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.

2014 Travel Resolutions and Status update (and a rant on Russia)

My New years resolution is the same every year: travel more. And perhaps I like having the same one because I always manage to do so, or maybe I´m just too lazy to come up with a new idea. Although I also decided to be able to walk on my hands and do the splits in both directions as two other resolutions, but thats totally unrelated to everything.

I´ve taken more flights in the last couple weeks than there have been days in this year, so Im on some sort of right track… or I’m just unrighteously depleting my carbon footprint quota for this year. My 27th birthday is in a month and a half, and I’ll be just shy of 120 countries by then, so only 80 to finish in the next 3 years… that’s do-able, right? I’m kind of nervous since I tried to save some of the easiest and most accessible for last (ie. all of Eastern Europe) but also have about 10 completely unreachable countries (ie. Nauru, Tuvalu, North Korea), but then again there are more than 200 countries by some lists, so that leaves room for omissions.

My biggest failure to date is still not making it to Russia. I got close in 2009, when me and my friend Mike Reiter were in Helsinki and tried to figure out a way accross to St. Petersburg. It wasn’t possible then, but since then they’ve introduced have this 24 hr tourist visa thing that you can get in Helsinki to take the train over. Sigh.

behind that man (aka Mike Reiter) rubbing snow in his chest, is the river separating Norway from Russia, which we could never really see that well in the 24 hour arctic nights

behind that man (aka Mike Reiter) rubbing snow on his chest, is the river separating Norway from Russia, which we could never really see that well in the 24 hour arctic nights

The last week in Norway was also a big tease, since me and Mike Reiter met in Kirkenes to go dogsledding on the Russian border. We could see the lights of Nikel but couldn’t get over the river, a.) because it wasn’t frozen and b.) because we didnt have visas. We couldnt get visas, since you’re only allowed to get a Russian visa in your resident country, and Iceland’s Russian embassy was closed Jan 1 – Jan 8, the exact (and only) dates I’ve been home in the last 3 months. I was booking my travel to Asia over a month ago, and decided to fly through Moscow with a 16 hour layover, since I (though I) knew I’d be able to figure out a visa in the meantime, somewhere between Africa, Northern Norway, and my travel to Korea.

I flew to Norway Jan 7, and couldn’t do anything about it in Oslo. But, randomly, I met the ex-Norwegian ambassador in Russia in a bar in Tromso. He was old, very drunk, and had some secret man crush on Mike Reiter (he likes Ukrainian Jews), but refused to discuss any way that he could help me, except admitting that he definitely could and knew the “very friendly” current ambassador, but he didnt want to because he hated Russia and thought Moscow was the most dangerous city in the world.

So, long story short, I never figured out a legitimate (or illegitimate) way into Russia, so I boarded my 8 our plane from Oslo to Moscow knowing this was the closest I’d get to experiencing Russia for the next 24 hours. I’m not sure if it was psychological or not, but I was convinced the plane smelled like vodka. I spent the flight learning the phonetics of the Russian alphabet by using a map of the world with city names I could sound out.  Then I sat in the Moscow international airport for 16 hours, and although I couldn’t find any way out of it (atleast not with a way back in), somehow a bird had found its way into the completely sealed, glass-walled airport. The airport didn’t let on many Russian stereotypes, since the most notable things there were Costa Coffee, TGI Fridays, and hundreds of Asian commuters on their way back from Europe to China, Korea and Japan. Only the unfriendly faces of staff I met on the plane and at the airport supported the stereotype of that Russian coldness people always talk about.The weather was foggy, grey and cold to match, making an escape seem less appealing anyway.

I basically ended up going to Moscow to write blogs and eat lunch at TGI Fridays, which are very normal (non-Russian) things I would have rather done somewhere else in the world… But, now I can read Russian, I still have no idea what the words I’m saying outloud mean, but that will hopefully change by the time I actually make it into this god-forsaken tourist country… if I ever do!