Iceland Iceland Baby!

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Last year, EasyJet had one of their flash sales and on the spur of the moment, I booked flights to Iceland for January 2019. It was a country that I’d always fancied visiting even though Brad was less enthusiastic. Luckily, the way to Brad’s heart is definitely through his stomach so I won him over by massively exaggerating Iceland’s gastronomic contribution to the world and by deliberately failing to mention the rather more traditional dishes of hákarl (fermented shark), hrútspungar (Sour rams testicles) or harðfiskur (dried fish jerky).

A few months later, on a rather chilly Monday night, we landed at a snow covered Keflavík Airport and due to some rather unclear signage, we almost found ourselves heading back to the UK before we’d even left the terminal building.

After getting off the plane, we stopped for me to have my customary post-flight wee; given the option of spending a penny in the sky or turbulence free airport toilets, I’ll take terra firma any day of the week. Call of nature answered, we followed a big bunch of people thinking that they were heading to passport control, only to find ourselves patiently waiting to board a flight to Belfast.

What can I tell you? We’re British. There was a queue. You do the maths.

Eventually we realised the error of our ways, found our way out of the airport and began our Icelandic adventure.

The main reason for going to Iceland was because I wanted to try to see the northern lights, a phenomenon that has always fascinated me, so an organised northern lights hunt was our first expedition.

Our guide drove for about an hour and a half to a top secret location* which was basically a scout hut in the middle of nowhere. We worked out which direction was north and then we waited. It was -12 degrees outside so we had to keep popping into the scout hut to stop our extremities from freezing and falling off (top tip if you’re going somewhere super cold – buy a balaclava, you might look like you’re about to commit armed robbery, but at least your face will be toasty warm).

*may not have actually been top secret, it could just be that I can’t exactly remember where we went.

Eventually, at nearly midnight, the door to the hut was flung open and the booming voice of our tour guide yelled “LIGHTS” excitedly. We dashed outside to wonder in awe at the elusive aurora dancing beautifully across the sky.

I recognise how fortunate we were to be able to witness this occurrence, not least when I returned to work and spoke to a colleague who works in our financial crime team. He told me, through gritted teeth with definite outrage in his voice that he’d visited Iceland twice, specifically to see the lights and hadn’t seen them at all.

I mean, I’m not casting aspersions on him yet, but if I end up in the middle of some unsubstantiated credit card fraud investigation scandal, just check to see if it was instigated by Mr Jealous from financial crime…

If anyone had told me before Iceland, that I’d be sitting in an outdoor pool in January, in my swimming cozzie, in minus temperatures whilst the wind pelted tiny frozen spikes of ice into my face, I’d have told them that they were mad, but then I’d never been to the blue lagoon before.

The blue lagoon is a geothermal spa where you can swim in mineral-rich hot water (between 37 and 39 degrees). It’s an incredibly surreal experience; like having a massive alfresco dip surrounded by scenery that wouldn’t look out of place in a snow globe.

As part of entry to the blue lagoon, you receive a drink from the pool bar. We went with the alcoholic option to try to distract ourselves from the fact that, fundamentally, we were sharing a giant bath with a bunch of strangers. Mind you, my skin felt so amazing after the experience and I was so relaxed that I could have been bathing with plague infested rats and it would have been worth it to achieve such a feeling of calm wrapped nicely in baby soft skin.

You are also given a silica mud mask as part of your entry price. Everyone around us was applying their mask so I encouraged Brad to do the same, telling him that it would make his skin glow. Alas, this not go to plan.

The problem was that instead of paying attention to how I put my mask on, my beloved husband applied his mud in the same way that you might wash your face with soap (a blob of mud in each hand, hands rubbed together and then mud spread vigorously and indiscriminately all over the face). The mud ended up in his eyes, it went up his nose, it was in his mouth. It prompted this conversation:

Me: “What are you doing? You’re supposed to avoid all the sensitive bits.”

Brad: ”It stings!”

Me: “I’m not surprised! Why did you just shove mud in your eyes?”

Brad: “I’ve never put a face mask on before”

Me: “But surely you’ve seen pictures of women with face masks on?”

Brad: “My eyes are sore”

Me: “That’s because it’s not supposed to go IN YOUR BLOODY EYEBALLS”

Brad: “It tastes funny”

Me: “What the? Jeez dude, close your mouth!”

Cue frantic face washing and water drinking to remove the sting and taste of mud mask, fortunately he survived without any after effects but safe to say, I won’t be arranging a spa day for him any time soon.

Eating and drinking in Iceland is as expensive as the travel guides tell you. I found the best way to manage this was to eat lots of hotel breakfast so you don’t need lunch and then to NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES convert the Icelandic krona that you’ve just spent into sterling. No one needs to know that one meal has cost more than a usual weekly shop. Ignorance is most definitely the best approach. That said, we did have the most divine lamb dish on our first night which potentially cost more than an entire flock of alive sheep back in the UK and I don’t even care. I still dream about that meal.

Iceland is beautiful and such an incredibly interesting country that it made me regret not paying more attention in Geography classes at school. We went to Thingvellir national park which is in a rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates (turns out these aren’t something you eat your dinner off) and witnessed the eruption of Strokkur, a very active geyser which loudly expels boiling water and steam up in the air every few minutes like an angry kettle.

We also saw Gullfoss waterfall, which was impressive, but when you’ve seen Niagara Falls, unfortunately nothing else is going to compare. Poor Gullfoss is almost half the size of Niagara and Gullfoss’s average water flow rate is 140 cubic metres per second. Niagara’s water flows at 2,400 cubic metres per second. So it was a bit David and Goliath for me. Not to mention the fact that at Gullfoss, it was -16 degrees and I had stopped being able to feel any part of my body properly, whereas on my last visit to Niagara Falls, it was closer to 30 degrees, I was wearing a strappy summer dress and eating an ice cream rather than wearing thermal undies and becoming a human ice pole, so poor old Gullfoss never really stood a chance.

However, even if you ingest a face pack in a giant communal bath, visit only the second best waterfall you’ve ever seen or return home teetering on the edge of your overdraft because you dared to order starters, a trip to Iceland is still an absolutely incredible experience that will without a doubt, take your breath away.

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The ‘Big Apple’ of my eye

I have wanted to go to New York for as long as I can remember. I tried to go when I turned 30 but I spent all of my New York savings on a divorce instead (hands down the best reason to not go to New York).  This year, I’m turning 40 and as a generous early birthday gift, Brad took me to the Big Apple.

We flew with Norwegian Air, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you’ve tried to get into a tight fitting suit in January after eating 27 Chocolate Oranges and three blocks of cheddar over Christmas and would like to experience this phenomenon in travel form. It was proper pile ‘em high and price ‘em low budget airline travel, with a pilot who genuinely seemed to be asking a question when his last words prior to taking off from Gatwick were “Right, erm, off we go then?”. However, we did land safely at JFK airport, much to everyone’s surprise (including, I think, the pilot).

New York is crowded, raucous and vibrant. Like all big cities, there are elements of seediness but there is also something very charismatic about the place. The architecture is phenomenal and you spend most of your time looking up, fascinated by both the overwhelming height and exceptional designs of the handsome buildings.

At one end of the spectrum you have calm, serene, nature-filled Central Park which is enormous and reinforced how good Brad’s sense of direction is. I can’t even tell left from right so when words like north and east start being bandied around, I go to pieces. It’s a good job the two of us didn’t separate whilst navigating our way around or I think I’d probably still be in there.

In contrast you have Times Square, the real life version of a migraine; hectic, bright, colourful, crowded, noisy and confusingly not a square. It’s enough to send you off for a lie down in a dark room with a cheeky little Valium.

They call New York the city that never sleeps and it has the vibe of a strung out insomniac surviving on coffee and Red Bull. Shops are open 24 hours a day and the subway system never stops. Workers just do their thang whatever time of the day or night; a fact we discovered quite awkwardly when a man in a cradle (heavy plant not baby bed) started doing maintenance* on the outside of our fifth floor hotel window very early one morning whilst we were still in bed.

*at least I really REALLY hope that’s what he was up to

Drivers in New York are obsessed with their car horns. Brad and I started playing a game where we had to try to work out whether there was a legitimate reason for a driver to beep. I estimate that the drivers had about a 95% fail rate. In America you can turn right on a red light, but only if your path is clear. We honestly witnessed a driver blast their horn because the person in the car in front of them did NOT turn right onto a  zebra crossing filled with people.

Despite their yearning to mow down innocent pedestrians, outside of moving vehicles, we found the New Yorkers that we met to be friendly, polite and fascinated by our accents. One man in a supermarket wouldn’t put my items through the till until I’d said “Cup of tea” to him a good number of times. Of course, I hammed it up more and more each time. By the final ‘cup of tea’, the words were so plummy, I’d have made the Queen sound like Danny Dyer.

Two New York residents did not win us over quite so much; we encountered a couple in the room next door to us who considered the early hours of the morning to be a jolly good time to have blazing rows. Let me tell you, nothing will startle you into consciousness as alarmingly as a piercing broad New York accent (a la Janice from Friends) at 4am. Luckily for us, the noisy neighbours only stayed for two nights. Luckily for them, us Brits are both notoriously polite and very aware of the fact that Americans can carry guns. Conflict avoided.

On our last day, we took a trip to the top of the Rockefeller centre. The views take your breath away, although that might be the altitude, and you can’t help but reflect and marvel at how so much concrete can be so incredibly beautiful (and also just what the hell WAS that dude in the cradle doing at 7.30am?).

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Ooh la la

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Anyone who knows me, in fact, you don’t even need to have known me, anyone who had any contact with me, no matter how small, during the past few weeks will know that I went to Paris last week. Seriously, the fact that I was going to Paris is genuinely recorded in the notes of a grievance hearing.

So great was my excitement about my forthcoming trip that my Facebook status on Monday looked like this:

“ParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParis”

despite this over-sharing on social networking providing an excellent opportunity for my friendly neighbourhood burglar.

But who cares about someone robbing the telly when you’re going on a city break? Anyway, I live with a man. Everyone knows that men amass televisions the way women covet cushions. Televisions for every room with screen sizes to rival Odeon, so had the goggle box been nicked, we would have been alright, we’ve got some king-size spares lying around.

Our Parisian adventure began with a trip on the Eurostar accompanied by coffee and a pain au chocolat courtesy of a lovely little French style patisserie Costa.

After boarding the magical international train, we somehow managed to offend the passenger sitting opposite us; an old lady who appeared outraged that we dare sit in our assigned seats and share the same carriage space with her. About five minutes into the journey, she stood up, picked up her luggage and vanished, never to return. I think perhaps we overdid the Fox’s Glacier Fruits.

The Eurostar journey is pretty straightforward and to my surprise, because I hadn’t really given it much consideration, the time in the tunnel is very short. It’s only about twenty minutes. When we emerged from the tunnel into the decidedly grey skies of France (easily confused for English skies) and Brad said ‘Hooray, we’re in France’ I gave him a withering look and said scathingly “Don’t be so ridiculous”. Excessive provision of Fox’s Glacier Fruits aside, I am an absolute joy and delight to travel with.

We arrived in one piece at Paris Gare Du Nord and successfully negotiated the Metro to reach our hotel. The Metro is exactly the same as travelling on the Tube apart from the announcements. It’s much nicer to hear a softly spoken, twinkly voiced French lady telling you that you are just arriving at Champs-Élysées Clemenceau than a sweaty man in a high visibility jacket named Bob angrily yelling at you to “LET THE PASSENGERS OFF THE TRAIN, FIRST” or having to get the Docklands Light Railway to a station called Mudchute.

Everything just sounds nicer with a French accent, even my own name. When the hotel receptionist said “Here is your key Zhjolyn”, I wondered why I’d been pronouncing it incorrectly for 36 years.

Hotel positives were that it was clean, quiet and friendly. Negatives were that the lift visibly dropped about three inches every time anyone stepped into it and there was a very threatening message on reception which warned that food must not be eaten in any of the rooms for “hygiene reasons”, this is despite the fact that they offered a room service food menu. Were you supposed to eat in the hallway? Who knows? Plus, I can think of a number of other less hygienic things that people may do in hotel rooms, particularly in the Montmatre district of Paris.

Our first day of sightseeing involved the Arc de Triomphe. As we headed towards it from the Avenue de Wagram, or Avenue de Wigwam as I preferred to refer to it, I was decidedly underwhelmed. “Look, it’s at the top of the road” Brad exclaimed. “Is that it? It’s not as big as I thought” I replied with not a hint of double entendre. Turns out I was looking at it from the side.

When I finally viewed it face on, it was indeed as big as I had imagined and quite staggering. Not least because of the ten terrifying lanes of traffic surrounding it; you can admire the majestic structure honouring those who fought during the Napoleonic wars and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War whilst carbon monoxide fumes engulf you.

We took in some culture with a visit to the Musee D’Orsay, although I counteracted this by childishly taking a picture of the Rhinoceros sculpture by Alfred Jacquemart, which is situated outside the museum, just because Mr Rhino had large testicles.

We saw the Moulin Rouge where a French man pinched my bum and Brad was offered “the best pussy in Paris” which I’m pretty certain was fille de joie and not feline.

We visited the breathtaking and spiritual Notre Dame and climbed the 300 steps to marvel over the views across Paris from the Sacré-Cœur. Then we sat down for quite a while, relieved that we’d made it to the top without dying.

We drank, considerably. We walked, considerably and we spoke some considerably pigeon French. “Parlez-vous Anglais?” Being a popular phrase.

Of course, no trip to Paris would be complete without seeing the Eiffel Tower. It’s an amazing landmark and quite magnificent. Although maybe I shouldn’t admit this but it does remind me somewhat of an electricity pylon, a beautiful pylon but a pylon nevertheless. That said, when it is lit up at night, even the most cynical of visitors could not fail to be entranced and captivated by the charming grand iron lady of Paris. I know I was.

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“Paris is always a good idea” – Audrey Hepburn

Amsterdam Rocks

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200I did not see a windmill, wear any clogs or smoke a joint. The tulips were looking a little sad due to some unseasonably cold weather and I had to wear more socks than conventionally necessary for a mini-break with ones boyfriend but despite this, I can categorically state that I am an Amsterdam fan. An Amsterfan if you will.

I loved (probably in a rather narcissistic way) the fact that everyone spoke English and seemed overjoyed when they found out that we were from the UK. That said, I also loved the Dutch words too. I was delighted to learn that the trams announce the name of each stop. I considered this to be an invitation for me to practice my Dutch pronunciation, out loud on each tram, much to Brad’s embarrassment. I was very excited by the stop named ‘Kinkerstraat’ thinking that it sounded cute and unusual. When I translated it later on (I would be an empty, uneducated, featherbrained shell were it not for Google) I was so disappointed to discover that it meant ‘Lower Street’. How decidedly dull.

I loved the fact that anything seems to go in Amsterdam. A selection of such things include:

Drinking at most, if not all, times of the day or night.

Riding a bike in any direction you fancy, on road, pavement or tram line, without a helmet naturally.

Claiming to have invented the waffle even though everyone knows that waffles are from Belgium.

Doing some scary thing with a banana (and there was me thinking that the most thrilling thing you can do with a banana is to cut it up and cover it with custard, such naivety). Oh, for the record though, I feel it necessary to point out that I did not pay a visit to the Banana Bar. I walked past it and heard stories about it which turned me alarmingly Mary Whitehouse-ish.

Parking your moped at the entrance to the shop you want to go into rather than the traditional method of using what we refer to in England as a ‘parking space’.

Having a smoke… actually, the smoking thing is probably the catalyst for everything else. Maybe everything goes in Amsterdam, because everyone is too stoned to care. I don’t smoke myself but I was constantly hungry whilst we were there, passive munchies perhaps?

The red light district was slightly unnerving but also fascinating in a weird voyeuristic way. There was a woman in one of the windows who had so much self tan on (and we’re talking EVERYWHERE) that she could easily have passed for a creosoted piece of garden fence were it not for her massive knockers. They really were quite a sight to behold. Put me right off oranges though.

What’s strange about the Red Light District is how normal it is, you have these beautiful cobbled streets with canals running through the middle of them and magnificent architecture with half dressed women in the windows. It’s like one of the old furniture experts on The Antiques Roadshow finding a secret drawer in a beautifully decorated, ornate, Victorian writing desk and discovering a vibrator inside.

I was telling a friend about the red light district and explaining how very normal and every day it was and I said “In one of the windows there were two women having a chat”. My friend looked aghast “A chat?!”. “Yes” I said, bemused by her reaction “A chat”. “Oh my goodness, what’s a chat?” she asked. “Erm, it’s what we’re doing right now, talking, having a conversation, you know chatting. I didn’t realise that you were unfamiliar with the term!” “Oh, phew” she said, clearly relieved “I thought it was some sort of kinky sexual thing that I didn’t know of and I was worried about how you knew what it was.” Good job I didn’t tell her about the banana bar.

Amsterdam: Weird, wonderful, irresponsible, striking, brazen, unique, delightful, magnificent. What’s not to love?