London Calling, to the Faraway Towns

We arrived in England like waking from a good rest, when the coffee is fresh and the day unfolds before you, even and civilized, a parade of activities and rewards. Refreshingly, the people spoke our language, and we spoke theirs, more or less, and London, one of the most cosmopolitan, dynamic, overwhelming, but still charming cities in the world, offered up its sights to us (along with several thousand other tourists). We navigated the tube to visit my old neighborhood (more on that in a bit); the British Museum, the Indiana Jonesiest museum ever (i.e., containing powerful relics that Indy might be rescuing, bullwhip in hand, from the clutches of a Nazi and shouting “It belongs in a museum!”); Hampton Court Palace, home of Henry VIII, William and Mary, and all the architecture and history between them; the improbable abundance of landmarks in and around central London, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, and Leicester and Trafalgar Squares; and Hyde Park, where we had a picnic one especially pleasant evening. We saw The Cripple of Inishmaan, a play starring Daniel Radcliffe, who seems to have avoided the typical fate of famous child actors and has instead chosen to, y’know, act. We went to Bath, where the ruins of ancient spas remain from the time when the Romans ruled England–a reminder that nearly 2,000 years ago they had already figured out most of the things (save for the Internet) we tend to think of as being uniquely modern, from plumbing and HVAC to colonialism. We also went to Nottinghamshire to visit my English cousins, some of the warmest and best-hearted people I know, and they showed us Sherwood Forest, lawn bowling, and cricket, which remains incomprehensible.
All of this was lovely and enriching and, should you get the chance to come here if you haven’t already, well worth your time. But I admit I have a complicated relationship with England, London in particular, one I had a sense of before but couldn’t quite identify until now. This is my seventh trip to England, and in college I spent a semester in London, living in an absurdly posh neighborhood just off of Hyde Park. I love England, and I love English life. I love that they have pubs on nearly every other corner–yes, for the convenience of grabbing a pint whenever your fancy strikes but moreover for the function the pub performs, serving as a sort of community living room where people can drink and gossip with coworkers, take a date or have a night out with a spouse, or wear comfy pants and play Words with Friends on their phones over fish and chips; it is truly a public house, an institution America sorely lacks. I love that the English understand themselves in several ways, with a person’s occupation being just one facet in an overall jeweled life. If we had a good reason to live here–if Bri or I got a job here, one that paid well enough for frequent trips to the states to visit our friends and family–we could live well.
Which is kind of the problem: at this point, I may have gotten everything I can from England as a tourist destination (well, I haven’t seen Madame Tussaud’s, but I’m content to live the rest of my life without seeing a creepy waxy simulacrum of a creepy waxy king of pop). I’m in an in-between state, in which I know England like a home, yet it has little bearing on my regular life. It’s been a magical place I can enter periodically through a rabbit hole or a portal that, for some reason, has manifested inside a dusty old wardrobe, but, as with Alice and the Pevensie kids in their sequels, the terrain on the other side is no longer all that fantastical for me–its strangeness has become familiar, but sooner or later we must leave it, as we are not talking animals or anthropomorphized playing cards.
I suppose this may be a necessary consequence of travel: a blurring of the line between foreign and domestic and the realization that home itself can travel, locating wherever, along with your heart, your ties are. (We’ll see how well this theory holds up in a few months.) I’ll miss England, but–here’s a silver lining–I’ve already grown used to missing it and should, with any luck, be able to cope.


Lose Yourself in Iceland (for you will not have a choice)

It isn’t just that you will literally get lost when you visit Iceland, although that will certainly be true (you will make your husband pull over three times in order to make sure that Vestlandvergur is the same as Highway 1). It will be that you will have no idea how to conduct yourself in regular social situations, and you will be in no position to contend with the prevalent belief in Icelandic elves.

You see, you will learn that there are Dark Elves and Light Elves in Iceland, and then there are also Hidden People, who are built along the lines of Legolas (tall, fair-skinned, impossibly beautiful–what’s up, Orlando Bloom?) while the elves are far smaller, something like fairies or sprites or something. And they will be everywhere. Your in-flight movie to Reykjavik will inform you that more than 50% of Icelanders believe in elves. You and your skepticism will be outnumbered.

You will be told that the elves live in fissures along the hillsides, and sometimes they can prevent construction projects from moving forward by living inside of troublesome boulders. This will make no sense to you. The British transplant who is giving you a tour of a lava cave (because, yes, this is something that happens in Iceland) will tell you that some elves live in Ice Elf Cities in the wintertime, but they migrate back to the fissures in due course. He will show you Ice Elf City, which is deep inside the aforementioned lava cave, and you will be compelled by the beauty of this icy stalagmite city–but you will still not believe in elves. You will be told that there are mystics and spiritualists who somehow communicate with the elves, and that the Icelandic people who move to another country say they can no longer see the elves once they leave home. You will be expected to know that the elves are tied to the land, rather than to its inhabitants.

Your head will be full of questions, but who can you ask? If you ask the wrong person, if you ask a true believer in elves, and any of your skepticism and doubt creeps into your tone (or words!), then you have just insulted a culture and, perhaps, a belief system. And so, you will go to the Internet. And what you learn will leave you more confused than ever. There is far too much information, there are far too many scholars and academics who are fully on board with this elf business, and all of it will sound silly (though, of course, a bit delightful) to your pragmatic, American self.

Far into the Icelandic countryside, after a long elf-related discussion with your husband, you will stop at a gas station to use the restroom. You will be in the middle stall, and you will realize you have no toilet paper–but you will realize this too late, after you already need it. If you were at home in your own city, you might just ask someone on either side of you to pass you some extra and thrust your hand under the wall, a standard practice. But in Iceland you will not know if that’s something people do. What’s more, you will not know if the person on the other side speaks English and will understand your request if you make one. Perhaps they will think you’re up to something unsavory when you whisper something they don’t understand and put your hand under their stall wall. And so you panic. You sit quietly, silently, in the middle stall. Your pants are around your ankles, your head is in your hand, and you don’t know which open is best: ask for toilet paper and risk being deported for pervertery or, well, drip-dry.

But you’re savvy and brave, so instead, once the bathroom is quiet, you will hold your sweater in front of your waist, rush from the stall and sidestep towards the next one over. You will, of course, slip on some wet paper towels on the way and lose your grip on your sweater. You’ll swear loudly and throw your weight against the door behind you to bang your way into the next stall. And as your clumsy fingers fumble with the lock, you’ll find yourself praying that the elves in the bathroom are Light Elves and not Dark Elves–for then they might just keep all other customers out until your lunatic laughter stops echoing off the walls.

*Matt got super respectful of horses and actually rode one! Icelandic horses have a unique gait called the “tolt,” which is essentially the smoothest trot ever. American (i.e., not tiny) horses can’t do it, which makes this additionally cool.

*We saw a Minke whale! Jumped out of the water just in front of our ship. Also saw a pod of about 15 dolphins cruising around.

*Eating fish and chips at a great restaurant near the harbor was stellar–there’s something awesome about eating fish with the source in sight. They also have a different kind of fish there, so eating wolf fish was a new experience.

*In-water massages at the Blue Lagoon were a PERFECT way to start the trip. In the name of all that is holy and/or deep fried, go get a massage here. Such a unique (and weird and floaty and AWESOME) experience. Frankly, it might not be worth going to the Lagoon without it (I sense you’d get bored in about 30 minutes otherwise, and given what you paid to enter the place, you may feel it wasn’t worth your money.)

*Lava cave! In addition to seeing Ice Elf City, this lava cave was ridiculously cool. No smells, no bats, no echoes because the cave is made of porous lava layers–coolest cave I’ve been in, with a super amazing and knowledgable tour guide.

*The sun never sets this time of year. It gets dusky around 11:00, which did nothing to help with our jetlag, but was fascinating anyway. No wonder Reykjavik is the party capital of Iceland–you never get a chance to remember you should be sleeping if the sun is always shining.


The First Disappointment

Matt and I leave for Iceland in two days, and I just received an email from our dogsledding company (because, you know, why not go dogsledding on a glacier while in Iceland?) saying that, due to the heat, the glacier base camp has closed for the season. They are now only offering dogsledding tours in the lowlands, which translates to “dogs pull you along farmland on a wheelie cart.” I’m sure that would still be fun, but the basecamp isn’t located anywhere near where our (non-refundable) lodging is. Besides, it’s pretty pricey to do something I used to do with my own dogs when I was a kid. So… yikes.

My initial (and crushing) disappointment, however, only lasted a moment because that’s all the time I have to give that particular feeling. The problem with leaving for Iceland in two days is that I have no time to be sad — I only have time to plan.

All I can say is that it’s a good thing Matt and I planned our wedding in just four months last summer—the “SHIT SHIT SHIT!” method of planning is old hat by now.

So here’s how this played out over my lunch — right after global warming ruined my life:

Step 1: Email the people we’re lodging with. “HELP! WHAT IS THERE TO DO IN YOUR AREA?” Realize that their offices are closed and we will not hear back for at least 16 hours. Realize that we do not have time for these shenanigans.

Step 2:  Go to the Internet!

Step 3: Find a bunch of stuff that seems like it might work but be sold on nothing

  • Snowmobiling tour on a mountain glacier (isn’t this just a less cool version of dogsledding on a glacier? Louder and less, I don’t know, full of furry joy?)
  • Horseback riding (but Matt is afraid respectful of horses)
  • Hiking. Are we into that? Do we like hiking? Better question, do we like hiking while jetlagged?
  • Drive around the country..? Is this even something that is done here?

Step 4: Lament again that nothing is as cool as dogsledding on a glacier.

Step 5: Tell myself we will go to Sweden in a few years and pledge to go dogsledding there. Or in northern Minnesota sometime because, you know, we live there and this is not our only adventure. Look on the bright side and realize we no longer have to worry about packing wool socks. Try to maintain a stiff upper lip because you do not have time for melancholy, madam.

Step 5: Remember that OMG, I HAVE A FRIEND WHO WORKS AT A TRAVEL COMPANY SPECIALIZING IN ICELAND STUFF! Call her immediately and learn all sorts of stuff:

  • The part of the country we’ll be in is incredibly scenic. One of the best things to do is just to drive around the peninsula and take in the sights. This is apparently a great idea.
  • There are two particularly adorable towns full of cafes and horses (safely tucked away on beaches, so my husband doesn’t get scared respectful) that we could visit.
  • There is some guy called The Shark Man who has a museum to fishing and fishing culture; also, he gives out lots of tasty samples… of fermented shark. Awesome or disgusting? 
  • There’s a sweet sweet boat tour, if we’re into being on a boat, that leaves many times a day from the northern side of the peninsula and is gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous. Gorgeous.
  • The national park up there is free and heavenly, potentially worth a visit.

Step 6: Exhale.


So the moral of the story here is that we haven’t even left the country yet and our carefully laid plans are already falling apart. But the second moral is that we’ll adjust with relatively small amounts of panic. Because it’s really the only option we have. I find that oddly comforting.

(Also, an update for you: no, it still doesn’t feel real.)


This weekend, Matt and I are up at the family cabin celebrating the 4th of July. Last night, I went to my first fish fry and my dad became our pyrotechnician, putting on a massive fireworks display. The neighbors passed around a bottle of Arbor Mist that the college kids had brought along, and we all watched the sky as bomb after bomb glowed red and purple and gold on upturned faces.

Here at the cabin, we’re sleeping in and staying up late, and drinking way more beer and white wine than we should. It’s a different world up here, four hours north of Minneapolis. Days unfold themselves like long yawns, slowly stretching themselves into wakefulness, and 2:00 feels just as sleepy as 9:00. It’s all birdcalls and faraway motors, sun-dappled waves and green shorelines. There’s no work email to check, no lipstick to apply, and no obligation to do a single thing that doesn’t appeal to you. It’s cabin life.

Being up here is like living in a different world, so I wonder how can we be going somewhere even farther removed in just two short weeks. Because, yes, surprise!, we leave two weeks from tomorrow.

It occurred to both Matt and me while we were packing for the cabin that we packed a lot of the same items we’ll be packing for the trip: lightweight clothes that layer easily and don’t keep smells or wrinkles.

While we obviously brought fewer items to the cabin for a long weekend than we’ll bring for a four-month extravaganza, it’s actually not that much less. We both brought the same bags we’ll bring for our trip, but just put fewer items inside. See, for the trip (as for the cabin), we’re only bringing one carry-on each.


It may seem like a ridiculously small amount of luggage for four months, but here’s the thing: Matt and I desperately want to be mobile. Europe is full of winding stairs and broken elevators, and we don’t want to be hindered by what we’re carrying. Bringing extra stuff is a commitment. You’re saying that the items you’re bringing are valuable and necessary because why else would you commit to carrying them with you to each place you visit? Each time we think about adding something to our packs, we ask ourselves, “What function does this serve? Is something else already doing this, and is it doing it smaller/lighter/more elegantly?” There’s a reason we’re bringing iPad minis instead of laptops.

(Can you imagine if we were this efficient in our daily lives? I’m not saying I want to get rid of my shoe collection, but I would absolutely be on time to work every single day if I only had two pairs to choose from.)

Let’s also admit that Matt and I are on a strict budget. He and I are not, I remind you, independently wealthy. We’ve been saving money for the past few years just so we can do this trip—and no checked luggage means no baggage fees on airlines. It also means we don’t have to stay near the train station because our bags are too heavy to lug to the far side of town. It means that we don’t have to spend money on cabs because I’ve been carrying my suitcase for two hours while our hotel room is being cleaned and ohmygodmyarmisgoingtobreak. Lighter travel = cheaper travel.

And while this is anecdotal support, I think it’s worth mentioning: I’ve never heard a single person say they wish they had packed MORE stuff for a trip. Usually it’s, “I brought three skirts I never wore” or “I thought I was going to need high heels/a fedora/scuba gear, but, um, I didn’t.”

It seems to me that, if we’ve done this right, our trip will be like cabin life—beautiful, unhurried, uncomplicated. Our days will begin when they begin and end when they end, and we’ll wander from town to town with upturned faces and starlight in our hair. And we’ll do it faster and easier if we’re not dragging heavy suitcases behind us.

Cabin Living as a Packing Philosophy