient who was in for a heart issue for which ultimate diagnosis would require an echocardiogram, or an ultrasound of the heart. The only problem was that it was Wednesday, and echoes are only done on Tuesdays and Fridays, and even then only four on a single day. If you’re the fifth patient, too bad, you’re going to have to wait. If you need a more urgent echo, you’ll have to be driven an hour away to Tauranga to a larger hospital. This is utterly unheard of in urban centers, where I would roll my eyes at an echo taking more than a few hours to obtain. Feeling sheepish, I went into discuss this with the patient, expecting anger and incredulity at the inefficiency of the system. “Oh, no problem,” was the reply, “If we can’t get it on Friday my daughters can just drive me up to Tauranga to get one.”  I was forced to use actual clinical skills to diagnose and treat her without the technological test, which ultimately did get done on Friday.

Another thing we don’t have available that I’m used to : consultants. There’s a surgical team and an orthopedic team, but other than that, there are no medical subspecialties here at all. If someone really needs to be seen by a cardiologist (heart) or a nephrologist (kidney) we ship them to Tauranga hospital for evaluation. Once the patient has been seen and recommendations given, they’ll be shipped back for us to continue the remainder of their hospital stay.

At home, I’m used to doing all the primary work of doctoring myself by which I mean writing notes, ordering medications and tests, following up, and taking calls from nurses if something goes wrong. Here, my house officer does all of that for me. I look up pertinent information before seeing the patient, and then we see the patient together, and then I just tell him what needs to be done and written and…it gets done. It leaves me feeling a little unmoored to be honest, and without me sitting down and looking through all the details of the chart as I write, I keep feeling like I’m missing something. Somewhere along the way I’m supposed to be teaching them something, but I’m okay with letting that slide for a couple weeks while I figure out the system myself.

Being in a nationalized health care system means that there are stricter limitations on what medications you can use in the hospital, especially antibiotics. A patient who comes in with pneumonia in the U.S. would reflexively be prescribed ceftriaxone and azithromycin or levofloxacin for treatment. There are infection nurses who look over more unusual antibiotic choices to regulate those, but no one would stop you from prescribing ceftriaxone. I had to call an Infectious Disease doctor to order it as part of a combination treatment for a patient of mine who came in with pneumonia and got worse with outpatient Augmentin pill therapy. The doctor paused for a second before she said, “I don’t think that’s necessary yet, let’s try IV Augmentin first.” I was denied. (The patient did, though, get better with the IV Augmentin, I must admit.)

There are at least a few patients daily who hear my accent and take the time to tell me what an unhinged lunatic Trump is. One guy, hardly able to breathe with a lung problem, still took time to squeak out that he thought Trump would be the last president of the United States as we know it. It’s a common feeling here, where the U.S. is currently regarded as something of a laughingstock.

All in all I’m enjoying the new gig, though I feel I’ve got a lot of learning to do before I get a handle on how things really work.

-s

In which we make our way to New Zealand for the year

As most people reading this blog know, last year we decided to extend our time out of the US for another year and I took a job in New Zealand!

Packing for a year of settled life on an island where things are reputed to be quite pricy is a different story than last year, where we left with carryon backpacks and a minimalist attitude. This time, we asked ourselves how much we could cram into 300 pounds of luggage. Sports equipment and clothing are expensive here, so into the bags went our ski clothes, goggles, bike helmets and sleeping bags. Eric tossed in some basic tools, I brought my flatiron. The kids took along a box of legos and some card games, as well as favorite books and some art supplies. The tent didn’t make it, nor did our bikes, blender, printer, two burner griddle, waffle maker, kitchen scale, rock collection, entire library (for the boy) or guitars, though all of these were considered at some point and some people (cough the kids cough) tried to stuff them into the sacks when no one was looking. I didn’t check closely enough and the miniature amp made it, despite us not having a guitar to plug into it!

 

We initially flew to California to visit my parents, and got a few looks as we lumbered along the Southwest baggage check-in line, where despite their generous baggage allowance most people seem to travel with little more than a roller bag. “Going camping?” the check-in guy asked, fishing for an answer. “We’re moving to New Zealand,” we replied. “Oh, I didn’t know Southwest was running an international moving service now,” he said with a smile. In California we had a lovely time with family and running around the Park where I used to play as a kid.

The flight from SFO to Auckland takes 12 hours and 50 minutes, and normally I’d be too excited to sleep much at the prospect of being able to squeeze in 4, possibly 5 movies during that time. Alas, it was not to be as we were planning to drive directly to Whakatane on the day of arrival, and I’m more likely to sleep on a plane than Eric is. I ate the relatively tasty Hindu Vegetarian meal I always order (too much cumin this time) and slept somewhat fitfully for most of the ride.

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Even the currency exchange shows shade at Trump – make your USD great by making them NZ dollars!

Off we went on the 4 hour drive to Whakatane, stopping off for tasty fish and chips just outside Tauranga and rolling into our our beachfront apartment around 2 pm. By coincidence, my longtime friend Judy and her son had been traveling in New Zealand and drove over to Whakatane to see us for a few days before they flew home. We got in some fun beach walks, hot spring time and tasty food. 

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Sunrise from our window

The first few days here could be characterized by a jet lag fog. Barely able to stay awake after 7 pm and then awakening at 3 am, I was dysfunctional for a few days, not even noticing the beautiful beach sunrises through our windows. We managed to get the kids enrolled in school and had them start on Friday, with good reports from both! The boy is in middle school here, which is 6th and 7th grades.  Different from school at home, however, the classes are mixed 6th and 7th grades and most learning takes place in one classroom with the exception of specials. It’s a lot more low key than middle school in the States, which is like a pre-High school with lockers and different classrooms and the like. The boy is especially excited about the wood and sewing shop! The girl’s school is a more typical Elementary school, with the change that her class is combined with the one next door much of the time. One little quirk of Kiwi people everywhere is that they are often seen barefoot, and even on this rainy morning I spied a little boy scampering into school shoeless, splashing through puddles.

 

After the jet lag improved, a feeling of panic set in. Where were we going to live for the year? An online search of listings yielded exactly NO properties. Perhaps people don’t list online? Eric and I then went to several realty offices to ask for long term furnished rentals, and as soon as we uttered the word “rental,” the realtors’ lower lips would stretch away and downwards with a sucking in of air, making the universal expression for “you are screwed, my friends.” Housing is always tight in New Zealand, and compounding matters is that a large flood earlier this year displaced many families who are now renting the houses that we might want to rent ourselves. The other problem is that many places are only rented long term during winter, and from December through April are rented short term for the holiday season (seasons are flipped here, so that’s summertime). Eric thought it was heee-larious to keep making jokes about perhaps renting a shipping container, or just living in tents, or getting two camper units. I failed to find this amusing. We went to visit one possible rental, only available through the end of November, which was split into two separate floors, both dingy and dark, with about two feet of aluminum countertop for a kitchen. Things seemed dim, and I bought a pack of Tums out of necessity.

It’s a different culture here in that you have a better shot at things if you actually go in person to meet people, rather than the internet focused world of the US. We began to stalk our real estate agent with this in mind. Eric went in one day to find out that the rental agent was on vacation but would be back on Monday. On Monday morning, we wondered if it would help or our hurt our chances if we simply waited in front of the doors, staring through the glass until opening time like curious kittens. We decided instead to visit in the early afternoon, only find that she had gone out. We tried our luck a few hours later, and still, she wasn’t in. We were beginning to doubt her existence at this point. Tuesday morning we popped on over again, and voila, there she was. We considered shackling her to a chair lest she scurry off again, but she sat us down and told us of two places that were coming up on the market just that morning. Perhaps she was being friendly and helpful, but I think that she’d heard of our frequent visits and decided that getting us a house was the most efficient way to get rid of us, else we would take to haunting her office like wayward ghosts.  We drove by one of the houses, another dismally dark rental with a tiny aluminum countered kitchen. Our spirits drooped yet again. I popped a few more Tums and wondered if it was acceptable to start drinking at noon in New Zealand, considering the circumstances.

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Central heating doesn’t exist here, so we hang out with sweaters, warm hats, and space heaters.

That afternoon, she took us out to the other house and were happily surprised!  It’s a 3 bedroom house with a wraparound porch, no yard to speak of, but that’s okay because the yard is the beach which is one street over. Most importantly, the kitchen is nice with good counter space, made from some variety of laminate and a good step up from prison decor.

We called a few people we know here to ask their opinion, and everyone told us that we should lunge at the opportunity and take the place, and so we did. We’ve also managed to find a good car to buy here, so all in all things are looking better for now, given that we’re up to step one on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Next week, I start work, we move in, and I’ll post some pictures of the new house, our car, and the hospital!

-s

In which the girl loses a literary friend

It was past bedtime, and I was downstairs reading on the couch. The boys had gone out. The girl had gone upstairs to sleep, or so I thought until I heard footsteps on the wood plank stairs behind me, and turned to see her descending. “I finished ‘Anne of Green Gables,’” said the girl as she came down the stairs. “It was so, so good.” Her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, and I knew immediately what had happened. “Oh, Matthew…wasn’t that so sad?” Upon this acknowledgement, she contained herself no longer and burst into tears, openly weeping. “Why did he have to die?” I just held her on the couch. “It’s unfair, too,” I added, “That Anne couldn’t go to college anymore, and had to come home.” “I don’t understand, why couldn’t she just go anyway?” Indeed, it seems harder to understand in today’s world, but a clear impossibility at the time of the book, where college was a luxury for both men and women and often let go for domestic needs.

This was her first big emotional death in a book, which is something that I don’t think you ever forget. It’s not her first literary death, having read the Harry Potter series, but it was the first one with this impact.  It’s not also the first book which makes her cry, as that goes to the picture book (from the song lyrics, yes) “Puff the Magic Dragon,” where the boy goes away and leaves behind the dragon. That one makes me misty as well, in all honesty. The poor dragon looks so sad when his friend is gone, leaving him alone in the cave.

Mine was Bridge to Terabithia, assigned reading in the second grade. Two friends, a girl and boy, escape to the imaginary world of Terabithia by swinging on a rope over a creek to the woods. I still recall the gutting hollow feeling when you learn the rope broke, and the girl didn’t rise up. I just looked up the details to make sure I was getting it right and immediately started crying. After I finished that book I vowed never to read it again, devastating as it was.

For the boy, this happened earlier this year with a book called “The Inn Between,” which ends with a girl’s best friend dying, and like all of us above, he was wrecked.

I asked Eric about his, and while he can’t remember the title, he remembers being about ten and the book was about two boys who play baseball together, and one of them dies.

There’s something about getting to know a character over a book, loving the character and also identifying with the person who is left behind that is gut wrenching. It’s a big step the first time this happens, because up until that point everything you’ve read in books generally has a happy ending. Even crises that occur during the story are resolved neatly by the end and everyone goes home and eats ice cream. For many kids, they’ve never dealt with a death of someone they were very close to, and the emotions are something new and raw and unexpected.

After that first one, the world of books and possibility opens up. You’re never really sure again that all of the characters in a book will be there at the end, and that tension is in the back of your head. I wonder if in some way we protect ourselves by not attaching to characters too deeply, lest they not survive, so as not to open ourselves up to that pain again. Over the years I’ve read countless books in which countless people have died, and I remember none of them as well as that first one. The memory of Matthew’s death will stay with the girl for the rest of her life.

I dried the girl’s tears, and after a bit of snuggle time we headed back upstairs, to tuck in and hopefully have dreams of sweeter things.

-s

In which we lament the sad fate of 80s musicians, and PUFFINS!

I awoke on my 40th birthday to a chorus of well-wishes. 40 is a big year, and Eric had asked me earlier in the trip about how I felt about turning 40. I thought about it, and I have to say that I feel really, really good about it. So much has changed in a generation –  when my mom turned 40, we threw her an “over the hill” surprise birthday party. If anyone even thought of throwing me such a party, I would hurt them. Eric thinks that some of the difficulty with the milestone is that for many, it seems that few surprises remain after the age of 40, in that your life is relatively established and you can map out the future course with relatively depressing certainty. Not  downhill, then, but perhaps more of a plateau. I can’t say that this resonates either – five years ago I never would have pictured myself where we are now nor predicted living in New Zealand for most of my 40th year.  I think it’s easy to settle into a routine, and seems daunting to think about breaking it, especially as you reach mid career point which many people are at this age. We’ve been able to step out of that, and take the first big leap and you know what? It makes other big leaps seem so much more possible. So who knows what is on the horizon now? If anything, I feel excited by the time to come ahead. 


I love puffins. Something about their ungainly potbellied birdy bodies and their curved orange beaks is just too adorable not to. For my birthday, I thought we’d do a puffin tour! I’d read that for most of the tours, you can’t get much of a photo unless you’ve got a telephoto lens as puffins are surprisingly small. Instead then, I chose a tour where we would have some time with puffins but also venture out to the bay to do some fishing and then eat the fresh catch! This may seem like an odd choice for a mostly vegetarian family, but I thought it would be nice to do something very, very different. And because I do eat fish occasionally, it seems hypocritical of me to not be able to kill one myself.

I went with Happy Tours, a small family run company, because it was one of the few tours that provides good binoculars for the trip. Captain Snorri welcomed us on board the Saga and outfitted us with protective waterproof clothing, which was adorably oversized on the kids, making them look as though they were wearing rubber sumo suits.

First, off to the puffins! They nest on a small island in the bay, and we saw quite a few with the binoculars. Most surprising is how fast the little critters are when they’re in flight, zooming across the sky despite what would seem like a lack of aerodynamic form.
Then a little further out to drop long fishing lines and catch some cod for our lunch. The fishing poles were taller than us and a bit unwieldly at first, but we all got the hang of it. I can’t really say that fishing like this takes much skill – you drop the line down, the cod chomp on and you pull them up and into the bucket. The girl had a bite first out of our family, squealing excitedly and then needing a little help in holding the rod while she rotated the reel to pull up a nice sized catch! Captain Snorri efficiently dispatched the fish with a quick cut to the main artery, and we soon had a bucketful.

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Photo taken with my phone held up to the binoculars.  Best I could get, really. Puffins!

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the proud fishergirl and her catch

 

On the way back to the dock, Snorri sliced open the fish, showing us what they’d last eaten. A few small crabs for some, and for one a gourmet bellyful of caviar. At least he’d had a nice, rich last meal that one. He efficiently filleted the fish, tossing the offal overboard for the waiting gulls, who sometimes snatched the piece out of the air before it hit the water, and other times engaging in a battle for what goes as gull gourmet – the liver.

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slicing up the cod

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inspecting the kitchen

Once at the pier, Snorri pulled out a hot plate and began to pan fry the fish with lemon pepper, tossing on new potatoes for a side dish. Friends, this was the most delicious fish I’ve ever had. The boy couldn’t get enough and ate four large platefuls. The girl, who normally doesn’t like fish at all had a fair share as well. Bellies full, we thanked Snorri and his son and headed out to town for some souvenir shopping.

 

My main interest in Icelandic souvenirs is the yarn. Iceland has a very proud knitting tradition, and even sells yarn in the grocery stores. Not the acrylic crap that you’ll find at a Wal-Mart in the States, but actual Icelandic wool from the sheep that dot the countryside, direct decendents of the original 9th century immigrant sheep, with long fibers that are spun into a delicate untwisted wool.

At the Handknitting Association of Iceland, I walked passed the sweaters and hats and scarves straight to the walls of Lopi, or Icelandic wool. It was so difficult to choose colors, but I managed! Yarn, it should be noted, is one of the few things in Iceland that is actually cheaper there than elsewhere and I picked up a sweater’s worth for $50. A handknitted Icelandic sweater will cost you around $200-300, which is a fair price for the time involved. In a world where mass-produced fast fashion for the lowest dollar has become the norm, it’s refreshing to see a place where artisan work is still valued.

 

It was now almost 4 p.m., but as we didn’t have looming darkness to contend with, it was like we had a whole second day ahead of us. Eric found a hot spring river, where you hike about an hour in and then can have a relaxing soak. Normally, it would seem insane to start this at 4 pm – 40 minute drive, then hour long hike, then hour at the river, then hike out and drive back, we were looking at not getting back until 9pm. But as the light at 9 pm was no less bright than that of midday, off we went, fields of purple lupine flanking the highway.

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Taken out the car window – you feel like you’re driving over a purple carpet

Changing radio stations in the car, Eric happened upon one called “80s flashback,” and we headed out, appropriately enough, to “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” They played mostly really good 80s music, and I could sing along to most of it. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” came on, and we talked of the music video with the bright colors and dressing room scenes, and then lamented the sad fate of poor Whitney. “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” started playing as we rounded a sharp corner, and Eric reminisced about the time he saw the Smiths on the “Meat is Murder” tour, and I reflected that Morrissey had kind of turned into a racist jerk. Soon enough, “Beat It” was on the playlist, yet another 80s artist with a sad ending. Later in the trip, “You and Me in Paradise” started up, and I immediately groaned and turned down the radio, because there is no reason to ever be forced to listen to the doldrum nasal plodding of Phil Collins. “God I hate Phil Collins,” I said out loud. “Why?” Piped up the girl from the back. “Was he a really bad sort of person?” “No,” I replied, “I just don’t like his music…as far as I know he’s a decent person who’s still alive.” At first I couldn’t figure out where her question came from, but then remembered our earlier conversation where Eric and I talked about the downfall of the prior artists, and realized that she must have surmised that poor lambasted Phil Collins must have also suffered some horrific drug-addled fate.

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rising vapors in the distance

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a bridge to nowhere

The hike itself winds through gorgeous volcanic hills and valleys, covered in moss on the south side, the north side a black rocky cliff. Dramatic landscapes await around corners, where steam rises in long puffs from the ground in otherworldly welcome. Stretches of the trail had zero visibility with steam clouding the way, and as we rounded one such corner and emerged into view again, the river curved around before us, vapor rising into the cool air. Little natural and manmade dams of rocks and stones are laid across it at intervals, creating a series of small pools. The further upstream you go the hotter the water, so wandering along and dipping a toe in we found our Goldilocks pool, changed underneath towels and hopped in. The kids and I passed the time by balancing rock cairns on the stone dam in front of us. While there were a fair number of people there, there’s also quite a bit of river so we had our own little pool to ourselves and stayed in for an hour before the hike and drive back again. 

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The river from above, you can see people soaking a bit downstream.


Our last day in Iceland, and we thought we’d drive around the Golden Circle, what should be called the choking tourist yoke of Reykjavik. The drive itself is fine, but once you arrive at the sites you’re contending with tourists that have been spat out by the busload, small and large. I swear, one of these days I’m going to grab someone by the selfie stick and start beating them over the head with it. I can’t stand those things. The only saving grace of those idiotic fidget spinners is that all of the sidewalk stands that used to sell only selfie sticks now sell fidget spinners, which are far less intrusive to other people. In hindsight, I wish we’d skipped the Golden Circle and just driven somewhere a little off the path to a hike or perhaps to an accessible glacier, but that’ll have to wait for another trip.

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First stop was the Thingvallir, where the North American tectonic plate meets up with the European. You actually walk along the plate itself, and at places along the short walk it has split and fissured, as it’s still constantly moving, albeit slowly. It borders a little marshland with goslings and their protective parents, as well as shorebirds.

Another 50 minute drive took us to Geysir, the original geyser. Is there a geyser there? Yes. Is it kind of cool? Meh. Are there a ton of people standing around waiting to get the exact same picture? Yes. The kids really wanted to see the geyser here, and I had a smattering interest but honestly, I think it’s kind of skippable given the other cool things Iceland has to offer. In false advertising, the large and impressive Geysir rarely erupts, and mostly you’re watching it’s smaller and poorer cousin Strokkur erupt every five to ten minutes.

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woo a geyser

As we drove back to town, we happened across the Kerio crater and dropped by to take a look. Formed from the carcass of a burned out erupted volcano, a pool of aqua water rests at the bottom ringed by red lava stone. The water at the bottom doesn’t fill or drain, instead is reflection of the current water table.

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Kerio crater with a bit of attitude

 

Back in the car, we picked up 80s Flashback again about 40 minutes outside of town. One of my 80s favorites “Right Here Waiting” came on, and of course, I knew all the words. As I sang along, Eric commented that he was basically the 80s precursor to Adele, singing as he did about pining after a lost love. Soon after “Every Breath You Take” was on, and I thought that that song could be the 80s precursor to Taylor Swift, the vindictive response of a jilted lover.

The following morning we piled our luggag into the car, and turned on 80s flashback for one final trip to Keflavik Airport. “And you may find yourself in another part of the world…and you may ask yourself, ‘well? How did I get here?” the Talking Heads crooned as we drove, in a fitting last soundtrack before our flight back home. 

-S

In which I have my very own weeping hour in Reykjavik

The Icelandic Air flights to Reykjavik welcome you to the land of ice and volcanoes with overhead lights of the aurora borealis. The seatbacks each have their own tv, and I watched a documentary called “Yarn” which follows four knitting and crochet artists from different countries who create art in very different formats. I found it interesting how they described knitting and crochet as looked down upon as craft and not art, because it’s largely the realm of women and is used to create practical goods. Men tended to be the weavers in society, producing tapestries that were used for decorative purposes. Women, however, would knit elaborate sweaters, socks, and other garments for use by the family. Something in the practicality of the items means that they are not seen as art, though it could be argued that really this should give them more value. One of the women who “paints” with crochet talked about how she is often criticized for not being a “real” artist because of this. I hadn’t thought about fiber arts in this light before, from a feminist perspective, and if you have the chance to see this documentary don’t pass it up.

The overhead lights slowly flicker and shift colors


The airport is slightly confusing to walk through, and we ended up being the last ones to collect our luggage. I’d read many, many tips online that the cheapest place to buy alcohol was at the duty-free shops, so I got two bottles of wine there, anticipating we wouldn’t go out much because it’s so expensive. Icelandic residents could easily be identified at this point, as they were the ones who were hauling several heavy shopping carts each, filled to the brim with their allotted allowance of beer, wine and spirits, clinking like glass musical chimes as they rolled over the asphalt to their cars.  
We dropped off our luggage at our guesthouse and headed immediately to the pool and hot spring complex Lagurdasalag. We stopped at a sandwich place for lunch, and I was hit with severe sticker shock. I knew that Iceland was pricey, but when you’re paying $15 for a 9″ vegetarian sandwich it takes your breath away a bit. I immediately looked up some grocery stores for later eating. 
The pool was unbelievable, and exactly what we needed after the stairs of the Eiffel Tower the previous day. Man, the Icelanders really know how to set up a pool. A primer then, on Icelandic pool etiquette. At Lagurdasalag, you pay at a front counter and then get a rubber bracelet that then operates the lockers inside. Outside the main locker rooms are cubbies and lockers for your shoes, as your filthy shoes shouldn’t enter the clean space. Take your shoes off and put them here. If you’ve worn your $600 Jimmy Choos to the pool, you can put them into a plastic bag and carry them inside as well. (Of course, if you own these shoes you’re at the Blue Lagoon which costs $60/head and you can drink champagne and not here where it’s $9 for adults and $3 for kids.) Once inside, pick a locker and undress completely, leaving your clothes behind in the locker. Take your towel and your swimsuit with you to the showers, as you will not be returning to your locker until you’re done. Leave your towel on a metal rack outside the shower where it’ll stay until you’re done swimming. Take a shower and use the soap provided (or your own) to wash thoroughly. If you get confused about how to bathe, there are multi-language signs which have large yellow circles over the areas to scrub most vigorously. Now put your swimsuit on and head outside! The key is that the locker rooms stay dry – you would never take a shower and then walk back to your locker dripping wet to get your suit. 

Photos aren’t allowed at the pool, so this is one from the web, obviously not my photo


Outside are several pools, a 50 m lap pool to the left, in front of us a large play pool with a waterslide and then smaller hot pools of various temperatures. Even though the ambient temperature was 56 degrees, the water was so warm that it was unbelievably comfortable and everything was so clean. It’s like the opposite of American waterparks – it’s cold outside so you get into a hot pool. The main pool also has a variety of large foam toys to ride on, and foam islands to walk on. Eric swam laps first, then we all played in the warm water. When you’re ready to leave you repeat the process above in reverse – take a shower, towel off so you’re dry, then go to your locker, get dressed, go outside, put your shoes on and off you go. 
The Guesthouse Galtafell is just in downtown Reykjavik, and was perfect for us. While it was a bit of a splurge (I typically don’t spend more than $100/night for a place), I wanted a nicer place to stay for our last trip, and this was lovely with a sitting area and small kitchenette. We’d awoken at 5 a.m. to get our flight and were too exhausted to think of cooking, so we went downtown to Glo, a vegetarian restaurant I’d heard about. The food was super tasty, and is relatively reasonable for Reykjavik, but at $20/plate it was the last meal we ate out. 

Quite tasty! One main, 3 sides, and sauces.


After this we went for a walk around town, and here is where I must admit to one of my worse moments on the trip. Friends, I had my very own weeping hour. 

Walking the mean streets of Reykjavik at rush hour


Reykjavik is a spotless little city, indeed the smallest (and northernmost, the boy tells me as he reads over my shoulder) capital city in the world. Houses are made of brightly painted corrugated aluminum, and the downtown area shops do a brisk business in selling anything alcidine, which I’ve just learned is the adjective word for puffins. 

Greeting the local residents


My hope had been to walk around, check out the yarn shops, get some ice cream and then head home. The kids started fighting immediately as we walked out to the street, because they’re human and it had been a very long day, beginning with a 5:30 AM taxi ride to CDG airport. This got Eric to be appropriately upset because we hate it when our kids are acting meanly towards each other in public and especially in foreign countries, where I feel like we just represent America poorly and loudly. Ice cream was taken away as an option, it turned out the yarn shops were closed, and then Eric ran to a shop across the street to look at hats, and I felt abandoned. The kids and I ducked into a bookshop and then began the constant chorus of “Mom Mom Mom Mom Mommy Mom! Hey Mom! Come look at this! Mom! Mom?! Mom!” And I reached my limit. What really threw me over the edge was when Eric came into the shop and while the girl was actually pulling one arm of mine to go and look at something, he took the other to show me something else. Literally being pulled in two directions, like a frayed cord, I began to snap. “When do I get to look at something?” I wailed internally. We walked outside and Eric saw another hat he wanted to look at and took off again. The kids asked if they could go home and play a video game and the parents could go out, which made me feel like no one wanted to be with me at all, preferring a screen or hat shop instead. We were standing on the corner when I started to weep. 

Street view looking up to the Hallgrimskirkja cathedral. No amount of cajoling could convince the kids to visit one more church.


Sitting here now in full possession of my faculties, I realize this is all ridiculous. An objective look would just be a family wandering down a small main street and checking out various shops. The kids were beyond exhausted and didn’t have the capacity for wandering and just needed to go home and veg out for a bit. I get plenty of time to do as I wish for myself. In my over fatigued state, however, I couldn’t see this and just felt like the world was all against me. It wasn’t my finest moment, and I can’t say that I went to bed feeling any improved, such was the fortitude of my melancholy. 

Solfar, or Sun Voyager, sculpture on the Reykjavik bay


The sun never fully sets here this close to the summer solstice, only dipping below the horizon so blackout shades are a necessity, and even so some light bleeds in through the sides. Despite this we all collapsed into bed and after a good night’s sleep, all was right again with the world. 

-s