Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Iceland

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.

Don't go to Iceland in November. The sidewalks are slippery and it snows and it is freezing and you will probably get very lost trying to find attractions that are closed. Also, you will be jet-lagged when you arrive. Practical wisdom suggests that the best way to combat jet lag is to stay awake until bedtime in your new time zone. Unfortunately, practical wisdom holds little power - for me, at least - over fatigue. Once we landed and found our hotel, we managed to stay awake for forty-five minutes before the walls started melting and the darkness closed in. We woke in the late afternoon, walked outside, and spent the next few hours slogging through the first snowfall of the Iceland winter. 

I was not discouraged. Icelandic tourist information is full of reasons to travel to a cold, dark, out-of-the-way island in the middle of winter, but the primary reason is the rocking, all-night party scene. This I wanted to see, mostly to compensate for my first class lack of rocking, all-night party ability. So despite a disappointing first few hours, we grabbed a late dinner and searched our Let’s Go Europe 1999 for a hip nightclub.

If you are paying close attention you will notice that our guidebook was two years out of date. Being budget travelers, we decided that there were no significant developments in tourist information since then, so we skimped on an updated travel guide and prayed for accuracy. For reasons that would become clear (the hard way) throughout our travels, skimping on our guidebook was a profoundly bad idea.

We found a club with a sufficiently Icelandic-sounding name, Gauker A Stong Vettingahus. Roughly translated, this meant “don’t even think of showing up before 1 AM.” When we arrived at 10 PM, the place was deserted. The club had three levels of dance floor and a total of eleven people in it, including staff. We grabbed a couple ten dollar mixed drinks and walked every square inch until 1:30 AM. We gave up and walked out, exhausted and jet-lagged, at the exact minute the crowds picked up. As we left, we had to fight our way through throngs of hipsters trying to get their evening started. The line outside the club, full of beautiful young Icelanders standing in the early morning snow, stretched for two blocks.

Not all was lost. We slept very well and woke at 10 AM, just in time to see the sunrise. Our goal for the day was to visit the Blue Lagoon, one of the premier natural attractions in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon was a steam-filled outdoor hot spring that we saw on lots of Iceland brochures. It was blue, foggy, and smelled of sulfur. In spots, it was literally boiling hot. The surrounding landscape was volcanic and desolate. It was a unique, creepy patch of Earth. Adding to the strangeness, we were alone except for a couple staff in the adjoining space-age spa and a single life guard in a dark, shadowy structure overlooking the lagoon. We pruned our fingers and toes for a few uneventful hours, showered, and boarded the next shuttle back to Reykjavik. Then things got interesting.  

Our driver was bent on setting a land-speed record for commutes between the Blue Lagoon and downtown Reykjavik. In addition to traveling very, very fast, the sun had set hours ago at mid-afternoon, making our trek very, very dark. The roads were unlit, curvy, and icy. And our chauffeur liked to play chicken with oncoming traffic. I spent a white-knuckled half hour worrying about whether or not we’d go skidding into the barren, rocky roadside while Karie, exhausted and in a spa-induced coma, slept in the seat beside me. Our travels were off to an odd start, but we had survived. Only six months and thirteen days to go.

With our final day in Iceland, we wanted to see some of the beautiful, non-lagoon scenery surrounding Reykjavik. We were told that the roads were now too icy and nobody in their right mind would trust one of the local madmen shuttle-drivers in such conditions. I agreed.  

We had no backup plan but our hotel room was much too small to sit in all day. It was still snowing and the city was deserted. We should have taken the hint and stayed inside like everybody else, but we did not want to waste a moment of potential tourist fun in Iceland. So we set out in search of the National Museum and Viking House, attractions our tourist map identified with extra large icons, making them very hard to resist.

As it turned out, the Viking House was very difficult to find. We stumbled on a building that appeared to match the location of the icon on our map, but when we went inside it was filled with teachers and small children and smelled like tater tots. Feeling awkward, we quickly retreated and gave up our search. The Viking House may have been next door buried beneath the snow. We will never know.  

Not easily discouraged, we began a search for the National Museum. We found a building that matched the location on our map and looked very much like a large, dusty museum but it was unmarked and closed for the season.  

Iceland is a truly gorgeous country with fantastic natural attractions for many months of the year. But it can be a challenging destination in winter unless you are a nocturnal party person attracted to tall blonds with fully exposed noses.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: An Introduction

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.

"You know the message you're sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You're telling the world, 'I give up. I can't compete in normal society. I'm miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.'"
- Jerry Seinfeld

What do sweatpants and Europe have in common?  Not much.  In fact, people in England don’t even call them sweatpants, which makes it hard to find them there.  English people refer to them as track suit bottoms.  “Pants” is either slang for underwear or a synonym for terrible (as in, Hardees breakfast is pants).  Neither interpretation will work for a piece of ultra-casual leg-wear.  Predictably then, whenever a customer asks an English sporting goods sales clerk for sweatpants, the clerk inevitably scrunches up his nose, looks confused, and points the customer towards some Adidas wind pants.   If the customer is a connoisseur of sweatpants, wind pants will not do at all.  Unfortunately, this confusion is not limited to England; the rest of Europe is equally unaware.  Clearly, this is a collection of countries without proper appreciation for sweatpants.  

I, on the other hand, am a true lover of sweatpants.  Both functional and adept at hiding any semblance of figure, they are an essential part of my wardrobe.  But there is a deeper, more symbolic connection between me and  cotton, drawstring-cinched, elastic-ankled bottoms.  In November 2001, I began a six month trip through Europe.  I was a fish out of water, to say the least.  I was the sweatpants in a drawer full of European skinny jeans - odd, directionless, and shapeless.  


I had been looking forward to this trip for years.  I had a brief semester of study in London during the fall of 1999.  During those months, I discovered how fantastically challenging life becomes when home is thousands of miles away.  But it wasn’t quite enough.  I wanted to go back, get a job, travel, and figure out how to survive on nothing but my wits, a few bucks, and whatever creature comforts I could fit into my suitcase.  As luck would have it, I found a wonderful little program called BUNAC that let me do just that.  My then-fiancĂ©e and current wife, Karie, wanted to come along as well.  This seemed like a swell idea.  

BUNAC allowed us to plop down in any number of countries, but we decided to work in Britain since they speak English almost the same way we do.  We settled in Oxford, took several small trips during our time there, and backpacked for six weeks after our work visas expired.  What follows is the story of those few months slaving away in Oxford and getting lost and confused in Europe.

<< PrefaceIceland >>

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Preface

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story.

Below are the chapters of Sweatpants Across Europa. Drafts of these stories have been sitting around in my drawer collecting dust for several years, but I'm finally getting around to cleaning them up and posting them. 

You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.

Many thanks to my wife Karie Johnson, my sister Courtney Johnson, and my friend Peter Borchers for endlessly helping me finalize these posts. All remaining weaknesses are my own. Enjoy your time here, and feel free to contact me at