Saturday, 26 May 2018

Reykajvik: Where the Water Falls and Falls and Falls

Our guide told us at the beginning of our daylong trip through Iceland's Golden Circle, that the word Reykajvik comes from the Old Norse meaning "bay of smoke". 

I'm fairly certain that he was just fucking with us.

After our experience today, I am absolutely certain that the word Reykjavik means "water that cascades from the heavens...and the earth...and the trees...and the rude bastard sitting next to The Better Half."

The Husband and I have travelled to all parts of the world and have experienced Mother Nature in all of her menopausal glory. We have endured searing desert heat in the Australian Outback that melted our shoes. We have lived through miserable cold and wind in Alaska. We have come face to face with ocean storms so severe that both of us were barely conscious in our bed. We have travelled in cold and heat and rain and snow and every combination one could possibly imagine. But I have little doubt that today was by far the absolute worst travel day either of us has ever experienced.

Iceland isn't really known for its stellar weather. We came well prepared for the possibilities of cold and rain and were not surprised when the forecast today called for showers. We had our raingear and umbrellas and our waterproof hikers. I packed gloves and earmuffs. Yup. We were ready for the exciting beauty that awaited us at Gullfoss and Geysir. We were eager to hike the volcanic rocks, learn of the mysteries of shifting tectonic plates, feel the immense power of a rugged waterfall, and to watch the geysers explode. We wanted to smell the sulfur and to feel the moist heat of the geothermal springs. We were however totally unprepared for the Pandora's Box of misery that hit.

Photo Credit: Kathy Stein
The rain was heavy and cold and it started before we even left the hotel. By the time we were on the bus, we were already damp. The wind was blowing from all directions and umbrellas proved useless against the blustery gusts. Our hikes through the volcanic caverns were slick and often treacherous. I saved one woman from certain injury as she lost her footing on the slippery rocks. The water was everywhere. It came at us horizontally and diagonally for hours. Our raincoats and hoods were no match for Icelandic climate. We were soaked from stem to stern and everywhere in between. We couldn't access anything in our pockets because it had all turned to pulp. We couldn't take a selfie because the rain and wind would blow directly at us. At one point, I began to feel envious of drowned rats. I swear that I actually saw flocks of swans swimming in a flooded farmer's field. No joke. We are fairly certain that The Husband's camera became a drowning casualty. There was so much water pounding on it constantly, that he thinks the electronics got fried. We are desperately hoping that it can be resuscitated at home. Anybody who knows him and his feeling for his photography know this to be a great potential loss.

All of this is really unfortunate. I had been looking forward to this weekend for the entire trip. I was excited to see Iceland and what I did manage to view through the mist, fog, and my rain-soaked glasses is beautiful in its starkness. Nature has been kind to this part of the world. I am often in awe of how desolation can carry such beauty. I loved the volcanoes in the distance and would have loved to venture closer. Sometimes, the best-laid plans though....

We have a bit more time here before heading home tomorrow. Given the forecast of more of the same, we have decided to head to the airport with memories of a wonderful vacation still in our thoughts and dry clothes still on our backs. Hopefully, we will get another chance to visit this unique country. I will remember to double layer the raingear.

Photo Credit: Kathy Stein

Thursday, 24 May 2018

It is So Much More Than a Beach

There are times when less is more. 

There are times when listening is better than talking.

There are times when silence is better than words.

I will offer only a few soundbites from our day trip to Normandy with stops at Juno Beach, site of the Canadian Forces’ landing on D-Day, Gold Beach, and Beny-Sur-Mer. It seems more appropriate that way.

*The Centre at Juno Beach is a must visit. It is stunning in its depth and breadth and is staffed by dedicated young Canadians working towards university degrees. The explanations, films, artifacts, and even the building itself are extensive and chilling.

*I loved that all of the people on our tour were Canadian. It made the journey to Juno all the more poignant. There was no having to explain Canadian history or roles in the conflict. My guess is that the Americans touring Omaha or Utah Beaches felt a similar kinship.

*The walk along the beaches themselves was mind-altering. We arrived at low tide, about the same time as the Allied Forces did, and were stunned by the amount of distance needed to travel from water up the sand to higher ground. There was a quiet stillness everywhere and even while some kids were laughing and splashing in the water taking kayak and paddleboard lessons, there was an understanding that we were walking on sacred soil.

*We spent a long while just walking Juno Beach. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

*I hated the gift shop. I realize that much of the continued funding for the centre relies on tourist purchases but the silk scarf festooned with poppies or the onesie adorned with “D-Day, June 6, 1944” was far too much for my taste. I loathe the commercialization of war and death.

*We visited the Canadian cemetery at Beny-Sur-Mer. It is an immaculate place that overlooks Juno. I had gathered some stones from our walk on the beach and placed them on the Jewish headstones. I’m not sure how many of those soldiers still have any family but I wanted somebody to know we were there.

*It was a day well-spent in France. I honestly can’t think of a better way.

They shall grow not old
As we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning 
We will remember them.

We will remember them.

~Laurence Binyon

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Indulge in Your Passions

I knew it when I signed up for this trip.

Today’s date has been circled with big, bright, red circles for weeks. As much as The Husband and Twin Son loved the varied places we have visited so far, and even if they truly enjoyed the tastings across Ireland and now Scotland, a pilgrimage to the Royal Mile in the heart of Edinburgh was the real whisky attraction. A full mile of whisky shops, pubs, tasting bars, and Scotch accouterments dot a beautiful cobblestone street extending from Edinburgh Castle at the top to Holyrood Palace at the foot. It took the four of us a bit of hiking through the downtown core to find it, but find it we did and suddenly the boys had discovered Disneyland.

Valhalla. Gan Eden. Nirvana. Heaven. B’olam Ha-ba.

The question wasn’t whether or not they were going to sample and then buy but rather what rare types and how many bottles. It was to be expected. If fate and fortune had found me in rare music mecca, I would have behaved much like they did today. When one’s passion is suddenly splayed out in front of you and every conceivable option is available for the taking, it is so very difficult to control one’s emotions and impulses. I’m so very happy that they didn’t even try. It is a rare day when there are so few words to describe unfettered joy.

We wandered into each and every shop and tasting bar. I managed to slip out for a bit of Scottish souvenir hunting while they indulged and imbibed but I was around to witness their fun. The guys left the shops empty-handed with promises to return. They wanted to experience all the rides before making final decisions.

They finally stumbled on their brass ring. A small and less than impressive store at the end of the mile called Cadenhead’s proved to be their unicorn come to life. The blackboard at one end of the shop provided a whisky that melted his tongue, he threw me a glance that was so electrified I thought he might be on fire. Once again, I will leave it up the connoisseurs to express their opinions and their delights. Let’s just say there was a lot of good sips taken today.
open ledger of what was available. The proprietor was more than eager to allow them to taste whatever struck their fancy and the looks on both of their faces reminded me of the first time by boys tasted ice cream. When The Husband found one particular

I have never been so happy to give up a day of vacation to drinking as I was today. Everybody should be allowed to indulge themselves in their passions and hobbies from time to time. Today was a day when I got to see a giddiness in The Husband that was fun and beautiful. I have no doubt that we will return to Edinburgh for another productive stroll along the Royal Mile.

We leave the British Isles tonight and sail on. Tomorrow is our last sea day. We will chat again from Normandy, France.

Monday, 21 May 2018

The Greyness of Scotland is Lovely

Loch Ness
There is a definite authenticity factor to be considered when a day in the Scottish Highlands comes complete with a very light drizzle, a greyness that is the colour of wet steel, and a mist coming off of the braes in the distance that is eerily reminiscent of a highlight reel from Brigadoon. It is almost as if the locals purposely provided the atmospheric backdrop for our journey. The spring heather on the hills (yes, it really does exists) is still brown and damp but come summer it will illuminate the mountains with swaths of purple and white. Oh, how I wish I could see that.

The Great Glen of the North was our gateway to Inverness, Culloden, Loch Ness, and Beauly. Fans of Outlander (both the books and television series) will be well acquainted with the names and the historic battles waged here. The Battle of Culloden in 1746, saw the Highland Clans and Jacobites band together with the impetuous and foolish Bonnie Prince Charlie in an attempt to overthrow the government forces and send them packing back to England. The massacre that ensued is legendary and it was the last military battle ever fought on British soil. The Highlanders of today still mourn the loss of their clansmen and the Culloden Moor is today a museum and ancient burial ground. I happened upon the gravesite for Clan Fraser and couldn’t help but think of Jamie (Yes, I am an Outlander aficionado.) and his kinsmen fighting for the honour of Scotland. Without venturing too far into this time-warping thing, it doesn’t get too far afield to imagine what could have happened had the idiot Charlie been smarter and successful in his bold endeavour. He would have restored his father to the throne of England and Scotland, sent George II scurrying back to Germany, George III would never have ascended the throne and the entire American Revolution might never have occurred. Just a ‘pondering.

We headed through the picturesque landscapes passing all manner of wildlife on our way to Inverness. North Atlantic seals, Shetland ponies, pheasants, partridges, and even a few “Heilan Coo” (that’s Highland Cow to those not familiar with the local dialect) were visible. The surrounding area is dotted with old ruins, castles, and enough fabled monsters, witches, and kelpies to fill several children’s books. Inverness, which likes to call itself the gateway to the heart of the Highlands, is a quaint town marked by Inverness Castle. A castle has stood here in one incarnation or another since 1057. The Ness river runs through the town south to its famous Loch.

Which brings me to what is possibly the biggest tourist scam ever perpetrated on visitors to any country on earth. I used to think that designation should rightfully belong to the people of Pisa and their dumbass sinking tower. Nope! I was mistaken. Keeping alive the story of a fabled water creature that cannot be categorically proven nor disproven, even using the brilliance of modern science, has moved Loch Ness to the top of my list. The Highlanders are brilliant. They draw people to the lake, which is actually quite eerie and mysterious in the Scottish mist, in busloads. They try and sell them boat tours (of what I am still not sure) and regale them with stories of sightings and drownings and other magical mumbo-jumbo.

And then….

They point you to the gift shops.  And of course, we buy. Who wouldn’t buy their new granddaughter a stuffed Nessie? What am I? A complete monster?

Our guide Ian told us that he hopes they never prove or disprove it. The tourism boom just to stand at the shores of the lake is phenomenal and frankly a whole lot of fun.

A few side notes from our day.

**I won’t discuss the haggis that I watched Twin Son and His Better Half eat for lunch. This vegetarian could barely imagine it. The cauliflower was delicious.
**I sometimes forget just how beautiful the world can look in the rain. While I wouldn’t want to spend 80-90% of my time in the gloom, there really is a lovely sheen to the earth in the mist of this area.

**You have to know that you have a really good guide when he regales you with Scottish Mouth Music toward the end of your trip. I love hearing all of these old tunes that eventually made their way to the Appalachians and other areas of North America. This Scottish folk music, like its Irish cousin, is the basis for much of our Country, Bluegrass, Delta Blues, and eventually Rock and Roll.

**Men in kilts is a look that I could learn to like. Not as unattractive a kit as one might imagine.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

You Take the High Road

Our introduction to Scotland came in the wee small hours of the morning. It was well before 7:00am when I first heard that unmistakable drone that replicates the sound of a cat mutilating a squirrel. (We should have only been so fortunate.) Pipers and their “instruments” met us at the pier right outside of our cabin. Being the morning person and the all-around positive soul that she is, The Better Half jumped onto her balcony to take photographs. I, on the other hand, utter a few nasty epithets, prayed for a nasty case of chapped lips to blight them both, and hid underneath my pillow.


Welcome the f*** to Scotland. 

Where the men proudly show off their hairy legs even in the dankest and Moorish of climates and the women wonder to themselves how they ever could compete with such a look.

We arrived in Greenock, outside of Glasgow, in brilliant sunshine and warm spring temperatures. Every single person we met today, told us that this weather is a treat and very unusual. The Scots, much like the Irish, are infatuated with the weather. We Canadians thought that we cornered the market on climate bitching? We’ve got nothing on the residents of the British Isles.

Today’s excursion featured a quick trip to Loch Lomond, home of the famous song and then the alcoholic portion of our trip continued at Glengoyne Distillery. The market research and product testing need to continue otherwise we can’t write-off this vacation, right? Imagine an eye-rolling emoji in this space.

In all seriousness, I had acquiesced to a certain amount of tasting on this trip and I did promise to partake. Glengoyne is a beautifully picturesque place just outside of the Scottish Highlands. A still independent distillery in a world of conglomerates, we were treated to a full tour and tasting of the wares. The rest of this post will answer some basic questions.

Did you actually drink Scotch in Scotland?

Yes, I did. A 12-year-old that The Husband implored me to finish and an 18-year-old which I poured into his glass when his back was turned. Honestly, it is all just furniture cleaner to me and the subtleties are lost in the burn in my throat.

Can you taste the difference in various brands or whisky? (no “e” in Scotland because they like pissing off the Irish.)

Me? Hell no. Remember that furniture cleaner thing. My whisky palette is stuck in the development of a child despite the fact that The Husband is a collector of the stuff and owns hundreds of individual bottles and brands.

Is there really a difference in taste between Irish and Scotch whisk (e) y?

Apparently so but who knew?

Is there a really a difference in taste between Isla, Scappa, and Highlands?

Apparently so but who knew?

Will there be other tastings on this trip?

Not formal excursions to any distilleries but we are headed to a street in Edinburgh known in whisky circles as the Royal Mile where I’m told that the brands and drams flow like the Nile. I plan on searching out Outlander paraphernalia while the boys drool and shop. Claire and Jamie forever.

**Sea day tomorrow. See you all from Inverness on Monday.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

We've Come To The North, Jon Snow

As a child of the seventies, if you would have told me that one day I would visit Belfast in Northern Ireland, I would have laughed and said,

“Sure…and maybe after that, I’ll go and tour Beirut.”

When I was a kid, Belfast was in the news every night and for all the wrong reasons. The “recent conflict”, as the locals here term it, brought nothing but sadness and horror on an almost hourly basis. Since the uneasy truce, that still thankfully exists between the angry Protestant and Catholic neighbours, Belfast has seen its fortunes rebound and the tourist industry boom. The filming of HBO’s Game of Thrones in areas all over Northern Ireland has brought an economic lift to the entire country. There are still reminders that the “recent conflict” is still simmering. An ugly wall that divides neighbourhoods is still intact and the gates close every evening at 7:00pm. The Sinn Fein has a headquarters in the same area as the infamous Gaol that once held the hunger strikers and IRA terrorists. There is a life-sized mural of Bobby Sands on the side of a building and a memorial at the Bayardo Bar, the site of one of the most infamous bombings which were dramatized in the movie In the Name of My Father. But all of that somehow disappears into memories as the quaintness of the Belfast streets and the magnificence of the surrounding landscapes comes closer to the fore.

As we travelled the winding country roads outside of the city, the striking greenery buttressed up against the blueness of the ocean almost defied descriptions. Today was the day of natural wonder and the weather and the sites did not disappoint. I had seen photographs and videos of The Giant’s Causeway but they simply cannot do it justice. A strange coming together of volcanic eruptions and rock formations, the Causeway is a simply breathtaking experience. We would have been happy to stay all day. We spent our time hiking around

and up the basalt stones and stood at the top of the crests admiring the vistas. I said a few thanks to my exercise regime as we climbed because frankly, even though it can be seen without too much physical exertion, it cannot be experienced without at least some. I cannot recommend this visit highly enough. If you find yourself in the north, you absolutely must make a trip to The Giant’s Causeway.

We headed a bit further up the coast to Carrick-a-Reede which offers some of the most stunning and awe-inspiring views available in Northern Ireland. Once again, we hiked. This time we crossed a small and very narrow rope bridge in order to scale the rocks to the top of a cliff overlooking the North Atlantic. The Husband and I sat for a few minutes on a grassy knoll breathing in the sea air, the spring wildflowers, and the warm grass. There was a spiritual moment as surely God was in this place.

The drive back to Belfast was along the Coastal Road. Imagine the Pacific Coast Highway out in California but quainter and more rustic. Lobstermen and salmon fishermen were everywhere and the summer homes that line the ocean are just starting to show signs of life. The small villages that dot the Coastal Road are sleepy but full of activity. Spring has certainly sprung here in the north and they are embracing every day of fine weather as a blessing.

It was surprising to discover the wonders that exist in Northern Ireland. The Belfast of my youthful memories still quietly simmers under the surface for some of the citizens but mostly they want to show off their home. That wall is an embarrassment to most people here. They are far more anxious to discuss Game of Thrones and the magical natural beauty in which they live.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Jewish/Irish Experience

I have often been fascinated by the shared experience that seems to exist between the immigrant Jew and the immigrant Irish. Obviously, there is the whole “stranger in a strange land” adventure that continually draws our two ethnicities in two intertwined circles upon our arrival on the North American shores but at its roots, there always seemed to be a simpatico response. It was like we empathized with each other on a much deeper level. While we have been touring Ireland, some of that bond has revealed itself. Both of our peoples have been shaken to their cores by a cataclysmic event that robbed us of our safety, our sustenance, our family bonds, and even threatened our very existence. For us Jews, The Holocaust stands apart as a period in our history from which we will never fully recover. For the Irish, there is a similar feeling about the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s.

Everything about the famine is still woven into the fabric of how the Irish see themselves as a people; how they view the world beyond their shores; how they look to replenish their native-born children; how they maintain their culture and heritage; and how they are now looking to future with the modernization of their economic and social growth. This is a damaged people, but one with resilience and fortitude. They take pride in their survival and refuse to allow the world to forget the injustices heaped upon them during that period where over one million souls perished from starvation and millions more fled in search of something better and didn’t always find it.

In the capital city of Dublin, those reminders are everywhere. We toured the Jeannie Johnston immigrant ship, one of the first to set sail for The United States and Canada with hundreds aboard. The Emigrant museum across the street is a fully interactive and multi-media experience that takes the guest through each and every wave of Irish emigration to all parts of the globe. (Did you know that former Israeli President Chaim Herzog has a grandparent from Ireland or that former US President Barack Obama’s great-grandmother was Irish?) The ability to maintain Irish culture and heritage so far from home has been nothing short of astounding and the number of people across the world who can trace some Irish ancestry numbers in the tens of millions.

Perhaps the most poignant memorial we encountered here in Dublin is an art installation that is right down on the banks of the river Liffey. A series of seven bronze statues, each depicting a starving Irish emigre, is shown getting ready to board a vessel bound for…wait for it…Toronto. Entitled Famine and created by artist Rowan Gillespie, shows the seven desperate, hunched over, and with terrified vacant expressions. There is the realization that they must board this boat, but a knowledge of all that they are leaving behind. They know that they will probably never see their homes or families again. The really cool part of this work is that there is a corresponding gathering of bronze figures in Ireland Park at the foot of Bathurst and Queen’s Quay in Toronto. There are only five statues in Canada as the artist wanted to diminish the set to account for the thirty percent lost during the journeys. A woman sculpted in Dublin appears pregnant in Toronto as many women became pregnant on their voyages. From Mr. Gillespie himself.
“Possibly the most dominant feature of the site are the huge grain silos which seem to symbolize the abundance of food in Canada, in contrast to the situation in Ireland. So there would be another figure of a man (they were mainly men who make the journey) in humble prayer and gratitude as he looks in almost disbelief at these symbols of plenty.”
I honestly never knew that these sculptures existed and that they are located not ten minutes from my home in Toronto. I am so terribly excited to visit them when we return.
The Irish experience has touched me deeply during our visit her in Dublin. I think I understand our bounds a bit better.