Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Trip to Iceland, inevitably with copious photos of gorgeous scenery

I got back from an incredible long weekend in Iceland last night and have been wanting to post photos, but am having trouble whittling the number down. This is the issue of traveling with a talented photographer. I've decided to make two posts to break it up a little to disguise the fact that I'm posting around 30 photos. Thus this post will be of the day trips we took around Iceland and the next one (probably tomorrow) will be of just Reykjavik which was our home base for the weekend. Iceland in winter is a fascinating place (as I'm sure is Iceland in summer, but I have no frame of reference there). It stayed dark until about 9:00 in the morning (an inconvenience we mostly avoided by being unable to properly operate the hotel wake-up call system and sleeping until 9:30 every day), but the sun wouldn't set until 6:30 or 7:00 at night which is actually later than it sets here. This is because Iceland is set to Greenwich Mean Time despite being significantly west of the prime meridian, although I'm not sure why that is.

But that's all kind of boring, isn't it? On with the photos!

We went on an all day tour on the Golden Circle (which is far as I can tell is just marketing language for a route that is popular with tourists and takes you vaguely in a circle). The first stop on the tour was at Pingvellir, a national park in the middle of a rift valley. It's where the Viking Parliament was established in the early 900s. I think our guide said something about them choosing the place by throwing an axe in the water and choosing the spot based on where it landed, but I can't find that verified in my cursory google search. It's probably true though.

There's me a Pingvellir. Standing on the same ground as Viking warlords past and tourists present.

Pingvellier is also home to Pingvallavatn, the largest fresh water lake in all of Iceland. It is also one of the clearest freshwater lakes in the world (I think because the volcanic stone strains the glacial water or something). The point of this picture is to show how clear it is--look at all the Icelandic Krona that tourists have thrown in and how clearly you can make them out! Because it is so clear, it is a popular place for scuba diving. There were even people diving when we were there despite the weather. Icelanders are a very hearty people. I think it's partially because they leave their children outside in their strollers when they go into coffee shops to meet up with friends. Walking around we saw tons of strollers outside cafes, and it wasn't until I heard a baby crying that I realized they contained children. This is both a testament to how safe Iceland is (our guide said there are around 1 or 2 murders a year) and how much Icelanders just don't give a shit about the cold. Perhaps if my parents hadn't coddled me by taking me into restaurants with them in the winter than I wouldn't be the type of weakling who wouldn't go snorkeling in a freshwater lake in February.

The next stop on our Golden Circle tour was Gullfoss or the "Golden Waterfall."

Here's the lower part of the falls. I could have included about 20 more pictures of this waterfall, each special in it's own way. I'm just saying, you should take a moment to appreciate my restraint.

This was somewhere along the road on the Golden Circle, but mostly I just dig this photo. Naturally, I can't take credit for it.

Our next stop was a geothermal area. The main attraction was Strokkur, a geyser that goes off reliably every 5-7 minutes. Unfortunately, its spurts were short lived and very difficult to photograph. Any attempt just led to a photo of steam. I won't waste your time with such inferior imagery, but we did get some lovely ones of the rest of the hot springs.

I've always had a soft spot for hot springs. The unique coloring, the delicate wafting of sulfur, the fact that if you step off the designated pathways you could die; there's just something very special about them.

After the thermal springs we went to a nearby thermal spa (not pictured). Basically the steam rooms were just little huts they built over some hot springs. Thus they had no way of controlling the temperature or telling you which one was the hottest. And sometimes you'd be relaxing in a nice steam room and suddenly find you were boiling up and unable to breathe. The thermal pools were very nice to laze around in though. And after the spa we were treated to a delicious lamb dinner with a chocolate mousse for dessert. I can now say that Icelandic chocolate is something to write home about, and I can see why Puddin' goes that extra mile to acquire some.

Post lamb eats, we concluded our tour by going in search of the Northern Lights. I'm sorry to say there is no attached picture of this because we completely failed to see them. There was total cloud cover that night. We decided to try our luck the next night and go out with a tour group that only leaves if there is a good chance for clear skies. We were rewarded for our efforts with clear skies, but sadly the solar activity did not put on a show. We saw some awesome stars though! I've decided Northern Lights tours are very much like whale watching tours. You trade the discomfort of sea sickness (in my case) and cold winds for the discomfort of standing in the dark in below freezing temperature with your neck craned to the sky. And instead of searching a seemingly endless ocean for signs of surfacing cetaceans, you stare at a canvas of stars willing yourself to see the start of a green tinge and trying to avoid any lights that might destroy your night vision. Basically, it's incredibly frustrating, but no doubt totally worth it if you actually see the elusive humpback breach or the apparently equally elusive Aurora Borealis. Originally, 2012 was supposed to be the peak year for solar activity, but now they think 2014 is the real peak year. I might give you another chance in 2014, Iceland, or I might just defect to Manitoba.

The next day, we went horseback riding over the lava fields near Reykjavik. The Icelandic horse is a unique species that has evolved independently of other horses because other horses are illegal to import. They are just tall enough to be considered horses and not ponies and are sturdy and short in stature. Perhaps the coolest thing about them is they have an extra gait beyond the normal walk, trot, canter, gallop business called the tölt. It's similar to an amble, I think--basically a four-beat gait that's faster than a walk but smoother than a trot. Unlike on many trail rides, they let those who felt comfortable try out some of the gaits and go a bit faster.
The lava fields we rode over. It's hard to get the beauty in this photo, but it's truly an alien landscape. Green from lichen and with short birch trees and shrubs as the only other growth.

My horse was named Jaspar. He was more interested in burrowing into my jacket than getting his photo taken.

After a day of horseback riding, we relaxed in the Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland's most famous geothermal spas. You can't really tell in this photo, but it's a brilliant blue color because of the silica. You can also rub the silica on your face as it's supposed to be very good for your skin (although very bad for your hair). Another perk of the Blue Lagoon is the swim-up bar.

Okay, I hope that wasn't too exhausting. Tomorrow's post will cover the time we spent chilling in Reyjkavik, the capital, and actually only, city of Iceland! Stay tuned.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A beautiful day in the neighborhood

Since moving to New York in 2008, I've worked at the same company in the same building in the Flatiron District. I've enjoyed the relatively short commute (some days more than others) and still love the neighborhood. From it's delicious lunch places to its colorful people, it's a fine place to make a living. However, in two weeks I'll be starting a new job, one that will cause me to work from home. This means I'll spending more time in my home office in Astoria (good for the blog!) and more time with my new co-worker, Dinah (good for my evolution into crazy lady who talks to her cat!). However, there are a lot of things I'll miss about my current work neighborhood, and so this week I brought a camera on my commute to capture them.

One of the first things I see every day! I'll miss paying $104 each month for a metro card.

I was trying to photograph that white building. Every month or so they change that to a different building sized movie poster. They were in the process of doing so here, having just painted over the previous one. The funniest thing about this is that I was walking with a friend who is a huge Giants fan and two blocks later we ran into Victor Cruz and my friend asked our other friend (the hair in the foreground of this photo) to take a picture of them together on his blackberry. She failed at getting it to work, but Victor was a nice enough football player to wait why she took a photo on her iphone that didn't come out super well because it was directly into the sun. It wasn't until after we were sitting down to lunch and the Giants fan was bemoaning the failure to take a proper picture that I remember I was carrying a camera.

Here is the same building after work that night. The reason I like it so much is you get to watch their progress and try to guess what movie it is. At this point, based on the tagline (that you can't really read here, but it says: Feel the Wrath), I can tell you with reasonable certainty that it will become this.

I'll miss working around the corner from the birthplace of our 26th president Theodore Roosevelt. Goodbye, Teddy's childhood home, I would have visited more than your museum shop if you weren't open at such inopportune times!

ABC Carpets and Home has the coolest window displays. Unfortunately, they are really difficult to photograph. This was the best of a series of five I took, and it doesn't look like much. I couldn't take any more without feeling super lame photographing window treatments during sidewalk rush hour.

Goodbye, Beecher's Handmade Cheese! I know it seemed like I only ever freeloaded your fresh cheese curd samples, but I swear I did frequent your coffee happy hour in the mornings and your cocktail happy hour in the evenings. After a few of the aforementioned cocktails, I even shelled out $30 for a cheese plate once. It was really good, but probably not worth $30.

I almost got hit by a bicyclist going the wrong way up the street while taking this. There are some things I won't really miss.

And then there are the things I'll miss which I couldn't photograph for fear of retribution. There's the adorable Burmese Mountain dog I see every morning like clockwork. I've watched him grow from a tiny puppy to an equally cute giant of a dog. I didn't want to photograph him though because I worried his walker would think I was sketchy. I'll also miss the walks for lotto tickets or coffee or lunches with some good friends in the office (who probably wouldn't let me photograph them because they'd know it would go straight to my blog).

Of course, I'm being over-dramatic because I'll actually be back in the office many times in the future, but either way, it's always nice to take a moment to appreciate the subtleties that make up each day.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What to write when you have nothing to write

Some days I think I have something I want to write about and then I realize that I really only have one or two sentences to say about it and so it doesn't seem worth the post. (Is this why Twitter is so popular?). Normally, I let these things die or else pad the post with photos of my cat, but today, I'm just going to throw them together incongruously in a single post. This post.

Websites like this one make me wonder if I'm not under-utilizing Dinah's incredibly tolerant nature and willingness to be photographed. I think I should start a line of greeting cards with her image.

I went for a hike in the Palisades in New Jersey this weekend. It was a beautiful day and the trail was surprisingly empty, but for a group of teenage girls. We saw them fleeing the scene after they spray painted a heart on some historic stone tower thing at the start of the trail. You give teenage girls everywhere a bad name, teenage girls of Bergen County.

I recommend the book Sea of Poppies. It's one of those books with a number of characters whose lives all intersect, but remarkably you still are able to care about all of them. It also offers some very compelling evidence for why you should never succumb to opium addiction.

I saw the movie A Dangerous Method this weekend purely because my friend wanted to go and it was showing at a movie theater that served movie themed food to you while you ate (a phenomenon which is apparently slow to reach the East Coast). I got "Jung's Beaten Biscuits" which I didn't really understand because do you really beat biscuits? Wouldn't there have been a better food to put on the menu if you wanted to draw on the S&M aspects of the film? Also, if they were beaten it was probably a bit too much because they were not fluffy and delicious, but rather the type of biscuits I imagine they gave to sailors on overseas voyages in the 1800s. I ate them only because I paid for them and because the apple chutney they came with was tasty, but it likely would have been just as good with something like "Freud's Over-analyzed Pork Sausages" had they but been on the menu. The movie was only so-so.

In other movie watching news, I finally arrested my attention from watching Law & Order episodes on Netflix long enough to actually watch a movie. If you like satires of college-kids-killed-off-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods type slasher movies that still have a fair amount of gore (albeit comedic), I recommend Tucker and Dale Versus Evil. Actually, you can really get the whole movie just from the trailer, so maybe just watch that instead.

Another near-victory at trivia night was thwarted by not knowing any of the noble gases other than neon. The only thing I remember about high school chemistry (being the last chemistry class I took) is that my teacher would go out to his car on lunch and smoke cigars.

Have a happy Mardi Gras readers!

Friday, February 17, 2012

The proof is in it

If in reading my last post, you questioned the wisdom of a business plan that centered around only one food item (specifically: mini pies), then you underestimate the mysteriously bottomless hunger for such places. Never before moving here have I found so many places that center around doing one thing well and remarkably successful at it. There's the Meatball Shop which now has 3 locations in the city, and S'Mac (damn good mac and cheese) which has two. And then there's the lobster roll place whose name escapes me right now, although I know "lobster" is definitely one of the words in the name. There are countless cupcake places that, aside from maybe coffee, have no other confections on the menu. Other cities may have their taco trucks and dumpling joints too, but I feel this place has cornered the market on the one-hit restaurant.

Added to this venerable roster is an exciting new place that I just tried last night: Puddin'. This East Village pudding shop just opened recently, and luckily I read about it in New York Magazine's article on 101 of America's Most Crazy-Awesome New Desserts. Trust me, this is a slide show worth taking the time for. At any rate, I already have a rice pudding place (Rice to Riches--the best of all possible one-off eateries), but I don't yet have a traditional pudding place. That is until last night.

This place is what pudding should be. By which I mean: like eating thick, yet fluffy, flavored cream. They make a number of different speciality parfaits, but you can also just mix and match their puddings with an array of different toppings (including such things as: salted caramel sauce, candied mixed nuts, coconut soaked lime cake, and peanut brittle). I didn't try any of the toppings or sauces because I was getting my pudding to-go (foolishly having eaten too much at dinner despite knowing that pudding lay in my future) and wasn't sure how they would do traveling. I chose to try the butterscotch and chocolate as they are two pudding classics that seemed they would pair nicely. The butterscotch apparently actually has scotch in it (so points for that), and the chocolate is made with some sort of fancy Icelandic chocolate. I didn't know Iceland was known for their chocolate, but knowing this now, I will make sure to keep an eye out when I'm there next weekend.

I will have to go back and try the other flavors (except the rice pudding because I would never betray my first pudding love). I should also probably start exercising daily again.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pie day

Back in middle school algebra, we used to celebrate Pi Day on March 14 (3.14) by bringing in assorted pies. It was my favorite day in math class and to this day I have a soft spot for that particular mathematical constant. At any rate, it's obviously no where near March 14 (although it feels warm enough to be!), but I didn't let that stop me from having a pie day this weekend. A friend of mine has recently become enamored with mini pies and has decided that they are the new cupcake (ie: thing in New York City that people will inexplicably pay over $4 for). As her baking friend, she wanted to get me in on the ground floor of her mini pie making venture. Although, I wasn't initially wholly convinced of the business model, I couldn't help but be on board with spending Saturday afternoon making 19 mini pies.

Not quite a commercial kitchen yet, but it's a working progress.

Our initial baking day was primarily experimental. We mostly just gathered ingredients in our kitchens that we thought might be nice pied together in small tins. This led to some interesting combinations. My personal favorite was our take on a key lime pie (well, but that I used regular limes) with a ginger snap crust and raspberries on top. We made another that we called a "mojito pie" with the same filling and a mint whipped cream on top. I had some Baileys in my fridge leftover from Christmas, so we also made some Bailey's cream pies with oreo crusts. These were, predictably, awesome. We also sprinkled one with espresso powder and called it a "White Russian pie." If there's a market for cocktail themed mini pies, we are about to corner it.

Little pie friends ready for the oven.

We made some savory pies too--some with traditional pie crusts and others with crushed pretzels as a base. We incorporated bacon into a number of pies because as it turns out it works well with all of the following (not necessarily all in one pie): Gorgonzola, fig onion preserves, pumpkin seeds, and apples. The one thing I learned from this experience, as I realized I'd never really made mini pies before, is that I need to lighten up on the crust. I put the thickness of crust that would have been totally appropriate for a traditionally sized pie, but ended up being somewhat overwhelming in a mini pie. Lesson learned!

This should tide me over quite nicely until mid-March.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Like a regular Sunday but with more cheese dip

Yesterday, there were highs in the mid-40s, so I got up early and went to the beach. Admittedly, mid-40s is remarkably toasty for February in New York; however, it is still not exactly beach weather. That said, Long Beach was more crowded than I have ever seen it. I was there for the annual Long Beach Polar Bear Club Super Bowl jump. The Long Beach Polar Bears started out as just a couple of guys who thought it was fun to go for a dip in the ocean on Super Bowl Sunday. However, tragically one of the original polar bears lost a child to illness and thus the event evolved into a huge fundraiser with all proceeds going to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I volunteered to walk the boardwalk selling bracelets for the cause. I'm not much of a salesperson, but people were definitely in the giving spirit, so I still ended up doing okay. I also got to sport an official Make-A-Wish Foundation Volunteer blue vest, which apparently made me look official enough that countless people would ask me where to find bathrooms.

I did not make the actual jump myself (because I am less giving of my personal comfort than I am of my time...and frankly I was cold wearing 3 layers and a thick hat), but hundreds of others did. Here's a picture of the beach during the jump:

Full disclosure: I did not take this photo. However, I did take the ones below:

This was the beach when I arrived at 10 in the morning (the jump was at 1:30) to set up. Very peaceful and more empty than I've ever seen it. You know, like a New York beach normally would be in February.

Part of the spectacle of the Polar Bear Jump is the number of people who dress up in costumes. There were penguins and polar bears as well as people in brightly colored body suits and santa outfits. There were also a lot of people inexplicably wearing bikinis. And, given the day, more than a number of people who were simply painted blue or otherwise decked out to show their Giants fandom.

Speaking of the Super Bowl, I made it back from the beach just in time to make some pretzel bites and cheese dip and some chocolate dipped strawberry footballs (basically regular chocolate dipped strawberries but with a white chocolate lacing to make them look more like pig skins) and head out to a friend's place to watch the Super Bowl for the first time since...actually I can't remember ever watching the Super Bowl in its entirety before. It was a nerve wracking game for those who were emotionally invested, but in the end I was happy to see the Giants triumph. Regardless, my favorite part of the night was undoubtedly my friend's awesome cheesecake:

This put my strawberry footballs to shame!

Hope everyone had an excellent Super Bowl Sunday, even those of you who, like myself, generally find your lives pretty unaffected by such things.