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.


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.

Its nice to be home

Beautiful Dalvik, in Eyjafjordur

I´m back in Iceland, as it turns out, year after year, this at least stays the same. Iceland is wonderful for Christmas and New Years, but otherwise, May to September, what some could call spring, summer and fall, (or rather, ´not-winter´), are wonderful months, where I always feel like I’m at home. The smell of fresh, clean air and drinking ice cold water out of the tap that tastes like nothing are always two of my favourite things to do the moment I land. Within a few hours after that, I’ve found some natural hot pot or public swimming pool with steaming water to soak my tired bones.

Grettislaug, in Skagafjordur

No return home would be complete without a drunken party with my old Norse friends, a roadtrip to some remote, northern part of Iceland, visiting my horses, and pretending to be young and hip down Laugavegur downtown. In two weeks, Ive checked all of those boxes (some twice), but the horse situation is getting complicated and being ´home´, which is now my dad´s house, has been a little lonely.

Into the Glacier!

But, staying in the same place for more than 2 nights in a row is quite the anomaly anyway, so I’ve already spent half my time traveling around Iceland with friends. A friend of New York was in town and we went north to Skagafjordur. My best friend wanted to celebrate his birthday in one of Icelands boutique countryside hotels in Husafell so we did that, just after visiting Langjokull glacier with a Venezuelan photographer friend. I had a crazy horse in the north I had to ´deal´with (don´t worry, he´s still alive), and two horses I tried to ride home from Borgafjordur. We got more than half way, but then it started to get cold again and dad had to go to the hospital.

my Icelandic father, brother, and nephew

Now my horses are home, but not dad, but both my sisters will be visiting soon. Its weird to feel so much at home and be the only one at home (dads house is kind of out in the countryside of Reykjavik), and even weirder to have all this free time where I’m not traveling or moving or planning anything.

my horses at home

Needless to say, Ive gotten some rest and expanded my livelihood beyond the limits of my backpack, but of course theres already another trip in the works. Before my horse riding guiding season in Iceland starts, I figure I´ll have to get get my butt in saddle shape somewhere before. Anyone else want to come to Kyrgyzstan in June?

fun with Steve in Haugsnes

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.

Home Sweet Home

Its wonderful to come home after months of traveling. Not only have I been away from home, but also homeless, in a sense of the word. On the road I’m constantly seeking out accommodation, either as the guest at someone else’s home, or the couchsurfer on some strangers couch. Not that I’m complaining… but its nice to finally be home again.

the natural geothermal area of Kyrsuvik

the natural geothermal area of Kyrsuvik

being a tourist at Gullfoss

being a tourist at Gullfoss

At the moment ‘home’ is Dad’s house, in the ‘countryside’ (this has a better ring to it in Icelandic). My bed is actually a couch there, but its my couch so I love sleeping on it. I missed drinking tap water, ice cold straight from the source, and showering in hot water that kind of smells like rotten eggs. But its okay because its smells like home.

I love bathing in open air, in an assortment of pools and hottubs, even the ice-cold sea, because there’s never a steam room or hot shower too far away. The wind on my wet skin and ice under my toes doesn’t even bother me after I’ve stayed long enough in the hottest hottub, and sometimes I purposely dip in the cold tub or sea just to remember how much more I love the heat.

Iceland is still one of my favourite countries to travel, especially impromptu road trips

Iceland is still one of my favourite countries to travel, especially impromptu road trips

The sun doesn’t rise until after 11 am and sets around 3 pm… and the days have gotten shorter every day. Tomorrow will be the shortest day of the year, but I don’t mind, because that means every day after that until June 21 will be longer. Its cold, but not that cold, so I was happy to clean the snow off my car yesterday for the first time – it might mean that we’ll have a white Christmas, even though every day last week was warmer than in London, New York or Vancouver.

some random, friendly horses

some random, friendly horses

I’ve been home nearly a week now, and the only thing I’m still missing are the Northern Lights and my horses. Both are within reach, so I don’t feel homesick anymore, but it’s amazing how you can’t get enough of home even when you’re finally home. Oh home, sweet home.