Sunday, December 25, 2022

Christmas Eve Memories

I’m sitting here relaxing with a tasty holiday beverage after a hectic holiday week at the scoop shop.  It’s Christmas Eve, and while all of my immediate and extended family lives far away, I can’t help but think of them and the great holiday memories we all share.  

Some of the best ones are from Christmas Eves as a kid.  It was always spent with my Dad’s side of the family, the side from Finland who somehow ended up in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.  When my Dad’s parents, Sylvia and Joe, affectionately known to me as Gramma and Grampa, were still around, they would always host Christmas Eve. 

They still lived in the house my Dad grew up in, on Elm Street in Fitchburg. Where the Elm Street pizza was invented.  The house was small and cozy with furniture you could tell had a lot of stories to tell about the raising of four active children.  The stairs to the bedrooms upstairs were steep and ominous for the younger ones.  I’m not sure why, but the rooms that loom loudest in my mind are the small storage room on the back of the house and the detached single garage.  They were full of interesting artifacts, among them polished rocks and equipment, empty jars, and what might be considered antique tools even back then. 

The backyard was sloped and always full of mountains of snow that time of year, since as I would later learn, Fitchburg is smack in the middle of the snow belt of Massachusetts.  When it rains along the coast or a Nor’easter barrels through New England, towns from Fitchburg to Worcester always seem to get thumped.

The day was always full of fun winter activities like snowman making, sledding, and even skiing at Hospital Hill, just up the road.  In my memory, Hospital Hill is a giant and foreboding mountain like one you’d find in say, Switzerland or Tibet.  I’m sure if I drove by there now, it would be much less intimidating than it was to a six year old on yard sale skis or a red plastic toboggan.  In any event, Hospital Hill was a great place to learn to ski.  They even had a rope tow for a while, terrifying as it was.  While I never heard any stories of kids getting smooshed by passing trucks at the bottom of the hill, looking back in my mind and not recalling much of an effort for fencing between the bottom of the hill and the road, I have to believe it happened at least once.  The upside of the dangerous downside of Hospital Hill was that there really was a hospital nestled on the top.

While we kids made snowmen in the yard or risked our lives at the Hill, Gramma was busy in the kitchen getting Christmas Eve dinner ready.  The house was always warm and full of comforting food smells. The Christmas tree stood majestically in the living room, full of ornaments made with loving hands,  My memories of those trees were that they were closer to Charlie Brown’s than one you’d see in a window at Macy’s, but there’s no denying the certain charm of a tree felled in Grampa’s favorite hunting forest.  There were always a few gifts under the tree for us kids, and in the spirit of the season, resisting sleuthing for yours was futile.

The afternoons at the grandparents for us kids - my brothers Rick and Mike, cousins Beth and Rea, Charlotte, and once in a while Wendy, Cindy, and David, were always fun in a way that kids of today will never know.  For these were the days before Ipads and Iphones, Fortnite and Tik Tok. Any of the fun and entertainment you found was that which you created yourself using prehistoric methods such as rummaging around the aforementioned storage room, digging out a Parchesi board, or throwing some Jax on the cracked cement walkway.  You never had any idea what your friends at home were doing, and strangely enough, you didn’t care.  

What you did care about that day was that soon after the sun went down, Santa would come strolling up the driveway of that little house on the street of Elm.

Dinner was always a feast thanks to Gram Sylvia, Mom Jen, Aunt Joyce, and Aunt Alma.  Comfort food all around.  Even inedible vegetables such as turnip and squash were made palatable when blanketed with gooey mini-marshmallows, and the beans got bedazzled with crunchy fried onions.  Luntiloita was always on the menu.  I don’t know how to spell it or remember what it actually was, but my best guess was it was some root vegetable that might come in your winter farm share.  I do remember how much fun it was to say.  ‘Please pass the luntiloita’.  It was even more fun to say, because it was one of the only two Finnish words we all knew.  The other being, of course, Hous Guy Yolowa. Merry Christmas.  Sure, I could have googled ‘how do you say Merry Christmas in Finnish’, but that’s how it sounds, and for the sake of this memory, that’s all that matters to me.

While it’s fun to remember afternoons and Christmas Eve dinners, that day was really all about Santa. You see, it was not long after the Christmas cookie plate and Dad’s ice cream with cool whip on top desserts made their way around the dinner table that someone would say they thought they heard Santa’s bells outside or the clomping of reindeer hoofs on the roof.  We kids, already on high alert for Santa’s impending visit, would perk up in our seats, and if we could get out from the table, we’d actually go to the nearest window to see if the jolly one was on the premises. 

Sure enough, it was never long after the end of dinner, when the grownups were drinking coffee and dinner conversations were starting to lull, we’d hear a hearty ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’ coming from the driveway and getting louder as a round man in red approached the side door.  ‘Merry Christmas! Ho! Ho! Ho!’ he’d exclaim, to the resulting glee of me, my brothers, and cousins.  ‘Santa’s here! Santa’s here!’  we’d all chime as we extricate ourselves from the dinner table and skip toward the door.  Santa would come barrelling in, a giant bag of toys slung over his shoulder and repeating his Ho, Ho mantra again and again.  The energy in the kitchen was electric.  Santa was here!  The older kids, by Nancy Drew’ing which uncle had gone missing, could figure out it was Uncle Ed or perhaps the drunk neighbor Ted who got enlisted to be Santa a few hours earlier by the grown-ups who just weren’t feeling inspired to play the role that year.

But when you were young and still a believer, it didn’t matter that the Santa that just walked into that warm kitchen full of Luntilota ladened dinner dishes was wearing an outfit plucked from a day-after Christmas sale at Woolworth’s and a beard that barely covered this guy’s weekend stubble and beer breath.  We were in the presence of royalty.  Santa was in our house!  He’d work the room for a minute, like only a once-a-year actor can do. He’d take a bite out of the Christmas cookie that was offered up.  Like a rock star, he’d work his way through the adoring crowd and find his place on that old comfortable couch next to Chuck Brown’s tree. 

We all gazed wide-eyed at Santa as we found our own plots on that little living room floor. Once we were situated and he’d used all his Santa one-liners about how much ground he had to cover that night and the demands of bringing toys to every kid in the world, he’d open up his big sack of goodies and pull out the first present.  ‘Rea!’, he’d bellow.  At which point, Rea, or whoever’s name he called, would jump up to join Santa.  This usually involved the person sitting on Santa/Uncle Ed’s lap to open their present in front of the crowd of anxious kiddos and Kodak Instamatic wielding parents.

The gift we each got always seemed to be something from our Christmas lists for Santa.  It was uncanny how he always knew what we wanted.  As if we kids needed any more evidence that Santa was absolutely real.  

That exercise repeated until everyone in the room had a gift.  It truly was the stuff of dreams.

When Santa’s duffle was finally empty, that was his signal to be on his way.  After all, he had millions of other houses to go to that night.  Thinking back, It really was a thrill that he would spend so much time just at our Christmas gathering.  He’d stand up, gather his empty bag, thank everyone for the hospitality, and with a few more Ho, Ho, Ho’s, he’d be on his way.  

We kids were ok with that because part of Santa being ‘on his way’ meant he was stopping at our houses to fill our stockings and living room floors under our Christmas trees with all the presents we’d asked for in our letters and prayers.  As he walked out that kitchen door towards his sleigh idling on the roof, we each happy sighed, yawned, and looked to our parents with that ‘we can go home now’ look.

Our parents would quickly pack up our things.  They’d go out to our station wagons parked in the driveway, drop the back seats, and lay out our sleeping bags and pillows.  Mom would be tucking us into those bags as Dad drove us off towards our home.  We were tired but still jacked up on Christmas adrenaline, enough to power the Highland Lighthouse.  I remember Mom trying to coax us to sleep as we gazed out the window of that Gran Torino wagon with the walnut veneer siding.  Our eyes were fixed on the sky because we knew Santa who looked a lot like Uncle Ed was flying around up there somewhere, sleigh full of gifts for us.  Before we actually gave in to sleep, Dad would have pointed to the sky at least six times as he said, ‘Look! I think I see Santa!’  

When we rolled into our own driveway, we’d be groggy from sleeping through most of the drive home, but awake enough to spy under our tree to see if Santa had been here yet.  Alas, in all those Christmas Eves in Fitchburg, he never beat us home.  ‘Of course, he hasn’t been here yet. Fitchbury is much further north than here,’ our parents would say.  Which made complete sense to our four to eight or so year old brains.

We’d be tucked into our beds for the night.  Little did we know this is when Mom and Dad’s Santa work would just begin..

Great memories :)

Merry Christmas All!

Love, cousin Jimmy

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Moment of Zen.

We all have a place that fills us with a sense of calm and peace when we think about it.  I think I found mine this winter.  A few deep breaths and remembering how it felt to be here does the trick.

What's yours?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Why I do yoga. Today.

A friend recently asked why I do yoga.  She's working on a school project.  Here's my response...

Why do I do yoga?

I’ve been practicing yoga off and on for roughly twenty years now. I must admit it’s been mostly off, but I’ve rediscovered it over the past year. Usually my ‘on period’ is driven by a friend invite or seeing a sign for a yoga class at the gym or a nearby studio, but this latest rediscovery has been a more conscious effort. I think if I share my reasons for jumping back into yoga, it might help to explain what I like about it and how it helps me to be more centered.

I've been so wholly focused on making Mt. Tom’s a success over the past decade, I've neglected the part of me that craves spiritual connection - something deeper and more meaningful. I finally have a manager and a crew that have been with me for a few years and are ready and able to take on more of the tasks I've been doing myself since the beginning. This is opening up a sizable chunk of time for me.

I've been trying to redefine success where time and balance are weighted more heavily than my bank account.

I've always been into fitness, nutrition, and self-help, but I've generally compartmentalized that from my professional life, and even from each other. I'm still in the exploration stage, but I feel like yoga could be that 'thing' that brings it all together at a deeper level. Meditation is great, but I like how yoga connects you with your body, your humanness. It simplifies things down to just your breath. It's non-judgmental. It asks you to push past your comfort zone, but in a non-threatening way. Every yogi I've met has such good energy. They seem to have this aura of fullness to them, their happiness is overflowing. I know that happiness can really only be found within yourself, but it seems like yoga is great way to center yourself and help bring life down to its most basic level. And I think that's where many of the answers lie.

Yoga is like one of those great friends that even if you lose touch with them for a period of time, when you reconnect, you can just pick up where you left off. No hard feelings. No guilt. Nobody’s fault. You’re just genuinely happy to be together again.

I’ve done yoga in the comfort of my own home occasionally, but following the words of a one-dimensional person on a video just isn’t the same as being in a studio with a real live instructor. You’re surrounded by fellow yogis of all different sizes, shapes, and abilities. You get to feed on each other’s energy. You can’t just put the video on pause and go make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You’re in it for the duration. No two live classes are exactly the same. The instructor will often ask the class how they are feeling and if there’s anything in particular they want to work on. Classes vary certainly by instructor and style of yoga, but even the same class will feel differently from one week to the next.

I really like how yoga connects your mind to your body. Let’s face it, most of us wander through our days in an overworked, overstimulated fog. When you enter a yoga studio, and take your place on a mat, you leave all your to-do lists and dramas outside. It’s almost as if the stresses of your day are all in your shoes, and when you take them off as you enter the studio, they stay there with your socks. Of course, they’re still there waiting for you after class, but I’ve noticed those stresses have a slightly lighter grip on you compared to when you took them off and metaphorically left them at the door.

During a recent yoga class, the instructor asked us to set an intention to focus on the ‘space in between’. When you hold a pose, like when you’re stretching before a run, there’s a point where hit the resistance of your muscle. Your body says, ‘ok, that’s far enough.’ Then you try to push a little further. How hard you push past that point determines your level of discomfort, while stimulating your body to become more flexible. Just like when you lift weights and you do those extra reps after your body says, ‘I don’t think I can do one more.’ In both cases, you’re pushing yourself out of comfort zone. And as we all know, this is where the growth happens - both mentally and physically. Just as the highs and lows in our life shape our memories and our character, it’s the ordinary moments ‘in between’ where we spend most of our time. Being more fully in those ‘rainy Wednesday afternoon’ moments is one of the the keys to a more fulfilling life. Yoga seems to have a way of providing those kind of illuminating reminders.

In a nutshell, yoga is a great way to slow down for a little while, connect with that precious, irreplaceable instrument known as your body, and align it with your mind and your thoughts. To breathe deeply and consciously, and just be. Yoga is pliable. It can be whatever you want it to be. Go to hot yoga and sweat out your toxins. Take a core yoga class and strengthen your middle. Join a Vinyasa flow and enjoy a moving meditation. It doesn’t have to be spiritual, but it can be. No one is keeping score. Like meditation or lifting weights or running, the actual act of doing yoga likely will only happen for a couple hours of your week, but it has the ability to have a positive effect on all the space in between. It encourages you to be more aware of what’s going on around you and to take better care of your body and your mind. Like a warm ray of sun on your face, it sheds a little light on your soul, and that feels good.

‘Relax and lean away from the noise in the mind.’ - Michael Singer


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Costa Rica 2016

Welcome back to the Ice Cream Diaries, soon to be renamed ‘What Jim did in January’ for my lack of posts the rest of the year.  You may have been wondering if I got to get away at all this year, with the shop being open through the month of January for the first time.  Well, you’ll be relieved to know that yes, I did still get to enjoy my annual month of leisure, or ‘January of Jim’ as I’ve been known to call it. This thanks to scoopervisor extraordinaire and newly minted ice cream maker, Natasha, and her trusty sidekick, Abby. I made a pact with them and the rest of the crew that I’d keep the shop open so long as it still (mostly) felt like a month off for me.  Let’s face it, longing thoughts of January downtime have always been what’s gotten me through the summers of eighty hour scoop weeks and endless ice cream making. The crew and I worked harder and smarter throughout the Fall to engineer, to coin an old career, me out of the process. Tasha stepped up to the ice cream making plate.  Abby became candy wench.  And the rest of the scoop crew learned to think a little more like their boss (e.g. I’d better go make sure the bathroom is clean).  

Thanks to their efforts and care, and a nice little assist from Mother Nature, January was a rousing success. While you may have missed the hand-packed pint fire sale we usually have the end of December, a few of you may have enjoyed your first ever January Mt. Tom’s birthday ice cream cake.  I hope no one is reading this and thinking, ‘darn, I could have been getting my favorite ice cream for the past month!’  In any event, a huge thanks to Tasha, Abby, Ashley, Chloe, Tess, Brian, & Gabby for a job very well done.  Being made redundant feels good this time around.

So now you’re probably wondering, where did I go this year?

I kicked around the usual bucket list - Thailand, Africa, Bali, Chile, Machu Picchu, but decided I didn’t want to do such a long trip during this, my first ‘open January’. Secondly, I vowed to myself I would do something warm this year. Incidentally, that vow was made somewhere in a frigid tundra of Iceland this time last year.  I just couldn’t shake the image of me relaxing with a good book in a hammock on a beach much closer to the equator than Easthampton.  Couple that thought with my recent rediscovery of yoga, vacation planning started with a Google search, ‘tropical yoga retreats’.  The search ultimately landed me in Costa Rica - more specifically Montezuma Yoga, located in a hip little seacoast town on the lower coast of the Pacific side.  While I knew this trip wouldn’t be cultural rich or full of new city experiences, the thought of a more reflective, soul-soothing, skin bronzing inner vacation sounded like just what the doctor ordered.

In a word, the trip was fantastic.   Eight days of fun in the sun and on a yoga mat.  If you haven’t been to Costa Rica yet, I can’t recommend it more highly.  The beaches are amazing.  The weather is near perfection.  80’s during the day and 70’s at night. It’s safe, and the locals are super friendly. My accommodations weren’t five-star, but when you can hear the ocean surf through your window at night, you’re willing to overlook the lack of air conditioning and the shared bathroom. I’d chosen the ‘yoga & wellness package’ from the yoga studio based at the hotel.  It included one yoga class a day, breakfast at nearby hotel on the ocean, a one hour massage, a full day snorkeling excursion to Tortuga Island, and a one-on-one private yoga lesson with one of the resident yogi’s.  It had all the elements I was looking for without being overly restrictive.  No vegan, gluten-free, everything-free meal plan, or silent breakfasts, or mid-day Law of Attraction lectures.  The perfect way to relax while dipping my foot a little deeper in the yoga pool.  If any of that sounds good to you, here’s the link Montezuma Yoga.

I won’t bore you with what became a pretty sweet daily routine - wake up to a beautiful sunrise over the ocean, walk to breakfast on that ocean, relax on a hammock for a while, go to the beach with a few of my new beautiful yoga friends, do some yoga, walk into the town for a couple drinks and amazing seafood with aforementioned beautiful yoga friends.  Drift off to sleep to a warm sea breeze and the soothing sounds of the surf.  Wake up and repeat.

What I thought might be more interesting and challenging, and a good way to get the writing juices flowing as I get ready to start another installment of my soda fountain counter picture books  ‘Ice Cream Parlor Wisdom’, would be to share a few thoughts from my indispensable travel companion, the trusty journal.  One of the things I really like about traveling is it gives you a chance to get out of your routine. For me, that means more time to relax, to be a little more aware, and to reflect a bit on where I am and where I’m going. I recently read this quote somewhere, ‘Create a life you don’t need a vacation to escape from.’ While I appreciate the sentiment, I strongly believe everyone needs and deserves a vacation in some form, no matter how great your life is on a day-to-day basis.  A vacation is a chance to add some variety to your life, to try new things, see new places, and meet new people. These horizon-expanding experiences often offer great moments of clarity, like when you leave the city lights for the countryside and look up to see a dark sky full of so many more stars.

With that as an introduction, I’d like to offer what I’m calling my Lessons from Yoga Camp’.

Sometimes it’s best to just jump in.

Getting to Montezuma, Costa Rica was a bit of a challenge.  It started with an early morning drive to the airport, a flight to San Jose, a few hour layover in a very crowded airport, an anxious flight on a tiny plane to what could better be described as a parking lot than a landing strip, and a thirty minute taxi ride from a NASCAR-aspiring local who spoke zero English.  I got to my hotel room to find a note saying, ‘come on up and join us for yoga at 6’.  I looked at my watch, and it was 5:30.  Road weary and underfed, I was in no shape to try my first yoga class in the ‘big leagues’.

I went anyway.

It turned out to be the best class of the week. The studio was open air, with beautiful hardwood floors and gentle ceiling fans that circulated the cooling sea air. The sounds of the surf mingled with light guitar strumming from a local musician playing in the corner. The only light was from candles carefully placed around studio. The instructor walked around throughout the class with a spray bottle of lavender-infused water that felt like rain when it hit your skin. Was I out of my element and over-matched by the nearly fifty other yogi’s crowded into this studio in paradise? Absolutely.  Was I really nervous as Silvia, the Dutch instructor, called us into our first downward dog. Most definitely.  Did I feel a surge of confidence and a great sense of relief at the end?  You betcha.

People are mostly concerned about themselves.  I mean this in the most positive way.

When i started that first class, I was really worried about making a fool out of myself. After all, I was a total weekend warrior when it came to yoga.  I’d been going to a class a week for the past few months. That particular class has the words ‘gentle’ and ‘restorative’ in its title.  I really enjoy it. Karen the instructor is great, and while I know how to get into a pigeon pose and what Savasana means, I strongly suspected the yoga classes here would be much more challenging.  This was definitely the case, but the good news is that was ok.  Sure, most of the people in the class had better form than mine.  Heck, I can’t even reach my toes.  But as I fumbled with a couple poses that first night, and looked around to my fellow yogi’s to see where my limbs were supposed to be, I quickly realized everyone was so wrapped up in getting themselves into position, breathing, and staying balanced, that they probably wouldn’t have noticed if I was wearing a clown suit and juggling coconuts.  True in yoga, and I believe equally true in life.

How will you know what you like if you don’t try different things?

It was great to be able to try a number of different styles of yoga in one week.  Core, Vinyasa flow, Yin, Hatha, Nidra. There were two classes each day - morning and night, so it was great to also try out different times of day.  Each had a different instructor. This past week I went to a drop-in yoga class with the amazing Mary Beth from Kripalu, and I think she described it best.  She said,
Yoga is a lot like ice cream - many flavors so you should try them all.  Find a favorite that resonates - and then, before long you will likely shift and find another you like as much or better.’

You don’t need to be ‘Suzy the Snake’.

There was a woman in a number of my classes who was one flexible and strong yogi.  We’d do a relatively simple pose, and she would do it too but would put her foot behind her head or balance on her forehead or some other crazy move.  Even our instructors were impressed.  I know I’ll never be that flexible or be able to pull off half the poses she did seemingly effortlessly.  But you know, that’s ok. Neither could most of the people in the room.  I bet she has no idea how to make ice cream. :)

You don’t need to be plugged in all day long.

The hotel where I stayed, as I mentioned, was nothing fancy. In addition to not having mini-fridges in the room or TV’s, the only wifi to be found on the compound was within about ten feet of the reception desk.  I didn’t feel I needed an international data plan for the week, so my internet access was limited to that weak signal or the occasional restaurant in town. Every morning I’d walk down to the reception hut, drink a cup of the complementary coffee, and check in with the shop and the world.  I’d check in again once before I went to bed at night.  The rest of the day I enjoyed blissfully disconnected from the endless bombardment of what everyone else what was feeling or doing.  Those moments walking the beach, lying in the hammock, doing yoga, or writing in my journal were just that.  Moments spent in the moment, undisturbed. Just as life should be lived.

Set your intention.

At the beginning of each class, the instructor asked us to set an intention for the practice. What did we want to focus on for that hour.  Yoga is a bit like a moving meditation.  It involves focusing on your breathing while moving your body into various poses that stretch muscles into positions beyond their usual range.  You reach a point of resistance and then you try to go a bit further. Some asanas (poses) may also involve challenging elements of balance.  Setting your intention may be as simple as answering ‘why am I here’, meaning ‘why did I take this class’, or as complex as ‘why am I really here?’ It can be a single word to dedicate your practice to, like compassion, truth, or freedom. It’s simply a way to focus your subconscious mind on something that’s important to you.  

I am ___________.

One of the instructors, at the beginning of class, asked us to finish that sentence. For that entire class, we were to keep that in the back of our mind. It became our intention for the practice. How would you finish that sentence?

Dream jobs aren’t usually just given to you.

One my yoga buddies that week had just gotten off the boat.  Literally.  She had spent the past 8 years on the crew of a yacht company, sailing all around the world with people famous or just famously wealthy.  Over drinks at dinner she told amazing stories of adventures with guests that included Brad Pitt, Sarah Jessica Parker, David Geffen, billionaire Israeli businessmen, Oscar De Larenta, and Calvin Klein, just to name a few.  We were left speechless as we tried to imagine what that lifestyle must be like. The crazy stories were surreal, but it’s something else she said that stuck with me. When someone once said to her, ‘how did you get so lucky to be chief purser to the rich and famous,’ she answered calmly, ‘I scrubbed decks and washed dishes for two years and really shitty money.’’

Work hard, and you will be rewarded. I’ve always believed that, but it was refreshing to meet a living reminder in yoga pants.

Are you going to look for the goodness in things or the darkness in things?  That’s the choice.

The man who owned the hotel was an older Greek man named Costas. He was a friendly guy who sat by the reception area with his coffee and cigarettes and chatted with guests. He also had a little Ipad he gazed into like a looking glass. It seemed every morning when we joined him for the free coffee, he’d have some horrible news of the world to share.  My funny British yoga/drinking buddy appropriately called him ‘Dr. Doom and Gloom’.  He was the first to tell us about David Bowie, the bombing in Turkey, and the death of Alan Rickman.  Casual conversation with him usually ended up with him offering grim prophecies of an imminent WW III ‘Jim, you Americans won’t be able to avoid it this time’, and the collapse of world economic markets.  He seemed convinced civil war in his home country of Greece is also not far off.  His current impression of Americans in general could be summed up, to use his words, with ‘Miley Cyrus’ and ‘The Kardashians’. I asked him why he cared so much, especially living in paradise and all.  His response, ‘I have friends at home and these other places,’ While I respect the compassion, it seems like a horrible way to set the tone for your day.  Note to self, stop watching the news in the morning.  Which leads me to..

How you start your day sets the tone for your day.

I don’t need a lot of words to express how great my days started during my Costa Rica getaway.

Well, I think I could go on and on, but I’ll stop. My travel intentions to deepen my yoga practice, make a few friends from foreign lands, and most of all, unwind in a hammock on the ocean were all realized.

The universe is listening.  You just need to be clear about what you’re asking for.

Here are some of my favorite pics.

The Studio that dreams are made of..

Rock Garden on the beach

The check-in desk and wi-fi zone

The 'airport'

The studio

The Montezuma Falls.   Where the cool kids hang out.

Hotel Los Mangos

Snorkel Destination

Dr. Doom & Gloom

A banquet of yoga


Warrior II Selfie.

Some wildlife

The pool.

The big beach.

Downtown Montezuma.

Lunch crasher.

The ocean.

And last but certainly not least, the hammock..

Thanks for listening.



Monday, March 09, 2015

Iceland in the winter?

As you can see, the trusty Ice Cream Diaries seems to get little attention for anything besides my travel adventures or a new coffee table book.  As I've explained before, it's not because I don't still love the gig or that I'm not still entertained by the cool stuff that happens in my little slice of ice cream paradise.  Case in point, the very cool marketing poster handmade by my buddy's 10 year old daughter Mallory..

In any event, one of the many 'off-season' thoughts that runs through my head and often falls onto my 'projects list' for the new year is to resurrect the old ICD blog for more the just the aforementioned travel and book release entries.  Suffice to say, I wish I could promise a weekly new entry or even a monthly one, but in the more likely event that this snow actually does melt and ice cream chaos returns to consume my life as it does every year starting around April 23rd, I've learned better than to make such a promise.  But who knows.  Perhaps something or someone will inspire me between now and next January..

In the meantime, let's talk about my latest winter break, or 'January of Jim' as I like to call it.  As you probably know, in addition to my usual trip west for some Utah skiing and Colorado quality time with great friends, I like to boldly go to a place I've never gone before.  Ideally, it's a destination on my travel bucket list.  Last year's Galapagos Islands trip was a tough act to follow to be sure.  An African safari was high on the list this year, but the whole Ebola thing spooked me from that a little bit.

Perhaps next year.   If anyone has any tips.. Or would care to join?

But let's talk about this year, shall we?  As you probably already know (and if the title of this blog didn't give it away), this year's port o' call was Iceland.  It didn't click off the 'warm and tropical' box on my January destination criteria, but it's been a place I've wanted to go for some time.  Sure, a July visit to Iceland has its advantages, but the reality for me right now is I'm not able to leave my teenager alone for more than a day or two during the high season.  And by teenager I mean Mt. Tom's of course.   I knew Iceland wouldn't be warm in early February (I booked it as late as I could in my break so as to have more than the four hours of daylight I would have gotten in early January).  It was a lot of great things but I can't say warm was one of them.  Then again 30's and 40's felt balmy after the single digit highs I left here in snowy Massachusetts.

And besides, who wouldn't want to go to a place where there were 130 volcanos and 80% of the population believe that elves are real.

Who knew when I booked the trip back in November that I'd be flying right in the middle of the Superbowl.  And much more importantly, who knew our beloved Patriots would be in said Superbowl.  I did get to watch the first half in the international wing of Logan airport.  As luck would have it, I got to travel on one of the few IcelandAir planes equipped with Wi-Fi.  Eight euros well spent..

Just five short hours and one missed night of sleep later, I stepped foot on the same giant chunk of lava our first lunar astronauts trained on, the magical treeless isle of Iceland.

I couldn't resist the map with the volcanoes on it. 

I could tell from the spotless Ikea-like airport, this was no ordinary country.

Even the airport bathroom was something..

It was just a quick and sleepy forty-five minute shuttle from Keflavlik to downtown Reykjavik.  I was a little leery about staying in a hostel, being over 21 years old and not traveling with a backpack, but my fears were unfounded.  It didn't hurt that I had chosen one of the best hostels on the entire planet.

Loft Hostel

Super cool, nice rooms, downtown location, clean and peaceful, happy hour every day, and live music most nights.  Hostels everywhere could learn a lot from this place.

And what's not to like about a place that cuts your morning cold cuts into heart shapes?

After check-in and a quick jetlag-induced power nap, it was off to get the lay of the land and book a few excursion for my week in the land of ice.

Looking across the bay..

The Hallgrimskrikja church...

The view from the belfry of the church...

Ok, I didn't go here.   It claims to be the only one in the world.  Proving that there truly is a museum for everything.

Moving right along.   Did you know what is the most popular restaurant in Iceland?

Yes. it's true.   Don't ask me what the brownish condiment was because while it was yummy, I have no idea.

It was much tastier than this would have been, despite what the label might lead you to believe..

Dried fish and fermented shark are the 'local foods' tourists are told to try while they are here.  Luckily, one of my travel guides gave us some helpful tips on that.   He told us about the process of fermenting the sharks, which involved months of hanging in a barn, among other not so pleasant things.  He also mentioned the locals call it rotten shark, and it's about the last thing they would choose to eat.  Ok, maybe just before pickled ram testicles and blood pudding, other tourist temptations he told us to avoid, although he probably didn't need to.  He also said they would probably 'turn your stomach upside down'.   I agreed, and wisely stuck to hot dogs and Paninis. 

Although I must admit I was tempted by the reindeer..

Speaking of ice cream (it is the Ice Cream Diaries after all), when I see a sign in a window that says 'Authentic Icelandic Ice Cream', I must investigate...

Truth be told, while the consistency (aka overrun) was decent, the caramel pecan lacked flavor.  On the bright side, it left me feeling better about my ability to go head-to-head with Iceland in an ice cream taste-off.

Did you know that professional boxing is illegal in Iceland?

And that geothermal power heats over 90% of the homes.  For cheap.

Above is one of the turbines to prove it.  Below is what I call 'sunrise over a power plant'..

It was interesting to walk through town in the dark.  At 10:30 in the morning..

When there's a bar next door called the Lebowski Bar, you know it's really just a matter of time before you find yourself there. 

Sure enough, I did.  While I expected it to be Hard Rock Café-like, full of American tourists and tacky collectibles all over the walls, I was happily surprised by the healthy mix of locals and tourists.   The bartenders were friendly, and the movie trivia game was a lot of fun.  Of course it always to helps to win, thanks to my movie Mensa friends from NYC who I met at the bar.  The place did have a life-sized bowling alley, Big Lebowski trivia on the walls, and a full white Russian menu, so they did quite enough to live up to tourists' expectations..

Beers weren't cheap (around 10 bucks a piece on average pretty much everywhere you went), but I did manage to find a sweet old pub at the end of the street that offered a big beer and a shot (some kind of vodka I think) for 570 Kronur, about six bucks.   Olsmidjan Bar
By the way, did you know beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989?
Happy place, Iceland style..

Speaking of beer, I thought this was funny.  And worthy of an ice cream version for my own window..

Unlike the dudes from New Jersey I met at the Lebowski Bar who were just there to party, I was actually there to see what I'd heard were some amazing landscapes in form of glaciers, mountains (volcanos), waterfalls, and geysers, so I booked the obligatory Golden Circle tour.  None disappointed..

Pingvellir National Park..

Gullfoss Waterfall

Strokkur geyser.  The tour guide suggested we 'stand as close to the geyser as you can to get the full effect'.  Not something you'd hear at Yellowstone..

Icelandic horses, they are a hearty breed.  They are purposely kept out of the barn so they don't get soft.   And if you're thinking about bringing any other type of horse into the country, not gonna happen.  This line is staying pure.  And I was told they don't like to be called ponies..
After a long and amazing day being at one with the cool and chilly Icelandic landscape, one owes it to themselves to spend a day in the infamous tropical oasis near the Arctic Circle, the Blue LagoonNational Geographic calls it one of the 25 wonders of the world.  She's got my vote.

My picture doesn't do it just so I'll have to steal one from their site...

The reason I didn't get a good picture that day is because I just didn't want to get out until they kicked me out.  100 degree mineral-infused water, swim up bar, saunas, mud masks, refreshing waterfalls, and in-water massages.  This place truly was a slice of paradise tucked inside a volcano crater.   Words just can't fully describe the awesomeness of this place.

And of course, last but not least, what would a trip to Iceland in the winter be without a search for the Northern Lights.  Aurora Borealis.   Downtown Rejkavik, although it is the capital of Iceland and where two-thirds of the country's three hundred thousand inhabitants live, looks more like a sprawling suburb than a city.  It does throw off some light, but I wouldn't be surprised if you could still see a strong night of the Northern Lights from the rooftop deck of my hostel.  But that's not the way you typically do it here when you really want to get a good look.  You book an excursion to a dark part of the island at least a half hour out in any direction.  Yes, you can go by boat too.   Our bus left at 8 pm, and by 8:45 we were standing in a snow-covered field in quite literally the middle of nowhere. 


 It was darker than this photo makes it seem.   Unfortunately, you can't force the northern lights appear.  They come and go as they please.   All you can do set up your tripod, wait, and hope.  When you get cold, you go inside the little snack bar and grab a hot cocoa.

Standing in that dark and snowy field with a hundred strangers from many corners of the world, each of us trying to satisfy a curiosity, was very cool, bordering on strangely spiritual.  I've always preached it's much more about the journey than the destination, but that field on that cold night really felt like a destination for me and this collective group of strangers.  Who doesn't have 'seeing the Northern Lights' on their bucket list?  Through some strange versions of the alignment of our planets, we had found our way here, like Richard Dreyfuss and his band of summoned strangers standing in the desert in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  None of us knew exactly what we were going to see, but we knew it had the potential to be big.  I tried not to make this trip all about seeing the lights, but I still couldn't help but be caught up in the anticipation, camera at the ready.

We stared at a still beautiful starry sky for a long time, with only an occasional shooting star as a reward.  After what seemed like hours, my frozen toes surrendered, and I sought refuge in the warm shuttle bus.   I flipped through many of the photos I've just shared with you and reminisced about all the amazing sights and experiences I'd had during my week in Iceland.  Sigur Ros, Takk played in my ears.  I had met some great people and been exposed to a whole different way of life while reaffirming we all still crave the same things.  I'd built upon my 'get out of your comfort zone' traveling solo confidence and enjoyed some much needed time of reflection with my journal and a strong latte with the locals in their favorite cafés.   I was in a good place.  I didn't need to see the lights to make this trip a success.  I was fulfilled.  Bus driver, I'm ready to go home now.

And just as it is with so much of life, when you release your need for something, it finally appears...

Thanks for listening.