Thursday, August 28, 2008

Sígur Ros and ghosts at the foss

The whirlwind is beginning to wind down - hard to believe that we will be heading home to London tomorrow. We've had more adventures since my last post and miraculously, the weather although overcast (as is common) has been co-operative and we've managed not to get drenched except while standing near foss (waterfalls). The food continues to be delicious and my pants continue to get tighter!

We had another great road trip out to the "Golden Circle" consisting of Þingvellir (gotta love language-specific keyboards!), Geysir, and Gullfoss. Þingvellar is not only the birthplace of the oldest democratic parliament in the world - 1000 year anniversary was held in 1930 - but it is also the place where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are tearing apart at the rate of 2cm per year. Amazing geography/topography as well as a beautiful vista - reminded me of Northern Ontario, somewhat Group of Sevenish. When you think of how old all this history is and that people congregated here over a THOUSAND years ago to elect representatives...

We drove on to Geysir - after which all geysers are named - and met Icelandic capitalism face-to-face. This was probably the most commercial site we have visited so far but compared to North America it was very low-key and tasteful! We bought some souvenirs while the rain poured and when it let up we went out to watch Strokkur spout. Geysir is dormant but the smaller Strokkur is still impressive to watch simmer and blow.

The grand finale of our day - and what felt like a grand finale before our trip winds down - was our visit to Gullfoss, Iceland's best known and possibly most impressive foss. It is very wide and roars as it tumbles over two sets of rocky outcropping. Ridiculously, there is a narrow well-traversed path along side the foss with only a low rope dividing the no-go zones from the path. We walked right up onto the rocky outcropping over the falls - slippery, wet, NO BARRIERS - stunning views, soaked with mist, rainbow!! Incredible experience - all FREE!

But the real gift was awaiting me on the far side of the falls where David pointed out a single white swan resting on the rocky shoreline. Suddenly all the overwhelming emotions of this trip came pouring out and I stood there sobbing in the thunder and mist of this beautiful wild place, missing Chris more than I had at any other point during this trip. He brought us to this place and showed us things that we would never otherwise have seen or thought of visiting. I watched that swan resting by the water and told Chris how much I loved him and thanked him for giving us this singular breath-taking moment.

Our trip home was a quiet one - I think we were all lost in our own thoughts and memories and emotions. Dinner was another decadent gourmet feast at a hidden gem in the resort area of Laugarvatn: reindeer pate (tastes like Christmas according to Mark!), smoked trout, fresh pan-fried trout, grilled lamb, and of course decadent chocolate mousse for dessert!

Oh I forgot to mention - at the outset of our day we dropped by the Sundlaugin studio where Sígur Ros recorded their first four albums and David played the piano there!!!!

A few sight-seeing spots to still hit and some shopping before tomorrow´s departure. :-(

Bless bless (bye bye)! See you soon.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Becoming the wind and the rain and the sea

Where to begin!? Apologies to those devoted readers who've been waiting for an update on our trip around Iceland. It´s been an incredible few days since I last posted to the blog.

We're now in Reykjavík, staying at a huge apartment overlooking the "floating" city hall and downtown lake populated by ducks, seagulls, and a pair of swans!! The weather has been alternately windy, rainy, sunny, cold, damp, and refreshing - sometimes all in one hour. We're eating really well and somehow not spending a bloody fortune (tonight we've pledged to try puffin).

When last I wrote, we were headed to the Látrabjarg bird sanctuary where hundreds of thousands of sea birds nest during the spring and summer - including one of the largest puffin colonies in the world. It's also where we decided to scatter Chris' ashes. The place is ridiculously inaccessible - mountainous hairpin turn gravel roads cut into the sides of steep cliffs. But the reward once you get there is truly awe-inspiring (a word I've gotten used to using every day)!

We climbed to the second-highest peak, seeing puffins, guillemots, seagulls, and other birds all along the way. We stopped at a grassy spot with a stunning view out to sea and decided that this was a place where Chris would be free to become the wind and the rain and the sea. The wind whipped up from below the cliff edge and carried his ashes up into the cloud-torn sky where they disappeared. Ironically he probably might not have been able to get up to that place, even with a transplant, and so it was even more significant that he become part of the wild freedom of that beautiful place.

Later that day we took the Baldur Ferry to the little town of Stykkishólmur where we stayed the night at Hótel Breiðafjörður. Arriving too late to eat dinner at any of the restaurants in town I had a pylsur at the local gas station grill - yummmy!

Next day we headed for Snæfellsjökull, pushing our sturdy Skoda Octavia even further than we already had. Up, up, up further and further into the never-ending switch-back turns of the mountain gravel road we finally ended up in clouds, our windows misting with drizzle. The landscape up there was truly lunar, nothing visible beyond about 50ft and only lava rock and acid-green lava moss. Earlier visitors had left many Inukshuk-like rock piles and they sprouted around us like the elves that are reputed to live all around us. The road down to Hellnar was washed out so we had to turn around and drive all the way back!!

The drive to Reykjavík was positively boring in comparison and I actually napped along the way. We arrived to a Happy Anniversary banner and chilled champagne for David & Mark's 4th wedding anniversary (planned weeks ahead with my accomplices at the guesthouse). We lit up the disco ball on our living room ceiling and kicked back thinking that if we left the next day, we would already have had an incredible trip.

Our first full day in Reykjavík coincided with the city marathon AND the annual culture night Menningarnótt which is basically a big city-wide street party celebrating music, painting, theatre, etc. Galleries have open houses, mimes do performance art, painters show kids their techniques, shops offer sidewalk sales, etc, etc, etc. It´s a free-for-all that has something for everyone!

Art installation of front-load washing machines all "vomiting" water down the middle of the street! Just one of the dizzying array of things going on for Culture Night.

Late that night we grabbed some more delicious Icelandic baked goodies and headed down to the harbour along with thousands of other people for the big fireworks - what a show! We just happened to sit down on a little hill and the fireworks were literally set off right in front of us! The sky was clear as a bell but being Iceland it was barely dark even though it was 11pm. We cheered and clapped along with everyone else and afterwards, families and friends wandered along the harbourfront. To celebrate, we popped into one of the many hopping bars along the busy shopping strip and bought beers which we simply walked out onto the street while drinking - when in Rome! The streets were packed with families and merry-makers, laughing and strolling and drinking. What a great energy in the air!

Yesterday we drove along the south-west coast through Selfoss where we visited Bobby Fisher´s grave at a tiny church with a beautiful interior. Then it was on to Hella where we ate our picnic lunch overlooking a river before visiting a craft shop filled with handknit sweaters, ceramics, and hand-carved wooden bowls. We stopped for awhile at Skógafoss where we walked up to the pool at the base of this thundering waterfall - Iceland's highest. We got soaked in the spray and loved it! There is a wonderful museum there as well highlighting Icelandic life up until the 20th century including buildings around the museum grounds that you can walk into and see how people lived as far back as the early settlers in turf/sod houses.

Unbelievably, the day just kept getting better and better despite the driving rain. We decided to take the Lonely Planet suggestion to walk on Sólheimajökull glacier nearby and took the gravel road definitely less travelled by car, walked the last kilometer or so before climbing a rock pile and there lay a glacier before our eyes... It's so hard to put into words that experience - and everything that being there represents - how is this possible, why is it allowed!? We walked across the silt and gravel streams that pour out of the base of the glacier and then actually stepped onto it. There was not a single other person or man-made object as far as the eye could see, we were the only ones there... incredible.

We drove onwards towards the town of Vík and turned off down a country road that led us to a breath-taking view of a long curving black volcano sand beach where the icy cold waves crashed endlessly. Behind us rose a long line of basalt stone columns resembling a huge formidable cathedral organ. Above in the cliffs, hundreds of birds circled - including puffins. In the misty sunlight at the far end of the black beach stood the huge rock formation of Dyrhólaey glowing as if lit from the inside. It reminded me of our famous Percé Rock in the Gaspé region. The entire scene was almost too much to take in.

We left the crashing waves and birds to their ageless cycles to find a delicious dinner of tender marinated lamb in a tiny, bustling pub called Halldórskaffi. The drive back to Reyjavik was a late one but rewarded with a perfect crescent moon sliding out from behind the clouds.

We´ve seen so many incredible things and this snippet doesn´t nearly do it justice but I will continue to scribble and will elaborate when I return home.

Until next time...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Icelandic poppies and fresh bread

Greetings from Ísafjörður!

We had a good flight punctuated by several notable things: feather pillows and large fleece blankets for everyone; a yummy, hot dinner (served at the very continental hour of 10:30pm!); and a dizzying array of films, videos, music, and Icelandic travel info at our touch-screen fingertips. The sum total of sleep between the three of us was perhaps 4-5 hours!

We arrived bleary-eyed at 6:30am to a grey drizzly Keflavík airport outside of Reykjavík and took a quick shuttle into the city where we dropped off our bags and wandered about for several hours. Not much was open but we did walk through beautiful downtown gardens and pop into city hall where we saw a cool scale model of the entire island - those mountains we'll be driving through are really freakin' high!! Our sleep-deprived bodies got a charge from croissants and coffee before we headed to the tiny bustling city airport for our flight up north.

The clouds cleared for our decent and the view was SPECTACULAR!! Sheer mountains dropped into water that sparkled in the afternoon sunlight and the little town of Ísafjörður is wrapped around a peninsula in the deep finger of the fjord. The shuttle driver spoke no English but we got to our guesthouse which is delightful - six thumbs up from the three of us!

We wandered around for several hours - mouths agape and cameras snapping madly at the natural vista and charming town around us. Dinner at Tjöruhúsið in the Ísafjörður Maritime Museum was incredibly fresh fish, served in the pan at the table. Cold beer is always good and Viking brand rounded out our meal. We stopped into the tourist office and spoke with Kirsten who was very nice.

I slept in this morning but made up for it asap before we went out walking some more around town, taking yet more amazing picture. There are tons of cute, friendly cats wandering around who've all been getting chin scratches and photo-shoots. The architecture is really interesting - lots of mid-century modern! For a laugh - and because I love them - we popped into the local hardware store. Holy nice fixtures batman! Gorgeous modern stuff that would be special orders at Home Depot are fully stocked in a town of 3500! And of course everyone is blond and beautiful - even the crusty old guys down on the docks!

"Spiral Kitty"

We had an amazing afternoon boat trip out to Vigur island where we saw puffins, arctic tern, seals, and eider ducks. The family that owns the island run an eiderdown "farm" where they harvest eiderdown from the nests to make eiderdown duvets.

Having a Georgia O'Keeffe moment at Vigur Island...

It's hard to put into words how beautiful it is here. The air is cool and fresh. The sea and sky are ever-changing lifeforms. There are an astounding number and range of flowers everywhere: yellow and orange Icelandic poppies; heavenly scented wild roses; lush purple lupins; etc. The bread and baked goods are to die for! The smell... omg.

So much to describe! How to put these experiences into words? I will have to flesh out these on-the-fly postings once I get home.

Tomorrow, we're off to Látrabjarg in our rental car - cross your fingers and wish us luck!

A bientôt!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

One helluva life!

Chris will have some very dear company now. The Dixon clan lost a long-cherished friend this week with the death of Ron Laidlaw. The Laidlaws were like a second family to Chris and were among the first people to meet him when he was just a baby.

Ron and his wife Vips welcomed me into their home at Christmas- time several years ago when I visited them with Chris and his mom and grandmother. I was a bit nervous because Chris had talked about them so much and in such a warm and affectionate manner that I wanted to be sure to make a good impression. I need not have feared any stern inspection! At the Laidlaws, strangers quickly became friends and friends became family.

Even though he was 88 when he died, Ron was never old. He was passionate about current events and curious about people, he had a wry (sometimes even corny) sense of humour and loved to share cartoons and jokes with loved ones near and far via his computer, he loved a good bottle of vino and had been helping his younger son build up a small vineyard in the Niagara region. His life-long passion was photography which he continued to practice up until his death.

But most of all he loved his family and his friends and they reciprocated in spades. Although I didn’t know him long or well, I could see the deep, abiding love and joy that Ron felt when he was surrounded by those he loved. He just bubbled with energy.

After his wife died several years ago, Ron described himself as a ship without its sail. He has rejoined his beloved Vips and I know they will enjoy smooth waters together forever more. Bon voyage – we will miss you.

Ron enjoying Iceland's Blue Lagoon this past May
(photo courtesy of Christian Laidlaw).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

National organ donation registry

Yesterday it was announced that Canada will finally develop a national organ donation registry. This registry will replace the many provincial and regional networks which currently manage life-saving surgeries for thousands of Canadians surviving with kidney, liver, lung, heart, and other organ failure.

Three years ago, Chris was near or at the top of the organ donation waiting list in Ottawa. Since Ontario alone has five completely separate and locally managed transplant regions - each with its own waiting lists - he was removed from that list shortly before we moved because he would no longer be living in the Ottawa region. It was our understanding that he would be assessed soon after his arrival in London and placed on their regional organ donation waiting list.

He lingered a jaw-dropping 14 months on the assessment waiting list before being scheduled for the full-day series of appointments to meet with the various members of the transplant assessment team: co-ordinator, social worker, nephrologists, transplant surgeons, etc. With a single registry, his file could simply have been transferred without being removed from the waiting list.

There were many times when he would give me an update of the latest anticipated wait time before the assessment that I lost all patience with the snail's pace bureaucracy of our healthcare system. I fumed and swore and railed on, demanding answers from Chris that he did not have. He was too patient for my fervent caregiver-driven frustration but it was his body and his condition and I knew I had to accept that.

Over my years living with and loving Chris, I came to understand how he – like anyone who faces a health crisis - had to steer his own course, comfortable with his own fully informed decisions and full participation as the key member of his healthcare team. This was the philosophy at the core of his PhD research interest.

In the end he never made it back onto an active organ donation waiting list because of the complications he developed from Encapsulating Peritoneal Sclerosis. The assessment team was waiting to see if he would respond to treatment before possibly undergoing the strain of transplant surgery and whether it might also jeopardize the precious donor kidney.

The new national organ donation registry will hopefully ease painful and frustrating wait times such as Chris and I endured. It will also open up the pool of available deceased donor organs to the best-suited candidates – no matter where they live – thus ensuring the best possible matches as well as creating opportunities for paired exchange donations. The new registry will also hopefully increase awareness of growing organ donation needs.

One issue that I am emphatic about is the validity of a deceased donor’s wishes over the possible dissension of their surviving family members. If someone has made the decision to donate their organs after death, that decision should be as binding as their will or any other legal document they made in anticipation of their death. Obviously healthcare staff must handle these situations with delicacy and empathy but in the end the deceased person’s wishes should be fulfilled.

Be a lifesaver. Sign your organ donation card or mark that choice on your health insurance card or driver’s license and – most importantly - talk with your family about this issue.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Fairy godmother

This year I've seen a bumper crop of babies in my circle of friends, acquaintances, and family. It's practically raining babies!

After a dry spell of several years when most of my friends seemed to have completed their childbearing - either by choice or Mother Nature's whim - suddenly I'm up to my chinny-chin-chin in baby announcements. The first was a late arrival in the first week of January and since then a new one has arrived every few months like clockwork (one more to come!). I feel like Mary Poppins!

I never really considered myself the maternal sort. Never really had the urge or desire to have a baby (much to my dear mom's ever-lasting disappointment). Not sure why, the longing just never really kicked in. Oh, I had a brief phase when I thought how nice it would be but that was a passing fancy. I used to joke that knowing my luck, it would be my kid who would be the axe murder - best not to tempt fate!

Don't get me wrong, I love children - as did Chris. We were both very concerned about child welfare issues and the importance of protecting and nurturing growing minds and bodies - encouraging little spirits to find their wings and soar, no matter what their dreams. We knew early on that we would not have children but that we could support and encourage the children in our lives.

I guess I’ve grown into my nurturing skills as I’ve gotten older. Maybe I tried too hard not to be maternal when I was younger, tried too hard to be different, thought that being a feminist meant not being maternal, who knows… But now I enjoy cuddling squirming babies and making them laugh, playing silly games and listening to adventurous plans of eight-year olds. I get to be a kid again! But I’m also not afraid to be strict and lay down rules. There’s a reason we’re the grown-ups – too bad more of us don’t act that way more often.

This past year has been one of heart-wrenching loss, sorrow, and grief but it also been one of spiritual renewal and deep gratitude for the circle of loving support that has surrounded me on this journey. I see the love and support that Chris gave his friends, family, and students reflected every day in the faces of those I love.

I’m one of the luckiest people I know! I try to honour that by “paying it forward” to my fairy godchildren. I hope I can help them find their wings.