Gourmet Russia

The next day Erin and I spent exploring the city again on foot. We saw Peter and Paul’s Fortress, ate little Russian donuts from a hole-in-the-wall, and made it to a Russian supermarket and marketplace. I’d say that the supermarket and marketplace were the biggest cultural experiences of the day.

In the supermarket there were very few aisles with packaged goods, and rather many more counters for seafood, meats, bakery, and all the other freshly prepared items Russians want to buy. It definitely seems to be an American thing to devote most of the supermarket space to the frozen foods and the things that are packaged and preserved well enough to survive a nuclear winter.

I wanted to try Russian caviar during my visit but I noticed that the caviar was in a locked refrigerator. This did not bode well. I did the math and the smallest jar of caviar cost the equivalent of $70 USD. I’d spend $70 on a steak or something that I’m positive I will like, but I know nothing about caviar and was not willing to spend that much money on fish eggs.

After the Russian supermarket we headed to a Russian marketplace. This marketplace was in the open air and hawkers were pushing their fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, chocolates, and everything else. The bounty was beautiful, but the biggest surprise to me was the butchers. It seems every organ in a cow is sold in Russia. Whether it’s brains, tongues, or intestines you crave, you can buy them in a Russian marketplace. I’m not sure how much they cost or what dishes they’re used for, but my educated guess is that there’s a marketplace for these organs because for a long time Russians didn’t have access to bountiful markets, and so they were probably far more willing to try cow intestine during the Soviet era if that was the only meat available to them. The people buying it in 2013 are probably the people that grew up with it. That’s only a theory though. Maybe all Russians like brains.

It was interesting to see the supermarket and the marketplace and it made me regret not eating more native dishes while I was in Russia. My problem was generally that at most restaurants everything is in Cyrillic, there are no pictures, and no one speaks English. I enjoy trying new foods, but I’m not going to gamble completely and just point to a random line on a menu and hope for the best. Thus, the only authentic Russian meal I’d say I ate in Russia was when Erin and I went to a Russian cafeteria and ate chicken Kiev and Russian salad. Should I ever come back to Russia I will try to do a better job of seeking out the local foods so I can experience the country with all five of my senses.

The classic and dark sides of London

The morning started with hostel breakfast. I was disappointed there was no peanut butter because buttered toast and rice crispies are not sustaining enough for a busy day in the city. Regardless, we ate up and then headed out on a free walking tour of London. Our guide Josh works off us tips and spent the morning showing us the highlights of the City of London. I say the city of London because London proper is only the one square mile in the middle of London. Kind of like New York City’s five boroughs, each area outside of this one central square mile has its own name. This dates back to when it was walled city and everything beyond this mile was on the outside. The naming makes sense to me but what confused me is that this one square mile has separate public services. I don’t see the point in having two separate police forces, but that’s the way they do it and done it for centuries. I don’t see the point in a royal family either, but I guess that’s why America is its own country; so we can do things our own way.

In fact, Josh asked us who thinks the royal family is pointless and I raised my hand and he responded by yelling “TREASON!” There is still a law on the books that says it’s illegal to speak out against the crown but no one has been prosecuted for the crime for 120 years, so fortunately I wasn’t immediately hung drawn and quartered. I did, however, volunteer for the hung-drawn-quartered demonstration in which Josh demonstrated using his lanyard how enemies of the state were gruesomely prosecuted. First they were hung, but not until they died, just until they passed out. Then they were splashed with cold water to wake them up so that they would fully experience their stomachs being slashed open and their innards being exposed. Lastly, while still barely hanging onto life each limb would be tied to a separate horse. The horses would then be whipped so that they galloped off, ripping the victim apart, limb-by-limb. Each limb would then be sent on a separate world tour so that members of the British Empire would receive a gruesome reminder of what their fate would be if they stepped out of line.

We learned a lot of other fun facts that day. At Trafalgar Square we were told the origin of the phrase “a stiff drink.” Lord Horatio Nelson died in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar and his body was placed in a barrel of brandy so that it could be taken by ship back to London for a proper hero’s burial. When the barrel arrived home the brandy was almost gone. Some of the sailors had gotten thirsty and decided to imbibe the brandy, disregarding the corpse infusing inside. I was glad for the walking tour. Seeing the sights with an informed viewpoint makes the experience far richer.

After our walking tour we went to a British pub for some standard pub grub. I had bangers and mash and Erin had fish and chips. We washed it all down with a nice pint of warm British ale and then headed back into the streets. We walked along the Thames, enjoying the sunshine and taking in our surroundings. Eventually we headed back to the hostel for a little R&R before beginning the evening.

Rather than head out for a night on the town Erin and I decided to learn about the side of London many tourists never see: the East End, London’s underbelly. We walked across the London bridge, heading against the raging current of Londoners in their business attire that were returning home after a day at work, and met our tour group at a nearby underground station. The tour began at the site where a multitude of the Crown’s enemies we gruesomely beheaded centuries ago. We learned about how Lord Lovat is responsible for the expression, “laughing your head off,” after he was beheaded while in a fit of laughter, and his head continued laughing in the moments after it was separated from his body in1747. Next we walked to a number of sites where Jack the Ripper grotesquely murdered and then disemboweled numerous Whitechapel prostitutes. Our guide was very well versed in the legend and lore around the serial killer, giving us detailed descriptions of the victims and how they met their demise. My favorite site on the tour was a piece of the original London wall that still stands behind a fancy restaurant. The piece of the wall was excavated, revealing its original foundation some fifteen feet below street level. These fifteen feet are the accumulation of trash, former buildings, and sometimes even corpses on which London has risen for centuries.

After our tour of the East End we headed to Brick Lane, the Little India of London. Here restaurateurs stand on the sidewalk and barter with you for your meal. We were approached in front of one restaurant and made an offer of 20% off our check and 2 free rounds of drinks. When we told him we would consider the offer and began to walk away, he stopped us, saying, “Okay, okay, okay! Appetizer, entrée, rice, nan bread, and dessert, plus two rounds of drinks, for 12 pounds each!” We figured this was as good as an offer we would get, and we were hungry so we headed inside for our meal. The service was subpar but the food was delicious, so overall I was satisfied with our Brick Lane experience. After dinner we headed back to the hostel via a double decker bus and went promptly to bed.

Iceland’s natural beauties

I was rudely awoken by my alarm clock at seven o’clock the next morning. Mornings are nearly insufferable while I travel because I don’t want to miss out on experiencing each new place’s nightlife but I also can’t afford to sleep in until noon the following morning. Hence, each night I eat, drink, and am merry until the early morning, and then a few short hours later I rise again in anguish.

Erin and I packed our bags and brought them to the storage locker because we were checking out that evening, and as I packed the hunger pangs set in. It was now ten hours since my bowl of noodles filled me up and now they were long gone. Have you ever felt that odd stomach pain that results from hunger but makes you feel so nauseated that you almost don’t want to eat? I hope not, but if you have, then that was my condition as I packed. The feeling got worse, probably because of the beers from the night before and because I chose to take a pill on my empty stomach. Erin was downstairs making her breakfast of peanut butter toast when I scurried down the stairs and snatched the bread from her hand. “Sorry, but if I don’t have something to eat right this minute I’m going to puke.” She gave me an understanding look and accepted my excuse, and that is why she is awesome.

We boarded a van in front of the hostel for the day’s excursion. As it drove around to the various guesthouses in town picking up other passengers I was slowly revived by the morning sun and eventually felt human again. After the last passenger was retrieved the driver announced to us that he would be our guide for the day. This was a pleasant surprise, because normally on Icelandic bus tours, the vans pick up passengers and then assemble in a central location where they all board a giant coach bus. Instead we would only be traveling with a van full of people; a far more manageable way to see the sights.

Our main destination was the glacier lagoon, some five hours from the city of Reykjavik. Hopefully seeing the icebergs majestically float towards the sea would be worth this long haul. As we left town our driver narrated points of interest that we passed by: lava fields, a geothermal power plant, greenhouses where Iceland gets all its vegetables from. I was attentive at first but eventually my exhaustion got the better of me and I nodded off to sleep. Fortunately, Erin was wide-awake and snapping away, so I can view photos of all the cool places I’ve passed by while sleeping. We made a couple stops along the way but for the most part we drove directly to the lagoon, hoping to make it there before the site was flooded with other tour groups. Our endurance paid off when we arrived and were only the second tour group on the site (there were nearly a dozen when we left).

The glacier lagoon was a medium-sized lake full of floating chunks of ice. Some of them were only big enough to stand on, and some were the size of houses. As most people know, only a small fraction of an iceberg is visible above the surface, so I can only imagine how big those cottage-sized ice chunks actually are. The variety in the icebergs was stunning. The different striations, layers, and colors made the icebergs each unique. We stood on the shore in awe of a view we’d likely never have again.

Fifteen minutes later we boarded an amphibious vehicle and plunked into the lagoon. The boat-truck drove (cruised? Sailed?) around the lagoon so that we could see more of these natural wonders and appreciate them up close. At a certain point they stopped the engine and one of the guides stood up and educated us on the glacier lagoon.

These icebergs were the result, not of global warming, but of salt water entering the glacier from the sea and melting the ice away. The ice has been frozen for over a hundred years. The black patches are from volcanic ash that fell on the fresh ice and was eventually enclosed in new layers of ice. Some of the ice is blue because it is still completely frozen and unexposed to the air. When light travels through it, part of the spectrum doesn’t bounce back- the light is trapped in the ice- hence making the ice appear blue.

Next our guide plucked a small shard from the lagoon, chopped it up, and gave us each an opportunity to eat some ancient ice. We then puttered around the lagoon some more before returning to shore. Back on the bus, we drove in the direction of Reykjavik. Now that we had witnessed the main event, the driver said, we could take our time seeing some other sights on the way back to the city. Iceland has innumerable waterfalls, a few of which we stopped to climb and walk around. It’s so interesting to consider the contrasts in Iceland. The waterfalls and the constant rain are clear signs of how much freshwater the country has. It also has an endless supply of renewable energy thanks to the geothermal activity and hydroelectric power. But these precious resources do not make up for what Iceland does lack. The cold climate and volcanic landscape makes the ecosystems very fragile and overuse of pasturelands has caused massive erosion and desertification. If only Iceland could trade some of its ample fresh water for fresh fruit! Instead, Iceland must import lots of items that make up a supermarket. Iceland is a land of plenty and few at the same time.

After the waterfalls we stopped for dinner in the small town of Vik, where we walked the black sand beaches and ate traditional lamb stew and an egg burger, a standard hamburger with a fried egg placed on top. We made it back to Reykjavik by nine o’clock. We had to switch hostels that night and there was concern that we might not be able to make the switch and still be at dinner at 10:30. I politely asked our guide if he would drop us off at our new hostel after allowing us to pick up our bags from the first hostel, and after a moment of hesitation he agreed. Upon arrival at the hostel it turned out they were overbooked and only had one free bed in the room. My girlfriend Erin and I are completely comfortable sharing a bed, so we asked if they would allow it given the shortage. They agreed and charged us the one-bed rate for the night.

I know that it’s not good to generalize but anecdotes are important, and I feel like this never would have happened in the United States. There’s much more stringent adherence to the rules, and it appeared to me in Iceland that people were willing to be accommodating if it didn’t come at someone else’s high expense. The tour guide and the hostel manager both bent the rules to accommodate the situation; something that we noticed and were quite grateful for.

After a rapid changing of clothes we headed off for the restaurant and fortunately made it in time for our reservation. We ordered the minke whale appetizer and the horse steak dinner. Erin and I were guarded about trying these two foods that we had definitely never seen in the US before. Fortunately, both dishes turned out to be delectable. The whale tasted like beef fat and the horse tasted almost identical to a beefsteak. Do I think that these foods should be served in the United States? I definitely think the horse should, because the US has plenty of horses and I don’t see why their status as pets exempts them from being food. I would eat the whale again as long as it was sustainable to do so. The minke whale conservation status is currently “least concern,” so I would serve it if I had a restaurant so long as its status stayed there.

After our Icelandic delicacies we headed back to the hostel and crashed after our long day.

Exploring Reykjavik

Our first day in Iceland began with peanut butter toast. Most hostels offer free toast or cereal to appeal to us budget-conscious travelers, and with a little peanut protein, white bread was enough to fuel our adventures. We headed out on foot towards the city center as a cool drizzle came down. Donned in raincoats we barely noticed the rain as we walked down the main road. So far, not much was exceptional about Iceland. The streets seemed very clean but besides that, it felt like being in any small coastal city on a rainy day. A few hours later we made it to a mall and decided to have lunch. The food court was full of foreign foods, as in foreign to the Icelanders, which meant they didn’t hold any appeal to Erin and I. Instead of the food court, we got food from the supermarket. We chose a box of Ritz crackers, salmon spread, shrimp spread, and herring spread, along with some Icelandic cow cheese. We bought two Icelandic beers to compliment our spread and then headed to the food court.

The spreads were delicious and fresh, which was no surprise given that Iceland is an island that once had no industry besides fishing. The beer, however, tasted like seltzer. It turned out the beer was only 2.5% alcohol and completely lacking in flavor. We later discovered that supermarkets can only sell light beer, which means light alcohol in Iceland. You have to go to a liquor store if you want anything that you can actually taste.

We took a leisurely stroll back to the hotel and decided it was time to map out the rest of our days in Iceland. Consulting a myriad of brochures we decided what we were interested in doing, starting with a long list and then making cuts. It was then clear from the brochures that the appeal of Iceland lies outside the city. The volcanoes, glaciers, and waterfalls garner far more interest than the stores and spas, and it became apparent that it is not the capital city that has driven tourism in Iceland from 250,000 visitors a year a few years ago to the latest 800,000, but rather everything that lies beyond.

We arranged for two separate day tours; one for each full day we had ahead of us. After sticking around and learning about pigging, the sport of killing wild pigs in Australia with large knives (you meet interesting people in youth hostels), we changed our clothes and set out in search of dinner.
We found a restaurant on Trip Advisor, but finding it in-person was a lot harder. It was called the Grill Market and was supposedly a fancy place to try uniquely Icelandic food. We circled around the area where the address suggested we would find a restaurant until I gave up and asked a shop clerk for directions. The clerk pointed out that the restaurant was located behind the building, off the street. At first I assumed that this restaurant would be small and quiet, given its hidden location, however, the exact opposite turned true.

We entered into a hip, two-story restaurant complete with spiraling staircase and modern chandelier. Patrons ate in a variety of spaces, ranging from coffee tables that were actually giant enameled tree stumps to bar seating where chefs grilled on an open flame behind glass. The host informed us that the restaurant was actually completely booked that night, so we made the first reservation available: 10:30 PM the next night.

Instead we ate dinner at a nearby noodle joint and then set out in search of a place to experience the local nightlife. There was a street with numerous bars and restaurants on it. Erin and I opted for a bar called Big Lebowski, named after the movie. Like most bars that I’ve been to overseas, the music was all American. We danced and drank as I worked my way through the Icelandic beers. They were all pretty average and none of them had unique bottle caps, which was unfortunate for my collection. Eventually exhaustion got the better of us and we headed back to the hostel. There we found our Australian friend (the pigger) and a German girl he befriended. We had a long and rousing conversation about America, traveling, and conspiracy theories (standard late night hostel talk), and then collapsed in bed.

Arriving in Iceland

At the airport Erin and I decided to have one last all-American cheeseburger before departing for Iceland. It turned out that this would be the last “normal” food I consumed for the next four days, as each night in Iceland we opted for some of Iceland’s strange local delicacies. Regardless, after our McDonald’s and some Duty Free shopping we were aboard Icelandair’s non-stop flight to Reykjavik.

On the plane we watched a video about Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, in order to familiarize ourselves with the city. After watching the 20-minute video it didn’t seem like we would have much to do. The highlight reel included various shopping destinations, eateries, and spas, and besides some pretty stylish Viking sweaters, the city did not have much intrigue. Keeping an open mind, I figured that I would just have to find my own things to do and not rely on the airline’s promotional film for suggestions.

The flight was uneventful until it was over. The plane pulled into the bridge, the captain turned off the seatbelt side, and as usual everyone scrambled for their bags. “Just so you know, American Eagle is for white trash,” a young American man said behind me. “Sorry?” The small Asian girl whom he was addressing confusedly replied. The polo shirt-wearing man clarified, “Yeah. The only people in the US who actually wear American Eagle are white trash. You should burn that shirt.” The girl nervously laughed and did not say anything further. I inserted myself into the exchange, addressing the man, half seriously, half jokingly, said, “You know, you’re really not helping our image as Americans overseas.” Unabashed, the man said to the girl, “Oh come on. You’re not offended, are you? We’re New Yorkers! Thick skin!” I guess this man believed that because this flight departed from a New York City airport that all passengers should anticipate being insulted.

It is small exchanges such as this that gave birth to and nourish the pejorative term, “ugly Americans” used to describe the perception that Americans are ethnocentric, thoughtless, and demeaning while abroad, and so I planned to apologize to this woman on my compatriot’s behalf if I saw her at the baggage claim. Anyone reading this can think of a time they met someone from a foreign country and made a blanket judgment about people from that nation based off the person’s strengths or weaknesses. Whether you went to the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade and think that the Irish all drink too much or your Chinese classmate aced Calculus and you think that only Asians are good at math, everyone generalizes. The idea of travelers serving as informal ambassadors abroad is important and it is strongly emphasized during Semester at Sea.

Debarking the plane, we entered Iceland seamlessly. Their immigration and customs process was very simple and took only moments to pass through. Before twenty minutes passed we were on a bus headed into the city. It was late at night and very dark, thus we were not able to see much of this new city yet. We checked into our hostel and after a makeshift dinner from the closest gas station we went to sleep.