Before I get into the magical land of Iceland, I’m going to start with the end. The end of my time in the USA. I left on July 5th, after a month of spending time in DC with my family and friends and a whirlwind week in New Orleans < Florida < DC. It’s been two months since I left my job and the question most often asked is “how do you feel?” It’s a pretty simple question, but honestly I had trouble saying anything more than a generic “great” or “excited” when the truth was I didn’t feel much at all. To recap, I quit my job at a company I worked for on and off for over 15 years, left NYC, a city that I loved and feared at the same time (but LOVE my NYC peeps), moved my worldly possessions into storage and was about to embark on a trip of unknown length and undetermined destinations. You’d think these actions would result in a deluge of emotions and descriptions beyond “great” and “excited”right?
I shed a few tears saying goodbye to mom and sister Sylvia at the airport, but not until they left and couldn’t see me, but it was still subdued. It’s like my human feelings adapter was disconnected from my body. That was until the aptly named WOW Airlines flight (cheap tickets to REK and other European cities. Many people I’ve met did layovers here on their way to Europe) took off and then the feelings came in like a TSUNAMI. I’m not a nervous flyer, in fact, I often find that during take off, I feel a sense of relief and excitement about wherever I’m going. Tears fell so hard down my face and I tried desperately to muffle my sobs as I could sense that I was freaking out my seatmates, but I literally could not stop myself from crying. After months of suppressing my feelings about making such massive changes in my life, I could no longer hold it inside and as the plane ascended, my feelings did too. So I put my sunglasses on, placed my Bose (thank you Bil!) headphones in and LET IT GO. I cried about leaving my family and friends. I cried about leaving my job and people that I care about. I cried about not knowing where my prescription meds are in storage. But mostly, I think I cried because I was actually doing this.
Like so many of my family/friends, I live a life of constant responsibility, obligation and regard for doing the “right thing” and as an immigrant, I think even more so. I cannot remember a time in my life that I didn’t work. When we came to America I was just 5 years old and I remember working at my family’s dry cleaning business. I knew how to run a cash register before I knew how to ride a bike. And every spring, summer and winter break involved working with mom at her store. And then at 15 when I could legally work, I worked at Ben Franklin and helped women find their potpourri and make crafty albums. So fast forward to 2016 and I’ve been working for over 37 years of my life and by Social Security standards, I still have 25 years to go. I just knew if I didn’t hit pause and took a break, I might break.
And so I’m fortunate enough to be able to do it and as so many people have said, brave enough. I kept hearing from friends words like “brave” and “proud” to describe what I’m doing, and I don’t think it really connected until the plane lifted and I knew that I was leaving not just America behind, but everything and everyone I knew. And for maybe the first time in my life, I was doing something that was purely for ME. I wasn’t joining the Peace Corps (been there and done that in 2003 during my other non-break) to better the world. I was choosing to seek pleasure and joy for myself and do something that was just for me. And how rare is it that we do that? So I think that’s why I cried so damn much.
Enough of the feelings stuff. Let’s get Iceland! I arrived July 5th and spent 5 days in Reykjavik. I’ve had other friends come here and I’ve seen their photos and heard their stories, but it’s really something that if you can, you should experience yourself. It’s an island of just 300k people, 70% of whom live in the capital area. I arrived just two days after their soccer team’s triumphant return from Eurocup (damn!), but the feeling of pride and excitement is definitely still palpable. And there are giant photos of the (HOT) soccer players all over the city. I scored with weather as it was pretty warm and sunny up every day I was here! Names of streets and people are pretty much unprounciable, but everyone is patient and quite friendly and thankfully many are fluent English speakers. The women are gorgeous – fair, blonde/ginger supermodels with narrow faces and long, lean legs. I obviously blended right in. The men are totally men, some serious Viking beards, non of that pretty hipster manicured facial hair here.
I’m here at the height of tourist season, but it still isn’t crowded anywhere. I stayed at two different places in the city, the first was Capt. Reykjavik’s Guesthouse, which was super low key and incredibly clean. I had a small room and shared bathroom, which is honestly not an inconvenience since everyone’s out all day/night. Connie who runs the place is smiley and polite and makes fresh bread for breakfast. The second place is called the Kex Hostel, it’s trendy, social and there’s a huge restaurant/bar area where many locals come to hang out. I splurged for a private bathroom in this place. For those planning to come here, yes it’s expensive. The rooms where I stayed ranged from $180-$250/night and that’s for guest houses and hostels people. But you don’t need a luxury hotel b/c you’ll want to be outside all of the time. And with nearly 24 hours of daylight, it’s easy to be outside. Less easy to sleep, but that’s OK because I’ll sleep in America.
The city is small and clean and super easy to get around because everything is pretty walkable. When I arrived sleep-deprived and delirious at 4:55am, I couldn’t check in to my place until 2pm so I walked around and checked out some of the local sites. My favorite things in the city:
- Solfar, the “dreamboat” that faces the water and stands for undiscovered places, the promise of hope, progress and freedom. I couldn’t have stated my current experience better than that.
- Hallgrimskirkja – the church and tower which is the 3rd largest building in Iceland
- Icelandic Phallogical Museum – how could I possibly miss this? A museum collection of over 200 mammalian penises. That’s one of the things I love about this city, there’s a sense of humor and quirkiness here that’s so natural and inherent to the people and culture.
The food is good here and yes also expensive. You can’t get a sandwich and beer for less than $20. I tried some Icelandic dishes including a breakfast of “mashed fish” on toast and it was delicious. The name doesn’t do it justice. And at Cafe Loki you can have their rye bread ice cream and also sounds weird but is super good. Seafood is obviously the mainstay, but don’t worry, there are burgers and fries too. The lamb soup is also very delish.
I could spend the next week talking about all of the incredible natural wonders of Iceland. This place is truly magical and the Vikings who settled here picked one beautiful island in which to settle. Here you can see rivers, lakes that look like mirrors, geysers, oceans with black sand, waterfalls, mountains, glaciers, fjords and volcanoes! Some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. If you come here, you must do that GeoIceland South Coast Tour. That’s where you’ll see the mountain, glaciers and waterfalls. Avoid the bigger bus tours, especially Grayline. Too many people and the guide was somber, muffled and not the best English speaker, which makes for a long 9 hour day. A lot of people rent cars and DIY, but these guys are incredibly knowledgable, passionate and environmentally conscientious and keep the tours to small groups. My guide Grousif (sp??) looked like a supermodel and had the brain of a PhD anthropologist, plus a great sense of humor. She told us about the history, the geology and culture, including a hilarious account of how a couple of Icelandic guys created an app for locals to date and also avoid “awkward endings” in case they’re too closely related! Like I said, only 300k people here and everyone’s pretty hot. Must sees if you tour:
- Strokkur or the Great Geyser – the smell isn’t that bad and it’s worth seeing this big guy explode
- Skogafoss and Seljaleandsfoss – the waterfalls including one you can walk behind!
- Solheimajokull – GLACIERS! My favorite and most incredible thing I’ve seen. You can actually do a hike, but due to a lame ankle sprain, I settled for walking up to it and touching it and even that blew my mind.
- Reynisfjara – a gorgeous black sand beach and cliffs that look like the Iron Throne also home to puffins but those guys are pretty tough to spot.
I skipped the Blue Lagoon, which is one of the most famous sites in Iceland, but it was mostly booked up and from what I heard from locals, I’d be better off going to a local pool so I did. And instead of $90, I spent $9 and avoided the crowds and got to enjoy the awesome geothermal pools. There is still so much I haven’t seen in Iceland, including the Westfjords and north, but I’ll be back.
So to come back to the question of “how do you feel?”. I feel lucky, energized and exhausted, thrilled, content and like I’m starting live full-throttle.