Tag Archives: london

prost! austria, part 1: elegance and romance in vienna

autumn trees stand naked in vienna
autumn trees stand naked in vienna

our arrival into vienna was a dreary affair with rainclouds, which actually wasn’t all too unwelcome of a sight considering the luck i had been having on the trip so far.  everywhere i had been so far had produced sunny, cloudless weather with the extremely occasional afternoon shower.  so when a little rain settled overhead, i wasn’t too bothered by it, especially when it only lasted for a day.

again avoiding the hostel circuit, robert and i had opted for an airbnb apartment in a nice part of the city near all the

key areas downtown and in a safe location.  it was actually my first time to use airbnb and i must say, it is truly a brilliant concept.  it really takes the middle man out of hospitality, allowing property owners to rent out their properties to tourists for cheap, and providing a plethora of options to the traveler.  i really like this idea, and if i am traveling with others in the future, i will definitely be using airbnb again.

vienna would prove to be a tricky destination for me.   not because i didn’t like it, and not because i had any bad experiences there, but for reasons much simpler.  i just really didn’t connect with it.  vienna is a stunningly beautiful country, rich with tradition and culture and art and architecture to match even the finest destinations in the world.  but i think that may have been part of the problem for me, is that maybe it was just a little too rich for me.

i realize it sounds like i’m being a little diva-ish and unreasonable but stay with me here, the point i make here is not

st stephens cathedral vienna
st stephens cathedral vienna

one of criticism of the amazing city of vienna, but merely one of personal preference.  when i travel, i like to get a little dirt under my fingernails.  not too much dirt, mind you (lest you see me tromping around the streets of iraq), but enough to where i feel like i didn’t simply see all the museums and statues in the city and then move on.  i like to venture down backstreets and find old buildings that look like they’ve seen better days.  i like to find old and new faces standing around, that make you unsure if you can trust them, i like to find graffiti that isn’t “commissioned” but is still creative nonetheless.

these things weren’t always easy to find in vienna.  instead, vienna was incredibly well maintained, a beautiful marvel of perfect architecture, art, and living all fused together.  the streets were remarkably clean at all times, the citizens always well dressed and put together, as if they were all ready should a last minute business meeting be called.  the vienna sculpturesstreets were impeccably manicured, cobblestones carefully placed, graffiti usually painted over or removed, vienna is just a perfectly high class city, and unfortunately for me, i am just not in a high-class state of mind in my current place in life.

and to illustrate the difference with which someone can find within a destination, one could look at how both robert
and i thought of vienna after we left.  after 4 days, i was slightly bored and ready to leave, yet robert was in love with the city and wouldn’t have minded staying longer (in fact he would return later after we went separate ways later in the trip).  robert explored more of the city than i, and each day when we would meet back at the apartment, he would always have recommendations of great places i needed to check out that he had discovered.  sometimes i would check them out, and sometimes i wouldn’t.  it just wasn’t a place that had truly excited me at the time.  i’m sure someday i will return here and be completely blown away by everything my eyes were closed to at the time.

regardless, it was still a beautiful place to visit.  one of the recommendations i had gotten from robert was a royal palace a little outside the main area of town called schonbrunn palace.  i hopped on a train and entered the property. not really wanting to spend any money, i found that the gardens were not only free, but quite expansive.  i spent the afternoon just wandering around and snapping photos.  i suppose it would be a wonderfully romantic place to have a picnic with a significant other, but i enjoyed myself thoroughly as i walked the gardens and up the hill overlooking the estate and the rest of the city.  it really is a magnificent place.

one night, i had been very keen on finding some sort of connection with the high classed fanciness of the city, so i had searched for some expensive cocktail lounges.  i settled on a place called “ebert’s” on gumpendorfer st.  i got as dressed up as i could (i only had 1 collared shirt packed on this trip, so i wasn’t exactly prepared for a city like vienna, nor was i really “dressed to impress”) and then trekked across town and located the establishment.

on a relatively uninteresting block with no other places open at that time of night, ebert’s stood out with large windows and curtains drawn back halfway, allowing you to glimpse inside and see the poshly decorated interior.  knowing i was still a little underdressed for the place with my nikes, jeans, and untucked black collared shirt, i straightened my collar, took a breath, and then entered confidently.

i looked around and noted first that the place looked even nicer once you were inside, and then noted that there was nobody there, save for a bartender and a barback.  i took another look around the room and decided that rather than sit in the corner by myself and make them wait on me, i would sit front and center at the bar and have a little conversation with them if they were willing.

i was greeted cordially by mo, a well dressed man with darker skin and thick-rimmed glasses and bulging muscles from his toned physique.  i joked to myself about how the place must save money on employing bouncers because mo can easily double as one while also tending the bar.  mo had a thick french accent but spoke very good english as well as german (a couple other austrian patrons trickled in and out for a drink during the time i was there and i overheard the interactions) and was a very good bar conversationalist.  at first, the idle talk was simply surface level, but as it became apparent to mo that i wasn’t going anywhere for awhile and i wasn’t meeting anyone there, he decided to drop whatever other prepwork he was doing behind the bar and focus on me.

knowing that this was a proper cocktail bar when I had selected it, and upon seeing their expansive liquor and whiskey & bourbon collection, I had quietly tested mo with my normal litmus test with the whiskey old fashioned.  i’ve been using this test for about 6 years now to determine if a bartender is worthy of my time, cash, and trust.  the reason for this is because drinks with bitters in them are fairly easy to screw up, and if a bartender can serve you a drink with bitters and not take away too much of the bourbon taste, you probably have someone on your hands who understands the balance of taste in a cocktail.  so all that to say that mo passed with flying colors.  once i appreciatively thanked him for the wonderful drink, we started talking whiskeys and bourbons and after a few minutes mo took a step back, looked at me wryly out of the side of his glasses and said in his thick french accent “you know, i love when americans come in here because they understand whiskey properly.”  it’s probably the best compliment a barkeep has ever given me.

we continued to chat about whiskey topics both old and new (like the new “whisky stick” that you can buy and put in a bottle of cheap whiskey and within 48 hours it will make your whiskey taste like a finely aged spirit.  I’m not linking to it, because it’s an appalling idea and it’s totally a hoax, but idiots out there are still buying it), but eventually the conversation wandered to other topics like mo’s background.  mo was born in africa but moved with his family to paris where he grew up.  he then moved to hamburg, germany when he became an adult and studied and eventually became a bartender.  he had only moved to vienna 6 months earlier at the request of an old colleague of his who was managing this bar and needed help with a proper “A+ level” barman who could help raise the bar, so to speak (heh.  heheh.  i love obvious jokes).

schonbrunn wall ivyafter a couple hours of good conversation and tastebud tantalizing temptations made by mo, i encouraged him to dream up his own concept bar and open it somewhere outside of vienna.  a guy like him belongs in a different style of city with a little bit of a rougher edge around it and he deserves to have his own place.  he lit up when i said that, and then started to share with me some of his ideas.  we excitedly went back and forth, and i could tell that it was something he needed to hear.  he struck me as the kind of guy who had really only moved to do a favor for a friend, and while things were going well at the bar, it might not have been as fulfilling as what he had hoped for. perhaps he was struggling with building a network or support group of people around him that helped push him forward or provided positive reinforcement.  i think it may be possible that hearing someone like me intuitively pick up on that and then communicate it to him without a hint or a prompt may have been meaningful to him.  i hope it was.

leaves falling on vienna benches
leaves falling on vienna benches

at a certain point in the night after mo and i had covered a lot of conversational ground, a couple had slipped in and quietly made their way to the rear corner of the room.  they had kept to themselves for awhile, but at a certain point they had joined the conversation.  mo and i were glad to have a few good souls along to help give the night a little life, and james and slavka were more than happy to make some friends.  before long, i think mo knew he had more than just a few casual drunks in the establishment that night, because the conversation was so rich and in-depth, and everyone was really enjoying each others’ company.  every person in the room was my kind of people.  they were “in tune.”

mo, feeling the atmosphere and positive vibe, started making up drinks off the menu.  he was getting creative, and his drinks were getting better.  eventually mo’s wife actually came in and hung out for a bit.  it was closing time before we knew it, but mo told us that he was going to make one more drink for each of us and lock the door, allowing us to take our time and finish our drinks while he cleaned up and closed down before we all left.

james and slavka were completing a storybook romance honeymoon in Vienna, and 5 days later they were to return to england as husband and wife.  they had met 6 years earlier in london on a bus when james had sat down next to slavka and struck up a conversation.  james was actually living in cambridge, about 60 miles away so after the initial sparks had flown, they settled into the long distance thing for a couple years.  when they finally tied the knot, they chose to have the special day in kosice, slovakia, slavka’s hometown.  james’ family and friends all flew down for a traditional slovakian wedding celebration that lasted 4 days.  after the celebration, james and slavka made their escape to vienna, where i met them, before returning home and starting their new life together.

as james retold the story to me, i found myself getting simultaneously sentimental and hopeful.  i listened intently, allowing myself to get caught up in the magic and let the story come alive.  it was nice to be the listener instead of the storyteller for a change, especially when the content was so enthralling.  too often in my former life, the person i had grown to be was a very cynical person who would not allow myself to be too impressed or surprised by anything, so when i might hear a great story like james and slavka’s, i would still actively and politely listen, but i might reserve emotion or expression in order to preserve the image or character that i was portraying forward.  or worse, the greater cynic in me might mentally dismiss it as another “story” and not even allow myself to entertain such fantasies of love and magic and emotion.

vienna sidewalks
lonely vienna sidewalks

as i’ve gotten further along in this journey of mine, i’ve tried to identify when the bad habits i’ve picked up along the way in my life have crept back up.  particularly with my own romantic connections which have been marked by a string of failed relationships and unrequited love, i had become increasingly jaded and this skepticism had taken a strong root in my life, like weeds choking out a rose garden.  and so i’ve tried to find the things about my personality which stop me from experiencing emotion and joy and i’ve tried to deactivate them.  these mechanisms of cynicism and sarcasm which normally serve as a wall of protection from being taken advantage of or being the “sucker” do serve their purposes but there is always a consequence, and for me that consequence is that some of the more elemental and basic joys of being a human get blocked.  they become forgotten about, and my world had become grayer because of it.

so when i was enthusiastically talking with this wonderful pair, i caught my instinct to “play it cool” and i quickly shut it down.  i listened, i got excited, i expressed my enthusiasm, i asked for elaboration.  it was fun, and they were a fun couple.  james’ witty british humor made the retelling of the story easy to want to join in on the ride, and slavka’s periodic additions or corrections helped provide balance and accuracy to the story, as shared stories between brits and americans are wont to stretch a bit when there is whiskey involved. it was fun to watch them interact with each other, and i could tell that they were a great pair, one that would definitely last.  they appreciated each other, and more importantly, it was obviously that they truly did enjoy hanging out.  there was chemistry there, but there was also that “partner in crime” element that i don’t always see in couples.  especially after traveling together with no other normal distractions to occupy them.  often times in those couples i see something different:  exhaustion.

at around 3:30am, mo had finished all his closing duties and made the fateful announcement that it was time to headvienna palace gardens home.  james, slavka, and i all profusely thanked mo for the perfect night.  we all exchanged information, finished our drinks, and ducked out into the night, going our separate ways and vowing to stay in touch.  i smiled to myself as i walked home under the evening streetlamps, thankful for having met james and slavka.  couples like that always give me so much hope and optimism, that i might one day be able to find that perfect balance of attraction, friendship, partnership, and fun.  i promised myself that, despite the whiskey drinks and the hazy head, i would remember that evening i spent with james and slavka in the hopes that i might one day more easily recognize that “thing” that they had if i were to one day find it with someone else.

—————————

today’s jam is one reflective of my thoughts about james and slavka’s story.  it’s a song full of hope, energy, romance, and as the title reflects, “magic.”  featuring disco guitar legend nile rodgers, whom had re-emerged onto the pop music scene after being featured on last year’s daft punk rise from the dead (notably on the mega hit “get lucky”), and brandy, another pop artist who has been absent from the scene for years, this new track by luis dubuc’s electronic pop act “mystery skulls” is one that just gets into your veins and starts pumping blood without the need of a heart.  but when you listen to the lyrics, your heart can’t help but join in.

“magic” is good clean fun, but if you can stomach a few bad words, i highly recommend you check out the full album from mystery skulls, which just came out about a month ago.  it is just good fun from start to finish, with incendiary synth tracks and catchy melodies.  enjoy…

and of course, if you’re following along on spotify, here’s my “we philistines selections” playlist, with all the songs i’ve featured on this blog.

Advertisements

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

—-

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.

on seal parties, blue lagoon zombies, and being “in tune.”

I headed back to reykjavik and made one last stop in Jökulsárlón for just a little more magic.  I went to a less traveled parking lot on the west side of the bridge so I could avoid the crowds this time, and it was well worth it.  I hiked over the little hill and almost had the embankment to myself, when I saw a seal fishing around the corner in a secluded little enclave near the shore. I walked over to investigate and saw a large rock a little way into the water that I could stand on.  I waded in with my waterproof shoes and jumped onto the boulder.  I turned to look at the seal who was now looking at me and i noticed that he now had a friend who was poking his head out of the water as well.  they were both checking me out, trying to figure out what I was up to.  after about 10 seconds they both dove down below the surface and disappeared.  they were gone for another 10 seconds and I began to wonder if they had decided to leave after I crashed their party, when one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me with wildlife happened:  they resurfaced with 3 friends.  I was now in a staring contest with 5 seals, and suddenly a 6th and a 7th, and then an 8th, and then seals 9 and 10 popped up out of the water, and then an 11th seal jumped up with a splash.  all this was happening less than 30 feet away from me!  I was in paralytic awe.  I could not believe this was happening.  I started to get nervous.  what if they all decided I was breakfast?  surely I could outrun a bunch of waddling seals.  oh wait, there was about 7 feet of water separating me and my perch above the stone from the shoreline.  and I didn’t see 11 of those damn things down there, who knows how many more there were and how close they might be without me knowing.  before I could get further paranoid, one of the seals mischievously slapped one of the other seals with a flipper and submerged, trying to escape retribution from his tomfoolery.  the rest of the seals followed suit and most of them swam away, save for 2 or 3 stragglers, and the moment was gone.  but I will forever savor it.

jokulsarlon sunset skaftafell black & white

I got back to reykjavik and headed for the airport with a short stop at the Blue Lagoon before takeoff.  If you’re not aware of what the blue lagoon is, you’ve probably seen a picture of it somewhere and just not realized what it is.  It is a giant “pool” with natural water warmed by the volcanic activity below the surface of the earth of Iceland.  so yes, it’s basically just a hotspring, as we would call it in the US, however this is on another level. first of all, the décor and attention to detail of this hotspring is flawless in execution. they’ve thought of everything here, and the luxury is quite enjoyable (especially after a week of arduous hiking and frigid temperatures). It is definitely an expensive excursion, pricing in at 35 euros (probably a little less than $45 US dollars) for their cheapest package, but everything in Iceland is expensive.  one thing that is really disappointing about hotsprings locations in the US is that they typically just look like a swimming pool at the ymca, but instead of smelling like chlorine and kid urine, it smells like farts.  I mean sulfur.  not the blue lagoon.  this place looks like a volcanic oasis, and the water has a naturally sky-blue color to it that is really spellbinding. And instead of a clearly defined pool structure with a rectangular shape of sorts, the blue lagoon has a very “natural” look to it, with a wandering boundary that shoots out into independent inlets and sharp jagged rocks jutting up along the outside of the pool to let you know where the boundaries of the property are (as if the wide expanse of nothingness beyond the pool wasn’t enough to hint to you that you’re enjoying the pool incorrectly).  there are also cool little footbridges leading you to other enclaves of the lagoon that people are usually swimming underneath, as well as little hidden huts with steam baths in them or showers.  there’s also a swim-up bar as well, which I of course loved.

I waded out into the water and marveled at the spectacle.  the air was crisp outside above the protection of the heated waters, so I stayed mostly submerged as I drifted around the pool, relaxing. The steam vents pushed a white fog out that settled low on the water and drifted across the further limits of the pool, creating an ambiance of blue and white colors with the typical bright green mossy background beyond the pool that made you wonder if you weren’t dreaming you were trapped in a lost scene from the movie “avatar,” on a planet far, far away.

In specific spots around the lagoon, there are boxes with a white silica mud that you can scoop out and put on your face and body.  It acts as an exfoliant and dries up to form a hardened mask, similar to something you might see in a fancy spa at a luxury hotel or something.  The effect this has on the guests of the lagoon is actually pretty funny.  It makes the lagoon look like it’s full of pale-faced zombies.

After donning my zombie mask, I noticed a couple of attractive girls nearby so I struck up a conversation. turns out they were from America and were just wrapping up a 2 week trip to france (and I think Italy?) with a short 8 hour layover in reykjavik.  I eagerly asked questions about their travels, hoping I could pick up some tips on where to go and what to avoid.  They had spent some time in the french riviera and said it was magnificent, and that I must go.  how fortuitous!  I had just made friends with natives of the Nice area only days earlier, so I now had further confirmation that it was a place I needed to visit (greg and thomas, start looking out for me in either late october or late november!).

It wasn’t long before we all discovered that we call home to the same great city:  denver.  what a small world.  not only that, but one of them was involved in a couple organizations that had caused her to recently make the acquaintance of my good friend micah.  too funny, the world truly is a small place sometimes.

we were really enjoying our conversation (well, I was anyway.  I can only assume that since they weren’t trying to float away from me that they were as well) about travel and cultural experience abroad, but the time was quickly escaping.  We all had flights to catch.  we agreed to meet back and take the same bus back to the airport so we could continue the conversation.  unfortunately for everyone, I am a dumbass who gets distracted easily, and on my return back to gather my towel and backpack, i noticed a steam room hut that I had not noticed earlier and I popped in for a few minutes.  those minutes proved to be the difference, as I quickly walked out to the parking lot to see the bus pulling out of the parking lot headed for the airport after I had finished showering and making myself presentable. I had just missed my ride.

after spending the equivalent of $65usd on a cab, I found my way to the airport and sprinted through security and barely made my flight.  luckily the airport is a pretty small one, and I miraculously ran into my 2 mystery girls from Denver again, and I was able to exchange information with them.  I wished them well and do legitimately hope that I’ll meet them again someday when I return to Denver.  they are the type of people that I like to call “in tune” (of course it’s a reference to music).  they get it.  they have perspective on life.  they know what’s important and what has real value.  they aren’t mindless consumers.  they don’t simply shop when they travel. they seek experiences over “things,” and they go to real places when they have a travel opportunity, instead of going to places like las vegas and spending 15 times the amount of money they should on things they don’t need or won’t remember.  They’re in tune with the important things in the world around them.

My airplane broke the chains of gravity and I nodded off to sleep.  Soon I would be in the land of harry potter and big ben and high tea.  A place that couldn’t possibly be any further in experience from Iceland. A place called London.