The dangers of a fabulous summer vacation

By now, you’re probably familiar with the benefits of vacation. I don’t need to list them, do I?

If you’re not sure, you can seek help from a pile of sunkissed facebook friends, always slapping up photos of this or that paradise, regaling you with stories of fun, fun, fun, and going on like foodie wankers about every morsel that has touched their lips.

I love reading your posts, of course. That goes without saying.

I just got back from the trip of a lifetime, so once I have fully digested the experience, I’ll probably bore you with a post or two about how great it was. For now, I thought I’d remind you that vacation can have its drawbacks, too.

1. Jet lag is insufferable.

How is it that human beings have figured out how to clone a sheep, land on the moon, and sequence our genetic material, but no one has figured out how to avoid jet lag?

I try, though.

I have tried all kinds of homeopathic remedies, as well as a garden variety of pharmaceuticals. I have tried foregoing coffee a week in advance, or drinking it only at 4 pm. I have tried yoga, sleep hypnosis, and apps with gentle sounds and white noise. Last time I suffered from jet lag, I tried getting up in the middle of the night to write. This year, I am just lying in bed worrying about not sleeping.

2. Kids do not sleep well when traveling, either.

This is an understatement. I’m not sure I can talk about this without dropping a few choice words, but I should try since my mom has started reading my posts.

On our most recent trip, the eight-year-old completely forgot how to sleep like a regular person. First off, she couldn’t fall asleep. She whined and cried, and then cried harder because she felt guilty. “I’m so sorry, Mama,” she sniffled repeatedly.

“No one’s upset with you, sweetie,” I lied, trying hard to keep my tone light. “But it would be great if you could just lie still and be quiet.”

We plied her with Sleep Rescue and Calms Forté. We gave her chamomile tea and rubbed her back. We stroked her hair and whispered soothing things. After a couple of hours, she would drop off for about 45 minutes. Then, the sleepwalking commenced. And sleep shouting. It got to the point where I couldn’t doze off, no matter how exhausted, because I knew should she would scare the bejeezus out of me the second I relaxed. “Help! I can’t get out! Let me out! I NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE!” she yelled, pulling open drawers, banging against the walls and the door. That girl was constantly and desperately trying to escape.

“Not to be rude,” the ten-year-old finally piped up one night, “but could you possibly shut up so I could sleep?”

Did I mention that we were all busy not-sleeping in the same room for nineteen days?

3. You can still get sick. 

For once, it wasn’t me, but it sounded pretty bad. The spouse got a sinus infection accompanied by a wracking cough and general malaise. Every time he laid down, he would start hacking like an emphysema patient, adding to the challenges mentioned in numbers one and two. Consequently, he burrowed into the hotel room in a semi-seated coma for several days. We didn’t completely desert him; we would stop by now and then to get updates on the progress of his plague.

“I just pulled out a rope of snot,” my spouse confided. I murmured something, but apparently did not communicate the proper awe. “Seriously. I was physically pulling it out of my nostrils, because it was too thick to blow.” OK, kids. Time to go.

4. Interesting cultural moments can be a bit painful.

Like when your child says, nice and loud, “How much is a million yen in human money?”

Sigh. Eight years of sensitivity training at home, all for naught.

5. There can be some alarming culinary challenges.

Make no mistake, I had some awesome meals. But in the interest of keeping an open mind, I made myself try a lot of things that were outside my teeny tiny comfort zone. Due to a variety of preferences and intolerances, plus general squeamishness, I am a pain in the neck at the table. This time I was going to surprise everyone, especially the brave spouse.

He arranged for a kaiseki meal.

Kaiseki roughly translates from the Japanese to: “if you put a second mortgage on your house, the chef will serve fourteen courses you would never, ever order, then watch intently while you try to put it in your mouth without making a face.”

I ate a whole fish, pleading eyes, spine, fins, and all. It was gut-wrenching to make my teeth crush that little guy. Uni (sea urchin) appeared. It was terrifying. It looked like the jaundiced tongue of a ill-fated five-year-old. But I ate it. I also ate raw quail egg, fish jello, pickled everything except cucumbers, and quite a few things I simply could not identify.

photo
R.I.P. Swimmy. If it is any consolation, I dunked your face in the mysterious green sauce so you would not have to stare at the back of my gullet on the way down.

Then a shot glass appeared, full of a clear, gooey viscous something–I believe the chef called it sea threads–complete with a raw octopus arm shoved in there. I hesitated. The spouse plunged fearlessly ahead, of course. I watched him toss back the shot and chew it for several long minutes, while fighting my gag reflex. I couldn’t do it.

Frankly, I’m a little disappointed in myself. Maybe it was fabulous.

6. Mother Nature has her own itinerary.

Evidently, we were staying at the foot of this mountain for four days:

Mount Yotei, Hokkaido, Japan
Mount Yotei, in Hokkaido, Japan. Image from http://www.town.niseko.lg.jp./english/

I never saw it. I have a picture just like the one above except there is no mountain. And no sky. Just a big cloud of nothingness encompassing everything above 6 feet.

During this period of inclement weather, our hosts came down with strep throat. We babysat their kid and wished we knew of someplace to go–and how to get there. We did visit the supermarket several times, and ate at a place known affectionately as “the truck stop.” We visited a dirty little hot springs–complete with a vending machine of towels and a layer of sulphuric slime on everything–while the hosts slept in the car in the parking lot. Then they rallied and drove us around a bit, pointing out places we might have gone if they had been feeling well, or if the weather had been better.

Nice people, though. Really nice.

****

I have plenty of other misadventures to report, but now that we are nestled back in the damp, cold that Bay Area residents call “summer,” those memories are starting to fade. Pretty soon, all I’ll have left are the good ones, plus some lovely photos. Perhaps I’ll post them for everyone to admire.

Iceland Did Not Suck

I just got back from the trip of a lifetime, so you probably won’t feel all that sorry for me, despite the fact that I am waking up every day at 4 a.m.  I toss and turn for 45 minutes or so–just long enough to really start annoying the spouse–then drag myself out of bed and stare at the wall, waiting for the kids to wake up.  They have jet lag, too, so this doesn’t take nearly as long as one might hope.

Though cranky and somewhat incoherent, I do manage to muddle around somewhat successfully until about 4 p.m, at which point I give up and let the kids watch Project Runway reruns ad nauseum.  Meanwhile, I push myself to multitask; I try to think about dinner magically appearing while simultaneously staring at the wall.

In a burst of inspiration, I have decided to try to use the extra comatose hours I now have each day to do a little writing.  Staring at a blank computer screen is not that much of a stretch.

Let’s start with Iceland, then.

As you may have gathered from my post title, going there did not suck, and someday I will wow you with amazing stories about the days and nights I spent in Reykjavik and beyond.  At the moment, though, I am still mourning my departure.  In fact, in order to pry myself out of that country I had to make a list of the things I would NOT miss, which is all I am prepared to share at the moment.

THINGS I WILL NOT MISS ABOUT ICELAND

1.  The midnight sun is unbelievably awesome but no love will be lost on the 4 a.m. sun.  Reykjavik is nestled much closer to the North Pole than anywhere I have ever visited, and I was eagerly awaiting the impossibly long days.  But, I did not fully comprehend that there would be no darkness at all, or how that would feel.  The sun sets and sets for hours and hours, burning across the horizon line; teasing.  There is a buzz of anticipation, like when you throw something up in the air, and you don’t see or hear it hit the ground.  You keep looking, stomach in a lurch.   Likewise, I kept waiting for the moment when a breath of shadow would bring relief and the capacity to sleep.  I had a sleep mask.  I had melatonin.  I had ambien, but even when I dozed off, I simply could not continue to do so for a reasonable number of hours when all visual indications were counterintuitive.  With my temporal clues turned on end, I was actually widest awake at all the wrong times.  Of course, now that I am home, I am still a mess.  It gets dark here, but I still lie wide awake, waiting for the sun to finally drift out of the Icelandic sky.

2.  Taking a shower at our apartment in Reykjavik.  Iceland has about 130 volcanoes.  Consequently, they use the hot water and steam from geothermal hot springs to heat homes and generate power.  There is absolutely no need for water heaters.  That is fantastically green and fabulous, and there are some marvelous side effects:  the pools, geysers, steaming landscape, and all.  Meanwhile, the hot water from the tap smells overwhelmingly like sulphur.  Imagine taking a shower in that.  Steamy, rotten-eggy nastiness, streaming over your head.  Possible upside: whence emerging from the bathroom after a lengthy spell, no one is quite sure if you have taken a particularly malodorous dump or merely washed your hair.

3.  Vegetables?  What vegetables?  There is very little that grows in Iceland.  No trees, for example.  Or nearly none.  This is the source of  the only Icelandic joke, according to the internet.  (i.e., “what do you do if you are lost in the forest in Iceland?” Stand up.)  Visualize stark, stoic, volcanic peaks rising sharply out of lava fields like Scandinavian relatives.  Throw in some glaciers.  In the other direction, fjords, the ocean.  There are sheep–lots of sheep–and a multitude of mullet-sporting horses, but no foliage.  A chocolate bar is therefore less expensive–not cheap!–and much easier to find than an apple, for example.  I spent $3 on a half-rotten onion.  One dinner at a lovely, well-regarded, jaw-droppingly expensive restaurant, I was initially thrilled to find a single mangy-looking strawberry garnishing my plate.  It tasted like dust.

Ah, the memories.

As the rest of the world is starting to stir, the remaining list items will have to wait for another day.