Happy Birthday to me

This year’s attempts to celebrate my birthday with a party or gathering of more than one other person failed miserably after my ability to chose where in the world I’d be was taken from me. Air Iceland and Icelandair seemed to gang up and make sure my birthday plans couldn’t be made until hours before my actual birthday, when I finally landed back in Reykjavik after being stuck in Greenland for five extra days.

I’ll have my cakes and eat them too

We only planned to go to Greenland for three days, so we nearly tripled our holiday. I was there as part of a birthday celebration precursor, since Steve and I had bought the trips as birthday gifts for each other. After the fourth flight was cancelled, it meant I had missed my onward flight to Denver, where I was meant to celebrate my birthday with a Canadian friend for the first few hours, and then fly to LA for a red-carpet movie premier and meet Oprah. It’s hard to replace Clio, or Oprah, but we started planning a birthday party with the other stranded passengers in Ilulissat since we’d slowly started to accept we were never getting home.

cocktails at Sushi Samba

After I finally landed in Reykjavik a few hours before the 26th, I learned the Denver flight had been cancelled, and I was rebooked two days later. This now meant I had all 24 hours of my birthday in Reykjavik, but it was a Monday and noone even knew I was in town. Even with last minute notice, I still got taken out and treated like a princess Sunday night, to dinner at Sushi Samba and a suite downtown, complete with a bubble bath full of bath salts and a bottle of cava at midnight.

At Sumac, post-birthday

I spent February 26th at home with my father, who is more often a resident at the hospital, so that was the best birthday present in itself. I went thru some memory lane moments, eating lunch and dinner at restaurants my parents had owned when I was a child in Iceland. Katrin’s culinary birthday saga went from Italia to Austur India Felagid, the East-Indian company, and ended at the Grill Market for a desert only kings and queens deserve – I’ve never had a more beautiful or complicated birthday cake! Before finally flying out the 27th to Denver, I ate lunch at Reykjavik’s best new restaurant, Sumac Grill + Drinks, with a couple of friends from New York, making it the second smallest birthday event I’ve ever planned.

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The 26 days of Christmas

Christmas in Iceland is special for a lot of reasons, like the food, weird yule lads, short days and northern lights nights, but nothing beats Christmas in Iceland because we have 26 days of it.

Christmas starts 13 days before Christmas eve, when the first yule lad comes down from the mountains. After all 13 have come down, one by one per day, we celebrate Christmas on Christmas eve evening, usually around 6pm. We have smoked and boiled lamb with green beans and red cabbage, and open all our gifts that night, and Christmas day is spent at home with friends and family doing very little except eating the leftovers and cooking and baking more Christmas food.

Christmas Eve was spent eating smoked lamb with these two handsome men

The smelliest night of Christmas is arguably December 23rd, what we call Thorlaksmessa, when people boil pots of fermented stingray for hours without ever adding water, so the ever-increasing, pungent smell of ammonia quickly absorbs into your hair and clothes (and takes a couple of washes to get out).

The loudest day of Christmas is New Years Eve, which Icelanders more appropriately call Old Years night. Iceland is the only country in the world where you can actually hear the New Year arrive, since the intensity of fireworks climaxes at midnight like an out-of-tune percussion symphony. It’s also a pretty smelly night if there’s no wind, since all that smoke from a million kronur of explosives creates a fair bit of pollution.

The last of the fireworks

The hottest day of Christmas are the “brenna” or bonfires. On New Year’s Eve and the last day of Christmas, various neighborhoods around Reykjavík collect huge piles of inflammable junk – furniture, pallets, Christmas trees and even mattresses – and create fires as big as houses. It’s a way to clean out your closets, literally and figuratively, and burn away all the baggage from last year to start clean.

The last day of Christmas is the “Thirteenth” (þrettándinn), January 6 when the last of the 13 yule lads has returned back to the mountains. As I write this, Reykjavik has started to light up again, as everyone finishes the last of their fireworks. It’s only legal to fire fireworks during Christmas, so after midnight tonight you could technically be fined. The city will be even darker tomorrow since Christmas lights and decorations will also get put away. The sidewalks of Reykjavík have already started filling up with Christmas trees that won’t be needed to be cut down again til next year. The radio will stop playing Christmas music, and the harsh reality that the last day of Christmas does not mean the last day of winter will start to sink in. A couple of days ago, the street lights never shut off automatically because the cloudy skies and lack of snow meant the daylight never became bright enough to convince the sensors that it was day time.

the first Saturday ride of the year for these horses and horsepeople

For most, this is a time to buckle down the budget, face impossible new years resolutions, and start the year fresh and optimistic. We do have the assurance that days are getting longer, already for 2 weeks now, and we finally start to notice the difference. For the horse people in Reykjavik, its time to bring the riding horses into the stables and start training. For me, its a time to hole up and write a book, and book the cheapest one way ticket out of here until summer.

Winter is Coming

Yesterday was Friday the thirteenth, and I can be a little superstitious sometimes, so I was wondering what kind of bad luck could come up. It´s been an incredible autumn, a season we Icelanders aren’t so used to having, so basically it seemed like an endless summer. Usually we have winter, and not-winter, and in a week from now, the nights will officially be longer than the days. But, as luck would have it, winter came blowing in, with snowfall on the mountain tops, the leaves blown to sunders, and the last of the green grass has actually died overnight. The first frost has arrived.

Autumn colors for Freyfaxi’s fashion

I´m a little like the geese in Iceland, who start heading further and further south as winter nears. My nickname has recently become Katrin Snow, because of my constant Game of Thrones reference, “Winter is Coming.” But it really is coming.

My view from home, under Esja

I’ve seen northern lights three times this week, but somehow the handful of tourists in town for nearly the same amount of time haven’t been lucky enough to spot them. The grass has turned yellow and the trees have lost their leaves. The sheep have all come down from the mountains, and even the last of the horses are home. The foxes have turned white, but the snow has only reached the mountain tops, so the foxes aren’t blending into the countryside so well.

Watched a fox try to camo into this field (unsuccessfully) and then later watched the northern lights from this hottub at Ion Adventure Hotel

I’m no longer working with horses, and my main riding horse has gotten his irons taken off for his 8 month winter vacation. Now I’m working a bit at Sumac Grill + Drinks, Reykjavik’s newest and hippest restaurant (and home of Icelands Chef of the year 2017 Hafsteinn Ólafsson) to save up some extra money for a long season of travel. Working at such a trendy place has lots of perks – the President’s wife came by, the former mayor´s (leader of the ´Best Party´) daughter, actors and actresses from the last TV series I watched have popped in, and all the city’s best chefs and bartenders come to check us out. Björk didn’t get in, because she didn´t have a table reservation, and sometimes there are over 70 people on the waiting list. But there´s always someone from a past travel time passing thru Reykjavik, and they all manage to visit at Sumac.

Hiking from Glymur waterfall in fall

You know winter is coming when ads for Christmas concerts start airing on the radio and the holiday section of stores start selling Christmas stuff. I´m ready for a one way ticket out of here, and Cape Town on Wednesday sounds like a plan.

Another Icelandic summer comes to an end

The definition of summer in Iceland isn’t very defined. Summer is when its not winter. Its when the grass is greenish, the moss turns neon, and the leaves are alive. It’s a time when the temperature can go higher than 10 degrees (but not necessarily). The sun shines and its rays actually give off heat (and a tan!). The average temperature in June is only 11 degrees. Anything over 18 degrees is kind of a heat wave, and Icelanders lose their clothes as easily as we lose the nights. This year, summer came in May, when the countryside dethawed and it stopped getting dark.

Hiking Fimmvörðuháls with my best friend Moli

This is a time when Icelanders seem to come out of hibernation. After 8 months of winter, holed up in that thing called ‘real life,’ then people come out to play. Then the days revolve around hiking, horsebackriding, summerhouses, camping, fishing, barbeques and no need for much sleep. And much more than that, summer means festivals.

on horse tour in Mývatnssveit

Now that summer is gone, we start looking forward to those holidays and festivals next summer. Iceland is probably the only country I know of that actually has a national public holiday for the first day of summer, and this year it was April 20th. For some reason other than religious ones, Ascension day (May 25) is the first long weekend where traffic jams to get north out of town can build up from the Hvalfjordur tunnel all the way to Mosfellsbaer.

Menningarnótt with my sister and oldest friend from Canada

Downtown Reykjavik is a family friendly party ground, with tens of thousands of people flooding the streets and Arnarholl, on only a few days a year. June 17th, Independence day, is the first major summer event. Ironically, the Gay Pride parade has higher attendance, and rainbow coloured balloons and confused gender identities make people of all ages happy. Menningarnott in mid August is the most drunken and dancy festival, and at this time of summer, short nights have started to reappear and it’s the first time that lighting fire works makes sense. Its also around then that the first northern lights show up, making tourists very happy that they don’t have to return to Iceland in midwinter to check that off their bucket list.

Herjólfsdalur filling up for Þjóðhátíð

The most defining part of summer for me, and many other Icelanders, is unquestionably Þjóðhátíð. Literally translated, this just means ´the nations holiday,´ and is held all around Iceland around the end of July/beginning of August, but the biggest one is always in Vestammanaeyjar. My father is from Vestmannaeyjar, which makes about 24% of the population my aunts, uncles and second or third cousins. This sleepy island on the south coast has a year-round population of around 4,000, but during Þjóðhátíð, it can swell to 16,000, perhaps even as many as 20,000 this year.

seaswimming beach days in Reykjavik… not as warm as they look but still an important part of every good summer

You know summer is coming to an end when the next festival people are gearing up for is Airwaves, which happens annually at the end of October. Airwaves is even bigger than Þjóðhátíð, but doesnt quite have the same ´Icelandicness´ to it with all those tourists and international bands… and lack of lopapeysas (hand knit sweaters with Grandma´s typical patterns and barn colours). The countdown to summer 2018 has officially begun.

Ölverk: Pizza and Brewery

Hveragerði is definitely a happening place this summer, not only for me and thousands of scouts, but also for Laufey Sif and Elvar at Ölverk – the first geothermally powered brewery in Europe! They´ve just opened a pizza restaurant there, complete with the real-deal, wood-fire oven, and the family-run feeling couldn´t be cozier in this steamy hillside, country town. Their 9 month old son is often running around the restaurant, while Laufey works the front and Elvar in the kitchen. Elvar´s real speciality will be the brewery, set to open in September, since he worked for many years as the brewmaster at Ölvisholt brewery near Selfoss.

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Elvar checking on the wood-fire pizza oven

Since the brewery isn´t up and running yet, Elvar and co. are featuring a selection of craft beers from Ölvisholt, and a few international craft beers (one 750ml bottle with an alcohol percentage of 20% sells for a cool 14.900kr!). Once the brewery opens, there will be a daily tour and tasting (with food pairings too) of their 6 home made brews, and groups can also book private tours or events in their tasting room.

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Laufey and I checking out the brew room

If you can´t wait til then, go now to try one of their 15 savory (or 3 dessert) pizzas, cooked in an Italian wood burning oven. Definitely start with the breadsticks or zaatar flatbread with baked beercheese dip, which goes well with an ale called Sleipnir, appropriately named after Óðinn´s 8-legged horse. They have some typical pizzas (No. 5 is the most popular), as well as some vegetarian and stranger creations including bananas and coconut flakes as toppings. The dessert pizza toppings include nutella, salty liquorice sauce, mascarpone cheese, and an assortment of fruits, including some locally grown green-house strawberries.

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Ölverk beercheese dip, breadsticks and Ölvisholt pints

If you´d like to pop in, check them out at Breiðumörk 2 in Hveragerði (the kitchen is open til 22:00), or give them a call to book a table +354 483 3030. Find Ölverk Pizza & Brugghús on Facebook and Trip Advisor, and follow @olverkbrugghus on Instagram if you want to see more pictures of their delicious pizza creations or soon-to-open brewery.

Fréttablaðið Fólk: my interview in Iceland´s biggest newspaper

Enjoy a rough translation of this Icelandic article journalist Starri Freyr Jónsson wrote about me in this weekend´s edition of Fréttablaðið. If you understand Icelandic, you can just read the original article in the picture below!

Fólk, Fréttablaðið. Helgablaðið laugardagur 5. ágúst 2017

Finds Happiness in the small things

When Katrin was 22 years old, she decided to travel to 200 countries before she turned 20. Today she is just over 30, and 208 countries are already on her list. Future travels include remote islands in the Pacific Ocean, Central Asia and middle Africa.

There are definitely few, if any, Icelanders who have traveled as much as Katrín Sif Einarsdóttir. At only 22 years old, she set the goal of traveling to 200 countries before she became thirty. Today she´s just over thirty and the country count has reached 208; according to her countdown, which has perhaps more countries than people think exist, also considers countries that are not defined as an independent states, for example places like Greenland, Scotland, the Faroe Islands and Taiwan.

Katrín Sif was born in Iceland but grew up in Canada. “I started traveling alone when I was 18, but had a very outdoorsy life as a child and a teenager. Until age 21, I traveled mostly to South America and Asia. When I was 19, I lived for a four-month period on a ship sailing around the world. The trip began in Mexico, and we sailed across the Pacific Ocean through Asia and Africa, then to Europe and across the Atlantic to Florida. ”

Despite extensive travel, Katrín Sif has completed a double BA degree in philosophy and French, and has completed two master’s degrees; one MSc in environmental science and natural resource management, and an MA in Icelandic history. “In between, I have worked in restaurants, both at home and abroad, and worked with writing and as an editor during and between travels. I still see myself most as a cowgirl and work as a tourguide during the summer time in the highlands of Iceland, and sometimes work as a shepherd in the autumn in the east and north. ”

Thankful for a safe home

This summer she went to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan where she, among other things, completed an eight-day horseback riding trip in Kyrgyzstan. “This fall I want to travel across Europe and learn about wine production. Later in winter, I’m headed for some of the Pacific islands that are extremely difficult to travel to, for example Wallis and Futuna plus Tokelau. However, next year, I would like to spend a few months in central and northern Africa and learn some Arabic. I would also love to travel to Central Asia and to some former Soviet Union republic and learn a little Russian. ”

After all the years and the number of countries it is difficult for her to point out some of the destinations that stand out. “However, in 2016, I visited North Korea and Afghanistan, which were both astonishing. It was very safe to travel in North Korea, the country was clean and offered more exciting places than I expected. Of course, I always felt like it was being watched or followed by my shadow of a guide, so I never knew if I was really experiencing North Korea or something staged. Afghanistan is a very beautiful country where the countrymen are very friendly and hospitable. Like their neighbors in Pakistan, terrorism and war have made it very stressful to travel in these areas. In such circumstances, I am grateful for the peace and security that prevails in Iceland. ”

Learned a lot on the way

After traveling for more than half of her life, Katrín Sif has learned a lot about how people act and interact. “I’ve learned to be very tolerant, patient and understanding as I get to know other languages, religions and different cultures. I have also learned to see happiness in the small things and to live a simple life with an 8 kg backpack for a large part of the year. This lifestyle has taught me to be happy with what I have at each time in each place. However, no matter how much I travel, I always find new and new exciting destinations to keep wanting more. ”

Even while traveling, she sometimes gets home sick. “I love Iceland more and more every time I come back for different reasons. Still, I always complain about the weather! If it were only hotter here, less wind and brighter winter I would definitely stay longer here every year. ”

Check out Katrin’s trips and travel stories on her blog, nomadiccosmopolitan.com, and follow her on Instagram (nomadic_cosmopolitan) to see photos from her journey.

 

Mindfulness in Iceland

I was recently in Nepal and participated in a number of yoga and meditation classes, and realized they’re not very different. Meditation is actually something we do all the time, though it may be mindless, and sometimes misused to be a tool for negative rumination.

I’ve always noticed that Icelandic nature, and the things I do in Iceland, seem a perfect setting for productive meditation. I’m usually most relaxed when I’m horse back riding, looking out on some epic scenery in the highlands, sitting in a natural hot tub in the middle of nowhere, or watching the midnight sun touch the ocean before going back up into the horizon. If the weather was better, I’m sure there would be more yoga retreats here.

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meditating with my horse in some summery sunny Icelandic weather

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, an ambassador of peace and well-known spiritual leader from India, was in Iceland last week to give on a talk on the importance of meditation. He explains it as a way for people to find inner calm and happiness, which spreads naturally through a population and serves an important role in creating peace.

Exploring Iceland and SATI Mindfulness worked together to put on a Mindfulness Retreat in Hveragerdi last weekend, and I was lucky enough to take part with another 20 or so participants, a mixture of Americans, Icelanders, and one German. Our teachers were Craig and Devon, along with a landscape architect with a Phd. in Environmental design. Calling it a Mindfulness Retreat was an interesting marketing move, since telling my family I was going to a 3 day meditation workshop would have made them a little worried about my mental health – why is it that practicing meditation is such an alternative/hippy thing?

Along with some hiking, stretching and exercising, we learned that meditation is a transition from movement to stillness, and noise to silence. It gives you time to contextualize life, commit to happiness, and consider compassion. When meditating, Sri Sri’s three mantras are: I want nothing. I am nothing. I am doing nothing.

Have you ever wondered how hard it is to do nothing? Its nearly impossible. Your mind never shuts up, and if it does it only lasts a few moments before something else you need to remember or plan to do pops up. Devon and Craig also like to call ‘mindufulness’ ‘bodyfulness,’ since its in those moments when your brain quiets that you can really feel and listen to your body. Even if its pain or tiredness, just listening to your physical sensations is an extremely powerful ability that many of us ignore.

Sometimes I caught myself imagining what it would be like to have a super low IQ, or super intense ADHD, maybe then it would be easier to focus only on the here and now. Focusing on just yourself in the moment is a really difficult way to narrow your thoughts, and I’m not sure I ever managed to truly get there in our 3 days together.

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Reykjadalur, the smokey valley and hot river most people come to Hveragerdi for

Hveragerdi was a wonderful place to have the workshop. We were surrounded by summer, green vegetation, a steaming mountain side, and a hot river to bathe in. There were also hundreds of girl and boy scouts having some kind of retreat at the same time, offering endless fields of coloured tents and people walking around with rolled neck bands. We didn’t have to compete with them for a supply of nature and relaxation, but one day when we all ended up in a forest with instructions to try and hug a tree, literally, I was hoping some of them would walk by and see a bunch of grown, sober adults tree hugging and wondered what their reaction would be.

We did some other strange exercises, like trying to walk as slow as you can without stopping (you can go really slow!), or making one hand a fist be the sun and smashing it into the other open palm which represented the moon, but everything was more fun when we did it together. What I came away with from this retreat was to remember more often to bring out the inner child and just play – with myself, with nature with thoughts, and with feelings. It definitely makes you feel lighter.