Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Highgate - A Walking Tour of the West Cemetery

I left London yesterday and am now up in wonderful (ahem) Wakefield, West Yorkshire in the bosom of my family counting down the days to Christmas. Not long to go now and just one last thing left to buy, a Michael Buble CD as a stocking filler for Mum. Like post menopausal women everywhere she is quite the fan of the cheeky wee Canadian chappie, but I had to wait until I was oop t'north again to buy it so that I could make sure my sister hadn't had the same idea. She hadn't so that will be me off into Leeds on Christmas Eve tomorrow. Probably not my best idea since it's likely to be pandemonium. The place will be heaving with men who have left their shopping until the last minute furtively skulking around the lingerie in M&S and trollied office workers out for a festive beverage or ten. Fun!! I should have gone today really, but I wasn't sure on the times of the trains and was feeling quite lazy after traipsing about London for the past week, so instead I stayed home and did a Legs, Bums and Tums class led by Ladan Soltani on Fitness TV this morning to try and offset all the food I shall be scoffing over the next few days - it was pretty good, I'm sure I'll be sore tomorrow - and then cleaned the house this afternoon with half an eye on repeats of Come Dine With Me - the absolute best show on British TV in my opinion if only for the delusional Brits fancying themselves as the host with the most and Dave Lamb's voice overs - while drinking copious amounts of tea. I'm not sure what it is, but as soon as I set foot on British soil I am oddly compelled to drink 2 cups of tea per hour, whereas in the US I probably drink only 2 cups of tea in an entire day.

England looked like a winter wonderland yesterday as the train up to Wakefield sped through snow covered countryside. They were all freaking out in London when it started to settle on Thursday night. It's so funny to be here with the snow and compare it to being in New York. England just doesn't DO snow and I always imagine the powers that be running around like headless chickens with their arms flapping wondering what to do, whereas in New York I imagine them rolling up their sleeves and getting the snow plows out. I was expecting the tubes to be mucked up on Friday but it had all but dissolved overnight in Central London, however my friend Kimberley, out in Amersham, had about 8inches fall in her garden which then froze making the roads treacherous and scuppering her plan to join a few of us for our annual get-together at
Galvin Bistrot, I restaurant I can highly recommend should you ever be in the vicinity of Baker St.

Kimberley's Garden

We also had to postpone plans she and I had to catch up and take in a tour of
Highgate Cemetery on Saturday, something I realised I'd never done whilst living in London when I recently read Audrey Niffenegger's second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which uses the cemetery as a backdrop so I was of a mind to visit, however it was so cold out that had Kimberley been completely snowbound I think I would have ditched my plans, but fortunately we were able to reschedule for Sunday.

The cemetery is split into two parts - East and West - with the oldest part of the cemetery, the west, only accessible via a tour which run hourly between 11am and 3pm on weekends between November and February and from 11-4pm between March and October. One of my friends thought it was a bit morbid of us to visit a cemetery, but I love a good cemetery tour and hearing about the history of a place so if you are of a similar persuasion I can highly recommend Highgate, which was incredibly pretty, especially in the snow, albeit extremely cold.

We arrived at the west cemetery at 12:57pm to see a sign hanging on the gates indicating the next tour was at 2pm, but as I as luck would have it, just as we were pondering where to go to kill an hour in the freezing cold a man popped his head out of the gatehouse/chapel and opened the gates for us, letting us join the 1pm tour that was just leaving. Phew!!

In the early nineteenth century London's population more than doubled from one million in the early 1800s to 2.3million by the 1830s and the small parish churchyards, where the city had previously buried the dead, were becoming dangerously overcrowded, with decaying matter finding its way into the water supply causing epidemics. Highgate Cemetery opened in 1839 after Parliament passed an act in 1832 that paved the way for the creation of seven private cemeteries in London, which along with Highgate include Kensal Green, West Norwood, Abney Park, Nunhead, Brompton and Tower Hamlets cemeteries. Highgate's location overlooking London meant it quickly became one of London's most fashionable cemeteries and in 1854 Highgate Cemetery was extended a further 20acres across Swains Lane creating the East Cemetery with burial rights sold in perpetuity.

Our first stop on the walking tour was at the grave of James Selby, a nineteenth century coachman, who in 1888 accepted a bet to drive from London to Brighton and back again in under 8hours, a bet he won by completing the trip in a record 7hours 50 minutes. A record that apparently still stands today. Unfortunately Mr Selby passed shortly after achieving that record. The three tiers beneath the cross headstone on the grave represent the Anglican tenets of faith, hope and charity.

The grave on the right of this photo belongs to the first person to be buried in Highgate Cemetery, Elizabeth Jackson of Little Windmill Street, Soho, who died aged 36, a spinster of that particular parish. Apparently the average age of death in London in 1839 was 27years so Miss Jackson lived to a relatively ripe old age.

Following the world wars the cemetery fell into a long period of neglect until The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust was established in 1975 and in 1981 the group acquired the freehold of both East and West Cemeteries and since that time have been responsible for the cemeteries upkeep, operating under a policy of 'managed neglect' as evidenced by this beautiful ivy covered tomb. The snow definitely adds a touch of romance don't you think? It was absolutely bloody freezing though, so I hope you like the photos as my fingers were practically falling off by the end of the one hour tour.

The entrance to Egyptian Avenue. I read here that the avenue slopes gently upwards with the walls decreasing in height along the length of the avenue giving the optical illusion that the avenue is longer than it actually is. I can't say I noticed.

Along the avenue are sixteen recessed doorways, eight on each side, which are the entrances to the rectangular roomed tombs each with shelves to hold the coffins. Each tomb has a capacity to hold 12 coffins.

The door to a tomb inside Egyptian Avenue. The upside down torches carved into the door represent a life extinguished.

At the top of Egyptian Avenue is the Circle Of Lebanon, twenty sunken tombs built around the roots of an old cedar tree, for which the Circle is named. The tree is believed to predate the cemetery as the only remaining feature of the terraced gardens of Ashurst Manor, the estate of Sir William Ashurst, Lord Mayor of London (1693-94), and Director of the Bank of England. It's pretty spectacular, but was difficult to stand far enough back to get a good shot of the Circle including the tree, but here's a view of some of the tombs on the right of the circle as you leave Egyptian Avenue

And here's a view of the cedar tree after climbing up the steps above the Circle Of Lebanon.

The grave below belongs to George Wombwell, Menagerist and founder of Wombwell's Travelling Menagerie. Mr Wombwell's tomb is overseen by a sleeping lion, said to be his pet, Nero. Covered in snow like that Nero puts me in mind of Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia.

Our fellow tourists carefully making their way through the snowy cemetery.

Shrouded urns crown many of the tombs at Highgate and were a common symbol of death in Victorian times, often used to mark the grave of an older person, in relative terms at any rate. Many of these urns, like the one below, had been completely taken over by the foliage.

And this one is just totally out of control.

Here's our guide talking to us about Thomas Sayers, a nineteenth century pugilist and the first English boxer to fight an international match when he fought American John C. Heenan in 1860 in a fight that lasted 37 rounds and 2hours and 20 minutes and was eventually declared a draw. Sayers and Heenan became close friends after the fight and toured together staging theatrical re-enactments of their famed fight. Sayers was a much loved figure and a public subscription was made for his benefit, raising £3,000, a vast sum in those days, and given to him on condition he retire from the ring. Following his retirement, Sayers became a familiar figure on the streets of North London, accompanied by his large dog, Lion, a present from his patron Lord Derby. He died of tuberculosis aged 39 and his funeral at Highgate was the biggest the cemetery has ever seen and the funeral cortege stretched from the gates of Highgate to Tottenham Court Rd, a distance of approximately 5 miles. Sayers' dog, Lion, watches over his tomb.

A snow covered sleeping angel watches over this tomb....

Last but not least was this colonnade of tombs as we headed back to the entrance of the West Cemetery

I particularly liked the symbolism on the gates of the hour glass with wings to represent time flying away. Something we could all do to remember.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

And I'm done with work for 2009!!!

...All being well at least. I really need the break after the stress of the last few months and I am keeping my fingers tightly crossed that nothing kicks off while I am on vacation and am keeping half an eye on my emails while I am here in the UK.

I flew into London on Wednesday night after taking a flight first thing yesterday morning. I barely slept a wink on Tuesday night in NYC because I was a bit worried about sleeping through my alarm, which was set to go off at 4.30am, and missing my flight - I've become the queen of the snooze button lately - and didn't exactly catch up on sleep on the flight, so I was knackered by the time I arrived and finally got to bed around midnight UK time.

I'll sleep really well tonight I thought and set the alarm for 9.30am to give myself plenty of time to potter around London before meeting up with a few friends for dinner in Ealing. In reality I hit the snooze button 3 times before turning the alarm off to sleep for 'just 5 more minutes' and ended up waking up at 1pm. Oooops!!! Not a good start to making the most of my time in London, I shall be putting the alarm across the other side of the room tomorrow.

London has changed a lot since I lived here almost 10years ago. The biggest change for me is the multitude of conversations I hear conducted in different languages when I travel on the tube. Of course this has been the case for a number of years ever since the UK experienced record levels of immigration between 2004 and 2006 after Poland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the EU and the rate apparently hasn't slowed much in the past few years according to this article on the BBC, but the reality of it always takes me by surprise when I come home for Christmas.

The other thing I struggle to get used to when I am back in the UK is how cold everyone's homes are and I miss my toasty apartment in New York. I just can't seem to keep warm when I'm here. The radiators can be scalding hot to the touch, but somehow they only manage to warm the fringes of the room and I'll still be shivering beneath 3 layers of jumpers and two pairs of socks. I don't remember this being the case when I lived here, so perhaps New York has made me soft ;-)

I finally dragged myself out of Miles' apartment around 4pm and headed for the shops on Regent St, beautifully decorated for the season with nets of stars spanning across the road, seemingly sponsored by the Disney movie A Christmas Carol. I have to say the corporate patronage did kind of sap some of the romance of the moment for me, but at least the film is seasonal, it's Dickens and it's vast improvement on the year the Christmas lights were sponsored by Birds Eye Frozen Foods!!!

While the decorations on Carnaby St play on it's swinging sixties hey day!!

This photo is courtesy of Ronrad on Flickr whose efforts came out much better than my own.

After taking in the decorations I browsed around a few stores including the relatively new Anthropologie store, the company's first outside the US, which opened about 2months ago and is lovely, but stocks exactly the same collection as the US stores for exactly the same amounts, but charged in £s instead of $s making it even more extortionately expensive for flimsy and artfully frayed bits of chiffon adorned with sequins. That will be £118 please!! Um...what!!

A store assistant told me that they paid a lot in import duties, hence the hefty price tags (hmmm), but that over time they hope to start sourcing locally so that the British store would carry different stock from the US ones. Somehow I don't think that will mean the prices will come down, although you never know, since the place wasn't exactly bustling considering it was the week before Christmas.

Afterwards I hopped on the Piccadilly line tube and headed for Ealing to meet the gang at the very cosy Rose and Crown pub just behind St Mary's Church for a quick drink - soda water for me I am trying to rein it in this Christmas, the stress of work has frequently driven me to the bottle this year and I am trying to nip that in the bud - before going onto Zayka, an Indian & Nepalese restaurant, for dinner, where Jason, the regular, managed to score us 50% off our food bill. The food was absolutely delicious too and the staff warm and friendly, it's well worth a visit. As we ate snow started to swirl down quite heavily - well, heavy for London anyway - and by the time we left at 10pm an inch had settled on the ground making it feel very festive. According to the BBC up to 8inches of snow could fall on the South East of England tomorrow with gale force winds causing drifts. I love the snow, it's so pretty, but this being England nothing will work tomorrow. England doesn't do snow :-)

When I got home at 10.30pm Miles and B had already hit the hay, but not before turning down the bed and putting the electric blanket in my room on pre-heat. Bless!!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

T-3 and counting

My parents and nephew are due to land at JFK in a couple of hours for a Thanksgiving visit. I'm so excited, it's my nephew's first visit to NYC. His parents haven't let him visit until now because "New York is too dangerous." This despite the fact that they have never visited the place, our parents visit every year and I have lived here coming up on 10-years without incident. A friend of my sister's father-in-law visited in the early 90s and didn't feel very safe and that was all my sister needed to hear to form an opinion.

"You can go when you are a teenager," she told my nephew. He turned 13 in May and has been nagging her ever since.

Fresh Direct delivered our Thanksgiving dinner an hour ago. I don't cook, but I am a dab hand at reheating. I'd planned to go to a restaurant, but my mother was insistent that we have Thanksgiving dinner at my place. "It will be fun, we can have a small party. I thought we could get crackers," she said and I've bought us each a gift to unwrap."

"It's Thanksgiving mother not Christmas," I told her "you don't buy gifts for Thanksgiving and Christmas crackers are a British thing."

"No crackers?" She was appalled. "Oh well we're having gifts."

Clearly my mother wants two Christmases this year.

Speaking of Christmassy things I wonder how many Betty's fruit cakes she's brought with her this time. The record number of fruitcakes brought across the Atlantic is three. Three!!! Plus a Battenburg cake, a packet of 3 walnut whips, 6 creme eggs (proper Cadbury ones not Hershey ones. Eugh!!) and 4 tins of Heinz baked beans with mini pork sausages. I wonder what they thought when they x-rayed her bags at the airport.

"Three fruitcakes and a Battenburg?" I asked

"I bought them for you" she exclaimed.

"When do I ever eat fruitcake? Or marzipan?" I pointed out.

"Oh that's true. Oh well, all the more for me."

God forbid she goes a week without a slice of fruitcake.

I can't wait for them to get here :-)

Update: They've arrived with....
1 large Toblerone
2x3packs of Walnut Whips (scrumptious)
1 tin of Walkers assorted scottish shortbread
3 boxes of Thorntons chocolates (3 boxes!!!!)
1 tin of Betty's shortbread cookies
2 bottles of champagne (oooh)
1 box of Yorkshire pudding mix
8 mini bags of cashew nuts (Why? Cashews are widely available in America!!)
Tea bags
1 foil wrapped large slice of fruit cake (for my mother)
Prawn cocktails crisps
6 cherry bakewell tarts
6 mince pies

I'm really not sure what goes through their minds when they pack.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Iceland: Final Days - Art, Posh Nosh & The Blue Lagoon

I'm at the end of my tether with the job this week and I've lost count of the number of times I've been tempted to quit. I have to keep reminding myself that I can't just blow this coconut stand without having something else to go to. I'm not sure what that would be though since I am not feeling the love for my current position and am feeling the need to try my hand at something new. Are there jobs widely available for people whose primary talents are laying on the sofa and drinking wine??
We spent our last full day in Reykjavik whiling away a few hours at the Art Museum admiring the works of Erró who donated a large collection of his work to the museum in 1989.
and an exhibit "Revisited Frames" in which Icelandic filmmaker Friðrik Þór Friðriksson selected frames from his own films and those by Lars von Trier which were then painted in oil on outsized canvases.
They were rather beautiful and I loved loved loved the score by Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson. I bought a copy of his album Dust to Dust when I got back. I thought it would be very soothing to listen to at work and help me feel less stressed, but it works a little too well and makes me want to snooze. Ironically I find listening to the Foo Fighters serves me better at the office when I need to focus and drown out the surrounding hubbub.

Afterwards we popped into the eclectic and charming Grai Kotturinn cafe for a light lunch where the interesting sculptures adorned the walls, like this gaggle of swans - is gaggle correct for swans or is that only applicable to geese? - on the wall by the bathrooms....

And this one, which was my particular favourite, although it did not photograph too well as the cafe was dimly lit, but I loved the sentiment, "I like your hairstyle, your trousers and your manners". That's pretty much my criteria for a man :-)

The piece de resistance of our day was an unmissable trip to the Sjavarkjallarinn Seafood Cellar where we indulged in the 10800ISK tasting menu - $80ish I think it worked out to be, but the tax and tip are included in Iceland so it turned out to be less expensive than tasting menus I've come across in New York. No exaggeration it was quite possibly the best meal I've eaten in my 38years and if you are ever in Reykjavik you should definitely make the effort to eat at this place.

I'm going to bore you with a few foodiot shots now, but not too many. I'm not going to go through the whole meal, well I am, because I want to document it for my own selfish purposes, but I'm not going to make you look at all the photos. I can salivate over those in my private time.

So, the tasting menu started with an amuse bouche of mussels - or rather mussel, singular - you have to pace yourself with tasting menus eh, followed by, get this, sliced french bread with apricot, peach, mango soup with a peanut, pistachio, star anise and sesame dip!!

I know!!!!

It sounds completely revolting and I did shoot our waitress a bit of an incredulous look as she described it, but my God it was amazing. If I could only eat that for the rest of my life I would be a happy woman. It was so good we had to move to the shelf at the side of our table, because had we left it in front of us we'd have eaten it all and would have been too full for the deliciousness to come and who wants to pay $80 for a tasting menu and then fill up with bread. That would not have been clever.

Next up was lobster shrimp pot with foie gras sauce followed by tuna tartare a dish which when described to us Melissa and I both thought we heard the word 'seahorse' but surely not right...I mean those things are teensy, there's no meat on one of those. I think our waitress must have said something about a sauce, but with her accent and the noise of the restaurant we misheard. I really really hope so anyway, I don't think I could live with myself if I'd eaten a seahorse.

S'tuna right??? Definitely looks like tuna to me, she says crossing her fingers!!

Next up sushi - salmon, swordfish, tuna roll, crab roll - followed by lamb with a spiced crust on a mushroom mashed potato and then - who ate ALL the pies - fish fantasy which consisted of 4 pieces of fish: tuna, salmon on mashed potato, salt cod on polenta and monkfish which I am not usually a fan of, but this was melt in the mouth amazing as we most of the seafood we ate in Iceland. It's so fresh that when I returned to New York I had to avoid fish for a few days as my palate would have been appalled by the relatively sub-standard quality. Not to dis NYC fish, but in Iceland you can tell it's straight from the ocean and onto the plate within a matter of hours. Of course now I'm completely back into my canned tuna habit and loving it ;-)

Behold, the beautifully presented fish fantasy!!

Dessert was a two parter, molten chocolate chopped banana and papaya sorbet and a fruit and sorbet plate that included pineapple, passion fruit and strawberry sorbets served in bamboo over a terracotta dish. The waitress placed it in front of us and then turned around and picked up what appeared to be a teapot and proceeded to pour what I can only assume was liquid nitrogen into the terracotta dish beneath the bamboo.

The results were impressive, like something the Addams family would serve for dessert and I'm surprised it's something I've never seen in other restaurants, but then again I'm not usually one for ordering dessert so who knows, perhaps it's a common presentation and I'm behind the times.

The whole gastronomic ravishment was washed down with a couple of cocktails - well you have to have an aperitif don't you. A slutty temple for Melissa and a Reykjavik spring punch for me - followed by a delicious Clay station Viognier from Lodi, California which I shall definitely be seeking out at my local offie.

We completed our evening with drinks at the bar of Icelandic restaurant, Einar Ben and I woke up with a bit of a hangover the next morning. Lucky for me we had booked a visit to the Blue Lagoon en route to the airport for our 5pm flight back to New York which is a perfect cure.

Despite the fact that it is incredibly touristy no trip to Reykjavik would be complete without a visit to the Blue Lagoon and I have to say paying a visit en route back to the airport is a very efficient way to do it. We were packed and ready and checked out of the hotel in time to be picked up for the 10am bus to the Lagoon. We arrived at the Lagoon just before 11am. There's a little locked hut where you can store your luggage if you are en route to the airport as we were and the bus returns about 2pm for the 30minute drive to the airport. The timing is perfect. You get to spend a good hour in the Lagoon and also have time for a snack and a look around the facility before the bus to the airport arrives.

I was so excited to arrive here, although I was surprised, and somewhat disappointed, to learn that the Blue Lagoon isn't a naturally occurring phenomena but man-made, created by run-off from the Svartsengi power station, but don't let that fact put you off, it's still ranks up there as one of the coolest experiences I've ever had.

Walking down to the entrance.

You have to shower without a bathing suit before entering the Blue Lagoon since pools in Iceland don't use any chemicals so you are trusted to thoroughly clean yourself before going for a dip and posters by the locker room showers indicate which areas to pay special attention to. I noted though that not all tourists followed the rules and the prudish inconsiderately shower with their bathing suits on clearly not washing as thoroughly as directed. How charming!!

I really wanted to take a photo of the poster in the women's locker room, but I felt a bit self conscious and would no doubt have looked like a bit of perv wandering in the vicinity of the showers with my camera. Fortunately ricksphotos101 didn't feel quite so self conscious in the men's shower area.

Thoroughly showered and hair protected by gobs of conditioner - some people bring swim caps - we braced ourselves for the 20-yard dash outside to the edge of the pool. The weather that day was close to freezing that day and I have to tell you it's not the most comfortable temperature to be clad in nothing more than a damp bathing suit for even the briefest moment. Brrrrrrr!! Robes were 700ISK to hire ( (towels were 400ISK)) and I'd recommend indulging in one if you're there in Winter since you'll find yourself popping in and out of the pool. I did love the contrast though of the frigid outside air with the heat of the pool, which just smacks the hangover right out of you.

Water from the power station has a temperature of 158°F (70°C) and is as salty as the ocean. The water is transferred to the Lagoon via a pipeline and is directed through special mixing wells where the water is cooled down to more comfortable bathing temperatures of around 98-102°F/36-39 °C, that's according to the Icelandic tourist board at any rate. It didn't always feel as hot as 98F to me. It certainly isn't consistently hot and there are pockets where it can feel relatively cool. The edges are the hottest where the water flows in and in places there are signs which warn you to keep to the center. The bottom of the lagoon is sandy underfoot when you first get in, but its wise to tread cautiously since it is uneven and quite rocky in parts and toe stubbing is a risk. Some areas are so shallow you can sit and to pass through you have to crouch low so as to expose only a minimal amount of skin to the bracing October air whereas in other parts you're chest deep and the water can be cool.

Melissa in the Lagoon. What a good friend I was to run back to the changing rooms in a wet swimming cossie in the freezing cold to get my camera. Let's pause while I pat myself on the back ;-)

I recommend you take moisturiser with you as the lagoon is very drying and there's no complimentary moisturisers in the locker room as I assumed there would be - if you have fine hair like I do you may find you have the best hair day ever and after spending 4days with hat flattened hair harshness of the water (tastes very salty) my tresses were pleasingly voluminous after styling it with the wonderful Praxler hairdryers - easily as good as my favourite Babyliss - although Melissa didn't appreciate the effect it had on her naturally curly long hair.

Photos from the viewing deck.

Crazily beautiful Icelandic topography. I was sad to head to the airport, I definitely hope to pay a return visit to this amazing country.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Iceland Day 3 - Whale Watching

Ack, who am I kidding, my job is never going to let up sufficiently before the year is out to let me write the posts I'd like to share on the remainder of my trip to Iceland. I keep trying to make the time to squeeze in an update, but it's not happening. The worst of it is that I am on a global project so tomorrow morning I have a conference call first thing with the team in EMEA and then starting at 9pm I have 2 hours of calls with the team in Asia Pacific.

Take it from me, if anyone ever asks you if you want to work on a global project say no and run like hell. If I think too hard about it I want to hide under the covers, preferably with the hottie from digital strategy who sits a few rows away from me and brightens my day considerably every time he passes my desk en route to the printer. Is it wrong of me to wish him to be less environmentally conscious and to print his work out more often ;-)

Anyway, since I lack time to do a proper written update I decided I shall just try and post a few photos on the rest of the trip. Sunday was our 3rd full day in Reykjavik and we trundled down to the harbour and booked ourselves onto a 1pm whale watching tour. We had about an hour to kill before the boat left so we snapped a few photos....

These photogenic little boats are Hvalur whaling ships :-(

A view back to Reykjavik!!

Ooooh it was brass monkeys on the boat I can tell you. I was completely coveting a woman's toasty looking, and seemingly fleece lined, water proof pants. Oooooh I would have been snug as a bug in a rug in those. My top half was fine as I had on my thermals, t-shirt, cardigan, cardigan and coat, but I had been stupidly optimistic about two layers - thick tights and pants - being sufficient to keep the chill off my lower half. Still it was more than some of my fellow tourists were wearing. Some of them had bare skin exposed to the elements. Bare skin!!! Can you believe it? I got frostbite just looking at them. As soon as we were out on open water they were the first ones to take advantage of the complimentary and incredibly unflattering red and blue boiler suits. Not me, I made do with frequent trips inside and a whale punch - not as vile as it sounds, but hot chocolate laced with rum. Yum - to keep me warm. I have my style standards. They may be low, but they do exist.

The tour was great anyway, but unfortunately I don't have many photos to share since the dolphins and Minke whales are very quick and the porpoises notoriously shy. Minke whales take several fast shallow dives before disappearing under water for up to 30-minutes at a time making them difficult to capture on camera, but we tried our best. "I'm staring so intently at the water for whales I think I see the northern lights" said Melissa. Ha ha!!

I did get this dolphin shot though and while it's hardly gonna make the cover of National Geographic I was pleased as punch at my lightening fast finger on the shutter.

I was less successful when it came to capturing the Minke whales and after a while I decided that staring at the water through a camera viewfinder trying to take a picture of the wildlife was no way to actually enjoy the experience I was having, so I gave up.

After two hours freezing to death on the boat we were chomping at the bit for some hot food and were very happy to see the fish shack was already open where Minke whale was upsettingly on the menu. I ordered lobster bisque while Melissa plumped for scallops. I've never been one for lobster finding it too tough, but the lobster (langoustines?) I've tasted in Iceland were melt in your mouth delicious.

We also tried Egils Maltextrakt mixed with Egils Appelsin - which according to the woman who served us is what Icelanders drink at Christmas. It's actually pretty tasty, although I was quite disappointed it lacked alcohol. The packaging certainly looks beer-like, but as the name suggests it's actually a malty drink. "Does it taste like Marmite or Bovril?" queried a fellow British tourist who was wondering about trying it himself. Um...neither because, those vile products are actually made of yeast extract, not malt you dozy bugger I almost said, but didn't. Honestly.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Icelandic Adventures Continued - Aurora Borealis Hunting

Bloody hell it’s hard to find the time to get around to posting further on my trip to Iceland. It feels like a dim and distant memory now. I seriously feel in need of another vacation, work is just brutal right now; we are drowning in 2010 planning work. One of our clients felt so bad at the late nights the team was putting in (2am anyone!! Who says that we’re work shy in advertising?) that he sent us a box of fancy cookies from the Famous 4th Street Cookie Company. I’m not a big cookie lover, but I have to say these things were pretty damn amazing and you should pay a visit to this place if ever you are in Philadelphia. They even surpassed McVities Chocolate Hobnobs, especially the chocolate chip ones. It was a really nice gesture by our client, however even cookies as gobsmackingly good as these were don't make up for the fact that we no longer have lives outside of the office. It is also quite worrying that members of my team have started to say "I need a drink" with alarming frequency. Last year it was just me the clients were driving to the bottle, but now it's my team too. I feel like a bad mother!!

Anyway, Iceland....well on the way back from our Golden Circle Tour the guide happened to mention in response to a question from a fellow tourist that it was likely to be a good night for the Northern lights tour!!


We had about 3hours to kill before being picked up so we hotfooted it over to Fjalakotturinn Restaurant - it just trips off the tongue doesn't it - one of the best deals in town according to our guidebooks. I can't say I'd disagree, from the food to the service everything was 5 star quality at 3 star prices.

Melissa choose the 2 course fish fantasy of lobster bisque followed by roast salmon for 3900kr and I went with the 3 course gourmet menu of scallops, lamb and caramel cake for 4900kr, on the condition that Melissa share the cake with me, along with a glass each of house wine (1100kr a glass that's less than $10), a delicious 2005 Bon Courage Chardonnay from South Africa and later a Chilean San Rapel Sauvignan Blanc. "Very nice, but a little effervescent on the finish" mused Melissa, graduate of the International Wine Center.

It certainly didn't taste of vinegar I can tell you that much, but on the whole I would have preferred a second glass of the South African Chardonnay however the restaurant did have a Wine Spectator award of excellence, which were good enough credentials for me so I happily put myself in the hands of our very gracious host.

Here comes the foodiot bit....

The salmon tartare amuse bouche. I must say, I do likethe Uri Geller style serving spoons.

Erm...sorry the scallop appetizer looked so, well appetizing, that I scoffed it before I remembered to take a photo - foodiot shame - but look how lovely the lamb looks. It tasted amazing too.

And the caramel cake dessert. Mmmmmmmmmmm!!! I know that looks like a carrot in the back of the plate, but it's a cheeky wee kumquat!!

The total meal came to 13,200kr, about $106 US which was pretty damn good for the quality
of food and attentive service. It would have easily cost at least one and a half times that at a similar restaurant in New York.

At 10pm three coach loads of tourists left on Northern Lights tour, which consisted of Reykjavik Excursions driving us 30minutes north of Reykjavik to stand in a field of crispy frozen snow field and stare at the sky.

"Do you see there over the ridge it's kind of a light green color??? That's something" said our guide as we assembled.

I squinted hard in the direction she pointed. Erm.......Nope, sorry, not seeing it, it just looked like regular old sky to me.

After about 30minutes of freezing my arse off in a frigid field I gave in and joined about the sensible third of my fellow aurora borealis hunters and went to sit back in the darkened bus to stare at the sky in the relative warmth. After about 10minutes I got fed up and dug out my iPod desperately trying to stay awake after my two glasses of wine just in case green ribbons of light should start to swirl across the Icelandic sky.

About about half an hour our guide apologetically joined us on the bus. "Sorry it was not so easy for you to see anything," she sympathized. "There was definitely something there, I saw it and our driver Pally saw it, and maybe a few of the Icelanders who know what to look for saw it."

"Ohhhh Icelanders and their special x-ray vision", sniggered the Dutch guy across from us to the older American couple behind him.

"The lights may reappear in a few more hours, sometimes you can see them over Reykjavik, so keep looking at the sky, look for a thin green light like an alien finger"

Alien finger...hmmm right, perhaps after about 5 shots of potent Icelandic vodka I might see alien
fingers and dancing lights, but I'm withholding judgment.

Behold, the aurora borealis...