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“Someone’s going to blow that place up soon.”

Said to me, in 2004, by a friend I hadn’t seen in ages. It was a few days before I flew to London, England, United Kingdom.  I answered him, “That’s why I have to go see it now.”  I got to see Big Ben, and Southbank, and the Inns of Chancery.  The next year, London was bombed.

As I write this, I am in Ataturk Airport, Istanbul, Turkey.  Forty-five people were killed here two weeks ago, by terrorists who apparently believed the same things as those who attacked New York City, London, Madrid, Paris, Brussels, Baghdad, THREE cities in Saudi Arabia, and as of TODAY, Nice, in the south of France.

I am in Istanbul waiting to catch a plane.  To Nice.

I have been teaching English for the last ten months in Southern China. Almost without exception, all of my students are from very wealthy families (and, obviously, because I’m teaching them, they’re learning a foreign language). Yet almost NONE of them has ever been outside of China, for a vacation, or to hear English. For Chinese citizens, visiting other countries is extremely difficult. My students are in awe when I’ve told them I have visited NINE places: Canada, the United States, England, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Italy, Iceland, and China.

I’m not going to see Istanbul beyond the airport today, but I WILL. And I am scheduled to be in France for a month. I’m not changing that.

I speak English and Spanish. I’m learning Mandarin. One of my favourite books growing up, Mischief in Fez, was about Morocco. I adapted it into a play because I wanted kids to know more about Islam, because I think Islam, and Muslim people, and the places where they live, are cool.

And YOU will not change that. You don’t get to tell ME or ANYONE else what they are allowed to be.

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I’m spoiling the story about the shark.

Beware, anyone yet to visit Iceland – I’m about to tell you the possible whys and hows regarding the infamous Icelandic rotted shark. Your future tour guides may hate me. It’s a story that’s gotten me thinking about food…just, basic food.

I first heard about the shark from my fried Laurie, who first visited Iceland in 2001. She came back with tales of hot springs every 10 feet, magical greenhouses, and the annual winter ritual of catching sharks, burying them on the beach, and then digging them up months later, half-rotted, and eating it. And we all thought: Iceland’s a crazy place. Maybe this a macho thing like polar bear swims, or just a trick played on tourists – like when off-islanders visit Newfoundland and you’re made to kiss a cod and drink the screech.

I have now eaten of the shark…and like most things which sound insane, there is a logic.

My tour guide Sam, brought me to a tiny fish restaurant near Reykjavik’s harbour, where we first had harðfiskur. This is what the original Icelanders relied on when first there. Imaging eating nothing but dried, salted cod for months at a time. Which is where the shark, hákarl, comes in.

First, some icthyology: Sam explained that, since the North Atlantic Ocean is very cold, the sea creatures living in it have evolved a bit differently. Kidneys are made mostly of water (surprise), and because the North Atlantic is so cold, one’s kidneys will freeze in it. The sharks living is this ocean have gotten around the problem by evolving without kidneys. But, this means they need to expel urea (ie, pee) through muscles and then skin.

Sam said what probably happened was this: the first Icelanders caught a shark, butchered it on the beach, ate some, and got violently sick for weeks. They thought “Okay, don’t do THAT again”, buried the shark right there, and forgot about it. That is, until the following winter, when there wasn’t so much as harðfiskur to eat, and out of utter desperation, they dug up the now half-rotten shark, and ate some. And…it wasn’t pleasant, but they could keep it down.

We now know that, as the shark decomposes and dries out, its fluids – including its urea – get soaked up by the ground its buried in. The Icelanders only knew that it worked, and have been doing it ever since. It’s a rubbery texture, and the taste of leftover pee is definitely there. It was odd. Sam said that, not unlike the Screech I told him about, hákarl is still usually washed down with a shot of Brennivín, which is a lot like potato vodka. To me, it smelled slightly better than turpentine.

Traditional Icelandic cuisine is very basic: Meat soup (lamb). Dark bread. Lots and lots of seafood. The farms established in the rocky Iceland soil grew hay to feed livestock, so when times were good, the Icelandic diet was (and is) meat-heavy. When times were bad, it was dried cod and fermented shark.

Just like haggis. And pemmican. We forget that the food of France and Italy is very regional – they’ve traditionally used what was near to hand – it’s just that in many, not-so-cold places, what’s near to hand is variable and quite tasty.

Many of us have the choice now of overeating because we can eat whatever and whenever we want. I wonder if overeating is, to a degree, hard-wired in us, because we are homo sapiens, a species for whom centuries of survival food was normal.

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I love to travel…except for the travelling part.

I’ve not posted in while, because work. Bits and pieces of encouraging, though no concrete, theatre things going on. As such, I decided I needed a vacation. For the first time in two years, I’m going AWAY. Yes, I know one shouldn’t post on the web that one is going to be away from home – but I have a reliable cat-sitter who’ll be dropping in and making certain my place doesn’t explode. So: I’ll soon be taking advantage of the new direct flight from Edmonton, and spending a week in Iceland.

And so the self-sabatoge kicks in.

When I went to the UK, for what would be four years, I did not get my traveller’s cheques sorted out until two days before I left. There was no reason. I just didn’t get around to it. My current co-workers would probably be shocked to hear I’m a natural procrastinator.

I had quit my job, given up my spot in the house I was living in, given away or sold practically everything I owned, to move to a new country…and nearly shot myself in the foot right before getting on the plane. A friend, and much more savvy traveller, had the foresight to ask me: “so…what about money?” And I had to take out from the bank ALL the money I had, in money orders, and find a bureau de change that would make up cheques for me with two days’ notice. Thank God my friends had thought to give me some Sterling in cash as a going-away present.

This past week, history began repeating itself. I got to my bank after work and braved a half-hour lineup to order some kronur – just in time, it’ll be here a matter of days before I leave. And last night, after dropping yet more money on new hiking shoes (the better to walk across caldera), I wanted to make certain my rather small money-pouch would hold my passport…which I couldn’t find. I did in the end, after ransacking my bedroom drawers.

I need to go on this trip. I WANT to go on this trip. So why in the hell am I leaving this rather important stuff – like making sure I know where my passport is? – so late?

Once I’m at a new place, I’m absolutely fine. I have a great sense of direction, and the worry of not knowing where or what anything is disappears – I just go walking and happen on things, which I love. Maybe I subconsciously feel going on a vacation shouldn’t be so much work. There’s a part of me that resents planning to tramp freely around geysers and soak in a hut tub. I need to relax, not think about measuring how much mouthwash I can bring on a plane, how much dinner will cost, or how heavy my bag is.

Such is travelling today. I can’t believe it was simpler 10 years ago. Once I’m in Reykjavik, I’ll remember the hassle is worth it.