Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The End of the Beginning?

Last Friday night we celebrated the twins' 21st birthdays. These, my youngest children, once tiny bundles weighing 6lbs and 4lbs respectively, have finally reached the age of maturity (actually it may be the age but I'm not sure which of my children, if any,  I would describe as 'mature' but that's another story) and we partied in grand style because, as regular readers know, we like to party.

The question of the tent came up immediately in the aftermath of number 1's wedding, exactly 51 weeks ago. And somehow, with a degree of pressure applied from all quarters, we found ourselves agreeing to a similar, if less grand, tented construction in the field with all the necessary accoutrements - dance floor, disco, hog roast, fire pit, bar, fancy dress and so on. The whole process has taken me back to the wonderful time a year ago when we buzzed with anticipation every morning to the slowly constructed and micromanaged celebrations of the wedding.

A somewhat lesser construction but nonetheless a rather marvellous tent popped up in our field which had been mown by my beloved to within an inch of its life. Meanwhile I had been treating the garden to an extensive weeding and planting process which, coming so soon after the 24 hour invasion of 60 sheep whilst we were away in Edinburgh, was surprisingly successful. In fact, on Friday night, I was feeling rather proud/smug about the garden and then in classic style (and at all three big parties we've had here over the last ten years), the minute the guests started arriving, the heavens opened and everyone ran for cover, not noticing my manicured flower beds and planting. Ho hum...

We had spent the week dealing with the minutiae of a big bash, under the stern leadership of number 1 child who had agreed to stay for the week as long as we had Spanky Tequilla, her cat, over Easter whilst she swanned about in Costa Filey. Spanky, and number 2 daughter's dog Milton (soon to be renamed Hilton because he spends so much time in our 'hotel'), were in residence over Easter which made for an interesting to response to "Did you have the whole family home for Easter?" "No, but I had their pets whilst they gallivanted elsewhere". Anyway number 1 set up her 'Chart of Accountability' on the fridge door on Monday and with initials on everything from buying balloons to paying the hog roast people (The Striped Pig Company - very highly recommended) nothing got missed and we were all set to go on Friday night. Even the marquee had been decorated with a bunting of pictures of the twins throughout the last 21 years - great fun for us to choose and a source of entertainment for all.

How to sum up the best bits in just a few sentences? Aside from the heavy shower whilst our guests arrived, the evening was dry and warm enough to open the side of the tent so folks could walk out to sit on the bales (provided most generously by Ian Taylor) around the fire pit as dusk fell.

I learnt that I am rubbish at Beer Pong and on the basis on Friday's performance, I won't be called up by the UK team (if there is such a thing) any time soon. I also learnt at the same time that Pimms, beer, red wine and fruit in the same glass is not a pleasant taste sensation.

The two older siblings made a most magnificent speech about their younger brother and sister, having been supplied with plenty of ammunition by their so-called friends. This included a rendition of Obviously by McFly sung by a youthful number 3, his favourite song when he was eight. Then surprisingly, number 3 made an off-the-cuff speech in response - confident and funny, we think he might have a career in stand-up comedy if all the other stuff fails.

The fancy dress costumes got plenty of use and somehow we discovered that you can take the man out of Ireland but you can't take Ireland out of the man with a stunning performance of River Dance from Mr O'Barr - surely going viral across social media even as we speak and he was gamely accompanied by the singing, dancing doctor. Despite gout (him) and age (me) we gave it hell on the dance floor until well after 2.00am when we made a tactical retreat to the kitchen to make bacon and sausage sandwiches for those guests remaining, nearly all of whom crashed in beds and on settees and floors around the place.

So the next morning, we cleared the marquee and did the mammoth wash-up, ably assisted by the folks who stayed the night and now we're busy washing sheets, as every bed was occupied, and cleaning.

For me the best bit will always be having all the people I love most at home - our whole family extended by our two sons in law. And this night marked the end of the beginning. Not the end of being parents to our fabulous brood because the bottom line is that they will always be our children and we will always be mum and dad but the end of the hands-on hothousing and nurturing part of our lives for our offspring - until or unless they present us with grandchildren, in which case we will be starting all over again. So just the end of the beginning.

And, as my number 2 pointed out, our home will always be their home and our fridge their fridge. She had her head in the aforementioned fridge at the time, shortly before she checked out the biscuits and chocolate shelf. Definitely not the end then!

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Bucket-Listing in Search of the Northern Lights

Hunting the Northern Lights has been on my bucket list for some time and when the opportunity arose to make this a reality, it was too good a chance to miss. Then we let our friends Ebabe and Wheezy into our plans, and suddenly and brilliantly our weekend for two became a weekend for four! We could only allocate two days (and more importantly, two nights!) to our Icelandic adventure due to my beloved's work commitments (ho...hum...) so it was a very early start to get the easyJet flight from Manchester to Keflavik on Saturday morning. Tourism in Iceland is massive now and although it seems an unusual holiday choice, it is now a very popular destination. After a slight delay we took off taking the most spectacular route up the west coast of Scotland on a beautiful clear day, only hitting cloud cover when we were well north of the Scottish coast. But there was plenty of cloud cover from then on and when you're in search of the Northern Lights, cloud cover becomes very significant as we were to discover! 
Keflavik airport is very clean and efficient and we had been advised to buy wine and spirits there because once you are in Reykjavik, alcohol is very expensive. Once our 'essential shopping' (wine, more wine and snacks) was done we were bussed into Reykjavik to our hotel, the Alda, which is on the main shopping street in the centre. Stylish and chic with very helpful staff. Curiously, the hotel foyer contained an independent restaurant and a barbershop!

On our first afternoon we headed out to eat and see the sights of Reykjavik. There are plenty of things to see but we only managed Hallgr√≠mskirkja, the uber-modern Lutheran church and the Sun Voyager sculpture. The narrow streets are charming and although there are signs of the boom times before the Icelandic banking crisis in 2008 with some stunning new buildings, much of the city is reminiscent of a seaside town, but with the amazing backdrop of the snow-capped mountains on the horizon. Of course, we learnt only too late that there was a penis museum which we could have visited so we had to leave the joy of that experience to Ebabe and Wheezy to enjoy (or not) after we had left as they managed an extra two nights after we had headed back to Blighty. 
Our first crack at the Northern Lights was that night. Although it had been sunny in the afternoon, by early evening there was heavy cloud and seemingly our chances were very slim indeed. However, our driver from East West Tours, Carrack (I've got no idea how to spell or pronounce any person or any place's name in Icelandic so you'll have to bear with) turned up at the hotel regardless (and nearly an hour late) to collect us. He then took us round a number of hotels in Reykjavik to pick up other tourists taking another hour and a half. As we discovered, the tour companies think nothing of leaving you waiting in the minibus for an hour or more whilst they track down stragglers. Considering the cost of these tours (over £100 each) this seems greedy but this happened on all three tours we took and on one occasion, we were half an hour out of the city on our way and had to turn back to collect more guests.
All the tours head out to areas with little or no light pollution, but with heavy cloud cover, despite driving around until 1.00am, the Northern Lights refused to be seen. Our driver, however, threw himself into the task and his driving style proved much like a bull in a rodeo trying to dislodge his passengers. Added to this, he would often turn off his headlights whist travelling at 50 mph in case there was a break in the cloud! One good thing was that if you don't see the Lights on your first attempt, you can go out again the following night at no charge. I spent much of the following day saying heartfelt prayers that they might send another driver!). 
Very little sleep before getting up early on Sunday morning with a pick-up at 8.30 from Christian Inky (renamed Tinky Winky for the rest of the day - Teletubbies is very big in Iceland apparently) for our Superjeep tour which proved to be a fabulous day of unforgettable sights. We were six in the jeep (all coincidentally from Yorkshire which made for some fine Northern banter!) and we set off first for Faxi which is a small but beautiful waterfall and on the way to the much larger and absolutely breathtaking waterfall at Gullfoss. This latter is regarded as the queen of Icelandic waterfalls and as well as the heavy rain which was now falling, the spray from the waterfall meant that we arrived in the cafe above the waterfall absolutely soaked through and ready for our Icelandic lamb soup which is a speciality here and delicious - especially warming when your jeans are wet through! Adventures with Ebabe and Wheezy always seem to include getting absolutely soaked - on a previous occasion, we went out in a speedboat in Portugal to look for invisible dolphins and I finished up crouching on the vanity surface on a public lavatory in Lagos drying my jeans whilst still in them! 
Then it was off to the glacier Langjokull which took us over some very rough terrain and by now, there was an effective white-out so quite difficult to see anything but snow - but the ride was tremendous fun and Tinky Winky was very entertaining. After lots of chats over the radio with fellow drivers, Tinky Winky decided we should head back rather than risk getting stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere. Our next stop was at Haukadalur for the geysers which shoot boiling water 100 feet into the air at intervals. The air smelt of sulphur and when the geysers blow, it is a truly spectacular sight.
Our final port of call was Thingvellir National Park where the Icelandic Parliament was founded over 1000 years ago. Here we saw how the earth is ever so, ever so slowly pulling apart along the North-America and Eurasian tectonic plates and stood where the Viking settlers stood centuries ago to edict national laws. And where they film great chunks of Game of Thrones, of course! The scenery all day was incredible and totally unlike anything I had ever seen before (although apparently reminiscent of New Zealand - still on the bucket list!). As we made our way back to Reykjavik, watching the Iceland ponies graze on the side of the road, you can only marvel at Nature and how extraordinarily different it is less than three hours from the UK.
Back at 6.00pm and out again at 9.00pm to have another crack at the Northern Lights and I'm still thinking 'I hope we don't get the same driver!' but, of course we did but he was marginally less erratic on the roads and took us off into the hills where he confidently said we would see the Lights. We waited outside on the road, drinking hot chocolate and trying to stay warm whilst he assured us that they were coming and, yes, eventually, what initially looked like a dark bank of clouds yet was completely clear, moved across the starry sky before lights shone out above it as if like spotlights behind a theatre curtain. Not green but definitely light enough to put the birds into dawn chorus mode. We would have loved to see the amazing colours but that was not to be but at least we saw them and an extraordinary and alien sight it was too (humming to myself the theme to Close Encounters of the Third Kind!)
Back at 2.00am and up again at 4.00am to pick up the bus to Keflavik airport where everything is amazingly efficient and clean (UK airports please note!) and then on to our easyJet airbus back to the UK. We arrived at Manchester early which clearly threw the ground staff into a frenzy because they couldn't find a set of stairs to disembark from the front so everyone had to get off at the back at which point the pilot asked us not to rush to the back in case the plane fell over! I'm still not clear whether this was an attempt at humour because we had been on the ground for twenty minutes by then with no sign of going anywhere but we were being very British about it and no-one was complaining.
Worth the trip? Definitely! Expensive when you get there? Yes. But this is an extraordinarily beautiful place and another twenty four hours to go the Blue Lagoon and maybe have another crack at the Lights would have been good. And apart from our Northern Lights driver, everyone we met was helpful and courteous and made our visit an absolute pleasure.