Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Last Post

So - I haven't updated this blog in months, and sadly this will be the last post. It's not that I'm no longer a Yankee, but I'm no longer in London. The Beautiful Competition and I left for home when our two-year contracts were up, and we're now back in Sunny Seattle. Follow further updates on

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Scotch and All That

It's not often that I get to travel for a client - and by travel I mean to go a place I haven't been before and spend some quality travel-time there getting to know it. One of my new clients is Johnnie Walker, and thanks to them I got to spend some quality time in Scotland learning about Scotch (literally, everything about it from the distilling to the bottling) and Johnnie Walker in particular. I came away with a vastly-increased knowledge of Scotch, and got to stay in a castle and see a bit of Scotland to boot.

I haven't been to Scotland in ten years and that was as a student backpacker, so it was nice to stay in a good bed and do some things I didn't get to do the first time around. And it really did teach me a lot about Scotch, which if you've followed my other blog for any length of time you know is a bit of a hobby of mine - and I'm afraid is about to become much more of a hobby.

Some pics are below, including me in a kilt. Aye laddie!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

City Break: Amsterdam

Last weekend was the final bank holiday weekend of the year in the UK, which meant it was the perfect time to fulfil a travel goal that has been high on my list for some time: Amsterdam! Which I have to admit is something that appeals to me less and less the more time goes by (read: the older I get.) So it was high time to take advantage and go.

Amsterdam’s reputation comes largely from its extremely liberal attitude towards, well, almost everything. The city is a miracle of what liberalism can accomplish: bikes everywhere vastly reducing traffic and pollution, power supplied by windmills along the coast, and an extremely tolerant atmosphere that even leaves London behind. The legalized marijuana and prostitution is simply just an extension of this overall attitude that is extremely refreshing.

The goal of our trip was very simple: relaxation. We weren’t out to run from tourist spot to tourist spot, we just wanted to take a nice deep breath and chill out in the middle of a very stressful work/move time. I started reading High Life, British Air’s inflight magazine, on the trip over and by the time we set down a mere 45 minutes later I was already much more laid back.

We spent the first night getting to know the area around our hotel, which was thankfully right in the middle of the city center, so we were never far from anything and could easily walk to everything we wanted to see and do. The high value of the Euro against the Pound was the only unfortunate part; the prices in Amsterdam were some of the highest we’d seen in Euros anywhere.

But it didn’t interfere with our fun. We found a great Mexican restaurant (itself enough of a rarity in Europe), had some Dutch pancakes, and simply sat and watched the world go by. We hit the Anne Frank Haus, where Anne and her family hid during World War 2, as sobering an experience as I’ve had. Amsterdam features two great art museums, the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, which we hit up as well to round out our cultural experience.

The city itself has an excellent vibe that’s difficult to describe. The leaning buildings, some five stories high, loom over the brick streets and wide canals and everything seems ultra-modern but relatively unchanged since it was built in the 1600s and 1700s (at least in the city center, outside it becomes far more modern.) Yeah, we walked through the Red Light District and it’s as sleazy as you might expect. The two main churches in town became victims of Calvinist reform and were stripped of anything ostentatious, leaving their base architecture to admire without any of the distracting trappings. There was also a really fascinating Catholic Church – Our Lord in the Attic – which is named because it was indeed in the attic of a house after the Catholics were forced underground (or high aboveground in this case.) Not something you see every holiday.

The trip was a great time and I’m glad we did it when we did. We’ve got a few more lined up in the future, some higher priorities than others. Hopefully we’ll get a few good blog posts out of it too.

And here's the slideshow:

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Greece: What Can I Say?

'What can I say?' is an excellent existential declaration of resignation. It is second only to the Russian declaration that translates (roughly) to: 'how could it be any other way?' These phrases are often used to describe something commonplace but troublesome, or in this case something for which words can add very little value.

'What can I say?' is how I feel about my trip to Greece. Keep in mind this was almost two months ago so clearly saying something wasn't top-of-mind, but I want to chronicle this trip here so when the book is published at the end of our wanders abroad there won't be a giant missing chapter.

We decided to take a week at an all-inclusive resort on the island of Kos, which (for us) was a bit of a splurge: beaches, pools, and all the free food and booze you can eat and drink. Basically, heaven. The ocean was cold but apart from that there's very little you can do to complain about an all-inclusive vacation in a resort. In fact we only left once, to go to Kos town, and that was just fine.

We did manage to spend a couple of days in Athens beforehand seeing the Acropolis and walking the city a bit. Athens is possibly one of the coolest cities I've been to in Europe, not only for the food (ranging from touristy to excellent) but just the overall vibe of the city: it felt like a place people lived rather than something that was gussied up for the sake of appearances. To be honest we were almost too tired to appreciate it: the vacation was an opportunity to recharge, and our time as tourists was just a prelude to laying on the beach and doing absolutely nothing.

Maybe that makes me a bad traveller. It's certainly different from the backpacking days in hostels. But all you can drink on the beach is a pretty strong argument for working a dayjob.

What can I say?

Monday, July 13, 2009


    An interregnum (plural interregna or interregnums) is a period of discontinuity of a government, organization, or social order.

Which is to say, my life right now. In London and otherwise. Which accounts for the absolute lack of posts on this blog in more than two months. So if you're still out there, I apologize profusely.

Things have been happening. We went to Greece. The photographic evidence is all over my Flickr stream, and if the code worked correctly I embedded it below. I'm not going to post about it because apart from Athens (which was great) and the beach (which was great and relaxing) there wasn't much to our trip to Greece. It was designed to relax, and relax it did.

My parents came for a visit. That's a massive blog post in and of itself, which I'll try to write up over the next week.

I saw Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock speak about the mythology of London at the British Library, a conversation which sparked my creative juices like nothing else has done since moving here. That's also another post I'll get around to in a bit.

The post title refers to the current reign of not-knowing in my life. Similar to how I felt before moving to London and not having a definite job, I'm now faced with an uncertain future on many fronts. There are a lot of giant question marks in my life right now. There are future goals but the road towards them is an uncertain and for me untravelled one.

I can't give details right now, but I will as I'm permitted. Nothing sinister mind you apart from the unknown. Although to bastardize Lovecraft - sometimes the fear of that is all the more sinister you need.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The London Trilogy

Once upon a time when I lived in New York, I had the distinct pleasure of reading Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy, a series of detective novels set in the City and exploring the various kinds of identity and existential issues that might strike a person living there. It is unfortunate that I can point to no book or series of books and say 'this! This is The London Trilogy. I am tempted to point to Peter Ackroyd, cite novels such as Hawksmoor and say 'this is the British Paul Auster!' but that would be unfair to Ackroyd's own immense prowess as a writer - he is simply Peter Ackroyd, no comparison necessary.

The themes within Hawksmoor are eerily similar to those in The New York Trilogy, and walk hand-in-hand with themes in other books I've read recently: The Master and Margarita, which is likely the second-best novel I've ever read after 100 Years of Solitude, and The Satanic Verses, which I've not yet finished but is majestic and glorious in its portrayal of the placeless place that is the expatriate's Ell Oh En Dee Oh En.

But there is no London Trilogy per se just as there is no version of Woody Allen here to assign the city a theme tune (Rhapsody in Blue for New York, of course) and film us all in glorious black-and-white. The startling thing is that we don't need an Allen or a Trilogy. We're doing quite well on our own thank you, as Mr. Ackroyd and Mr. Rushdie and how many countless other writers have proven.

It is the very essence of unnaturalness that so many people are shoved into such a small space and I suspect it is this unnatural state of affairs that lead us to examine our identifies when confronted with so many other individuals at the same time. The millions of years of evolution that lead us here did nothing to prepare us for our Londons and our New Yorks, and for the question-answer hunt that we embrace when we move here and become aware of the glorious and lush tapestry of these lives around us.

I offer a new metaphor: London is a loom upon which we can weave our own patterns into the massive and unknowable cloth of life around us.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Magic

I don’t take much stock in ley lines, the supposed alignments between ancient sites (and in some modern mythology, where the planet’s energy, magnetic or otherwise, is stronger.) I can say with some authority that certain parts of London hold a kind of energy, of which I make no claim that it is spiritual or magnetic or otherwise.

But consider the layers of history and emotion here, and that twenty million people are packed inside the M25, and it’s not difficult to imagine that a person could feel this energy in some regard. Certain streets that are dark even in summer’s broad daylight, or areas that constantly feel like a party – whatever that might mean.

It’s easy to imagine London as a giant network or jigsaw puzzle of areas like this, little regions held together by sinew-streets that bind the city and its inhabitants like a spiderweb. Even underground just passing through certain stations allows you to pick up a brief but tangible piece of what lies Above.

When people say London is magic, I will agree for this reason alone.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Finally: A Group I Want To Join

Avast mateys. It not be a secret that I enjoy all things pirate-y, so it be with great pleasure that I discovered the London Pirate Festival today. The London Pirate Festival 'tis a three-day celebration of the pirate life, coinciding with Talk Like A Pirate day, the one day it be acceptable to let me pirate nature roam free.

The event schedule be sketchy for this year, but last year's events included a rum tasting and monkeyn' about on the Golden Hind, which that scurvy dog Drake was kind enough to lend.

Who knows where we be settin' sail this year? But strike me down and call me a one-eyed parrot if I not be attendin!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Wales Watching

Wow have I been bad about updating this blog. I offer two excuses: work has been busy, and perhaps bigger - I've been immersed in a pair of personal writing projects. We also haven't been doing much 'around London' stuff.

But - we did make it out to Wales over the Easter weekend, a nice four days on the Cambrian Coast. The trains there were FUBAR'd for several reasons: death on the tracks at Euston, then delays that caused us to get in far later than we wanted. But we had two solid days of sun and hiking; we stayed in a little B&B in Harlech, which is, as they say, "way out there." Very little tourist infrastructure, but that's fine. Snowdonia National Park was right there so of course we got some hiking in.

The 'tourist' highlight was Harlech Castle, one of the famous 'iron ring' of castles built by King Edward ('Braveheart') I to subjugate Wales. Several of Edward's castles are exceptionally well preserved, including Harlech, which may be one of the easiest to get to because of the train line into town. The castle is a World Heritage Site and is remarkably well-preserved, despite having fallen in several sieges and its curtain wall being mostly destroyed by cannon fire.

There's something to be said for leaving the tourist track a bit, even if it becomes inconvenient (especially when you don't have a car.) There's a certain authenticity that comes with staying in places that aren't designed to shuffle tourist dollars through, most notably in people's attitudes. Tourists are something you deal with, and it's almost a kind of false hospitality in a tourist town because you're there to Spend Money. In places like Harlech, you're there because you want to be there and the locals recognize it. They may be surprised, but it's a more genuine- authentic - feeling.

Kind of refreshing really.

Pics follow.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Forgot Paris

Not forgot really, just too damn busy to blog at the moment.

Paris was beautiful. Gorgeous. And I mean beautiful in the truest sense of the term, that the city planners and architects and residents took or take pleasure and pride in making things of an aesthetically pleasing nature simply because they can. Because it looks good.

Paris is also a place of expectation, especially if you're not from there. Are Parisians rude? No, no more so than people in any other large city. Are French people arrogant? Maybe, but no more so than anyone else I've encountered. The stereotypes are worthless. A gaggle of mimes isn't going to assault an American the second you step off the Eurostar. And a waiter isn't going to insult your wife in French (sorry Chevy.) Unless you do something to insult him or her first, I suppose.

It is undeniably romantic and there is more to see there than you could hope to see in four days. I probably could have spent the entire time in the Louvre and still not seen the entire thing.

Pictures are on my Paris set on my Flickr page, or helpfully embedded here.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Night at the Symphony

On Friday night we went to the London Symphony Orchestra's performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. A double-dose of Russian romanticism, if you will. It was the first LSO performance I'd heard that wasn't on a CD and the musical selection and the venue were both damn near perfect.

It's hard to describe what a sublime pleasure it is to hear a professional orchestra play amazing music in a venue that's as acoustically perfect as you could want. It may be as close as you can possibly come to an original performance directed by the composer himself; and it doesn't hurt to have such great musical selections, either. Rachmaninoff is a fucking genius and his third concerto is like listening to a 45-minute story about love and loss and madness.

And I get to go again in a few weeks!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Why So Serious: A Commuting Tip

Like many Londoners, I both love and hate various aspects of the public transport here. I love how efficient it is (most of the time), the helpfulness of the staff, the general cleanliness of the trains and buses (again, most of the time) and the fact that I can get just about anywhere in the city within an hour.

I don't like how crowded it can get, especially during rush hour. The Victoria line is my worst offender. It's not only packed solid but air circulation is abysmal, meaning the line is not only crowded but stuffy and beyond claustrophobic. It is at its worst in the morning when everyone from North London is packed into the trains, and I intentionally avoid it by taking the Picadilly line and changing to the Victoria at the last possible moment, even though it probably adds about 5 minutes to my trip.

This morning though I found an excellent solution to the overcrowding problem. Like all amazing scientific breakthroughs this came about by accident but I'm going to use it anytime I don't want my face shoved in some Russian's stinky armpit between Holloway Road and Green Park.

1. Find a comedy CD that you haven't heard in a couple of years. Say, Lewis Black or Dave Attell.
2. Put the comedy CD on your iPod or portable music device and crank it when you're on the Tube.
3. Look like a normal commuter, dour-faced and avoiding eye contact with everyone, closely examining either the adverts or the floor.
4. Laugh to yourself at the jokes only you can hear.
5. Laugh out loud when appropriate. But continue to avoid eye contact and otherwise act normally.
6. Watch as the people around you slowly move so you have a nice little 3-foot circle all to yourself.
7. Enjoy your commute.

Coming Attractions

We've been booking some holidays and planning out the rest of the year. Here's what we've got so far:

Confirmed: Long weekend in Paris, long weekend in Amsterdam (heh), long hiking weekend in Wales.

Strongly considering: Beach holiday in Egypt, a couple of weeks in Italy.

Would still like to do: Long weekend in remote Scotland, something else.

Any suggestions? If this is indeed our last year in the UK, we want to make it a memorable one!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Pamcakes (AKA Shrove Tuesday)

I had a post written about Shrove Tuesday and pancakes and how it was a distinctly British custom when I had the good sense to ask my mother whether she knew about 'pancake Tuesday.' Turns out yes, she did, and in fact it is celebrated in many places in America with large Catholic and Anglican populations.

I was raised Catholic - and I mean, went to church every Sunday and went to CCD and everything until I moved out - and I somehow had no knowledge of Shrove Tuesday. I knew about Mardi Gras of course, but not a day where you pour your leftover butter and eggs into pancake batter to make pancakes.

So anyway, I celebrated Shrove Tuesday today by going to McDonald's and eating some pancakes for breakfast. I need to apologize to my UK-based readers: sorry guys, but most of the pancakes here are not up to this American's snuff. Pancakes should be massive, the size of your head if possible, and a half-inch thick at minimum. They should be drowning in real maple syrup and have a light coating of butter on each 'cake.

What you guys have - and I respect this - is closer to a crepe. That's fine, it's just that we don't see eye-to-eye on this particular issue.

Someday, when I want to get rich, I'm going open an IHOP branch here in London.

Oh yeah: I'm giving up something for Lent, but I'm not going to tell you what it is in case I crash and burn miserably.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Neighborhood Love

The other day while driving to St. Pancras station I passed a building on North Road I've never seen before: a white clock tower set far back from the road. So on my way to another destination today (which I never reached) I decided to check it out. Here's the tower:
Clock Tower in Caledonian Park
The tower stands in the middle of Caledonian Park, surrounded by council estates and a few ageing buildings. Turns out this was the site of the Caledonian Market, opened by Prince Albert in 1855 and built on the site of Copenhagen House, a tea room and 'pleasure garden' (no, not like that) [update: actually, it may have been exactly like that - thanks MiddleWay!] that was on the site since the 1600s. The market is long gone, having departed after World War 2. It was originally a livestock market as it was on the terminus of the Great Northern Railway, and there were several pubs in the area named after livestock. I passed by one, The Lamb hotel, which has been (recently, it appears) boarded up for refurbishment.

The park is a nice and fairly hidden slice of forest and grass, for Islington anyway. The clocks still seemed to be keeping perfect time. The tower was nifty and these little mysteries are part of the reason I love London so much: how else can you find out that a park by your house was a 17th-century tea room that became a cattle market?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Waiter, There's A Toad In My Hole

Toad in the HoleIn my continued quest to learn more about my new home and its various gastro delights, I took the opportunity to experiment a bit while the Beautiful Competition is out of town by making Toad in the Hole, a dish that sounds like some kind of vague innuendo. There is some debate about what Toad in the Hole actually is: I used the UK definition to mean 'sausages cooked in Yorkshire pudding.' Which, for my fellow Yanks, is not actually pudding, it's a kind of roll or bread made from something very similar to pancake batter.

I went with BitchBuzz's Toad in the Hole recipe altering it slightly: I used a pre-made Yorkshire Pudding batter, and I think I screwed up the measurements a bit and made more than I should have. But it's not hard: brown the sausages by baking them for 25 minutes, then pour your batter in the pan and bake it for another 25 minutes. Bam. Toad in the Hole. Serve with mash(ed potatoes) and some gravy - I used a pre-made beef gravy - and pair it with something British. I opted for a medium dry Somerset cider for its sweetness.

Learnings: I don't think I left it in long enough - it's supposed to look a lot more brown than it ended up being and it's not 'crispy' as much as it is 'vaguely pancake-like.' Also, I'm going to mix some salt in with the batter because it's pretty bland without it.

My next British cooking adventure - whenever that might be - will feature partridge, because I want to cook something that's basically a pigeon.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

London Twestival

It was the original, it spawned a worldwide Twestival movement and tonight it's back. I'm heading out to Shoreditch with other bloggers, social media people, social media bloggers, online miscreants and a while list of people I've never met in person to meet up and talk all things Internet - and for charity!

I love these kinds of events: the London Bloggers Meetup is something I look forward to every month, even when I can't make it for whatever reason. Twestival's going to be like a massive version of that and if last time is any kind of comparison it will be a hell of a party.

I'll be the tall Yank in a Hellboy t-shirt. Hope to see you all there!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Toot Toot! Here Comes the Censor-ship!

I don't watch a lot of television as a rule, but the other day I had The Simpsons on in the background. The episode was the 9th season classic "The Cartridge Family," where Homer buys a gun to protect his family. In typical Homer fashion he gets a little extreme: shooting the TV to turn it off, shooting the lights to turn them off, shooting a can of beer to open it, and so forth. Marge ends up taking the kids and leaving after Homer fails to get rid of the gun. The end of the episode has Homer handing her the gun and saying he can't get rid of it himself, so he asks her to do it for him.

She goes to put the gun in a trash can, sees her reflection in the can's shiny lid, likes what she sees - and decides to keep the gun, placing it in her purse and walking out.

At least, that's how I remember it ending.

The version that airs here, Marge opens the can - and the show (awkwardly) cuts to her walking out of the room.

What. The. Hell.

It is clearly intentional censorship; I've noticed pieces of it before - for example, the episode of Futurama where Bender becomes Santa Claus, there's a scene of a kid writing about how his dead grandfather is starting to smell, and the camera cuts to a dead old man's body - but the cut was missing from the version I saw, sanitizing the joke slightly. That kind of censorship I can at least understand. But "The Cartridge Family" kind took it to a whole different level.

It changed the entire meaning of the episode. Marge's decision to keep the gun after being so adamantly against is a powerful statement about the allure of owning a firearm, and is one of the more morally ambiguous statements in any Simpsons episode. (In fact, I remember not liking the episode the first time I saw it for that very reason - ah, youth.) Removing the scene completely also removes that moral ambiguity. And I cannot think of a legitimate reason why it would be cut apart from a censor deciding to change what the artist created. There are no laws (that I know of) restricting showing guns - Homer clearly had one and shot at household items all throughout the same show. Crime dramas are available on nearly every channel. No, this was insidious and intentional censorship to alter the meaning of the episode itself, and it is disturbing on many levels.

I've noticed a trend in the UK to simply put your trust in the government. They will do the right thing for you, they have your best interests at heart, they exist for the welfare of the people. Right? No. This is a clear example of why that isn't the case. People don't need to be protected from art or satire. People don't need to be told what to think, or worse, have their thinking manipulated through some nameless government (or commercial - this was on a commercial network) scrub imagines they know what's best for everyone.

To put it in Yankee terms: Fuck. That. Noise.

Seeing such a blatant display of censorship, especially of a thought-provoking piece of satire, very much ruined my faith in old broadcast media here. Not that my faith was terribly high in the first place, but I have to think: if they're willing to cut a few seconds out of The Simpsons to change the meaning of the episode so that people may not consider why gun ownership isn't as simple as a buffoon shooting at a beer can or throwing a gat in the garbage, then what else is being changed?

It's not a pleasant thought.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Little Green Street

Save Little Green Street!

We're kind of museumed out (we hit the Natural History Museum last weekend, which I meant to write about but never did) so were looking for something a little different to do this weekend. Along came Diamond Geezer's post about Little Green Street, one of those little hidden London gems you hear about and say 'hey, I should go see that sometime' and never get to. It is, in DG's words:
    a rather special Georgian terrace called Little Green Street. It's a very short road, only about ten families live here. It's very old, dating back more than 250 years to the early 18th century. It's pretty much intact, untouched by the Blitz and modern development. It's rather photogenic, indeed you can imagine the BBC shooting a costume drama here (so long as they painted over the yellow lines and covered the bollards). It's Grade II listed, as you might hope and expect. It's cobbled, and you don't get a lot of cobbles in Camden. It's also very narrow, less than three metres wide.
Cool, but worth a weekend trip? Well yes. I first heard of Little Green Street a few months ago when its story hit another blog (although I can't recall which one, and my Google Reader is being persnickety.) Little Green Street is facing what so many other slices of historic London face - progress. Little Green Street is the only access to an old slice of road that also has an old slice of undeveloped property, where a developer would like to put in some houses.

The problem is that Little Green Street is so narrow that the construction equipment wouldn't leave room for people to walk as it drove down the street, or it would require that the houses be knocked down (they're Grade II listed so I doubt that would happen.) The residents have their own website and blog explaining their ongoing struggle with the Camden council to save Little Green Street, and there is a massive banner with their website facing Highgate Road.

The street itself is one of those blink-and-you-miss-it little alleyways London has so many of, and there is definitely a different and quiet vibe there despite the massive council estates right next door and the busy street on the other side. I wish the residents all the best luck in fighting the development; the PR does seem to be on their side, which is good.

For us, it was close enough to make a Saturday jaunt - between our flat and Hampstead Heath, so only about 20 minutes away. It also offered a good excuse to check out nearby Kentish Town, which turned out to be a really hip and vibrant community - surprising, since it was known just a few years ago as being rife with gang warfare and drugs. It's practically a model of urban renewal in London and we both had neighborhood envy just from walking around. We found a nice pub, had a pint and just talked away the afternoon. Then walked back to Camden Town to catch the bus home.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Little Housecleaning

Just adding a couple of links to the sidebar. It's not often I find two cool London blogs in one day, but thanks to Jaz's writeup on Londonist, I found The Cabbie's Capital, by a black cab driver, and Jane's London, by a girl who likes to take kickass pictures of unusual things and may live somewhere near me, judging by the number of pictures of things on Holloway Road.

London Underground Station or Fictional Fantasy Location?

Congrats! You're about 100% knowledgable of fantasy worlds and/or London Tube stations.

I certainly hope you made this score without cheating, because no one likes a cheat. I'll assume you didn't and congratulate both your nerd knowledge and / or your knowledge of London's geography. Show this score to someone so they're proud of you.

London Underground Station or Fictional Fantasy Location?
Take More Quizzes

A little unfair since I made the quiz, but hey, have fun with it!!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Iceland: Cold. Dark. Beautiful.

If you're looking for a good weekend travel break right now, there's probably few better than Iceland. did me an excellent deal for three nights and a flight, and the exchange rate is extremely favorable while inflation hasn't caught up. Which doesn't exactly make Iceland cheap, but it's no worse than London and in some cases much better.

But enough of the advertising piece. I've always wanted to visit Iceland, which fits very well into my travel MO of 'remote places,' 'islands' and 'cold places.' Iceland fits two and a half of those three - it's not all that remote, only two and half hours from London - but for the price, I couldn't pass it up.

I arrived on Thursday around 4 in the afternoon and found Reykjavik to be more light and less cold than I imagined. The sun set around the same time as it does in London, so I figured the reports about daylight hours might be slightly exagerrated.

What I didn't realize is that it would be about 18 hours until I saw it again.

I checked into the hotel, grabbed my gloves and hat and set out to explore Reykjavik. I had a spotty WiFi connection in the hotel and a vague idea of where the one well-reviewed and inexpensive restaurant WikiTravel recommended: the Sægreifinn (Seabaron), whose Lobster soup is world-famous (it made the New York Times' restaurant guide in 2006) and who serve whale kebabs. I ordered both.

Whale tastes like beef that's been soaked in fish. Fishy beef. Nothing special, except that hey, you're eating whale. The lobster soup was amazing. Icelandic lobsters are smaller than their American cousins, slightly larger than jumbo shrimps, and taste about halfway between the two creatures. Not quite as buttery as a lobster, and not quite as, um, shrimpy as a shrimp. But they're perfect in the soup. So yes, Sægreifinn is highly recommended.

I walked around town for a while in the dark, stopped for a Viking beer - because hey, why wouldn't you - and made my way back for a good night's sleep.

Next morning I realize just how dark things are in Iceland. I woke up around 8.30 and it was still pitch black out. By 9.30, when I was showered and dressed and ready to go, it was a little light - enough to turn everything a strange and beautiful blue color, like you're trapped in a French avant-garde film.

Speaking of the shower, I should mention that hot water in Iceland works a little differently than you might expect. A lot differently. It's all geothermal, and there are hot water mains that carry pure hot water directly from the planet itself into a shower. It comes out smelling like sulfur and can get extremely hot if you're not paying attention. Here's myself, giving you a little demonstration of how it works:

By the time the sun was up, I was walking along the harbor. The economic crisis that made Iceland such an attractive place to travel was obvious only here, where the hulks of half-constructed buildings squatted, some of which might never be finished.

It didn't take long to explore most of Reykjavik; there are only about 180,000 people in the metro area, and the city is not like other European capitals in that it was only a small collection of houses until the 1850s. The national cathedral is little bigger than an English country church. The National Museum though has an amazing exhibit on the colonization of Iceland and its transition from a collection of farms and viking holdings to one of the most modernized, green nations on the planet with the highest standard of living and health care possible. By the time I made it back towards my hotel and the Hallgrímskirkja. The church was covered in scaffolding, like every other famous landmark you want to see, and I opted out of the ride to the top of the tower for the free walk around the church instead.

That evening, it was too cloudy for the Aurora so I turned in reasonably early to rest up for my tour into the countryside. A Nissan Patriot with 44" tires rolled up at 9, we picked up two other Americans and headed out of the city. Here's something interesting about Iceland: once you get outside of Reykjavik, especially if you aren't in another one of the (very small) towns, there is a lot of wide open space. The snow was blowing as hard as I've seen in any midwestern snowstorm, visibility damn near nil, and I asked our guide if we were driving through farmland. "No, this is wasteland," he said. Wide-open plains of volcanic rock and not a hell of a lot else.

We saw Þingvellir National Park, where the planet is literally coming apart at the rift between the North American and European tectonic plates. It was also the location of the first democratically-elected parliament in the world and home of Iceland's largest freshwater lake. Then on to Geysir, the geyser for which all other geysers are named. And Gullfoss, Europe's largest waterfall, a mass of churning glacial water.

Then it was up to the snowfields, where the other two in our group went snowmobiling (not my cup of tea) and the guide let me drive the Patriot around on 4m of packed snow; now I can say I've driven in extreme winter conditions.

Here's what it looked like up there:

That night, it was once again too cloudy to see the Aurora.

And the next morning I was on my way home.

This trip wasn't one about profound cultural experiences, or profound personal experiences; it left me more with a feeling of having been slightly farther off the map then I've been before, and a desire to go even further when I can. Iceland seems like one of the last places you can do that and still be a reasonably comfortable tourist. Much farther and you're into adventure territory. Not that I would have a problem with that.

It was also a hell of a way to kick off what will likely be my last year in London, travel-wise. Liz and I vowed to travel more this year and take full advantage of what we could, and this trip was the beginning of that: good exchange rates, proper timing, and just getting out there and doing it.

Gonna be a great year.