Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Learning to Expect the Unexpected

Around the World, Day 2

Well, we did make it out of Washington yesterday since the wheels of our Boeing magic carpet left the ground of a Dulles runway at 11:54 p.m.  Though the flight was re-scheduled to depart at 11:30, the air crew, concerned that we would arrive before the four-hour airport work stoppage at our destination ended, delayed take-off by another half hour.  Other than the airline's failure to provide our requested vegetarian meals, the flight was fine.  By the time we touched down in Iceland a little after 9:30 a.m., all the strikers were back in their positions on duty.

As the plane descended in our approach to Keflavik International Airport, we were fascinated by the view outside our window—rough, rock-strewn, undulating, treeless terrain the color of tobacco.  Though the island's climate is hospitable to some green plant growth, winter's reluctance to depart (the city was blanketed in snow last week) has kept much of the scenery in the area a uniform brown.

In case our view from the window was unconvincing, the Hertz agent re-emphasized that "not in Kansas anymore" reminder when she insisted Ken acknowledge with his initials the provisions of the rental car contract that prohibited crossing "unbridged" rivers and driving off-road, though traversing the country's many miles of gravel highways is permitted.  Iceland has a land area about the size of Kentucky's.  As the car rental map depicts, almost half the island is covered by a mountainous lava desert inaccessible to all but the hardiest of vehicles.  They don't stop at 4x4s here; some 8 x 8s are around, too.

Only the tough survive.
Leaving the airport in our stick shift diesel Toyota Corolla, we drove the 20 miles to nearby Reykjavik, where our apartment home for the next few days was ready for us to check in four hours early.  Since we were working with a limited amount of restless airline "sleep" while our bodies struggled to maintain a hold on Eastern time, we were delighted.  Almost next door we found Kryddlegin Hjörtu, a casual café with a buffet of delicious homemade soups and a salad bar with an abundance of fresh ingredients.  After a light but very satisfying meal, eaten at the local lunch hour (8 a.m. by the home clock), we dived into bed for a few hours of real rest before exploring a bit of central Reykjavik on foot.

North, South, East or West?
Public art was bounteous in the areas we visited today, beginning at the airport, where Directions, an eye-catching symbolic work by an Icelandic sculptor occupies a prominent place in the arrivals hall.  Perched atop four-foot basalt columns, the four life-size sculptural aluminum figures, all cast from the same mold, face toward the four cardinal points of the compass. 
Around downtown Reykjavik, many important figures in Icelandic history are commemorated with statues in public squares, from Ingolfur Arnarsson, honored as the country's first permanent resident, to national hero Jon Sigurðsson, who spearheaded Iceland's independence movement from Denmark.  In addition to historical figures, Iceland boasts a monument honoring the Unknown... Bet you thought we were going to say Soldier. 
Located in a popular square alongside a small lake in the center of Reykjavik, the Unknown Bureaucrat is a tongue-in-cheek sculptural monument to honor all those Icelanders who toil in the thankless, anonymous job of bureaucrat, which the artist depicts as a man in a suit carrying a briefcase.  Since he is never recognized, his head and shoulders remain unformed from a large slab of stone.

Tribute to all the unknown pencil pushers who keep things running smoothly
Along the way in our wanderings in the city, we popped into a small neighborhood supermarket to check out their wares. Would you consider your local grocery store a destination for tourists?  Probably not, but we love exploring food stores in other countries and cultures. 

As in so many places we travel, we saw a fair number of products familiar because they're made and/or sold in America.  A few others had enough English words for us to discern what they were (e.g., chocolate brownie).  Some products, however, just left us scratching our heads and laughing as our imaginations ran wild, trying to "translate" what the Icelandic words "sounded like they might mean."  Later, when we had wifi access at the apartment, we checked on our accuracy.  Not even close.

How about you?  Hungry for a bit of blaber today?  For some reason, we were convinced some kind of "odd" meats were involved here.  The real translation:  "Offer!  Blueberries, Blackberries and Raspberries  399 krona/pk" (about $3.50).

Some kind of salad, we thought, but got no further.  The illustration on the front of the hrasalat wasn't enlightening either.  Translation:  Hrasalat = Coleslaw.  Skinkusalat = Ham Salad.  Hangikjötssalat = Lamb Salad.  Did you guess?  We certainly didn't. 

Though none of these foods seem exotic to our American sensibilities, we later saw menu offerings quite different from your average Cracker Barrel.  We stopped into a little family owned restaurant called Le Bistro for dinner.  Like most people we encountered today, the servers in the restaurant spoke fluent English.  Even the menu was printed in both languages.  Thus we knew exactly what we were ordering here.  We had a wonderful meal, but we were not tempted by some of the dishes in the Icelandic Inspired Specialties section of the menu:

Tomorrow we'll leave the city and explore Iceland's Golden Circle, which we hear has nothing to do with gold nor with a circle.

More Photos from Today

Ken's delicious "chicken casserole" (what we would call soup) at Le Bistro
The "kitchen" in our apartment
Do you wonder, as we did, about the long pillows?  They're individual duvets, fluffy and folded.  A great idea!
Maybe not such a great idea.  Our "shower."  A bit more slope toward the drain might have kept at least part of the floor dry.
Nice long day for sightseeing (and pleasant temps)
Conveyance #7:  Airstairs

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

And Awayyyy We Go......But Not Yet

Around the World, Day 1

So what motivates us to embark on this trip around the world?  Adventure.  Curiosity.  Challenge.  Perspective.  And that darn song!  What really makes us crave travel is its ability to jolt us out of our complacency and shove us out of our comfort zone.  Especially when we explore other countries and cultures.

In the next 80 days, we expect to encounter 16 different currencies, whose basic units have values ranging from 0.4 cents US (Hungarian forint) to $1.68 (British pound).  ("You're going to have to do a lot of math on this trip," our 11-year-old nephew and travel buddy Steven pointed out yesterday.)  Our adapters will enable us to plug our North American electronic devices into five different types of outlets.  We will cross over each of the world's 24 time zones, magically adding a full day to our otherwise humdrum lives in the process. 

As we travel, we will overhear conversations and announcements in 20-plus languages.  Even more, if you consider British, Australian, and New Zealander English to be foreign tongues.  In each new country, we must try to learn to say and recognize the critical local words to help us survive there—hello... please... thank you... toilet... vegetarian.  This challenge will escalate when we reach countries like Morocco, Bulgaria, Greece, and Israel, where even the alphabet will lose its familiarity.  We will struggle as we try to decipher signage, ticket machines, menus, traffic rules and shopping in each new country. 

Though the U.S. boasts a multicultural culinary diversity, we will no doubt run into food traditions that appear exotic or even bizarre to our Western palate.  Vegetarianism often gives us a great excuse to avoid some of the more unpalatable "meat" choices in other cultures.

We will teeter on the edge of civility as we attempt to understand and respect local customs.  What about tipping?  In some cultures, failure to tip a server at a restaurant may be interpreted as a condemnation of the service, whereas other cultures see tipping as an affront to the business owner for neglecting to compensate employees adequately. 

And then there are gestures.  Even nonverbal communication can be a minefield if you are not in tune with local convention and nuance.  Americans don't hesitate to flash a V-sign, or peace sign ✌, to a stranger.  "Hey, there, friend!  Peace!" we think we're communicating.  Do that in Australia or New Zealand, however, especially with your palm facing you, and you've just proffered the equivalent of what is known in the U.S. as "the finger."  To a perfect stranger, the opposite intent of your message is received.

These are the elements of travel that we relish.  Those that snap us out of our American insularity and remind us that there's a whole big world out there just waiting to be explored.  And that the United States is just one country out of the 200+ that occupy this globe.

And so begins Day 1.
With no direct flights from Atlanta to Reykjavik, we left Atlanta at noon, flying into Dulles International in Washington, facing a 6-hour layover before our 8:35 p.m. Icelandair flight.  It was not until our arrival at Dulles that we learned the Icelandair flight was delayed by three hours due to the second of four labor strikes by airport employees in Reykjavik.  Apparently the workforce is very disciplined and precise in their protests.  The strike is set for five hours only, 4 to 9 a.m., the airport's peak period for arriving flights from North America and departing flights to Europe.

Merci, AirFrance, via IcelandAir
What to do when a six-hour layover stretches into nine hours?  Taking a page from Uncle Joe, our family's most seasoned traveler, we tracked down the Icelandair lounge at Dulles, operated by AirFrance.  There we found a most hospitable place to while away the extra hours, with a bountiful buffet of free food and beverages.  As we munched and sipped, we thanked the travel gods for inspiring us to book business-class fares to Reykjavik, our golden ticket to enter this cornucopia.

As we publish this post, we have just passed our originally scheduled departure time.  We're optimistic that we'll leave "on time" as re-scheduled at 11:30, a bit past our bed time, but, what the heck, we'll have almost six hours and 2,800 miles for a bit of shut-eye as we cross the ocean.  Tomorrow we'll be in Iceland, four time zones away, where it's actually already tomorrow tonight.  But here in Washington, tomorrow is another day.  When it arrives, we hope to be there and not here.


So, what of our goal to engage a variety of conveyances on this journey?  Here are the results for Day 1.

1.  Limo ride to airport
2.  Foot power
3.  Airport train at ATL
4.  Delta MD-88 to Dulles
5.  Escalators at Dulles
6.  Boeing 757 to Reykjavik (we hope!)

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