Home for the Holidays

There’s no place like home, especially for the holidays, and even more so when you’ve got two places to call home. It sure was festive to be in the Holy land in the days leading up to Christmas, but arriving in Reykjavik on December 23rd to a white winter wonderland and -10°c couldn´t have felt better. The days were super short but the nights were lit up with Christmas lights, northern lights and starry skies. I stuffed my belly with traditional Icelandic Christmas food – my favourites being delicious smoked and boiled lamb leg and home-baked flat bread (´laufabrauð´ or leaf bread – try it!). Some other delicacies I avoided, like rotten sting ray (stay away from ´skata´), but of course i stuffed my face with Icelandic hot dogs, appelsin og malt (a mix of non-alcoholic malt and orange soda) and regular flatbread that´s best for breakfast with sliced lamb.

the brightest part of the day in Dad´s valley

the brightest part of the day in Dad´s valley

I flew to Seattle on Boxing day, where me and my best friend Mike celebrated by finishing half a dozen bottles of assorted whiskies in 2 nights. Then it was up to Vancouver to have a sister day and celebrating my older sister not getting married on December 29th (yes, it was a momentous occasion, the guy is a creep and doesn´t deserve even the small toe of Kristjana´s left foot). Grandma and mom have turned into very similar grumpy old women, but I guess it happens to most mothers when their kids don´t stick around to keep them young and cool or in the loop.

a friends dog at his cabin

a friends dog at his cabin

But anyway, this isn´t a food blog and my mouths watering, but I´ll emphasize again how refreshing, clean, crisp and amazing it was to have a really cold, wintery christmas, making the inside of any home or shop (and outdoor hottubs and public swimming pools too) feel ultra cozy and the festive feeling of evening last almost the whole day. I celebrated with Dad and his neighbour, where we mostly just exchanged chocolates as gifts, but I was thrilled to find some Christmas cards addressed to me in the mail box and small gifts from friends come popping up when they made appearances.

NYE crew keeping it cozy in Whistler

NYE crew keeping it cozy in Whistler

New Year´s was a real highlight, a reunion of UBC classmates in even snowier, cozier, whiter Whistler where we house partied like we were still freshmen. We lit firecrackers inside and outside of my friends cabin and drank way too many bad shots of bad tequila and gentleman´s jack, which makes a gentleman out of noone. My hangover lasted 2 days, which is a sign you´re getting old, but 3 days later I´m on a plane to the Caribbean to heal all wounds and work on my tan. A week of temperatures below zero is about all I can handle anyway.

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A wedding in MSP and an engagement in YVR

I don’t know why, but it’s always more fun to book one way or multi-city flights than just a simple return ticket. Instead of making a trip to Minneapolis for a wedding and then another trip to Vancouver for an engagement party, it was better (and cheaper) to fly: Keflavik – MSP, MSP-Seattle (drive to Vancouver) YVR – Edmonton (5 hour lay over), and Edmonton back to Keflavik.

 

the newlyweds

 My favourite Canadian Clio lives in Minneapolis where she just finished her Phd in something smart and intelligent like clinical child psychology. She celebrated the best way I can think of – she got married to her beau at the same time! It was a small wedding in city hall, only 7 or 8 in attendance, and then 150 friends got together on the weekend for a reception party. My plus one was Ursula who I had just surprised 2 weeks before in DC for her birthday, and now she flew out to MSP to join in on the festivities. We couchsurfed with a swiss guy in his 1920’s house, and took one touristy day to go to a major league baseball game – the Minneapolis Twins against the Toronto Blue Jays. It was my first live game and Im still not sure how it works, but I think I cheered mostly for the Canadians.

 

first row at the ball game

 Then I was off to Seattle, where my photographer and arctic loving friend Mike lives. We went out to my favourite restaurant, the Spaghetti factory, and spent the night catching up. The next morning it was a short 2.5 hour drive to mom’s house in Chilliwack. There we feasted on home made curries and roti and bathed in the hottub and sunshine for a couple days. My older sister Kristjana held an engagement party for her and Michael, the fiance I hadn’t met until then. All our family met all of his and we ate some more homecooked food – I don’t realize how much I miss it til I have it again.

 

my sisters engagement cake

 The way home was Vancouver to Keflavik through Edmonton, a city I’ve never been to and only know a couple people. One of them is Caleb, a guy I lived with in student dorms in Montreal 6 years ago for french immersion. I introduced him to a girl back then who he dated ever since and now lives with, and we all met for an afternoon of brunching and beers on some patios. It was a warm and sunny day, with those fluffy white Simpsons clouds speckled through the sky, and I couldn’t belive how flat and wide the plains were. I guess it really is true that you could see your dog running away for days if he tried. 

the flat praries under some Simpsons clouds

Vancouver, as a tourist

Everytime I come back to Vancouver, after more and more time has passed since I lived there and called it home, I feel more and more like a visitor and less and less like a local. People even ask me where my accent is from, and I wonder if I should admit to being Canadian or just play the Iceland card. The friends I have (or had) become fewer and fewer as time goes by, as the UBC 2008 alumni have moved back home or onto other cities with bigger things. Visiting UBC campus is nostalgic in many ways, since the university is always a sacred memory of the happiest and hardest years of your adult-forming life. But then you feel like an outsider there, and atleast 10 years older than all the youthful faces who have replaced you and stolen the constantly under-construction campus to become their own happy place. There are new buildings and faculties and programs sprouting up year after year, and its always tempting to try and find one where I would still fit in.

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cherry blossom arches

Atleast Vancouver city doesnt change much, all the familiar streets, cafes, sushi restaurants, and shops that I crave when isolated in tiny Reykjavik. There are still a few new buildings and unfamiliar store fronts, but not enough to know for sure that they’re new to everyone or just new to me who had never noticed them before. I stayed at the Pan Pacific hotel, which has a huge, new Cactus Club restaurant right on the water beside it. I had to go there to see what it was like and pay my dues, since I have Cactus Club to thank for my first waitressing job, and the main supplier of my travel income for 2007-2008.

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bear crossing!

April is the most beautiful time to visit Vancouver, since the trees start blossoming, all at slightly different intervals, so that you can always find a street corner or park covered in various shades of pink and white petals. There are cherry, plum, crab apple and even Magnolia trees that colour every spring pink, and Vancouverites celebrate them with an annual Cherry Blossom Festival. But the best thing about a flowery spring in Vancouver is that its still a snowy time in the mountains, and spring skiing in Whistler and Vancouver mountains stays open as late as May 1. I didn’t make it snowboarding, but I spent enough time in the outskirts of Vancouver to throw myself into an icy lake (felt like home, Iceland-home that is), and see a family of black bears dizzily crawling out of hibernation.

Vancouver is nestled between the Pacific ocean and its many islands to the west, a towering mountain range and ever-green forests to the north, the lush countryside of the Fraser Valley to the east, and of course the American border only a few km’s south. This kind of location can’t be beat by any other American city, but the damn rain always turns out to be a major party-pooper. If it wasn’t for the gray, rainy weather, which i basically a 7-8 month long season, Vancouver would truly be the most livable city in the world.

 

My Little Sister's Wedding

I grew up with 2 sisters, one older and one younger, raised by my mother and grandmother, sandwiched in a testosterone-dry family. We were raised slightly strict and conservative, with men out-lawed from getting too close to any of us. My mother remarried and divorced in a quick 2 years, and other than that the only men coming around were uncles and ‘friends’ I could never admit were boyfriends. Yet somehow we all knew Ruth, the baby of the family, would be the first to get married. We knew that when she was only 4 years old, still attached to my mothers umbilical cord, and grew up the most ‘domestic’ of us all, baking with my grandma and learning all my mother’ secret recipes.

the beautiful bride

Ruth went to Trinity Western University, a private school nearby my moms home town. She started dating a boy in her second year, and then we all started predicting when the wedding would be. It was still a light-hearted joke after they had been dating a couple years, but before we expected it, they were engaged.

After an 8 month engagement, finishing all their final exams, and graduating from University, they were married a week later. We weren’t surprised, but still scratching our heads with the unusual feeling of marrying off the baby in the family. Me and my older sister, unmarried and childless, were the maids of honour, watching in awe as our youngest sibling out-aged us somehow, as a youthful beautiful bride already starting her life with a man after all these years of being an integral part of our women-only family.

the original hen house

They were married  in a beautiful spring ceremony on an apple orchard in Kelowna, at the grooms home in the interior of British Columbia. My sister wore a $50 dress she found at a bride-swap fair, and layered it with lace from another second-hand gown the grooms sister found for her. She wore a belt around the smallest part of her waist, he hair down and curled, with lacy flats she bought somewhere for a few dollars, and looked like a million bucks. She glowed from the tips of her manicured fingers to the ends of her pursed lips, and her colourful bouqet made from an arrangement of flowers picked from the garden couldn’t distract you from her smiling face.

the getaway car

The wedding ceremony was simple; my mom catered it with home-cooked food, only a few people made speeches, and with no alcohol or dancing, it was over by 9pm. We watched the newlyweds drive away in a blue convertible 70’s Volkswagen bug, dragging behind them cans and balloons, and couldn’t help but feel a pang of loss at the sight of our little sister being the first chick to fully flee our home nest.

2 weeks in Vancouver

As of late, my travel plans have been slightly more spontaneous than usual, since I was expecting to move to France, then substituted that with a euro trip for 3 months, then cut it 6 weeks short to go to Miami where I had 2 unrelated obligations. Then from Miami I basically flipped a coin between St. Croix or New York.

Heads. New York. But I didn’t really have anything to do in New York. But I did just find out my little sister got engaged, so I used it as a stop-over to get back to Vancouver. I could have just changed planes at JFK, but a few days in New York never hurts. I had some relatives, a best friend, and a friend who just visited me in Iceland who owed me some tourguiding hospitality. He lives in the financial district, a stone’s throw away from the World Trade Center Site, and works near Grand Central Station. My other friend there is a male supermodel. Both very clichéd Manhattan careers I’d say.

So Vancouver. I lived there for nearly 4 years but every year that passes since, going back to Vancouver makes me feel more and more like a visitor. With every visit, I know fewer people living there, as all my UBC friends graduate, get jobs, or marry elsewhere. Walking around the UBC campus makes me feel like an old creeper. Downtown even seems less familiar, with all the construction and development disguising familiar streets.

I don’t miss the rain, the long, dark, dreary nights, or how expensive it is to drive (parking, gas, insurance). But I miss the cosmopolitan feel of the city, the vibrant, young, international mix of faces you see, not to mention noticeably beautiful faces. I love the cheap, easily-accessible and readily available sushi everywhere. I love Stanley park, English Bay and the surrounding, snow-topped mountains. I really miss Whistler – the feeling of riding the gondola to the very top and knowing you can take up to 2 hours to get back down without riding another chairlift.

I spent my 2 weeks there wedding dress shopping with my sisters. Ruth didn’t know what colour her bridesmaid dresses should be until our second outing, and still came out with a slightly indecisive choice. “Off-white. Or cream. With or without a pattern. But no one should wear the same dress.” We didn’t get very far with that for me or my older sisters dress hunt, but she managed to find her dream wedding dress. It was a whopping $1200 plus 12% HST and $200 for a belt wrap. She didn’t feel right about the price, so instead bought 2 wedding dresses she liked a little less each, but in total only cost $150, and together, could tailor into something perfect.

During the day, every day, I worked with an old-time friend and long-time professional colleague, Yashar. He hired me full time to work as his campaign volunteer leader in the North Vancouver municipal elections. This job consisted of me sitting between 8 – 10 hours a day in an office where only other Persians worked, organizing his Farsi-speaking only parents to lead volunteer events, and then distributing a handful of about another 20 volunteers (also, all Persian) for random, miscellaneous jobs to help market Yashar as a city councilor. I realized how much I love Persian hospitality, and how alienating it is to be the only person not speaking the common language of your immediate surroundings.

I also spent quite a bit of time with a traveler friend named Murray, who calls me the girl version of him. We seem to lead parallel lifestyles, both insatiably wanderlusting, and irresponsibly quick to pack up and go at the flip of a coin. We lamented about how hard it is to keep relationships, but how inconsequential this seems when we realize how much we appreciate the lasting friendships travel has given us instead. We empathized how lonely travel can get, but without referring to any negative connotations of the meaning of the word. We wondered out loud how we stay so busy doing nothing, and joked about the endless moneytree that people seem to believe feed our travel funds. But, we concluded that our lives are somehow less expensive and more sustainable than our alternative life-options, and also decided we weren’t abnormal, since 2 people living the same lifestyle simply defines a different normality.

 

Roadtrip Westcoast & Craigslist Rideshare

After I spent a day in Miami, I flew to SFO to start a week long road trip from the Bay to Vancouver, B.C. I wanted to visit friends and family from here and there, since that´s what people like to do during the holidays. Me and Steve used his Subaru as a Craigslist carpooling tool and rideshared parts of our drive there and back. We decided to skip the boring, direct I5 and take all of Northern California along the much longer but prettier highway 101, and also thought it would be a good opportunity to stop along the way in Mendocino county for some wine tasting. We had Phil and Kai, both good-hearted travelers not really from any one place in the states, who drove the whole day with us to Oregon, and thankfully knew how to drive a stickshift so that some of us could taste as much as we wanted without spitting.

all my favourite people from Portland

We visited two California Organic Certified wineries, Yorkville Cellars and Barra of Mendocino, and while I still can’t admit that I can taste the difference in organic versus non-organic, you still somehow feel better supporting a more sustainable, less environmentally-damaging winery just because some California certification schema says that they are. Wierd, but true. We also stopped at a famous microbrewery in Boonville, California. Anderson Valley Brewing company makes almost 20 different varieties of beer at their tastehouse, and their Winter Solstice Seasonal ale, my personal favourite, is super scrumptious. Although, it hardly compared to the limited edition, seasonal, 11%alc. Abyss, by Deschutes brewery in Oregon; Ryan described it as God walking down your throat in velvet slippers.

Sienna Ridge Estate Winery

We dropped Kai off in Eureka, and then Phil drove the rest of the way through a grove of Giant Redwoods, weaving along Grants Pass after we entered Oregon. He needed to be dropped off in Ashland, and the person who he was staying with offered us to stay the night there too since it was getting late. Phil got the couch at his friends place, and we got Cadbury Cottage, a beautiful 2-storey, cozy house to spend the night. It’s rented out for hundreds of dollars per night during the very famous Shakespeare festival that happens in Ashland every summer, but I guess in December when noone uses it they can afford to let random craigslist rideshare friends stay a complimentary night 🙂

winter time in wine country

 We drove the next day through all of Oregon state, arriving in Portland where a group of amazing friends I visit regularily live. We stayed with my former semester at Sea classmate, Ryan, and his girlfirend, and some other Semester at Sea or University of Oregon related friends came over for a fun and drunken Friday night party. The next day we all crawled out of bed too early for anyone to be happy, all with a moderate to severe hangover, but still managed to make it to breakfast together before noon since I convinced my very understanding friends we had to be back on the road by noon. We drove another 5 hours through the state of Washington, stopping at a couple of reststops that offered well-needed coffee and cookies. They are given out by different church groups doing missionary work, sometimes by heavily tattooed elders from Christian Motorcycle Clubs with cups that say “Salvation is free, just like this coffee.”

somewhere in the middle of Oregon wine and sheep country

 

We made it to Vancouver to visit my mom and sisters, and gorged for the next few days on Mom´s home cooking and specialty christmas treats. On the drive back down, we had two craigslist people again, this time from Seattle to Oregon, but they were much younger, a guy and a girl, and had no luggage at all. Sounds suspicous, but I almost felt like we were more dangerous than them. We spent that night in Eugene, Oregon, with a friend of mine, Jesse, who works at June. Its a restaurant/bar and we stopped to have some more delicious micro-brew, local beer and stouty christmas ales. We spent most of the night talking about couchsurfing since he and his girlfriend are going to Venezuela and Colombia soon and want to start using the site; of course I gave it the highest recomendation, helped him get his profile completed, and gave him 2 suggested hosts in Colombia to make sure he doesn’t change his mind.

Jackson Wellsprings near Ashland, Oregon

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For the last leg of the drive, we didn’t find any craigslist rideshares, so we took our time stopping in Jackson Wellsprings, a hotspring spa that did good for our stiff backs and sore buts from all that driving. We also stopped at Sienna Ridge Estate, a winery right in the middle of Oregon visible from the I5, in an old, restored farmhouse. Our wine pourer was this lovely old man whose name I can´t remember, but it started with G and he’s only one of two people who work there since somedays, noone even comes to taste business is so slow. If you go there, ask him how his sister is, since he was on his way north to visit her at the Vancouver General Hospital the very next day.

I'll call him Mr. Sienna Ridge

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Even though we had no rideshares, we did pick up a crazy hitchiker, who had the most obnoxious, raspy New Yorker voice, and didn’t once stop talking (with excessive cursing) in the 20 miles we drove him. Anymore than that and I think I would have started to regret picking him up but instead it just makes yet another great story to tell from our roadtrip.