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Yes, Dad, I’ve Actually Been to Iceland

DSC03189When I was in Alaska with my dad a couple weeks ago, and we were on that 12-hour train ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks, I was chatting with the people sitting across the aisle from us, and they asked if I had ever seen the Aurora Borealis before.  I said no, but that I had tried to see them when I was in Iceland a few years ago, and they hadn’t cooperated.  My dad perked up when I said that, and interrupted and said “You went to Iceland?”  I said yes.  Pause.  Skeptical look from Dad.  And then he exclaimed: “In your dreams!”

That’s right.  My own dad called shenanigans on me.

Either he forgot about my Iceland trip, or maybe my mom just never told him where I was, I don’t know.  But he didn’t believe me.  So, Daddy, this one is for you.

Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik

Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik

A few years ago, I had to go to Germany for a memorial service for my German mom (the matriarch of the host family I lived with for a year when I was an exchange student in Germany in the 80s).  At the time, Iceland Air flew between San Francisco and Frankfurt, and would let you do a stopover in Iceland for up to a week without charging you extra airfare.  (They still do allow stopovers on the way to Europe, they just don’t fly out of SFO anymore.)  So, I stopped in Reykjavik for a week.

Reykjavik

Reykjavik

Iceland is groovy and strange.  In the best possible way.  There’s steam coming out of the ground everywhere, and glaciers on the horizon.  Two-thirds of Iceland’s residents live in and around the city of Reykjavik, and they all believe in fairies, but they call them “hidden people.”  They have hydrogen-fueled cars and buses that cut greenhouse emissions by over 50 percent.

The Pearl

The Pearl

There’s a revolving restaurant and a Viking wax museum–“The Pearl”–under a big, blue glass dome on top of some massive tanks that hold natural, geothermically heated water that heats the city’s buildings.  How awesome is that?

DSC02933There’s a really vibrant art scene that is weird and wonderful, if a little dark.  There’s a kind of a seafaring-depression-disembodied-baby-appendage theme happening, that takes a few days and more than a little alcohol to get used to.

Scary baby arms and legs coming out of balls of spider webs--the stuff of nightmares!

Scary baby arms and legs coming out of balls of spider webs–the stuff of nightmares!

Sólfar, or Sun Voyager

Sólfar, or Sun Voyager

Hér stoppa the bus

The bus stoppa here

The people of Iceland are all on a first name basis.  They even refer to the president of the country by his first name.  To be fair, the population of the whole country is about a third of San Francisco’s, so they might actually all know each other.  But really, it’s because Iceland’s culture has a naming convention that indicates the immediate father–and nowadays, sometimes the mother–of the person, rather than the family lineage name.

I don't know what those little donuty knot thingies are called, but they were delicious and I ate more of them than I am proud of

I don’t know what those little donutty knot thingies are called, but they were delicious and I ate more of them than I am proud of

So, a person’s last name is their father’s first name as the prefix, and the word “son” or “daughter” as the suffix.  So, for example, because my aforementioned dad’s name is Henry, my name would be Quin Henrysdaughter, or in Icelandic, Henrysdottir.  If my mom, whose name was Carole, had been a single mother, I’d have been Quin Carolesdottir, if she was a feminist and didn’t want to follow the traditional patronymic convention.  If I had a brother named, oh, say, Theotis, his name would be Theotis Henrysson or Carolesson.  Get it?  Okay, so, since that is not especially helpful in identifying people by family line, and since so many people have the same first names, folks just kind of go by their first names in Iceland and leave it at that.  I kinda love that.

The music scene is epic.  It’s not all Björk and Sigur Rós–not that there’s anything wrong with either of them, I love them both.  But if you want to go sample some really unique, indie musicians, who aren’t imitating whoever the last big thing was, go to Reykjavik, preferably during one of their music festivals.  There are several, including “Dark Days” during January, when the sun never comes up.  Which explains why some of it sounds like this:

I discovered that little gem by giving a music store clerk my American Express card and telling him to pick out six cd’s for me that represented the latest from the local music scene, and he gave me this one by Mugi Mugison (so, if you recall, that means Mugi’s dad was named Mugi, too).  Don’t feel too bad for me, though, because that clerk also introduced me to Emiliana Torrini long before she broke out internationally, and the group Leaves, who are eery and dreamy and lovely and always put me in the mood to make soup (I would post a video for you, but all the videos I can find are geographically blocked.  If you want to have a listen, start with the album “The Angela Test,” if you can find it).

DSC03138The steam coming out of the ground that I mentioned before?  Not kidding even a little bit.  It’s everywhere.  Spurts, geysers and clouds of the oh-so-fresh-smelling stuff (note sarcastic tone).

Steam coming out of the ground

Steam coming out of the ground

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The locals pile up the rocks in these formations to mark where "the hidden people" live, so others will know not to bother them

The locals pile up the rocks in these formations to mark where “the hidden people” live, so others will know not to bother them

There’s a big geothermic power plant outside Reykjavic, and the runoff from the plant sifts through the volcanic rock of the Reykjanes Peninsula, and bubbles up to form a hot springs lake called Bláa lónið, or Blue Lagoon.  The water is about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and is very rich in silica, which  clouds the water and forms a thick, silky, white coating on the sharp lava surface.  It feels kind of like bathtub caulk to the touch, but you can scoop it up and smear it all over your face and body.  Which people do.

Bláa lónið, or Blue Lagoon

Bláa lónið, or Blue Lagoon

They go there specifically to cover themselves in that muck, and let it dry to chalk on their skin. There is even a skin clinic at Blue Lagoon, as the silica mud is supposed to be great for psoriasis and such.  I don’t know about that, but I can tell you, that weird, milky blue lake was ethereal and spooky, and I had to soak in it until I turned into a prune.  It was seriously one of my favorite parts of the trip.  They have massage therapists who will come out into the lake with floaty rafts for you to lie on, and massage you in the water.  Oh, and the hot dogs at the snack bar were ridiculously good–they put those crunchy french fried onions on them and stick it down with curry ketchup (trust me, it was better than its sounds).  But, really, the best place to get those special Reykjavik hot dogs with the crunchy onions is a little kiosk down by the docks.  I kid you not, the line at that place at midnight is so long, you’ll kick yourself for not buying two when you finally get to the window, because when you taste how amazing they are, you’ll have to get back in that line.  That made more sense in my head, sorry.  The hot dogs are good, okay?  Really good.  But I digress….

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Thingvellir

DSC03200Outside Reykjavik, icy, crystal clear rivers and streams runoff from glaciers and cut through a vast, open plain where the site of the first Viking congress at Thingvellir is preserved.  The ground opens up to give way to the veils of a giant waterfall that falls down, into the earth, instead of off of a bluff above.  The crater of a live volcano forms a punchbowl for a preternaturally marble green lake.  It’s a land of incomparable and curious beauty.

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Iceland’s heavy volcanic activity is due its location right on the mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the European continental plate meets the North American continental plate.  The plates are spreading apart, and new earth is literally bulging up from the crack.

The crack between the European and the American Continental Plates

The crack between the European and the American Continental Plates

You can walk over a rickety bridge from one continent to the other.  The day I was there, the bridge had a camouflage net over it, because Clint Eastwood was filming “Flags of our Fathers” on the beach, and they couldn’t very well have me in my purple and green coat and giant blonde pony tail skipping across a white bridge in the background of what was supposed to be World War II Iwo Jima.  Although, in my humble opinion, that movie could only have benefitted from a scene like that.  Just sayin’.  Whatever.

The bridge between the continental plates.  Note Clint Eastwood's camouflage net

The bridge between the continental plates. Note Clint Eastwood’s camouflage net

I still crawled over the bridge on all fours, though, just so I could say I crossed a bridge between the continents.  Now that I think of it, I’m going to have to watch that extremely long movie again, and keep an eye out for that bridge.  Just in case.  You never know!  At least, this time, I can watch it on video, so I can pause it and go to the Snyrtingar.

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Well, Slap My Face and Call Me Sally

Flotation Tank

Flotation Tank

You all know how much I love wacky spa/beauty treatments.  Nothing against a nice aromatherapy facial or Swedish massage, those are lovely, but my taste runs a little more toward the outré. The experience is really what draws me, more than the potential effects.  Once, I read in a magazine about a “Past Life Regression Massage” treatment available in NYC, and I actually flew there just to do it. (Well, I also got to visit my bestie, James, while I was at it.)  Basically, a massage therapist massages your feet while a hypnotherapist sits by your head and tries to get you to recall your past life.  It was a hoot and half, and I don’t even believe in past lives.  And then, there was the “Mayan Experience” treatment in Playa del Carmen, where you lay in a hammock and a girl in a traditional dress lays on the ground underneath and kicks you in the back.  All I could think the whole time was how that girl was going to go home laughing that night, saying to her family “Guess what this crazy Gringa paid me two hundred bucks to do to her!”  So far, I’ve only found one weird spa treatment that is just too out there for me, and that is the snake massage in Israel, where you get naked and they drop a big tangled cluster of about a dozen snakes on your back and let them unwind themselves and crawl all over you.  No thanks.  I would never stop screaming.  But, flotation tanks, flesh-eating fish pedicures, bird poop facials, Korean herbal hoo-ha steam treatments…bring it.

Tata the Thai Face Slapper

Tata the Thai Face Slapper

Well, imagine my excitement when I found out that, right here in San Francisco, we have the only genuine, certified Thai “face slapper” in the U.S.!  Oh yes, you read that right.  Face slapper.  Her name is “Rassameesaitarn New Series World,” but she goes by “Tata.”  She and her husband, Mawin, run Face Slapping Natural, where Tata will use her extensive training, and the back of her hand, to slap the years right off  your face.

Five dollars, please!

Five dollars, please!

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  Several of my friends offered to slap me for free when I told them I was doing this.  Fernando even offered to pay me to let him take a shot.  But, none of them are certified by the master in Bangkok, so I had to make an appointment with the real thing.  And I am so glad I did!  From the moment you walk through the door at Face Slapping Natural, you know you’ve entered another world.  It’s a festival of bright colors and mirrors, with giant images of Thai elephants in yoga poses.  Tata herself is a work of art.  Petite and soft-spoken, she wears lamé MC Hammer pants with t-shirts, and each time I saw her, she had on a different headdress, each one rivaling a Rose Bowl Parade float.  The first one had about five full-size stargazer lilies on it, and a gossamer butterfly that was as big as an open volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  The one pictured here, with the parrot, was the fourth and final one, and I wasn’t even sure for a minute if it was a real parrot or not.  (It’s not.)  Oh, and she wears a surgical mask all the time, because she has allergies.

You have to pay five dollars for the initial consultation, and they mean it, they collect that fiver up front.  But once you hand it over, the two of them take it to a big box in the center of the room that has holes cut in it like swiss cheese, and say a Thai prayer over it, drop the five dollar bill into the box, and bow.  Then  you can begin.

The Slapping Room

The Slapping Room-Where the Magic Happens

The actual treatment takes place in a special, mirrored salon equipped with TVs, on which Mawin plays whatever music video Tata is feeling that day.  My first time there, it was Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and something by Justin Bieber.  So, you sit on a tree stump stool, Tata stands behind you with her hands on your shoulders and fixes your gaze in the mirror.  When she’s ready, she gives Mawin the signal, he turns on the music, and she starts to bounce…and then dance around you…and then bitch slap you to the beat of the music.  I swear, I will never hear “Single Ladies” again without flinching.  But once you get used to it, it isn’t bad.  She has a definite technique, and it doesn’t hurt as much as it’s just kind of jarring.  She uses the back of her hand, not the open palm, so it doesn’t sting, and she is very careful to use the fleshy side of her hand over any boney areas, like your brow bones.

For me, Tata said I needed “contouring” more than wrinkle reduction, so she concentrated most on my chipmunk cheeks.  By the fourth session, she was really letting me have it.  And you know what?  After I finished my four session slapping series, a number of people asked me, without prompting, if I had lost weight, saying my face looked thinner.  Tscha.  Just sayin’.  And Tata says, if you rinse your face with cold water every day, the effects should last a year.  Not bad, considering Botox is only good for a few months, and costs way more!  Ahem…or, so I’ve heard.

Anyway, at the end of my last session, Tata asked my permission to draw my eyebrows in better, because she said their sparseness had been bothering her.  So, she drew me some honest to goodness Thai-brows to match hers, but that kind of made me look like a maniacal ventriloquist’s dummy.  But, I thanked her for them anyway.  As I was leaving, Mawin told me to check back with them soon, because Tata is going back to Thailand to get certified in “Butt Punching,” to firm and shape the derriere, and to prevent what Mawin called “Cellu-butt.”  If that’s not a real word, it should be, because it’s about as disturbingly graphic as someone promoting butt punching services could hope for.  So…you know I’ll be back.