Wandering France

Christmas is a wonderful time to be in Iceland, especially for the food and lights, and New Years Eve in Reykjavik is like nowhere else on earth, but this was also a nice time to travel since so many others are also on holiday now.

I met an American in Tuscany 6 years ago and we stayed in touch over the years. She came to Iceland in 2016 and met me in Mauritius for my birthday 2017, and we decided on meeting in Paris to celebrate 2018. It was going to be a cheap and cosy holiday, since we had my friends flat in Republique to house-sit, but when he dropped off the face of the earth without leaving any keys, we were pretty much homeless in Paris.

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Girls night out in Paris

Luckily for us, Stef had a friend who was housesitting and we crashed with her for 2 nights. Those nights were well spent, eating cheese and drinking red wine. We ended up out for a night near the Moulin Rouge, and dragged a Christmas tree home with us on the 4am saunter back past all the open sex shops.

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Mont Saint Michel

We had 10 more days in France without any attachment to Paris, so we decided to travel. We went to Normandy to see the infamous Mont Saint Michel, which looks unreal even to the naked eye. We carried onto Bretagne, where we visited the riche towns of St. Malo and Dinard and stayed in the capital Rennes.

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Chateau du Vitré

Facebook told me I had a friend in Bretagne I had forgotten about – I couchsurfed with a metropole named Al in French Guyana 6 years ago and he lived in Corlay. It’s a village most have never heard of but they are famous for inventing their own breed of horse (who are great steeple chasers) and Al’s brother had a cottage there. We celebrated New Years Eve at midnight there, and barely missed it since we were the only 3 people in the village and couldn’t see or hear a sound of life from anywhere else. It was the quietest NYE party I’ve had yet, but the most champagne bottles drunk per head.

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Dinard, on the coast of Bretagne

Our trip carried on thru some more charming places in Bretagne, like the Abbaye de Bon Repos and the lighthouse and pink rocks of Ploumenach. We found a cheap blablacar to Tours and thought “we’ve never been there” and went. It has a nice church and a yellow cobblestoned city center, but the most beautiful chateaus and wine villages around the region are more worth the visit.

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Annecy in the Rhone-Alpes

My wandering in France ended in Lyon at a horse friends house. She works in a hospital and offered to photograph me with her x-ray machine. I picked my left shoulder as a subject, since it clicks sometimes and thought maybe we’d see why. She had a day off and took us to the mountains, Annecy at the edge of the Rhone-Alpes and up to the snow in Semnoz to have a snowball fight. We ate raclette, and bread and wine and more cheese, for most meals of the day, until my flight home the 5th. But it was Alicia’s birthday the 5th, so it was appropriate to have cheese and bread and champagne for breakfast and my last meal in France.

Alicia´s champagne birthday breakfast

Now its time to cheese and wine detox, at least a couple of kilos, and stop eating so much white bread. How do French people stay so slim?

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A New Year begins in Iceland

Me and winter aren’t the best of friends, and I usually like traveling the full 8 months of Icelandic winter, but if I’m going to take a break from traveling, the holidays are the best time of year to take a break at home.

Iceland has a very special Christmas season; it actually lasts for 13 days (arguably 26 if you count the days all the yule lads come to town and leave presents in your shoe), so the last day of Christmas, also called ‘the Thirteenth,’ happens after New Years.

New Years Eve in Iceland is also special; its one of the few cities in the world you can actually hear midnight happen. Millions of kronurs of fireworks are exploded and showered over Reykjavik between 11:30 and 12:15, and the skies are full of lights, colours and smoke. It’s a little like bombs over Baghdad, plus the possibility of Northern Lights in the background – try to find that somewhere else in the world.

downtown Reykjavik on Christmas eve

downtown Reykjavik on Christmas eve

The weather has been very cooperative. Over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, there was the most festive sprinkle of fluffy snow flakes falling quietly down over an already white winter wonderland. Then there were some storms, rains, and plus 7°c weather that iced it up and washed it all way. But for New Years, everything went cold and crispy again, no snow or rain fall, enough snow on the ground to brighten the night, and the clear, still skies welcomed the colourful explosions that actually last the whole night, with a deafening climax around midnight.

New Years resolution #1: go for more walks

New Years resolution #1: go for more walks

Then everyone makes their New Years Resolutions; the gyms get totally overcrowded the first week of January. People exchange unwanted Christmas presents and go bonkers shopping the sales and old year clearances. And ‘the Thirteenth’ happens, on January 6th, which is the last day you can legally set off fireworks, so the last day of Christmas is also sent booming into the sky, with screams and screeches and flashes of lights.

Dad at his birthday Gala Dinner

Dad at his birthday Gala Dinner

January 7th was my fathers 65th birthday. We celebrated in black tie dress-code of course – he was finally home after 5 weeks in the hospital and officially retired, so now the old man’s really an old man. He’s recovering from kidney failure, which means hes attached to a dialysis machine every night, but free to play all day and evening. We started the date with a Baejarinns Beztu hotdog, then attended a Viennese Concert by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, and capped the night off at the Icelandic Chef Association Gala dinner at Harpa. We were seated one table away from the president, and rubbed shoulders with all sorts of important and/or wealthy guests, but explained to everyone he was a retired teacher and I was an unemployed tour guide and didn’t seem to feel excluded.

I'll miss this sight!

I’ll miss this sight!

Now it’s time to hit the road again. Christmas is over, New Years and birthday celebrations are behind us, and we can no longer burn our money in the form of fire works, so its time to go spend it on the road. First stop is Barcelona; why? Because I found a one way ticket for a direct flight (4hrs15mins!) for 80 euros and the days there are twice as long and twice as bright. Of course the weather is better than in Iceland, though not great at this time of year according to Spaniards, but having the sun shine on the top of my head and actually feel the heat of its rays is sometimes enough. Sunshine, here I come.

American Samoa

Samoa and American Samoa are part of the same island chain, with similar language, history and cultural traditions, but one is an American Territory, and independent Samoa is more closely connected to Australia and New Zealand. This makes them worlds apart, though they’re only a short ferry ride or plane ride away, with different cars driving on different sides of the road and noticeably less tourism in American Samoa. Even the International Date Line separates the Samoas, and the 1 day and 1 hour time difference is pretty confusing (especially when you’ve only travelled for 35 mins), but works great if you want to skip a day (like a dead quiet Sunday) or have a day twice (like New Years Eve).

My  new years eve party deck

My new years eve party deck

I actually did both, though my new years eve in American Samoa was much quieter than the one in Auckland. There were no fireworks, no music… not even a countdown or a crowd. It was like they were purposely ignoring this perfect time to celebrate, and instead every church in American Samoa was filled with people for their night services. But, they ended before midnight and people disappeared quietly back to their homes, and it seemed as if no one cared the year was ending and a new one just beginning. I ended up sitting on the balcony of my beach bungalow drinking half a glass of red wine alone, watching the time on my phone turn to 00:00 while a cloudy moon gently reflected off the oceans’ waves to add a little sparkle to the moment.

Tisa's bar nestled in the trees on her private beach

Tisa’s bar nestled in the trees on her private beach

I stayed at Tisa’s barefoot bar, and didn’t leave much in the 4 days I had there. The first 3 days were all holidays, and then it was a Saturday, so not much was open or happening… except a lot of church services and rainfall. I spent nearly half a day at the Pago Pago airport because the flight I was on had “too many big people” on it, so the luggage was too much excessive weight and they flew my bag over 3 hours later The taxi driver who took me to Tisa’s only wanted to talk about inappropriate, promiscuous subjects (like the naked Chinese girls who like to dance on boats and the Fijian customer he had sex with at the airport), and when I was just about ready to jump out of the truck, we finally got to Tisa’s and the owner himself was at my door before I even opened it. They only drive at 10-20 miles an hour (I’ve never seen people drive slower! The roads that weren’t even that bad), so I could have just dropped and rolled out the door, but I had all my luggage with me and it was dark, and he did just flat out ask me if I wanted sex and accepted my “no” without any persistence.

rainy Pago Pago

rainy Pago Pago

Besides that, most of my American Samoa visit was safe and peaceful. I lived in a wooden bungalow on a private beach, had breakfast cooked every morning for my by a man called Candyman, and drank a glass of wine with Tisa or the other guest each evening. Carolina was also staying there, an American who wanted to hike the national park trails on the island, but unfortunately she wasn’t much for new years parties.

Some Kiwi stories

I wonder if I should bother to write a blog about Auckland, since I should rather write ten or none, but here goes one (very) long one. I didn’t plan on going to New Zealand, since I’d already been there back when I lived in Australia, but I realized there was no way to get from the Cook Islands to neighbouring Niue… or Samoa, or Fiji, or anywhere else except through New Zealand. In Rarotonga, the main island of the Cooks, I met 2 people who pretty much set up my whole New Zealand experience.  First was Bjorn, the British-Kiwi guy who has a super Icelandic name. He’s a dancer, a very good dancer, and had a very pretty friend named Amber, who was also an amazing dancer. She met up with me in Auckland for Sunday night salsa dancing, and we salsa’d, zouked and tangoed our little butts off.

that sand is hotter than it looks

that sand is hotter than it looks

I stayed with Amber and her family for a couple of nights, went beaching to some super-hot-black-sand beaches, and attended her friend’s house warming party where the focus of the night was watching the movie “Love Actually” and getting into the holiday spirit. An ever-abundant source of chocolate-dipped strawberries, Lindt chocolates, champagne, and cider helped too. On boxing day, I went to the races with my couchsurfer and his friends, and Auckland already started to feel smaller when I ran into the house-warming host at the Ellerslie race course, where she was Ms. Ellerslie (go figure, she was blonde and beautiful).

I couchsurfed with 4 or 5 nights with Wade, possibly the nicest 30 year old guy in New Zealand, with the friendliest mouthful of braces I ever saw. His front lawn and adjoining neighbours had become the rearing ground for some baby ducks, and my room had a little balcony looking over them. Wade and his friends also took me to some boiling-hot-black-sand beaches and accompanied me to the races (where we won lots of money…. well not lots, but some, and lost some money we won when our winning ticket blew away from the 3rd storey stands).

The second important person I meet in the Cook Islands was Gaylene, a hostel neighbor who donated all her and her friends’ food and alcohol when they left a day earlier than I. The others still at the hostel feasted on eggs and bacon breakfast and vodka raspberry cocktails with me, and I decided I had to visit her and somehow return the karma. Instead of being able to repay any of her hospitality except cooking a few meals, she showered me with more beautiful surprises and Christmas gifts and the love of her whole family.

Raewyn on her competition horse Tahi

Raewyn on her competition horse Tahi

She lives on a small farm with her mom Raewyn, a handful of sheep and cows, and 4 horses. Yes, 4 horses! And one of them was a grey, purebred Arabian – I had hit the jackpot. When he didn’t buck me off and could keep up with Raewyn’s endurance competition horse, we decided to take him to his own competition. We placed third in the 20 km race, and Raewyn won first in her 50km. We rode some more trail rides in the forest and on the coast, and my last ride with her was a 30km day in the rain on a never-ending black sand beach. I was in heaven.

Franklin street christmas lights

Franklin street christmas lights

I met some more ponies along the way – a 1 day old Friesian foal and Wade’s best friends’ girlfriend’s eventing horses. I was happy as. My allergies were not, but at least Auckland has pharmacies. It was just beginning to be full-on summer in the city, so there was tons of pollen floating around and freshly cut grass to tear up my eyes. The weirdest part of summer here is that Christmas marks the start of it, and the last thing I think of doing in summer is decorating pine trees or drinking eggnog. People still get into the holiday spirit, and there’s one famous street where nearly every house tries to out-do the next with bigger and brighter lights, nativity scenes, Santa Clauses and reindeers, and mistletoes to kiss under (complete with a candid camera).

Christmas lunch

Christmas lunch

My Christmas was spent with Gaylene and her family on the beach in Coromandel, a beautiful peninsula a couple hours drive from Auckland. On Christmas Eve, I had baileys and coffee for breakfast and Raewyn and I went riding on the beach. Then we set up our tents at the beach house where 12 others joined us, barbequed a feast fit for kings, and drank baileys for desert while playing card games. Christmas day was much the same, and we barbequed breakfast too. We opened our gifts in the morning, and I couldn’t believe the stack of presents with my name on it, in this family where I had just days before been a complete stranger. After a short break came champagne and chocolates and Christmas poppers for lunch, but then we ran out of room for dinner.

I had lots of good food while in New Zealand, and the lamb was nearly as good as Icelandic lamb, but the fish and chips were better. Apparently they say “fush’n’chups” but I finally started to pick out the difference between Aussie and Kiwi accents but I cant quite hear the “u” in fish or chips. Whittaker’s chocolate bars, in all their glorious flavours, were definitely a favourite, and I’ve never eaten more chocoloate in 3 weeks than I did in New Zealand over the holidays.

I did some solo-traveling up north Paihia and Russell, camping for a couple nights in a tent I bought in New Caledonia for 13 euros and a $400 feather-down sleeping bag that I found on the side of the road (I washed it, don’t worry). It probably fell off the back of someone’s’ motorcycle, and a little yellow snail had claimed it, but I figured I’d get more use out of it than him.

quaint little Russell, the first capital of New Zealand

quaint little Russell, the first capital of New Zealand

New Years eve was spent in Auckland, and it was the only night in 3 weeks that I had to sleep in a hostel dorm bed. I only slept in it for 2 hours, so it was kind of a waste of $25, but I ended up wondering the streets, wharf, and bars all evening and night with a UBC alumni named David. At midnight, we drank pink champagne under an exploding sky tower and kissed, just for fun, and then we spent the rest of the night chasing down Tinder girls he had matched with since they were all at different bars and we wanted to bar hop. When he found one he liked, I snuck away to take my hostel power nap, and then dragged my feet to an 8 am flight to American Samoa… where I could do it all again.