The Naked Truth About Iceland

A friend of mine just returned from Iceland. She knew I’d been there last year and asked me if I had any advice for her before she left. I plucked some tips from the following essay. I wrote it when Jeff and I returned to Noth Carolina and thawed out. Mind you, we went in April; her trip might have been warmer. Anyway, I’m hoping my (mis)adventures helped her. Particularly my experience at one of the public baths . . .

I never planned on visiting Iceland. I’d been accustomed to saying no when my husband, Jeff, asked me to take any trip with him. It didn’t matter if it was a full-on vacation, or a two-day junket. “Shell, do you want to go to Vegas with me for a meeting?” Um, no. “Do you want to join me in Colorado for–” No. “Do you want to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with me next summer? Double no.
I don’t dislike my husband, it’s just my fear of flying is intense, and so is my anxiety over leaving my son. I have to admit though, that as the months went by last year I regretted passing up a “trip of a lifetime” to Africa. I knew I couldn’t let this trip to Iceland go. Which is ironic because after lining up help for my child I proceeded to dismiss it completely.
I didn’t think about what to pack, where to tour, or how to manage the cold. I didn’t have a coat because my daughter had taken them all, and I ignored Jeff’s warnings about dressing in layers. (Please, I’m a middle-aged woman. The mere thought of layers makes me sweat.) All I thought about was getting enough Xanax for each leg of the journey.
After a knuckle-biting flight we landed in Reykjavik. I could tell from glancing out the window that I was an idiot for only bringing a sweater. It didn’t matter that it was April—springtime to me—it was called Ice-Land for a reason. Jeff said it would be chilly, but he forgot the part about the wind. There are no trees in Iceland. None. The Vikings cut them all down, (bastards) and they didn’t even plant any conifers on the way out. It didn’t look like Sweden with its perky pine trees, it looked more like Mars, but grey. “This is a God-forsaken place,” I thought to myself as the plane lurched to the ground. However, the beauty of our flight attendants compensated for the naked landscape.
My first real Icelandic experience, (other than being knocked over by 30 mph winds) was thawing out in a hotel room warmed naturally by geothermal heating. It felt like you were sitting on a volcano. Which you were because the country is still rocked by lava. This is wonderful unless you’re someone like me who can’t sleep at night even in the most ideal situation. I’m like a bat. I need my room to be cold, dark, and damp. I fixed my problem by sleeping naked with a wet towel on me every night. (The front desk just stared at me when I asked for a fan.)
My husband slept like a baby. He powered through his jet lag and got up at 6:00 am the first morning to make a dry-suited scuba dive. He’d been to Iceland twice before but never had time to experience the Silfra fissure. It’s a crack between North America and Europe that was formed by the constant pulling apart of two tectonic plates. It’s a “geological wonder” and one of the world’s most popular diving destinations because in some of the really narrow openings you can touch both continents at the same time. Big deal. I had my own underwater adventure that day. I went to a fish spa and had my feet nibbled on for twenty minutes.
Our first outing together was significant. To me anyway. Jeff and I went to a public, geothermal bath. This is the way Icelanders relax, socialize, and ground themselves. No question, when you live in Iceland you go to the pool. Naturally I didn’t bring a bathing suit. When Jeff informed me the day before we left town that we were going to bathe outdoors my mind wasn’t on fashion. I packed a grey and black ensemble made up of a pair of his old running shorts and one of my faded black sports bras. I looked like something out of an Eastern Bloc travel magazine.
Jeff chose the same pool he’d visited earlier called the Laugardalslaug. (Don’t bother.) I felt a little uneasy as we went to our separate locker rooms. He was a veteran and understood the customs. Not me. When I entered the ladies locker room, which was large and completely full, I understood what my gut had been trying to tell me. I practically had to pick up my jaw from the floor when I saw that everyone—and I mean everyone–was buck naked. Pregnant women, old women, young girls, teenagers—everyone. And they were everywhere. I could barely stifle a gasp. I just stood there gaping like a Puritan who had just landed in a nudist colony. Not that there was anything prurient about it—quite the opposite. But my prudish Southern self wasn’t used to such complete nudity. “No way,” I whispered. “No way, no way.”
I proceeded to slink on all fours to the furthest region of the room and fix my eyes on the locker in front of me. There I was able to practice every slumber party trick I’d ever learned in Junior High. I pulled my skirt up around my neck, removing and added clothing as deftly as possible. I peeked over my shoulder every now and then to see if anyone was laughing at me. No one noticed, no one cared. And then I felt self-conscious about feeling self-conscious.
When I finally untangled myself from my clothing I snuck around trying not to look at anyone or anything. What I didn’t realize until later—and this is the truth—is that you’re required to shower before entering the pools. That’s why you got naked. You are to practice good hygiene before dipping in the natural, unchlorinated water. Jeff, being a man, left out this detail. In one of those I Love Lucy moments I crept behind the showers to avoid stripping down. This is a serious no no. I can’t believe I didn’t get caught by the guard. At least I’d showered that morning.
When I tiptoed outside there were hot tubs and pools everywhere. I saw Jeff and I beamed myself over to him because it was freezing. He chose what was supposed to be the coolest tub. Of course it was way too hot for my neurotic body so I just bit my lip and bobbed at the waist and pretended to enjoy the water. “Wow, it really is miraculously hot in here!” Jeff kept popping out of the tub to try different pools, so I was alone for a while. Finally, I started chatting with people. There were two Vikings to my right, a small group of Kiwis in front of me, and a consistent flow of natives bubbling about at all times. I heard some great Danish jokes and learned how to order beer in Icelandic. Not easy. Our Garmin couldn’t even pronounce the words. I left the tub only when my heart started doing flip flops.
Our final outing was designated for a different type of outdoor adventure. Geysers and waterfalls. I don’t really care much for scenery, but even I couldn’t help filming the barren, volcanic wasteland on our way to the country’s most famous and powerful waterfall, Gullfloss. I was practically blown away by its force, and I cursed myself for the 100th time for not bringing the right clothing. By the end of the day I was wearing Jeff’s orange Men-At-Work windbreaker, my black nylon sweater, a shtetl scarf over my head, (I definitely did not look like Grace Kelly in a convertible) some Icelandic wool mittens, leggings, and boots. And I was still cold.
By the end of a trip filled with waterfalls and geysers, public baths and fishcakes I didn’t want to go home. Yes, I froze my ass off in the wind, but the country’s naked beauty was well worth the head cold I earned a few days later. And I was blown away by something else as well–Iceland’s quirkiness. I’m sure we’ll go back, and when we do I’m going to bring a coat and a small fan. And I’ll be on my best, most compliant behavior in the locker rooms. I’m working on my nudity right now. Good thing because a trip to Finland–and its saunas—is just around the corner.

The South Pole, Does She or Doesn’t She?

My husband wants to go to the South Pole. With me. And no, not just because Anthony Bourdain went there and ate God knows what. He’s been bugging me about a trip like this for years. The first thing I thought of when he mentioned it to me was Love and Death, one of DH Lawrence’s principal themes in Women in Love. The snow was “deathlike” and it represented mortality. I must say the image of numbing white expanse spooks me. Funny, because I have no reservations, (literally or otherwise) about making a trip to the deepest nether regions of the ocean to experience the Titanic. What a bittersweet wonder. In fact, the mere thought of bobbing around the rusticles in an aquatic ladybug gives me the good kind of shivers. Not the kind you get by panting through primordial slush.
That kind kept me off of Mount Kilimanjaro two years ago when I had the opportunity to take another Trip of a Lifetime with my husband and daughter. Yes, I turned it down. Not that either of them thought I was up to it, so to speak. The anxiety I felt over the number of shots I would need to get before the trip, the number of hours I would spend in the air, and the eternity it would take me to train for it, was overwhelming. But what unsealed the deal for me was leaving my special needs son behind. The adventure seemed risky and rather self-indulgent to me at the time. At the time.
I’ve been thinking about the number of years I have left on the earth, though. Experiences. When you get older it’s natural for your values to change. Love for family remains steadfast, but accumulation loses its glow. The desire to “buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like” wanes, if it existed at all. I have a museum-quality collection of artifacts, oddities, and antique toys, etc., that I’ve been amassing since I was twelve. I’m done now. No need for anything else. No, really. I mean, what with am I supposed to do with my 18th century enema pump and my Victorian shock boxes at this point except dust them? I just want to share my collectibles with others. And one day, if anyone has the patience to show me how to post photos, (yes, I’m ashamed of myself) I will post them on this blog, and create a virtual museum, and hopefully stimulate conversation with like-minded people. But for now, at my age, it’s time to obsess over my thriving bucket list. Experiences over stuff.
Yet, I didn’t go to Africa, and I’m about to not go to the South Pole. I have below zero interest in that frigid, God-forsaken place. It never has and never will earn a spot on my bucket list. But is it right to dismiss another Trip of a Lifetime simply because it’s not a “Hell Yeah?” One tiny part of me would like to know why the people who research there find it irresistible. (Okay, I guess that counts as above zero interest.) I’m just a little curious about why scientists, nerds, adventurers, and other audacious individuals choose that lifestyle. Why do they prefer to expend their time and intellect inside of a titanic igloo? The whole thing reminds me of TED on ice.
I’ll always regret that I never made it to Egypt to explore the pyramids. But I’m grateful I got to explore a few tunnels in Jerusalem and some Roman/Greco playgrounds. I might not make it to the South Pole but I did live in Terre Haute, IN for six years. I did get to experience bitter cold in spectacular Midwestern fashion. There’s some equivalency, you know. Terre Haute. The South Pole. Both are at the ends of the earth.
I just need to overcome that gnawing anxiety about leaving my son. Maybe I could bring him along. And his dog. Why blow another opportunity? Why miss another Trip of a Lifetime? If I could score a swing for my child all would be well. Does she, or doesn’t she? I don’t know. I’m not getting any younger though, that’s for damn sure. Sometimes I just wish my husband’s big ideas could be less taxing and more relaxing. This one gives me goosebumps.

Where Have All the Yard Signs Gone?

Battle lines were drawn immediately in my suburban neighborhood during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. My neighbors proudly displayed their political yard signs and defied anyone to disagree with their alliances. Truly annoying people added cheap cardboard rants to inform and bully non-believers into drinking their Kool-Aid.

You knew who your enemies were, (for at least six months, anyway) and you appreciated your allies as you zig-zagged down the street making loyalty checks and sizing up the state of the campaign.

When my young daughter expressed interest in damaging, capturing, or knocking down one of my neighbor’s signs I turned a blind eye. (Bad Mommy. And no, she didn’t vandalize.) My daughter’s in college now and Berned out of the election. Her candidate didn’t make it into the general. He was robbed, so she’s done.

Today you don’t see any signs in my sub-division. Not one. I’m sure this will change as we slide into the final stretch of this tedious but enthralling train wreck. It’s a shame, (shame being the operative word) that my neighbors, and the electorate in general, aren’t proud enough to display their allegiances. The ones who do are either judged and juried immediately, or forced to run and take cover in their homes after making a trip to the grocery store.

I wonder if my neighborly situation will improve in the next few weeks and the American spirit will prevail. I wonder if my neighbors will proudly plant their yard signs based on conviction and faith in their candidate—not just on mutual hatred for the other one. I haven’t put my sign out yet. And that’s not a good sign.

Potty Talk–a Tale of HB2

Say it aint so! NCAA and ACC, you’ve knocked the buckle right off of my Bible belt state! North Carolina is at its knees, and you are testing our faith. Pulling seven NCAA championship games, and then withdrawing nine ACC championships—including, gulp, basketball—all because of our stupid potty law? This is September madness. What the hell are the righteous supposed to do?

I hear moaning everywhere, and the gritting of teeth, and the tearing of flesh, and so on. I understand that principle is important but we’re talking about sports for God’s sake. And a huge economic impact. Please Council of Presidents, rethink your decision. Please Governor McCrory rethink your decision. North Carolina is deeply polarized like the rest of the country, and people have drawn battle lines over this issue. Talk about your Battleground State.

I thought about Governor McCrory and bad decisions when I visited the Netherlands in April. My husband and I wanted to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Hieronymus Bosch’s death. Bosch was a medieval artist whose paintings about heaven and hell were macabre and brilliant. His heaven was jolly and meant for pure spirits; his hell was for tortured souls who had made poor choices in life.

We confronted HB2 every time we went to the bathroom. The ubiquitous unisex signs implied justice for all, and caused me to lament the sad state of our politics at home. HB2 had passed shortly before we left town and it was embarrassing trying to explain to people that it didn’t represent us, just our myopic lawmakers. (The real potty talk came later though, when I tried to explain Donald Trump.)
I would like to share my own HB2 experience, which occurred in the charming city of Den Bosch. It was a wee adventure that left me, well, flushed.

One morning my husband and I went to a pub for breakfast and before we ate I wanted to freshen up. I practically fell down the circular staircase looking for Damas and Gent signs, stick figures, or signage of any kind guiding me to the correct bathroom, but there weren’t any. I admired the state of civil liberties in the Netherlands. “If we could only be so open-minded at home,” I thought. “They don’t even need signs here.” I entered one of the bathrooms and spotted a stall immediately.

After relieving myself I was about to step out when I heard the door open. Then I felt heavy steps on the floor. I got nervous when I didn’t hear any chatty female voices. My face started to pump when it occurred to me that there must have been urinals in the room. As I listened to the deep growls and low voices around me I realized I was an idiot who was stuck in a men’s room.

How gender specific. Oh hell, how on earth did this happen? At that moment discrimination wasn’t on my mind, or the LGBT community, I just wanted to escape my own poor choice.

This probably would’ve been funny in the states, where I could have joked my way out of the bathroom. But in Den Bosch I was a female tourist trapped in a men’s room stall surrounded by male grunts and complicated Dutch accents. (My years of German didn’t make a dent in what I was hearing.) My I Love Lucy situation was causing me sweat and gag, but I didn’t dare peek out of my stall. I just had to wait.

Finally, after about six minutes of quiet I slowly opened the door and fled. “Why didn’t you just look at the signs?” My husband asked me as I pumped half a bottle of hand sanitizer on my body. “I didn’t see any, I swear!” So much for awareness.

When we returned to NC HB2 hadn’t been repealed, businesses were starting to migrate, and athletic organizations were threatening to retract tournaments. The U.K. Foreign Office had even issued a travel alert to its LGBT community. How embarrassing. That’s when I knew my state was circling the drain and I should just turn around and go back to the Netherlands.

Pity Bosch isn’t alive today. He would converse with Governor McCrory about the dire consequences of his decision. “Governor, methinks you should reconsider this most egregious and unfortunate law. North Carolina and its legions of mighty sports fans are ill-tempered and burning with outrage. They may not be prepared to turn the other cheek, or even press the lever in your general direction this November. You have pissed them off, so to speak, and they are hell-bent on tanking your career in politics. Believe me sir, life without basketball is bad, but hell is worse.”

I’m sure Bosch would enjoy painting the hell going on inside the NC legislature. He might even turn his brush outside to an array of rainbow-colored porta-potties basking in the sunshine. Maybe porta-potties are the answer to the HB2 problem. They are unisex after all. I say porta-potties for everyone! Perhaps I should contact the NCAA and ACC powers that be and share my solution. “Ladies and Gentlemen, porta-potties don’t discriminate.”

If it were only that simple. Unfortunately, time is running out in the Tarheel state; our lawmakers need to repeal this stinking law. I don’t want North Carolina to go down the toilet. Our sporting championships already have.