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.