Women in Iceland

I left my check-in bag in Keflavik Airport on purpose because Kurt Vile was playing at ten thirty and it was already twenty past. I had to decide between figuring out storage or rocking out to some moody tunes; by the time I landed my clothes seemed unimportant compared to Kurt’s sweet sad voice and the lingering sound of his guitar, so I went for it.


My mother said his music was whiny and repetitive. We drove from Reykjavík to the Southwest of Iceland, a thirteen hour road trip to Stodvarfjordur where we stayed for one night before catching a ferry from Seydisfjordur to the Faroe Islands. When we showed up to our airbnb “private rental” another family was sleeping inside the house. My mother’s reaction to the fifty year old couple wearing sweaters and eighties underwear while standing in the middle of the hallway, I will have to write about some other time.
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The night before we left the city we had sushi with Margrét and Lena, two women that I met at ATP thanks to destiny and thanks to rock radio celebrity Ólafur Páll Gunnarsson. I asked him for directions to the camping grounds on the first night of the festival; he didn’t know where they were. It was raining so he volunteered Margret and Nanna to give me a ride. Nanna was driving a beat up Land Rover and she shared a slice of her orange which tasted like bliss after a day of traveling and a night of Jägermeister. Margrét asked if I was sure that I wanted to camp, the view out of the car similar to a rainy winter afternoon in Pennsylvania if Pittsburgh looked like another planet that was flat, desolated and still bright at two thirty in the morning. “Welcome to the moon” they said when I accepted Margret’s offer to sleep in her ten year old son’s bedroom for the weekend.
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Margrét met Ólafur at the radio station where she worked for nineteen years. She quit the position for a number of reasons, intense stress and some tough politics that did not line up with her agenda. Now, only six months later, she is happy living at a spacious apartment ten minutes away from the center of town and managing a neighborhood coffee shop down the street from her house; all of this while writing a book about sustainable living. Through her I met Lena, another power player that works at Icelandair, Lena is not only a hilarious woman with no tolerance for bullshit, but she knows the island well and she is proud of the tourism that started more intensely five years ago after volcano Eyjafjallajokull erupted and put Iceland on the radar of international explorers.
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During dinner they said that before the eruption in 2010 Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main street, would have been completely quiet on a Monday night. Now, the main street is always busy with people wearing colorful raincoats and carrying backpacks, travelers from all over the world. The island is expecting a million tourists next year, this figure will place tourism as the number one industry in the country, surpassing fishing for the first time and providing 25% of the nation’s income. A great come back for the dramatic economic collapse they suffered in 2008 when all banks went bankrupt.
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I don’t remember the last time that I signed up for a guided tour, but, despite my dislike for the rushed stops and the strict agenda, seeing the Golden Circle while hearing about old houses being moved across the frozen lake with pickup trucks, was worth the investment. We stopped at a private volcano, two euros to enter and walk around it, when I asked how it was possible to own a volcano the guide avoided the question by saying that the owners were smart millionaires who understood the importance of tourism and funded relevant projects such as documentary films about conservation. We all paid the fee and walked around for twenty minutes.
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In Iceland you can see volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers, ice blocks and landscapes ranging from green fields like the ones in “A Little House on the Prairie,” to naturally epic movie sets from “Game of Thrones” and “Troy”. In one day you are likely to experience rain, sun, warmth, cold and breeze, especially if you invest in covering miles across the country. Doing so is a costly and worthy investment wether you go on a bus, a guided tour or a rental car. I did all three, the bus possibly being the most relaxing experience when I went north to visit Linda and Ægir in Ólafsfjörður, one hour and a half away from Akureyri. Linda and Ægir moved into the town of 750 people and after three months of living in it they swear they will never go back to Reykjavik. Linda tricked Ægur into moving, supposedly a holiday trip first but after only ten days they had jobs and a nice apartment and couldn’t think of a good reason to leave.
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It’s more common to meet men when you travel alone as a woman but for me, Iceland was the opposite. I met many incredibly strong, approachable and open women like Lena, Nanna, Margrét and Linda. All of them examples of a culture with a strong voice and a healthy vision of what life should be. I learned that in Iceland families don’t have to be glued by traditional structures, I saw that people thrive when they live full lives involving good music, old friendships, heated pools, hipster fashion and a respect for nature. It seems to me as if in Iceland you can have it all. My mother asked Lena what Icelandic men were like in the home and her answer summarized my take on Icelandic women and Icelandic culture: “I am lucky, because I have a husband that cooks and cleans and takes care of the children as much as I do. In the not so distant future, I will not be considered lucky, it will just be normal.”
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When you visit Iceland make sure to stay at the Kex in Reykjavík. It really is the best hostel in Iceland.

Mothers in Italy

I went to Italy once when I was thirteen. The trip included most of my father’s extended family and excluded any relatives under the age of thirteen, I barely made the cut. As happy as I was to have made it, my visit to Rome was anticlimactic. I remember ambivalence and boredom, except for a few dinners that involved any kid’s dream: pasta and pizza. Traveling Italy as a twenty eight year old was much more exciting.

On my first night in Rome I was greeted by Steban, my host for three nights and the only couch I would surf during my three week stay in the country. He picked me up at the metro station in a modern blue Fiat that reminded me of my Dad’s old Uno back in Venezuela. He wanted to bring the motorbike he said, but there was a possibility that another person would stay with us for the night. If that was the case, the bike would not be big enough. Steban was tall and he had dark curly hair always carefully combed back and held in place by gel. Welcome to Italy.

We drove some distance to get to his house and when he opened the door he revealed a six meter square studio apartment much smaller than a traditional North American living room. How he was planning on hosting another person was a creative challenge for me but to him, it seemed as mundane as figuring out where to store an extra pair of shoes. Extreme hospitality, I learned later, is the Italian way.

My air mattress was inflated by the front door; a small balcony and a basic kitchen with everything that one could need completed a home that seemed big enough for a single man in his thirties comfortable sleeping on a twin bed. After pointing me in the direction of the most important features of the apartment, Steban told me that his mother had helped him make room for all his things “I have the best mother. No woman will ever be better than her. So no point in trying”.  Judging from the crafty space saving tips and the meal that she cooked for him and he shared with me, Steban was right, no woman could compete with his mom.

My experience in Rome was vastly different depending on where I was staying. Steban’s neighborhood was next to one of Italy’s favelas and around that area I mostly saw simple apartment buildings and mom and pop shops selling an eclectic selection that varied from cleaning supplies to ice-cream; patisseries bringing fresh bread out of the oven and selling three euro wine for nine. Men sat outside cafés and women ran the register, I asked one of them where I could find a park nearby and she smiled and pinched my carb-happy cheeks “bellisima!” she said.

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Italian hospitality is animated and robust. I was not able to go one day without eating a cornetto wether I was being hosted by a stranger in the outskirts of the city, being a tourist in Trastevere, or hanging out with a friend at the biggest University of Europe (La Sapienza); the Italians like to give.

I checked into my second lodging and a smiling woman with a talkative seven year old welcomed me with a sticky hug “I just finished cleaning. It is impossible in the summer”. Later that day, I saw her come back with groceries that in half an hour transformed into a divine aroma traveling from her kitchen. That day it became obvious to me that not only was Steban right about his own mother, but his sentiment probably also applied to Barbara and any other Italian mom. How could any woman compete with them? Why would any woman want to? Barbara, with her candor and her honest desire to connect with me, represented my impression of the Italian people. Warm, chatty, tanned and obsessed with tomatoes.

Don’t count on a short answer to a quick question in Italy. Italians like conversation. Context and more information is required, even if you are just asking for directions. Forget about the usual “take a right at the light.” Instead have an espresso and welcome a five minute discussion about where you are going and why. My best guess about how this happens? Italian moms.

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We learn the language of caring at home. How we are treated by our loved ones forms our understanding of affection. My sense after a few weeks in Italy is that no Italian child tells his mother that they need privacy or personal space when they turn thirteen. Italians seek human connection even if it is by a heated discussion over football, like Fabio, my favorite Italian who spoke on the phone with his father every other day and every time he managed to get into what to me, sounded like an argument but to him, it was an ordinary conversation.

From Firenze to Milan. Italy’s defining characteristic is the warmth of its people. Less self aware down south, cleaner up north, more hectic in the capital, you can always count on a smile. And in just a matter of days, you will find yourself repeating what the locals say in between laughs when they feel both proud and indignant about their own culture: only in Italy.

Bikes in Amsterdam

My stay in the former hippie  capital of Europe was different from what I expected. When I decided to go to The Netherlands I thought I would spend time visiting villages such as Urk, Haarlem, and Naarden, yet a series of events led me to change plans and apart from spending one night in Rotterdam, I stayed in Amsterdam the whole time.

Rotterdam is an hour and a half train ride from Amsterdam. I met with my host Tristan and his other three North American couchsurfers at Amsterdam Central station.  He looked like the typical dutch man with blue eyes, light blond hair and a casual disposition. Not long after meeting he made a comment about my butt that I think he meant as a compliment, “we are very honest people” he said about the Dutch and in spite of his severe lack of tact, my impression is that the Dutch are indeed honest, welcoming and accommodating.

I experienced Rotterdam from the back of Tristan’s bike while the other three girls from California peddled their own rides. Rotterdam is a big modern city mostly occupied by working class people.   Just as in Amsterdam, they rely on bicycles as a main form of transportation. We went to a house party to watch The Netherlands play against Spain; the entire flat carefully decorated with futbol flags and most people in the room wearing the national color that became so due to the name of the royal family: Orange-Nassau.  The game was probably one of the most exciting matches from this World Cup.  Watching the locals celebrate their victorious revenge was priceless. But the following morning, I was ready to go back to Amsterdam.

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One of the things that I have learned about travel is that sometimes plans get in the way of the natural flow of your experience. I talked about this with my new friend and fellow blogger Corey Pickett (*), a rad chick from San Diego who is currently traveling through Europe, “it is a huge commitment to book something in advance” she said. It is also my experience that some of the best plans unfold naturally one day at a time. I rushed back to Amsterdam so I could meet an old friend; months prior we had agreed to stay in a charming boutique hotel near the Van Gogh Museum and despite the generosity of my host in Rotterdam, not many couchsurfing spots can compete with the white linen and fluffy pillows that money can buy. I arrived at the hotel ready to have a comfortable Amsterdam vacation.

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Oh, I was ready for luxury! I was ready for love and hazy bike rides through the famous canals. But things changed, because things always change and soon enough I realized that my friend and I had very different agendas. Sometimes the best way to compromise is to let go of your own expectations and decide to walk a different path. My stay at the hotel turned into a last minute reservation at a dodgy hostel nearby; I checked into a small dorm that I shared with three other men and a private bathroom that was in serious need of maintenance. Home sweet home, with an emergency door next to my bed that I left open at night so the air would remain fresh; I traded a cotton comforter for the goose feathers of my own sleeping bag, the familiar for something new. Once I accepted the failure of my boutique lodging, I realized that when I stepped outside the dorm there was a lovely patio with sunshine and new people to say good morning to. This is how I met Henrik, a Swedish guy who had gone on two free tours of the city and was kind enough to share his knowledge and friendship with me. He told me about how in the 1970’s cars became more affordable and the people in the city became concerned with the repercussions of having too many vehicles on the road; they demanded that bicycling remain a primary way of transportation and to this day in Holland, bicycles are treated like cars.

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Amsterdam is world-known museums, small art galleries and at this time of the year, the country also offers the Holland Festival; Coup Fatal was one of the most amazing performances that I have ever seen from Congolese musicians that combine pop, opera and rock into a modern contagious act; at the end of the show they managed to turn my mellow energy into an inspired, energized evening that was as exciting as sitting by a canal in the redlight district at three in the morning watching men shop around.

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Organized prostitution and commercial weed. Amsterdam is the city that managed to push my limits and show me that even if things go wrong, your experience can be all right. I borrowed a bike and lost it when I parked it in the wrong zone; I went to a coffee shop that sent a friend into an epileptic seizure by the front door; I made friendships with people from America, Sweden and Canada. Not what I had planned, yet all of it I loved. Perhaps when I go back to Holland, I will be able to experience the countryside.

(*) If you want to see Corey do head-stands around the world follow her on facebook and instagram at corey_stories

Beer in Belgium

Belgium is the San Francisco Giants of beer; I cannot call it the Simon Bolivar of fermentation but to me, it is the Godfather of yeast. In Belgium not many things are particularly cheap but high quality beer is; you can find it for a couple of euros in five different places per block and in grocery stores, you can pay less than one euro for international pop stars such as Duvel and Chimay.

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But the beer culture in Belgium is much more than well-known exports. Originally, dating all the way back to medieval times, many european countries consumed beer daily as a food supplement. When I was traveling in Duinbergen, my adopted Belgium brother Thomas Denys told me that he used to brew beer for one of his high school courses. The drinking age in Belgium is 18 for hard alcohol yet for beer is only 16. Thomas tells me that it was fun to learn about the process of brewing and the possible variations of the technique but at the end, the ultimate reward  involved inviting parents and teachers to sample the final product.

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In Belgium, there is at least one great beer for each person’s preference; ambers, blondes, stouts, lambics, tripels, you name it. When you go out for a beer, all servers are capable of making educated suggestions on what you should try and in what order. The waitress of a small neighborhood bar in Brussels started me with a lambic brew that she poured out of a jug, the beer was brown, fruity and very low in carbonation, it reminded me of iced tea. Second, I tried the “Duchesse de Bourgogne” (perhaps my favorite so far) which is a Flanders red ale with an incredibly creamy body, a sweet finish and a beautiful deep color. We wrapped things up with Affligem tripel, which was very good but perhaps a bit tangy for my taste. Tripels, usually noted with a XXX mark on the bottle, are beers in which brewers use three times the amount of malt… Now don’t ask me anything more, that is really all I know about beer.

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In such a rich country, it is easy to get used to a daily beer by the coast or while sitting with your neighbors in the patio. I can imagine that the story of the man living upstairs, the old neighbor who lost his job due to alcoholism and has not tried to find another in 7 years, is not particularly uncommon. See, here in Belgium every citizen receives a minimum wage that is enough to live life, wether they work or not. I heard about this from Thomas back in Duinbergen but also later in Ghent when talking to my amazing host Marnix, who works in Bruxelles and lives in a beautiful traditional Belgium neighborhood that they refer to as a “beluik.”

A beluik is a typical community with little houses around a shared garden. There are artists, students and young professionals that share a deep connection and a true sense of community; they share meals (and beers!) and they treat each other with love and respect even if they come from very different paths of life. Even though I don’t know how each pays for rent I do know that none of them would be left hanging, or suddenly evicted, if they did not have a job. Instead, their social security would protect them. Imagine living in a world in which you know that your basic needs will always be covered. Exactly, the sense of safety and ease that comes from such a privilege it’s actually very hard to process as a South American-North American, but, based on my interaction with the Belgian culture I can only say that it feels right. Like Marnix told me, the difference between Europe and North America is that in North America the poor person is just a person that hasn’t gotten rich yet; so opposite to understanding that you can only truly care once you get to know your neighbor. 

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Belgium. Surrounded by other countries with cities that claim to be cooler and more exciting. Belgium. With neighbors that don’t speak the same mother tongue but all manage to understand each other because on average everyone speaks 3 different languages. Belgium. Where the summer is humid and a perfect invitation for a nice cold brew.

Visit Belgium, don’t give in to the notion that the only worthy stop is Brussels and only for a half day. Instead, I would recommends taking the train and stopping in other cities, such as Ghent which is fun and stunning or Antwerp,  which is supposed to be very cool and I will have to visit next time.

Music in Paris

My poor sense of direction and my commitment to walking as much as possible led me to Parc de la Villete, a park in Paris known for their free summer concerts. But the summer isn’t here yet, and neither were there any free concerts on Thursday night. As I was leaving I saw a river of people walking towards me, I asked a young french girl what was happening: “Rodrigo and… and…hmmm”, “Gabriela?” I asked. “Yes!”

I’ve wanted to see these guys for sometime so I asked one of the many indian men re-selling tickets how much he wanted. 60 euros, he said… ouch, and no way. After two minutes he was willing to let it go for the “official” price of 42. A different guy said 35, another 30. Okay… maybe?

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On my way to the ATM I remembered that I’m traveling on a tight budget and once you start doing the math the excitement from grand plans can fade quickly, I headed back to the metro. Andy, one of the resellers, recognized me: “how much would you pay?” he said, “what’s the issue?”, the issue was that I didn’t have any cash. “Here, I give it to you for free.” Voilà!

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Gabriela’s attempt to speak french was only cute and Rodrigo didn’t even try. When the crowd didn’t react to his intro in English he told the audience that it would be even less comprehensible if he spoke Spanish, which is funny considering that they are from Mexico. Yet, if the audience didn’t get into their talking people certainly responded well to the music; the french love Rodrigo and Gabriela and their intricate, rustic, layered guitars and amazing video presentation.

On Friday night, my incredibly cool couchsurfing host Benoit took me to Le Klub. Ben is amongst many other things the lead singer of post-rock band Sons of Frida. We went to see Dead, a post-punk band that he had wanted to see for some time.

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Dead rocked the house and since Ben knew vocalist Berne Evol (featured in the picture above) I was able to get hooked up with an interview. We went back stage and unfortunately my camera battery died almost immediately, but I was at least able to get a very short video with these guys who have only been playing for one year yet they bring tons of energy to the stage and put up a really solid show.

Paris is wonderful. The pastries are obviously unbelievable, the architecture is of course breathtaking and the music scene is also such a big part of the culture and it is present everywhere you go. From big venues to small joints, even house parties; you can plan your summer with a weekend festival, randomly walk into a big concert, or simply go to a night club and dance to amazing DJs. Who knows, maybe you get lucky and find yourself a free ticket to something amazing.

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Art in the TATE Modern

Art can be destructive, such as it happened in the vandalization of Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon in 2012. Art can be disturbing, like in Leon Golub’s shocking painting Vietnam II 1973:

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Through a painting, an artist like Salvador Dalí can interpret a poem and add complexity to it, just like he did in his breathtaking Metamorphosis of Narcissus:

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Art can also be hideous like  for example in Francis Bacon’s Triptych November. Perhaps if the artist would have called the painting “Ugly Chicken Hanging from a Hook” I would have appreciated it a little more, for the self-awareness if nothing else.

Triptych November

But art can also be simple like Derek’s Jarman’s film Blue in which a monochromatic glow and voice over narration are used to represent the artist’s fading eyesight, one of the complications he experienced from suffering from AIDS.

Conversations about the meaning and the purpose of art are contrived, but, they are contrived because everyone has an opinion about it and we all find the topic at the very least, entertaining. I find the simplification of art fascinating; like the quote from one of the children that attended a workshop at the museum, he said: “art means hard work,” another said: “art makes people think,” to me, both are reasonable statements. There are people that say that art is “rubbish” (does the fact that it’s not our taste make it not art?) and some others debate if just getting a reaction out of someone is enough to make a piece artful.

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I don’t call myself an artist, but I would be flattered if somebody did. When I say that I work in film, that I take pictures, that I like writing, people put me in the “arty” category and I feel comfortable with that. I can walk around for hours and find inspiration wherever I go; I can be moved, I can react, I can change my mind. Art is everywhere; it’s not only inside prestigious museums or underground art houses but it can also be hidden in dark alleys, blown out in nature and smelled inside a kitchen. I think that being able to see it, when we find it, makes us all artful enough for anyone… or it makes anyone artful enough for me.

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Like almost all museums in London, The TATE Modern is free with the exemption of a few paid exhibits like Richard Hamilton’s retrospective which is absolutely worth paying for. I was lucky to be invited to see it today and this gift made my visit to the gallery even more fulfilling.

NYC –> London

I made it! Even if it required incredible persuasion to convince the immigration officer that it was not unreasonable to come to England without having an exact plan for how I intended to exit. “I’m going on a trip around the world. For one year. You can’t plan everything that you will do over the course of one year.” He stared back, unimpressed.

An hour later, after many questions and a call to my local friend to verify some of the information I had provided, he finally let me go through, but, not before giving me one last piece of advice: “Next time, be more prepared”. Thank you officer, I’ll pass the message along.

Staying with my aunt in Queens before leaving NYC was perfect. I hang out in Astoria, which is a clean and very happening neighborhood with minimalist bars, underground Indian beauty salons and laundry mats that (not surprisingly) also sell pizza slices.

Manhattan from Astoria

I have left American soil and the countdown is officially over, but do not fear! The adventure has just begun.

3 day countdown! PIT –> NYC

Above is a picture of a cute old man playing the banjo at “Banjo Night” in the North Side in Pittsburgh. Nic and Laura’s wedding was incredible; I ate good food, I saw great friends and Pittsburgh felt like a second home. Below is another picture, this one of the “Hot Metal Bridge” my favorite bridge out of the 446 in the city:

Hot Metal Bridge - Pittsburgh

It’s May 4th and the countdown continues! London is only 3 days away and I am on a train on my way to New York City.