A trip to a dark and snowy Reykjavík? Yes, please…

For the past few days I’ve had one of those angel vs devil conversations going around in my head:

Angel: I have a couple of days off in February. Won’t it be nice to just be at home relaxing?

Devil: Yes, but I could go to Iceland.

Angel: It’s not that long since I’ve been, and I’m going again in a few months. And remember that post I just wrote about Too Many Tourists in Iceland?

Devil: Yes, but look at all the snow they’ve been having! I’ve never seen Iceland in snow. And it’s an exceptionally good year for Northern Lights. And I’m not going to have much time in Reykjavík when we go later in the year.

Angel: But it would mean spending money, and mess up my running training, and mess up my current healthy eating regime which I’m actually sticking to for once…

Devil: But I could practice my Icelandic and it would tick off “visit Iceland in winter” on my bucket list. And I just love Reykjavík. So what if it’s going to be dark and I’m going to join the list of people complaining about the mix of snow and ice that is making it difficult to get around at the moment. It would be an adventure.

Angel: All right all right, I’ll do it!!

(Why does the Devil always win in these conversations?)

So I am unexpectedly going to have a short visit Iceland in a few weeks!  I’m looking forward to mooching around my favourite shops and I think the cold entitles me to several hot chocolates a day. This time, I’ll be wondering if what I’m doing is interesting enough to blog about. Oh, the pressures of being a blogger!

I hope there is still some snow when I go as seeing everything look that little bit different would be fun. I could do without scenes like this though, both of which featured in the Iceland Review recently:

If it is still snowy I might have to go on a Golden Circle tour just to see a frozen Gullfoss.

And hey – I’ll have a chance to wear all the proper winter clothes I love!

Any suggestions of things to do that I might not have thought of or input on your favourite places in the city are welcome as always.

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Awards and more awards…

A big thank you to those of you who have given me awards recently. I’m being super lazy and combining them in one post. I can’t really play by the rules of all the awards as there’s only so many good new blogs I’ve found since my last award post.

To summarise, I’ve been given the Versatile Blogger award twice, by MJ Monaghan and How the Cookie Crumbles. I’ve also been given the ABC award, Candle Lighting award and 7×7 Link award by Susan Writes Precise. All of these blogs are funny and well-written and amongst my favourites, so do check them out if they’re not already on your list. For the ABC award, I’m going to do a separate post on my ABC of Travel which is something quite cool I found on another blog!

So, here are some WordPress blogs that I’ve found recently and enjoy reading…I must admit that I’m not sure I’m going to be able to add many more blogs to my regular reading without becoming unable to leave the house!  By coincidence, there are 7 here, so I am going to forward the 7×7 Link award to them – rules are that you pass this on to 7 other blogs, and share 7 of your favourite posts from your own blog.

The Waiting – a pregnancy blog, not my kind of thing normally but I like her writing style.

Musings of a Twenty-Something – interesting perspective from a teacher of “disadvantaged” kids

Mature Student Hanging In There – a very busy (and funny) lady  trying to fit it all in

Vera Til – photoblog from Iceland

Cherokee by Design – some beautiful nature photography

Unlikely Expat – expat life in Taiwan

It is a Strange Life – diverse and positive messages from London

7 of my favourite posts from my own blog are:

Icelandic Bucket List – I’m lucky in that there are lots of things I’ve yet to do in Iceland but want to.  And the list has grown since I wrote this!

My Iceland 2011 – it was fun to think about how much Iceland has played a part in my life, sometimes without me realising it

What I’ve Learned About Blogging in 6 weeks – it seems we all learn the same lessons!

My Icelandic video of the year – got me all fired up thinking about small scary planes

Too Many Tourists in Iceland? – an emotive subject

An Open Letter to the Yule Lads – call me superstitious, but I did have a run of good luck after writing this

Kleina – Friend or Foe – because it was my first attempt at writing “funny”.

I must say I’ve never got so many awards in my life, an unexpected side effect of blogging. 🙂

Book Review – The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

The Greenhouse’s main character Lobbi is in his early twenties and lives in the Icelandic countryside with his lonely father. He has an autistic twin brother and a baby daughter who he doesn’t see very much. His mother has recently died in a road accident.

Published by AmazonCrossing

Lobbi has the chance to leave all of this behind and use his gardening skills to restore a monastery garden in another country in Europe. Gardening and cooking are themes in this book that represent family life. Lobbi’s mother was a keen gardener and it was from her that he inherited his love of roses that they cultivated in their greenhouse. The greenhouse is also the location of the one night stand resulting in Lobbi’s baby.

Lobbi’s father isn’t a particularly skilled cook, but tries to cook the recipes that his wife used to make, and uses food as a way of keeping memories alive. He also worries a lot about what Lobbi is eating when he’s abroad.

Very little of the book is set in Iceland, it is mostly about Lobbi’s journey to the monastery (it’s never specified exactly where in Europe this is, but it’s somewhere with a language not widely spoken) and then what happens to him in his new country.

There are some surprising behaviours from some of the characters and maybe one of the lessons in this book is that your past can catch up with you. I found Lobbi as a character to be quite weak. He doesn’t really know what he wants and is pretty reactive to life rather than making things happen for himself.  But in the end, he finds that he is capable of more than he thinks.

Overall, I found this book a little slow. It’s written in a style that doesn’t include quotation marks around dialogue and usually that stops me from even buying a book! This book has won quite a few awards and I think it just didn’t click with me. I’ve even found it hard to write this review – I feel like my review jumps around too much, but then I thought the same about the book. It’s still a good enough read and you might find it interesting. I’d like to read another one of her works to see if the style is the same. Thank you to Professor Batty for making me aware of this book.

10 good reasons to live in Iceland

There is so much that I like about Iceland, and I’m still hearing about or reading about new things that convince me that it really is the most civilised place on earth. Here are some Icelandic ideas and customs that I really like the sound of. (Icelandic friends, you can feel free to tell me if I am completely crazy…)

1. Knitting is taught in schools. In a country with so many sheep, woollen products and long winters, this would be a really useful skill to have. I’m sure this early exposure to creativity must have something to do with why so many Icelanders continue to be creative later in life. Also, knitting in today’s busy world encourages you to slow down and enjoy an older way of doing things, not a bad thing for kids to learn.

2. Sunshine coffee. Some Icelandic villages are situated in valleys within very long, high fjords. This means that there will a couple of months where the sun does not get high enough in the sky to be seen in these areas. Can you imagine not seeing the sun AT ALL for a few weeks? On the first day when the rays of the sun do penetrate down to the village, they celebrate by having coffee, and call it “sunshine coffee” .

3. Christmas Eve books. Books are still a very popular Christmas gift in this highly literate nation. (The literacy rate is apparently 99.9% – imagine being the one person in Iceland who can’t read!) This is the bit I love  – sheets are washed for Christmas Eve and after you open your new books you get to go to bed in your specially washed sheets. How cozy is that! What a great idea.

4. Leaving babies outside restaurants. This is something that visitors to Iceland often notice and comment on, but in a shocked way like “How can you possibly think your baby will be safe left outside unattended?” Well, because it’s a good way to give them fresh air and also allow you some uninterrupted time to enjoy your meal. Really, no one is going to come along and steal the babies.

From reykjavikdailyphoto.blogspot.com

5. Cocoa soup (Kakósúpa). Basically, hot chocolate (but thicker) as a meal! Wonderful.

From recipebridge.com

6. You get what you pay for. In Iceland, you pay more for things, but they are of high quality. Here, you can pay a lot for things that are really badly made and fall apart, or you can pay a little for things and you can expect them to fall apart. It’s harder to get high quality items generally. This high quality mentality also comes through in the way that Iceland doesn’t “do” cheap, tacky tourist attractions.

These next ideas all highlight what a fair, equal and non-judgmental society Iceland is. Ok, so it’s not perfect, and women are still paid less than men, but it’s better than most places in terms of treating people as individuals and letting them do their own thing.

7. Husband’s day. This is a timely one as it was only last week. Here in the UK, the way women generally speak about men is to describe everything they do as “useless”, and there is a lot of “typical man” disparaging sentiments . The idea of having a special day where it would be perfectly normal to buy your husband flowers and cook him a special meal would be laughed out of town. Yet in an egalitarian society like Iceland, even the men get their own special day. 🙂

8. Not judging single mothers. Iceland does have a high proportion of babies born outside wedlock. People aren’t judgmental about it. Apparently, it is because there is a long tradition of single mothers, as throughout history, most of the men were involved in fishing and had more chance of dying young and leaving them on their own.

9. Calling people by their first names. This is partly due to having patronyms rather than surnames, and partly down to treating everyone the same regardless of their age or job. The equivalent of “Mr” or “Mrs” is rarely used, and children can even call their teachers by their first names.

Excuse me, Mr President? I mean, Ólafur…

10. The swimming pool culture. I’ve mentioned this before as a great thing to do as a tourist to see real local life. Unfortunately, in my country a lot of people wouldn’t dream of sitting in a pool/hot tub with people they work with or even with their friends. They would be too self-conscious about themselves and find it too weird to see others in their swimming costumes or shock horror, naked in the changing areas! In Iceland, it’s no big deal, just a nice relaxing way of socialising, and I’m sure there are health benefits for all the oldies that do it.

Laugardalslaug  – From wikitravel.org

Does your country have ways of thinking or customs that you are particularly proud of? Is it naive to think other countries have better ways of life than your own?

Update: This post has had more views than any other on my blog. For that reason, I followed up with 10 more good reasons to live in Iceland and to present more of a balanced view, 10 things to put you off living in Iceland.

Can you tell where it is yet?

Many people do not realise that despite its chilly name, none of mainland Iceland lies within the Arctic Circle. Only Grímsey Island, 25 miles north of the mainland, is within the Arctic Circle. It’s not really worth going there unless you really, really want to just be able to say that you were in the Arctic Circle. Me, I’m happy enough to enjoy the view from the mainland.

This picture was taken a few years ago on a bad camera – you can just about see the island in the distance. Here is a better perspective on this small island:

From icelandictimes.is

I’m guessing none of you have made the effort to visit Grímsey – but let me know if you have! I’d be interested in hearing about your experience.

Stefán Sölvi Pétursson – A Giant’s View of Iceland

Watching the annual World’s Strongest Man competition is one of the guilty pleasures in my household. In case you haven’t seen this, it features contestants from around the world taking part in such events as Car Carry, Keg Toss and Truck Pull.

Iceland has a long tradition of producing excellent strongman competitors and is second only to the US in holding the World’s Strongest Man title.  This small country has produced two “World’s Strongest Man” winners who won the title 4 times each, Jón Páll Sigmarsson and Magnús Ver Magnússon.

Stefán Sölvi Pétursson is a current competitor and placed in the top 10  of World’s Strongest Man in 2010 and 2011, as well as winning Iceland’s Strongest Man in 2009 and 2010. As he is still only 25 years old, he has potential to join his countrymen in becoming another Icelandic legend in the field.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask him some questions about both his life as a competitive strongman and Iceland generally. You can find out more about him by visiting his website.

What inspired you to become a strongman?

Stefán Sölvi Pétursson (SSP): I was inspired to become a strongman by Jón Páll Sigmarsson, the  4 times World’s Strongest Man champion from Iceland.  I was so proud that my countryman from tiny little Iceland was the strongest of all.

How do you train for your events, which are very specialised and use equipments such as stones? Can you do this in a gym?

SSP: No, not in a regular gym. I rent a place where I have equipment I made and had made for me.

Do you have another job or is being a strongman a full-time career?

SSP: I have to work as a personal trainer and a bouncer at a night club.

You have trained with one of your competitors Zydrunas Savickas. Are there strong friendships within the current group of competitors?

SSP: Yes. This is a small sport and we’re all good friends and have fun while travelling and competing.

Do you ever have days where you just eat junk food?

SSP: Yes of course, I have my cheat days!

What would you do if someday you were injured and could no longer compete?

SSP: I can’t think like that.

What makes you proud to be from Iceland?

SSP: It’s my country. It’s where I was molded into the man I am today. I’m proud of myself and I’m proud of where I come from.

How would you describe a typical Icelander in 10 words or less?

SSP: Strong and beautiful.

Which is the national dish of Iceland – hot dogs or skyr?

SSP: Neither. Its the Icelandic lamb.

Do you get homesick when travelling, and would you ever move abroad?

SSP: I could see myself move abroad for some time but never permanently. I would not say I get homesick, but I guess I’ve never left Iceland for too long. I love my country. It gives me my energy.

If a visitor had only one day to spend in Reykjavík, what would you recommend doing?

SSP: Depends on your interests of course. Take a walk down town and enjoy Icelandic food. You could also go whale watching or take a bus to the blue lagoon.

I have the idea that everyone in Iceland knits. Are you a knitter?

SSP: No, I’m not!

The dreaded Atlas Stones

How disappointing. Moving on, Iceland was hit a bit harder than most countries by the economic crisis. What is the mood there like now?

SSP: It seems to be getting better. I don’t think about that stuff. I’m too busy enjoying my life.

What is your favourite Icelandic music?

SSP: There’s so much music that I like I can’t name one.

Do you think you have what it takes to be the World’s Strongest Man someday?

SSP: Of course I do. If I did not, I would not be doing this at the top level. This is a very demanding sport.

Finally, does coming from the land of vikings and trolls give you any special secret advantages?:)

SSP: Yes it does! It makes me a VIKING/TROLL! Beware!

To find out more about the World’s Strongest Man competition and when it is broadcast in your country, visit http://www.theworldsstrongestman.com/. I’m just off to see how far I can pull the car…

Kleina – friend or foe?

Iceland has many specialities, and the kleina is a particularly delicious one. It essentially a doughnut, but it comes in an interesting twisted shape and is found in all good cafés and coffee bars in Iceland.

Last time I was in Reykjavík, I had a busy day planned with lots of walking around and one of my planned highlights was going to be for the end of the day, to have a hot chocolate and a kleina – bliss! I was really looking forward to this.

At the end of the day, laden with bags, I began my search for the perfect kleina, only to find a fundamental flaw in my plan. As it was the end of the day, they were sold out everywhere! None of the cozy places I wanted to sit in had any left. Lugging my bags up the hill of Laugavegur, it was starting to look grim.

Then I remembered a little bakery type place that I had seen that was pretty much around the corner from where I was staying. I burst in, catching the attention of a group of old man who were obviously regulars and completely camped out in one corner. And…victory! They had a kleina – one left and it was dipped in chocolate! And – free back copies of gossip magazines that I can’t actually read but like to flip through and spot the celebs I can recognise. Lovely.

I ensconced myself in my own corner. The hot chocolate was going to be an issue as there was some sort of problem with the machine. Now ideally having the kleina WITH the hot chocolate would be better than having the two separately, but I could tell from the drama happening around the machine that I was going to be waiting for a while and I’d worked up an appetite. Feeling majorly geeky, I took a photo of my kleina with my phone, hoping the old men weren’t looking:

I know! Embarrassing! But it was a magic moment and I had to capture it.

I started nibbling away, flipping through magazines, thoroughly content. Finally, my hot chocolate came after about 10 minutes. The kleina was pretty much gone. I started sipping the hot chocolate and noticed that actually, I didn’t feel so good. My eyes felt a bit itchy, I started wondering if they were bloodshot or something, having not looked in a mirror all day. Then I felt a bit…hot. Really hot. Feeling suddenly both ill and self-conscious, I left 90% of the hot chocolate it had taken 10 minutes to make and made a very rapid exit past the group of now startled old men.

When I got back to my room I couldn’t believe it – my eyes were nearly swollen shut, and having taken my coat off I could see my neck was covered in hives. I was also getting really wheezy breathing and was boiling hot.  I started frantically removing layers while doing a Google search for “what does it mean if your eyes are swollen and you have hives and can’t breathe” – basically, it means an allergic reaction to something that is nearly always food  if it comes on so quickly, which means it must have been the kleina. I had only had a very small amount of hot chocolate and I was already feeling the symptoms by the time I was drinking it.

To cut a long story short, I became very British and rather than possibly disturb the receptionist with my problems, I burst out into the night searching for somewhere to buy antihistamines. At least it was dark and no one could see my ugly eyes and hives.  I couldn’t find anywhere still open, but walking around in the cold air felt better than being inside and the more I walked around the more my symptoms were going down. After a couple of hours I was back to normal except for the breathing problems which continued for the rest of the night. Strangely enough I would have found it really embarrassing to get a doctor involved at any point, although if it got to the point where I couldn’t open my eyes or breathe I would have swallowed my pride!

I’ve never had any allergic reaction to food before or since so I don’t know what the problem was. Apparently kleina are cooked in tallow (animal fat) and I’m not sure how much of that I eat normally but I must have eaten things cooked in this way before, and I had eaten many a kleina with no problem before. I don’t know why I had such a strong reaction but it’s made me wary of ever eating one again, which is really annoying. If you go to Iceland, please have one for me!

Have you ever had any ridiculous medical episodes when travelling??