Tag Archives: europe

street eats and countryside treats. a farewell to amsterdam

the next day sam & jenna were heading out to france for a little weekend getaway.  my time in amsterdam was coming to a close.  this was also the end of the scheduled part of my journey.  my theory at this point had been to head to germany and then just go from there, but i had made no arrangements and had no real plan of what to do.  i had previously reached out to another old college friend named daniela who has been living just outside of hamburg, germany and asked if she’d be interested in meeting up, and she had unexpectedly and excitedly agreed, but the timing wasn’t working out, so I had to make some decisions.  It had entered my mind that I could easily jump to paris for a few days and then continue on to germany to meet daniela for a time that would align more easily with her schedule, and the more i thought of it, it just made sense.

big red bikes in the dami delayed on booking anything, mainly because i wasn’t entirely sure what I actually wanted to do.  I had really enjoyed Amsterdam and honestly didn’t want it to be over yet, and sam and jenna had even graciously offered to let me stay in their flat while they were out of town, but i felt sort of awkward accepting someone’s hospitality in their absence.  esther-hanna had all but sold me on joining on one of her street food tours of amsterdam, but i was still struggling with the timing, especially if i was going to paris, i wanted to make sure i would be giving paris enough time to appreciate.  but then something great happened.

mark, from the expat gathering a few posts before, reached out to me via email and asked if i wanted to hang out over the weekend.  I had had such a great time with him previously that it was too good to pass up.  i could do the food tour with esther-hanna’s company, Hungry Birds, and then I could hang out with mark the following day.  I informed sam & jenna I’d be staying on for another day or two in their absence.

a cheese vendor in the albert cuyp market hands an eager customer her treats
a cheese vendor in the albert cuyp market hands an eager customer her treats

i will spare all the details of the food tour, lest i give up the trade secrets that Hungry Birds has to offer, but if you are planning on visiting amsterdam for any amount of time in the future, i heartily recommend this afternoon food tour (http://www.hungrybirds.nl).  it’s about 4 hours long, and starts near the famed albert cuyp market near downtown.  we sampled all manner of foods that I had never had the privilege of trying, and the flavors wandered from the spicy to the deliciously sweet, with even some good salty treats thrown in.  some of my favorite highlights include sampling the national dish of the dutch, raw herring (definitely not something I would have ever eaten on my own, and also definitely not for the faint of heart.  Think of sushi, but without all the window dressing of a roll, and a little more than your basic sashimi.  it’s also salty.  Do yourself a favor and force yourself to try it!), as well as a fantastic little cookie shop with fresh-out-of-the-oven treats right as we walked in. i also loved the tasty fried snacks “bitterballen” and “kroket.”  these things are addictive, and the perfect compliment to a beer while watching the game. i would get fat eating these things if i lived here.   but the best of the event was wandering back through an old
antique shop into the back courtyard where the owner served us an authentic private indonesian meal surrounded by a small flower garden.  trying getting that experience on your own.

esther-hanna enjoys a light snack along the hungry birds tour
esther-hanna enjoys a light snack along the hungry birds tour

esther-hanna expertly and enthusiastically led us through at least 9 or 10 different destinations with delightful treats at each stop, and by the end of the tour there wasn’t an empty stomach.  She brought a personal touch to the tour as well, as not only is she from Amsterdam, she’s also half Indonesian, so she had the background on many of the local spots and would share it with us while we enjoyed the eatables.  She is also on a  first name basis with all of the purveyors, so if they weren’t busy, the owner would often spend a little time with us to provide a friendly introduction or provide the backstory behind the business.  It was both inspiring and charming.

esther-hanna sneaks a sniff of a beer on the Hungry Birds food tour of amsterdam
esther-hanna sneaks a sniff of a beer on the Hungry Birds food tour of amsterdam
freshly baked cookies adorn a small bakery window in amsterdam
freshly baked cookies adorn a small bakery window in amsterdam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the next day i met up with mark.  i braved the bicycle lanes again to ride across town to mark and marije’s flat.  a couple other friends of theirs (and sam & jenna’s, of course) were already there:  charl and kim.  we quickly fell into the same agreeable and fun-loving pace of conversation that had been everpresent in the dinner party the weekend before.  charl and kim were also from south Africa (i’m beginning to wonder how many south africans live in amsterdam at this point), and both have a very fun and intelligent nature to them.  charl is a very smart guy with a well-informed wit to him and a light sarcasm that is far from lost on me.  if i remember correctly, i believe he runs his own dentistry practice, and also is apparently a very talented baker, though i never got to sample any of his confections.  meanwhile, kim has a sweet smile and a gentle nature about her.  she’s one of those people you can tell just doesn’t have a malicious bone in her body, and when someone is talking, she’s listening. i was immediately comfortable with them both.

sunset over the canal
sunset over the canal

that night we had a little barbecue up on the roof of mark & marije’s flat.  some tasty burgers mark had prepared, as well as some delicious side dishes that marije had whipped up, we ate well and then the boys again retreated back to the rooftop for mini cigars and whiskey.  we talked for awhile about all manner of things, as guys drinking whiskey and smoking cigars are known to do, the topics straying from science, sport, government, and obviously the differences in culture within all these topics.

one really cool thing we talked about was wine.  i’ve always loved wine, but I’ve never known much officially about regions or aging, or specific grapes or processes, etc.  i just know what i like.  mark was a little more educated than I was on the subject and shared some of his knowledge, particularly with spanish wine, which is something i’ve always been curious about.  i know a little about california and south america, as well as australia and new zealand, but the european wines are a little more daunting, so i’ve never ventured into those regions.  mark had mentioned he knew a little about this because one of his companies was doing some work with a vineyard in the region of priorat with a pretty prestigious wine, so he necessarily learned a little about it both by preparation and exposure.

charl had just returned from a long trip to canada, so he was a little exhausted and ended up falling asleep.  after mark and I joked briefly about messing with him a little, we did the respectful thing and layed a blanket on him so he wouldn’t catch a cold in the night air.  then mark opened up a really nice bottle of wine from the vineyard in priorat he had been talking about and poured me a glass.  I was shocked, but didn’t want to make a big deal out of it since he was offering (plus, i mean, i definitely wanted to try it).  it was fantastic.  i wish i could remember what it was, and if i am able to figure it out, i will update this post with the name.  but suffice it to say that the wine was perfect for the occasion and mark and i stayed up til 4am finishing the bottle and going back and forth with funny stories and experiences of things we’ve learned.  it was a great conversation, and i really valued it.  mark is a wealth of old-world wisdom that you just can’t find in a book and you definitely won’t find it on a tv show or a facebook post.  you have to go through things the hard way to get this kind of experience and wisdom, and i endlessly and curiously pestered him with questions about all kinds of things, seeking answers to what?  i don’t know, but you don’t come across people like that very often and i refused to let the opportunity be wasted.

when all was said and done, mark offered me one of their guest bedrooms, as it was simply too late to try and find my way back to sam & jenna’s place.  i graciously accepted.

windmills in the dutch countryside
windmills in the dutch countryside

the next day i was the last to rise.  everyone was ready to go, but to where?  i wasn’t sure.  marije and kim hopped on bikes and disappeared, while mark, charl, and I got into a car and headed for the dutch countryside.  we escaped amsterdam and sped down windy roads through green fields filled with happy cows, freely grazing without a care in the world.  It was another beautiful day in the netherlands.

we eventually found our way to a really cool barn-like structure where a small market was called lindenhoff.  the main room had farmers market quality vegetables everywhere.  the back room was filled with designer cheeses and wines. And finally, the side room was a giant walk-in freezer room, where whole cow and pig carcasses had been butchered and prepared for sale.  i’m not talking in such a fashion where you go to your grocery and see the packaged rib-eye cut in a cellophane parcel for you to take home.  i mean, the animal’s body was hanging from a transparent, well lit locker.  you point to what part of the animal you want to take home and feast on, and they cut that part off and prepare it and wrap it for to take home and feast.  i felt like i was in a scene from Dexter, the show.  this place was a lab and the butchers were all very friendly, excitable dutch people who expeditiously and efficiently used their massive torture instruments to expertly cut enormous pieces of choice meat for customers.  mark looked at me and said “what should we get?”

i’m no expert on meat.  but I can eat a steak.  i pointed at the largest, reddest, best marbled cut I could see.  It was easily enough steak for like 10 people.  mark didn’t even hesitate, and neither did the quirky dutchman behind the counter with the massive blade of death in his hand.

That night we ate like royalty.  corn on the cob, fresh vegetables, bread (europeans love bread. I can’t even try to describe it), good wine, and the biggest, juiciest, farm-fresh steak ever.  i went to bed extremely happy, both for the food i had consumed and the company i’d had the pleasure of keeping over the last 48 hours.  i could only pray that the next couple months could even be half as engaging as amsterdam had been.  the next day I said goodbye to amsterdam and sam & jenna (after they returned from dijon, france), and hopped on a train bound for paris.

 

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today’s song is stuck in my head and won’t get out.  i blasted this at full volume a lot when i was driving in iceland, on multiple occasions i almost crashed because i was rocking out so hard.  it’s an infectious electro dance beat from aussies “the griswolds,” and if this song is any indication of there talent, these guys could be in for a successful career.  give a listen and i dare you to not dance.  not possible. enjoy…

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welcome to amsterdam: land of low-key

After my quick jaunt of londontown, I hopped on a quick flight (quickest flight ever.  $55usd got me there in less than an hour on easyjet.com, compared to a 3 hour train ride for 180 euros. That’s a head scratcher) to Amsterdam to see my great friends sam & jenna.

I really didn’t know what to expect from Amsterdam.  Depending on who you’re talking to, it’s either a cultural icon that has produced 2 separate generations of groundbreaking visionary painters, as well as generations upon generations’ worth of knowledge and expertise on the topic of water engineering (seriously, the dutch were called upon by new Orleans for help to set up a better system after katrina.  Venice has also been ringing them in recent years for help with how to save their city), and a general sense of incredible business efficiency orrrrrr… they are a haven for those who are prone to all manner of sinful vice, like legal prostitution or legal marijuana, and just a general attitude of apathy toward how someone wants to live their life, making it perfect for someone who wants to pursue somewhat questionable moral behavior.

And there’s also the canals.  And the bicycles.  We’ll get to those in a minute.

My plane landed almost before I could even get comfortable on the flight.  I had zero chance to write (which is why there was a good week or so of silence on the blog. Sorry fans – all 3 of you who read this, including my mom and dad).  I breezed through customs and waiting right in the sunlight were my friends sam & jenna, looking just as fashionable as they always do.  Jenna with a sweet smile and a big hug waiting, and sam with a wry grin that almost makes you think he knows something he’s not telling you.  It had been almost 2 years to the day since they left Denver in a whirl, leaving almost before anyone had noticed when sam had jumped at a chance to work in Europe. They handed me a metro card and we hopped on a train.

i amsterdam I met jenna in my orientation group in college.  We went to a very small private Christian university in Arkansas called john brown university, and their orientation was obnoxiously like summer camp for church youth groups all across the US.  Don’t get me wrong, I really did enjoy the weird relay race games that included hula hoops and potato sacks and team cheers, but I also really wanted to think that I had finally broken free from my childhood and was now a “man,” and men don’t play childish games.  I also really wanted to look cool for the new college chicks I was meeting, and a “man” couldn’t possibly be bothered with such silly games.  I had a lot to learn.

Anyway, jenna and one other girl named Emily were the only cool people I really identified with in my orientation group, and we would remain acquaintances for awhile until a year later when sam would arrive, sweeping jenna off her feet and simultaneously removing a preciously sought commodity from the jbu dating scene.  Sam and I became fast friends when, according to multiple sources, I was apparently a bit of an intimidating character for all the RA’s at the jbu dorms, and the only person who was a regular “prayer request” item without an actual reason.  I guess I was a bit of a dick in those days.  Except sam got it.  From day one.  I was a caricature.  My behavior was a filtering mechanism for who I should and shouldn’t spend time on/with, and sam never batted an eye.  He could always reply with a quick retort, usually faster than I could even think what my next quip would be.  He’s probably better at the game than I am. Anyway, he was never intimidated by me and we got along famously, always on the same intramural sports teams, always down to sit around and shoot the shit.  Sam’s “in tune” and so is jenna.

Sam and jenna both have very strong business minds and would continually bail me out of anything that involved an accounting or finance exam or project, while I could usually be counted on to show up for a presentation of some sort and rock it with nearly no preparation.  I’m not sure if I should be bragging about that.

Sam & jenna were also two of the people who really helped me get thru some of my tough times when I moved to Denver and things didn’t really pan out for me the way I had hoped.  We played for a couple years on a competitive volleyball team (along with another close friend, leah) that would really be a therapeutic outlet for me.

They also have one of those really balanced relationships where both parties truly seek out the other, both challenging and helping in ways that just wouldn’t be possible for one to be as great without its counterpart. Suffice it to say that they truly are incredible people and I could never say enough about how I look up to them.

Anyway, sorry, you want to hear about Amsterdam, not some sappy love affair among two jerks living out a daily romantic fantasy in Europe.

We wasted no time at all.  As we pulled away on the metro, I noticed a tri-level parking structure thingy for thousands – literally thousands – of bicycles.  I’ve never seen so many in my life.  Until the tram pulled into sam and jenna’s neighborhood.  I stepped off the train and immediately almost lost my life to a gaggle of ruthless bicyclists barreling their way down the street to some life-or-death situation which I’m sure demanded their ability to run anyone off the road in their pursuit of whatever crime they were trying to stop or baby they needed to save from a burning house.  I quickly forgave them with a few choice phrases under my breath and followed my friends to their place.

The modest apartment boasts a fantastic top level view over a beautiful canal intersection with a nice hotel across the street with a patio across the way, providing a scenic backdrop that one might only see in dreams if they never ventured out.  I really didn’t have time to enjoy the view, however, as sam tossed me a set of keys to the apartment and beckoned me come follow him and the wife to go see my wheels for the next couple days.  We hopped on bikes and headed out

sam & jenna didn’t let me become intimidated by the biking system in the dam, they simply forced me into it immediately.  Luckily I had them to follow around, because I was a little on sensory overload trying to figure out when to go, when to stop, who had the right of way, when to watch for a train, when to watch for pedestrians, when to not ride straight into a canal (well, you should probably avoid that at all times, really).

But seriously, I think this is something that people are unaware of.  I knew people rode bikes here, but I didn’t realize how dominant it is as a transport system.  EVERYONE bikes here.  It’s inspiring.  Even bike city havens like Portland, Denver, and others in the US can’t even come close to how heavily adopted the dutch are into the biking culture.  And none of the bikes are these flashy contraptions for show that might show off in some fashion.  the bikes in Amsterdam are mainly for function, lest it gets stolen or someone accidentally kicks it into a canal, there’s no pragmatic reason to spend a boatload of cash on a bike so people just keep it straightforward.  in fact, if there’s a word i’d choose to describe the dutch in my experience, it’s just that:  pragmatic.

We arrived at a tiny cocktail bar that only fit a max of 12 (my estimate) people and had been in the family for over 7 or 8 generations called “the doctor” (or T’doktor, locally)  Seriously, this place is awesome.  I have no pictures of this place, you’ll just have to take my word for it.  Great cocktails, and the guy who runs it is this old man who is retired and does it for fun.  He makes time to talk to his local patrons, so when sam and jenna arrived, he came over to chat for about 5 minutes before shuffling on to his other guests.  We then headed over to some pizza place for a pie and some beers, and then eventually also went to “Winkel 43” (which just means “store 43.”  remember what i said about pragmatism?)  for some delectable apple pie, as jenna knows I never say “no” to dessert.

On our way home, the night air was crisp but not cold as we glided thru it, around tight turns down narrow cobblestone streets and up arched bridges over reflective canals, bouncing the moon’s light off the water and back up onto the old buildings around us.  Just before we reached the apartment, I had a sudden pronounced inkling that I was really going to like this place.

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this week for your musical arrangement, we have an obvious selection from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s new side project with his son on drums, “Tweedy.”   i love this song, and the recently produced music video directed by nick offerman is both quirky and hilarious.  listen to this whole album, it is excellent.  aptly titled “low key” for this blog post (okay, it’s the other way around), enjoy…

for godsakes, just take the tube…

noon on the thames, londonLondon went by quickly.  I really only had 3 days to spend in the city, as my first and last days were spent traveling.  I elected to take the tube as little as possible and try and walk everywhere. The thought was that I would see more of the city above ground than below, and this would really enable me to see what London was all about.  I don’t know why I fall in love with these romanticized ideas sometimes, but this plan proved less fruitful for my intentions and more painful for my legs. I walked so much that I couldn’t enjoy the sights as much because I was too busy compensating for the pain in my feet.

I don’t know why, but I hiked long 15 mile hikes in Iceland and my feet hurt less than this. I think it was because I was now navigating a concrete jungle, and since there was no real climbing or ascending, the muscles I was using were pretty limited.  Nevertheless, I soldiered on with the plan and set about exploring.

Unfortunately I made a very bad decision early on.  My second night, I decided to participate in a pub crawl organized by my hostel.  I figured it would be a good opportunity to meet some other travelers, go to some local pubs, and hopefully meet some local people.  I was wrong.  I met a fellow friendly American early on in the night and we had elected to stick together and be “wingmen” on the night.  We would help each other meet women.

Here’s why this was a bad decision:  this isn’t really why I came to Europe, mindlessly partying my ass off. Certainly I would not be upset in the slightest if I met some mysterious female from another country that swept me head over heels and convinced me never to return to the US, but going out “hunting” while I debaucherously imbibe drink after drink and carelessly attempt to meet some floozie over the obnoxiously loud music and ridiculous behavior of a bunch of drunks is certainly not an elegant or intelligent way to invest one’s time abroad.

I woke up the next morning, nursing a hangover and a marginal amount of shame that I had thrown away a night on irresponsible behavior with nothing redeemable to show for it.  I hadn’t met any cool locals, I didn’t have a feeling that I had really had a cultural experience, and I had probably spent a lot of money.  I had basically had a normal night in los angeles.  Which is why I moved to Denver.  Oh well, what the hell.  Old habits die hard.

I got up around noon and decided to be productive, I found a place called “the juice well” in soho and got a fantastic smoothie and decided to walk down to the thames river to see big ben, the house of parliament, the palace, and everything else I could find down there.  And luckily, right before I left, I checked my email and noticed that I had an email from andy, a Briton that I had met earlier in the year when I was in peru.  He wanted to meet for a pint after he got off work. Excellent.  I could make up for last night by actually hanging out with a local.

london street vendor

I met andy after I had settled into a hostel in the middle of the desert in central peru. I was hours from anything. There was an ocean and sand dunes, so you had to really be adventurous if you wanted to have fun out there, and I made the most of it. The hostel was an absolute dive, the room that my stepbrother and I stayed in was literally 4 sheetrock walls and no roof with 2 beds (thank god it never rained out there in the desert), and you could tell that not very many people stayed at this place on purpose.  The town was paracas, and it was clearly a place that you stop on your way to somewhere else if you haven’t budgeted the proper amount of time to get there.  One of the nights andy and his girlfriend lou had been hanging out in the front lobby at night and I had wanted to make some traveler friends, so I took my laptop and made my way to a table and started editing video, hoping that I could get into a conversation.  That night there were a group of rowdy Brazilians whom had brought their own alcohol and wanted to party.  They came into the lobby and were hoping to recruit some followers, but they were met with harsh looks and annoyed responses.  They weren’t welcome among this crowd.

It was actually amazing, because you could see something slowly and then quickly happen to the room.  There were the two brits, then the two americans (stepbrother gert and myself), then a nice swiss couple, a quiet, intimidating german girl, a canadienne, an Argentinian, and I think one or two other forgettable europeans. Every single person in the room had seen this scene unfold before.  The obnoxious partiers come in and take over the atmosphere and the quiet vibe that you had going becomes lost and you have to retreat to your dorm room for peace in quiet (where you’re likely just greeted with some snoring instead. Not sure what’s worse). But this time, slowly each person in this room realized that they were in fact the majority this time, and that if we banded together we could scare them away.  And scare them we did.  And after they left, a few of us started laughing and talking, and before you knew it, the whole room of people was trading stories and friendly conversation.

If you’ve read previous posts of mine, you know that I am particularly drawn to these types of magical  interactions.

Andy and Lou’s story was the most fascinating. Andy had grown to dislike his job and was a little disenfranchised.  He needed change, but somewhat luckily enough for him, the employment had come to an end and he had a modest severance package.  He and Lou could consider buying a home together (or similar) or they could do something crazy and go backpack south America for 7 months.  They chose the latter.  Andy’s story would eventually be one of my sources of inspiration for my own journey.

I met andy near “monument,” near the financial district. I showed up about 10 minutes late but he didn’t say anything of it.  We shouldered our way up to the bar and ordered a pint.

Two things I’ve noticed about the drinking culture here:

  • Irony: you travel halfway around the world and resolve to try for the most authentic local experience you can, and you immediately see that half the beers on tap are from Colorado. Go figure
  • This is a true drinking culture. I thought coloradans liked to drink, but they could learn a thing or two from Londoners. A Briton gets off work and goes straight to a pub. Not like a pub in the US.  I mean a pub. They serve beer there and that’s it. No food (or if they do it’s just fish & chips or similar variations), hardly any seating, and you’d have to search to find cocktails behind the bar.  Not only that, these places are ALL PACKED. The patrons are all spilling out into the streets (something you can’t do in the US typically), just hanging around with a pint in their hand, talking away.  All of them. The entire city is at the pub every day from 5pm – 9pm.  And then everything SHUTS DOWN.  Every bar in the city is closed by 11 during the week. It’s crazy.

nights at the london pub

Andy is another one of those individuals that’s “in tune.”  He is a genuinely good person, with good humor and a good nature, and he cares about important things, and he has good perspective.  He works for a nonprofit.  Lou is an artist of some sort, I’m not really sure, just from what I can derive from her facebook posts of cool fashion shows or music events.  They’re the kind of people you want in your life because they bring color and substance to it and they don’t just regurgitate things they’ve heard on the tv.

Andy and I joked about all manner of things before eventually starting into a more serious conversation about life and adjusting after a major journey like he’d gone on, and the one that I was on right now.  We talked about the difference between Americans and Britons, we shared ideas and observations all across the board.  One of the interesting theories that he shared is that he thinks that americans tend to obsess more about their sense of identity and purpose and meaning in life than brits.  He said that brits tend to not worry about those types of things so much, whereas americans can’t not think about it sometimes.  A fascinating theory, and I jokingly told him he had me pegged.

We talked about the narcissism that is seemingly being driven by social media, that digital connection is luring people into a hibernation that prevents authentic interaction and exploration and curiosity.  We then laughed at the irony of meeting previously in the middle of some random desert and then connecting on facebook, and now nine months later we are criticizing the very medium that made this interaction even possible.

Eventually we parted ways, but not before I realized that andy had saved my London trip.  Outside of that meeting, I felt incredibly lonely during my time in London, even with so much history and culture.  I really struggled to find meaningful connection with people amongst so many options and opportunities. Every passerby was a potential new friend, but I couldn’t break through.  I began trying to make eye contact with everyone on the street, but everyone was too busy commuting or being on their mobile phone.  Even in the pubs, people were busily chatting in their cliques.  I couldn’t get in.

This isn’t a knock on the Londoner culture, but more a realization of modern technology and also of the timing and brevity of my visit.  I realize I was only there for 4 nights and I was there during the week, not on the weekend.  Luckily I likely will return there before I return to the states, so my travels in the UK are not over.  but andy gave me a window to experience and connect in the way that i wanted to.  i didn’t just want to be a tourist, and he helped me escape that.

oh, and one sidenote, andy recommended a fantastic museum that i will pass on to you:  the john soane house.  john soane is one of the chief architects of london, and his influence is widespread and obvious once your eyes are open to it.  for example, he designed the red telephone booths that you see all over london.  this museum is actually just his house, and it is a fantastical building.  known as the master of architectural space and light, soane specialized in efficiently managing small spaces with taste and style, and it is very evident in the way he designed his home.  no space is wasted, and he also has a very eclectic and eccentric art collection.  and it’s a free museum.  trust me, it’s worth your time.

and lastly, you’re noise pollution for the weekend…

minding the gap: welcome to london

My final reflections on Iceland I think were pretty obvious.  A magical place of outdoor wonder and beauty beyond compare.  A place with colder temperatures but warmer experiences, it sometimes felt like i may as well have been walking on the moon. I often felt that the Icelandic culture had a quirky sense of humor, but it was not always easily detectable, as the personalities of the local people I met were usually reserved and on an “even keel.”  This could probably be misinterpreted by travelers as “cold” or “unwelcoming,” but I don’t think that is the case.  I think the culture is just a little more straightforward and practical than what an American might be used to.  Their sense of humor is quirky and playful, if you can get to that level of comfort with a local.  The food wasn’t always mindblowing, but I never had a meal that made me lose my appetite.  Plus, you don’t go to Iceland for the food.  You go there to get outside, to see breathtaking spectacles of natural, untouched, ever-changing elemental earth.  I met quite a few people in Reykjavik who had 3 or 4 day weekends in Iceland planned with no intention of venturing outdoors and were content to just explore the city.  If this could be you, let me save you the trouble: don’t bother.  You will be doing Iceland wrong.  Bring a pair of hiking boots and at least take a guided bus tour of the “golden circle,” which takes you around the pingvellir park, the famous geyser, and beautiful waterfall gullfoss.  Even if you’re not outdoorsy, you can handle this 5 hour loop by bus with minimal physical activity.  Trust me.  Also, sack up and stop being such a baby.  Learn to go outside and appreciate the world you live in!

here are a couple final pics from iceland, taken by a writer/photographer friend i made on the eyjafjallajökull volcano hike, named jonathan vandevoorde.  a very talented and fun guy to hike with, and very knowledgeable about getting outside and back into the wild…

2014_IJsland_099 courtesy of jonathan vandevoorde

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London would prove to be an entirely different beast. I think it definitely tested my resolve and emotions in different ways, especially because it would prove to be the polar opposite of Iceland for me in experience.

When I arrived in London, I was a little weary, but I still had a lot of excitement built up.  I had always been interested in the history of this great city and had always wanted to visit. I landed at heathrow, collected my bag, breezed thru customs and then began stumbling around trying to figure out how to locate the correct subway train, colloquially known as “the tube,” to get to my hostel.  I am supremely convinced that new york has the most chaotic and difficult subway system (but also the most useful when you consider how many people it services each day and how effective it is) in the world, so I felt confident that if I could figure out that one, I could figure out London’s. I purchased my ticket and wandered around a few tunnels before finding the appropriate platform to board my train.  I had around 20 minutes to wonder what to expect and hope to god that I could wander aimlessly to find my room in the soho neighborhood.  Unfortunately this time I was navigating completely blindly; I had no map, no gps, no navigation, and only a vague memory of the google map I had tried to commit to memory before my flight left from Iceland.

The longer I rode the train, the more I began to worry about how I was actually going to find my hostel.  It was getting late.  It was now 10pm, and while London isn’t exactly Iraq, there most certainly are areas you don’t want to be stuck in after dark.  And I didn’t know how to avoid them. Furthermore, I didn’t even know what stop I needed to exit on.  I had simply guessed when I was looking at the map, but once on the train, I realized it wasn’t that simple.  I didn’t know the directions from any of the 5 train stations that were seemingly equidistant to my hostel, and to get to all of them I would need to switch train lines.  I didn’t know if that meant I would have to buy another train ticket, but I wasn’t interested in paying more so I resolved to just get off at the next stop and find my way on foot.

i started off on my obstinate pace and immediately walked down the wrong tunnel, going the wrong way to exit. great start.  i turned around and decided to just follow everyone else.  as i was laughing at the irony of finally being back in a country where I spoke the language, and still not being able to get around adequately, i had been slowly ascending the stairs when I was met with a blinding light that knocked me back, honestly putting me off balance on the stairs with my heavy backpack eagerly trying to drag me end over end back down the flight of stairs.  I regained my footing and looked back up:  I had just exited at the Piccadilly circus station in the middle of what I could compare to times square in nyc.  Bright lights, theaters with rolling marquees, people hustling and bustling by, I had randomly chosen to exit the train at seemingly one of the busiest intersections in London.  Welcome to England, brandon.

I wandered and wandered, no longer caring about whether or not I was going to find my hostel.  I was too busy staring at the lights.  Watching the frenzied pace at which people were scurrying down the streets, in a rush to get to or from somewhere, phone in hand and held high enough to be able to read their facebook notifications and simultaneously use their periphery to prevent themselves from an introduction with a pole or telephone booth (yep, there’s still plenty of red telephone booths around London. very cool) or oncoming car. it was actually quite impressive. Not that I was envious. i listened to all the conversations around me in 3 second increments, picking up whatever I could before the person passed me and the story was gone forever. But the dialect, the british accent, made everything sound so much more elegant. Everything seemed more interesting, no matter how mundane the tidbits of conversation I could pick up were.

Eventually, after a couple hours of stumbling aimlessly, my pack was getting heavy and my shoulders beginning to hurt.  I asked a couple for directions and eventually settled down in my new home for the next 4 nights.

Why Europe?

last night i was having a drink with someone and we were having this wonderful wandering conversation, drifting from one topic to the next without any specific direction or goal.  it was a refreshing interaction for me, and one that surprised me.  over the last 5 years i’ve allowed myself to fall into a sort of manic style of conversation that you get when you’re trying to arrive directly to the point of the interaction.  you cull the talking points, distill them down to actionable directives, and then you try to do the same for whatever your takeaways from the meeting should be so you know what productive actions should come from the interaction,  all in the interest of saving time and boosting efficiency.  this is extremely important in the corporate world, but the effect this habit produces on the rest of your interactions is similar to removing the color from a painting;  it’s all still there, but you’ve likely lost the very thing that made it beautiful.

as we were talking, we aimlessly drifted to the topic of my upcoming travels. the type of trip i’m taking tends to draw a general routine of questions to which i have my normal “canned” responses.  but this time around i was asked a different question that no one had asked me yet:  “why europe?”

the funny thing is, when someone says they’re going to europe, there’s never a question of “why?”  among most modern, intelligent, forward-thinking americans. i think it’s just generally understood that most people would like to go to europe some day, so when someone says they are going, we just sort of look at them and think “man, that lucky bastard is taking my vacation.”  and then we carry on with the conversation and communicate how jealous we are and how excited we are for them.  but the person i was speaking with likes to play devil’s advocate and challenge opinions to test the strength (something i usually do) of statements, so when i said europe, she challenged me. not in any rude way, but the implication was that europe might be an easy destination for someone to go on a soulsearch, and if i was indeed looking for experiences and answers to specific questions mentioned earlier in the conversation (something i won’t go into detail in this post) then my mission might be better served on a different continent.  and it is a good point.

but the fact is that there is a lot more than history and art that i hope to explore in europe.  and europe is actually something that i’ve passed up multiple times for other destinations, other relationships, other opportunities that in retrospect never really amounted to much but they seemed like the responsible thing to do. the fact is the older you get the more reasons you can find for not doing something outrageous (in my case, going on an extended backpacking trip), and so you handcuff yourself to duty and responsibility, and you find other distractions or other things to spend your money or time on that are easier and safer.  And it’s not until much later in your life that you start counting your regrets, and often by that time, it’s too late.

so part of this journey is reclaiming something that i’ve wanted to do for 10+ years.  i want to see where the civilized world started, and what people are doing with it now.  i want to see how people live their lives, how they appreciate the things around them, or even learn what  they appreciate.  i want to learn, i want to be overwhelmed, i want to be the stupidest guy in the room.  i want to watch a play in Shakespeare’s Globe. i want to stare at a real Michelangelo ceiling and be crushed by a true labor of love.  i want to wander a Prague street after drinking a few too many pilseners.  i want to trek all day to see an active icelandic volcano and be awestruck by the naked power that doesn’t even care if i exist. i want to dance like a fool (and look like one too) in barcelona.  i want to see the things that were in my history books and on my tv, and i don’t want to see them from a facebook post.  i want to experience it all in the 1st person.

and somewhere along the way, i hope it changes me.  i leave for Iceland in 6 days.  i do not have a return flight.