First (already) new country visited in 2018 :P

First (already) new country visited in 2018 :P

“Archaeology seeks answers to the fundamental question of existence. Who are we? Where do we come from? Why is the world such as it is?” – Quote from the Finnish National Museum

Part of the unofficial goal of 2018, is to really keep tabs on my travels because in the spirit of my official goal “do my future self a favor”, I’d really hate forgetting these fond memories abroad as time passes. Since getting hooked on traveling to Europe (I blame my academic exchange back in Nice), I have managed to visit new and familiar cities in the old world once a year but never writing any of those journeys down.

But as 2018 guarantees a fresh start (that + a 5 hour flight to Portugal and countless delays), I have found myself plenty of time to write about Helsinki! Or as I used to say “godforsaken Helsinki” because compared to its neighboring countries, Finland doesn’t seem too appealing. The last 2 days however, has completely changed my mind. Despite having spent only limited time in Helsinki, I have already a taste of how authentic, pragmatic and productive the Finnish people are, all incredible virtues that are so underrated in our generation.

Before I go into any details, I would highly suggest that you visit when it is warm because when it is -8 and it snows + you do not have proper shoes (or stellar balancing skills), you’re guaranteed to pok gai (Cantonese slang for falling, but really the imagery is more like slipping and slamming your face right on the ground).

I personally slipped every 10 mins but managed to stay upright at the cost of having muscle pain all the way from my lower back, to my butt, my thighs, my calves AND my feet. The silver lining to this though, is that I was forced to focus on landing my foot on solid grounds, tracing my footsteps intently, preempting any possible mishaps that involve getting my butt wet from falling on the snow.

Because I had to pay full attention to my walking, consciously and cautiously alternating my legs, my mind had no choice but to stay focus on the present, so captivated that I had no capacity whatsoever to think about the past or the future… that my friend, is meditation right there. My brain felt so refreshed afterwards; instead of the daunting and never ending worry of tomorrow and reminiscing of the past, I gave it this one basic, kindergarten level task of “not falling”. Instead of the default auto-pilot mode to walk while multitasking, those hours on the icy road was just my footsteps and my shadow. Sorry there were no shadows because there was no sun.

First day in Helsinki was a great day because I happened to land on a day with a strike so no public transport for me and my 20kg luggage+10kg hand carry and backpack! I mean from Madrid/ Copenhagen/ Paris/ to Chicago, I always land into cities right on the day they strike. That didn’t stop me from visiting the contemporary art museum on the only day of the month that it’s free though! Then I also happened to arrive at the national museum after 4pm which is ALSO free 🙂 Second day was great too if not better because all ticketing machines broke down so I had no choice but to take the Suomenlinna ferry for free. It was as if the whole of Helsinki is working together to help me save money to cover for my taxi fare.

First free entertainment is the Kiasma art museum. My favorite installment is the eerie room of the “sick” nature with black water flowing in pipes across the giant piece of…art. It made dragon noises and it was just out of the world cool. I just love how these arts are so eeeeeerie and almost alien like.

Second free entertainment is the national museum, I recognized right away the famous “baby box” that best demonstrate just how practical and logical the Finns are. Back in the days when they had high infant mortality rate, the government thought the best way to fix this is to give pregnant women body check early on. Given how vast the country is and back in the days when most people still lived in the rural areas, it was not an easy task to encourage them to visit the doctors.

So they came up with an incentive program where pregnant women who completed the body check early into their pregnancy will be handed out a “Baby box” with everything your baby need when they’re born. It includes diapers, baby clothes, milk bottles etc. all placed in a sturdy box that can be used as a crib too for the newborn! Not only is the box worth a lot of money, it simple took away the anxiety of being a parent for the first time! Although infant mortality rate is no longer an issue, the Finnish government still kept this tradition as it also brings a sense of belonging to the people. By sharing the color of your baby box, Finnish are able to identify the year they were born in 🙂

This got me thinking, there isn’t actually parenting classes or simulations, so how do you know how to be a parent when this is possibly the biggest responsibility anyone can have: to instill the right values, make early major decisions and provide for another human being YOU bring into earth? Here I’d like to salute to all parents in the world because even if you didn’t do a good job, it is totally understandable 😛 no one gets things right the first time.

Now back to Finnish culture. According to the museum, the Finnish people believe that there is an elf in every household’s sauna room. They’re supposed to keep your family safe and happy. However, they will only protect you if they’re happy so you certainly do not want to piss them off by 1) farting  2) talking too loud or 3) staying too long in the sauna! This reminded of how the Icelandic also believed in trolls that guard the land so Government will ask for permission before building a highway or something. In fact, can anyone tell me what’s the difference between a troll, a gnome and an elf?

The theme of the temporary exhibition is “Finnish treasures” where the museum invite locals to send in items they find to be of personal significance that best represent Finland. To me this was the most touching part because you see real life in someone’s wedding dress, christening robe that were worn by 3 generations and my personal favorite, a tool to pick berries owned by somebody’s grandfather. In a flash I imagined how my life would have been, if I grew up in the suburb of Finland.

My family makes a living by picking berries or tending to ewes. Every weekend, instead of going to the mall or dinning out, we will probably gather around the fireplace enjoying some homemade rye bread. You’re not defined by your college degree or your pay check, but how well you coexist with nature. It is not just a cozy dream because you can still raise a family like that if you so desire. To me, the purpose of traveling is to allow you to see possibilities, to see beyond your daily mundane routines and your own paradigm that there are, in fact, thousands way of living, of motivation and purpose in life that you can opt for.

May be it is the vast white snow or the freezing sea breeze, but I am overwhelmed with gratitude and content. Referring to the Art of Travel just a little, it is absurd to let ourselves be bound to where we so happened to be born and raised. In a world that is so well connected and informed, it is almost a sin to not fully explore what the world has to offer.

Now imagine sitting in an authentic bar with just the quintessential, no fancy redundant decorations like freakish fairies made of iron or nitrogen coming out from teapots or color changing ice; watching modest cars pass by the window while sipping Finnish G&T, listening to heavy metal music blasting in the background, this is Helsinki. I hope that the next time you’re planning a trip to the Nordic capitals to experience nature, artistic and design atmosphere or slippery grounds, do give Helsinki a thought, Finland has much more to offer than Santa Claus 🙂

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Capital of Scandinavia – Stockholm!

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If only time could go back to my exchange and stay right there…Just looking back at the photos brought back absolutely happy memories.

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I picked  the perfect timing to go back to the Scandinavia. Stockholm in May was so much better than Copenhagen in Feb. (Not quite a fair comparison I agree.) Bright sun hanging on the clear blue sky everyday radiating warmth all over the place. Tall blonde (there were so many blonde people) people with their sunglasses sitting at cafes were spotted everywhere.

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We took a stroll across the shopping street and entered the old town where the palace and parliament are. Along the way we arrived the crowded King’s Garden.

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I never knew there were cherry blossoms in the King’s Garden. Everyone was out enjoying the Bee- U- tiful weather. (Of course in earlier months it would be completely covered in snow and -30 degrees C)

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We stopped by an ice cream shop where they make the ice cream cones fresh from waffles 🙂

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The next day I went to the Blue hall alone. I’m sure everyone would know of it because this is where the Nobel Prizes (except the Peace Prize) are given out each year.

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However, nothing is blue inside…hmm strange. Well that’s because originally, the architect wanted to paint all the red bricks blue to symbolize it being a water city. Yet he ended up liking the way it looks as it is so so much that he decided to leave it.

 

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During the Nobel banquets, over 1000 guests will gather here to dine with one long table in the middle. Everyone gets merely 60 cm of space, except the royal family and guests of honor who gets 70 cm each. After dinner, they would dance in the sparkly golden room above.
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The staircase in the Blue hall was chosen from 7 staircases; the Architect had his wife walked down over and over again to pick the best one.  The hall also holds the largest organ in Europe that is now digitalized. The council meetings of Stockholm are also held in a special meeting room with open ceiling that looks like a Viking ship. It also symbolize that all decisions should be made open to the public, accentuating the importance of freedom and democracy.

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It was such a special feeling to be stepping on the very tile Nobel Prize winners have stepped foot on. Probably the closest encounter I will ever get to the Nobel Prizes. Another must see place in Stockholm would be the Vasa museum.

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After crossing the river(?), I arrived at the Museum area. The Vasa sunk on its Maiden Voyage (I know right, so fail) almost 400 years ago and was recovered around 50 years ago. The ship was so amazingly preserved it was incredible. Only the paintings were off, 90% of the ship was still using it’s original materials.

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Back then they believed why the ship sunk was because there were women on board…yea.. but obviously now they can prove that the ship was too narrow and tall. It simply couldn’t withstand the strong wind.

Lastly, 2 more MUST SEEs in Stockholm.

H&M. They were EVERYWHERE! And like the next must see, the shop doesn’t look like there’s an ending to it.

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IKEA. I went to the World’s largest IKEA 😀

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It’s not because I am small, but the compound was actually gigantic. The food was so cheap and meatballs were so delicious 😛

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Now who would like a cup of Slut? xD

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Also, there was an ABBA museum that just opened. I never knew they were Swedish! In general, Sweden has so many cafes, nice looking people who speak English very well and it was such a safe place. Definitely one of my favorite cities overall. 🙂

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Hello Captain Teddy bear ❤

 

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The Gloomy and Briefly Sunny Copenhagen

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Funny how I finally picked up writing again after 15 days of non-stop traveling to 6 cities. Wasn’t completely crazy, no, but challenging enough for someone as “sporty” as myself. Time to walk down memory lane and record bits and pieces before I forget. Hang on though, I still haven’t wrote about Copenhagen, which was a month back! Seriously where has the time gone? (That reminds me of Dali! can’t wait to get to write about him later on when I get to Venice 😉

Copenhagen was special because I saw snow for the first time. It made me clapping and jumping deep down in my heart. But then Budapest and Vienna welcomed me with too much snow…Can I just have the snow without the cold please? (In your dream -_-)

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Late Feb was pretty gloomy up north. Good that the salivating food made up for it. Here are some highlights of my trip 🙂 First and foremost, the green frozen poor baby. Nah kidding. Of course there were things to see in Copenhagen.

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Point to note: really touristy landmarks are usually a let down, or was it because my expectation was too high?

1) Touristy places (I know… someone painted the C out lol)

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It was freezing (-2, that’s beyond tolerable for someone who was spoiled by the Southern France weather) so we simply couldn’t walk, the Canal tour was at least warm. All there is to say is a landmark without sun is like food without salt.

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It was snowing/raining (Can’t really tell, no expert at this) and I knew it’s not really the colorful houses’s faults, they did their best to look pretty, the sun simply wasn’t feeling cooperative.

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(Under comparison, Venice + Sun was wondrous if not for the gazillion tourists) At least here it was not crowded.- more on that later on 😉

The lake was frozen so the boat had some things to do – cracking the ice while we listened.

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This is it, THE mermaid. I couldn’t help but think why are all statues so miniature? This obviously is a salute to the most famous Danish, Anderson. We paid a visit to a museum about his life, and finally after all these years listening to Ugly Ducklings, I understood why he wrote such story.

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This was where he stayed in for sometime! The story teller we all have heard of.

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Apparently, Anderson was very unconfident as a child because he was, well ugly. (The museum put it in a nicer way but essentially that was it.) I wouldn’t comment on that because I think the concept of beauty is relative and very subjective. But I’m sure in one way or another, we feel unconfident, unworthy even, at times. I have definitely had one of those moments especially recently. Not really in the super optimistic mode right now but I guess all there is to comfort myself is that everyone has to be good at something, however trivial.

In the Ripley’s museum, some “talented” people could make music out of a flute with their nostrils. Well so be it. I am sure one day in my life I will figure out something that I am qualified to do. (Hopefully it doesn’t involve my nostrils.)

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We also saw like a change of guard ceremony thing with these blue pants black furry hat guys. Wasn’t particularly fascinating but then again, there was nothing else to do otherwise 😛 Oh ok, I really liked the way it sounded when they march, the crisp sound of heels clashing the rocky ground in a synchronized rhythm.

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2) Food – Was not particularly cheap, but I think the quality made up for it. Breakfast – heart shaped pastries. P1070835

FREE ICE CREAM! We each got 2 scoops and I dropped mine… typical me. Scraping out the part touching the floor, I finished my ice cream 😛 without getting sick (safe to say that after a month I supposed)

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Traditional cake shop with a friendly old man receptionist (or owner?) Such a cute little shop with pricey but good cakes.

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The hotdog stands, It seems like hotdogs are famous everywhere…

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Dinner all you can eat. Not very “local” but buffets are just my type. THEY HAVE PARMA HAM AND MELON. Capitals for the melon actually because they are so rare and overpriced in France. (or Europe in general)

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It may seem like we were always eating, but trust me, every calorie was 100% justified, you know the coldness, gloomy wet weather, non-stop walking etc.

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These sandwiches was really good. But still for the amount we paid, I expected it to be more filling.

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3) Shabby Train station and Protest – Copenhagen is such a civilized place (especially compared to Central Europe) but why did they allow their train stations to be “decorated” as such? I have no clue.

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On the way out for dinner, we witnessed this huge student protest where people drink beer and marched. My 3rd time seeing a protest/demonstration in Europe and they never gets old unlike the guard changing ceremony 😉

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On the second/last day, THE SUN came out. The whole place lit up and the city was suddenly all warm and welcoming.

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Perhaps to end this it is worth mentioning their airport has some of the best wifi compared to the Europe airports I have been to 😛

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The END of iceLAND.

The weather was just getting better and better everyday. And our hope to see the northern lights was up again. First night was cancelled, second night we went, too cloudy 😦

We were lucky to have a 6-bed room with just the 3 of us 🙂 It made life a whole lot easier.

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Finally time to do some intense activities! Horse riding for 1.5 hours around the mountain.

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We each got matched to a horse and the owner of the riding school put us each in a fitting jacket and helmet. My horse, (Icelandic horses all looked like ponies,  but they are actually really comfortable and reliable) was Gramerer. (I’m just guessing that’s how you spell it, it was too difficult to pronounce, like Grrrrameeerrrrer, with the multiple tongue curling sound) It meant the mask, because it has a white face 🙂

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We first were crossing rivers, looking over mountains, and the horses started running so fast and although I was afraid, I could only convince myself to trust him and hold on to him. It felt incredible to be so intimate with a huge animal like a horse. But afterwards my whole body ached really badly… I felt grateful that I am born in the era with planes and trains 🙂 I liked my horse so much because it made me felt safe the whole time and it was such a special feeling to feel its breathing under his thick muscles when I placed my palm on its neck.

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Remember how Iceland is well-known for its natural scenery? The Golden Circle tour has got it all, the Gulfoss Waterfall, Euro-American tectonic plates (not sure if that’s the right term :P) and the Geysir where water shoots up from time to time to release the pressure. Unfortunately, weather was poor and it compromised our experience…

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Although the attractions were not that captivating, the tour guide himself was rather entertaining. He said the weather here is even more unpredictable than his wife. And these white, green things you see in the photo there, are marshmallows for the cows. Green is mint flavor and it makes their milk minty. Yes I think he is crazy. He mentioned the Reykjavik Mayor being his cousin, and he was a former comedian…He wears pink suit too,  I verified the last piece of information. Isn’t Iceland the cutest country ever? 🙂

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from http://www.newsoficeland.com/home/entertainment-leisure/other/item/594-the-mayor-of-reykjavik-jumps-into-a-pool-wearing-a-suit

Good stories are not always perfect, and the best ones are those that leave certain regrets. At the end after trying for 3 nights, we did not manage to see any northern lights. We saw a lot a lot of stars though but that was it. (yes those are not dusts on your screen)

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We stopped at a really cozy family-owned B&B for toilet. Perhaps I will come back one day and just stay in their cottages for a month 🙂 And watch the stars and attempt northern lights again. (The tickets are kindly valid for 3 years. Although the tour guide did say there will not be any more northern lights after 2 years from now 😦

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Last night in Iceland, we had again traditional Iceland food in a restaurant named after Nordic god, Loki (Yes! Like in Thor/Avengers 🙂 The color tone was creamy yellow with warmly lit lights. I tripped as I was going up the stairs and the waiter said to me “It’s still too early to be drunk!” And I was so embarrassed 😛

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Hot chocolate with Iceland spirits. P1080534

Assorted fish, and shark that tasted really fishy :/

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My craving for sweet food 😛

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Although this trip was not perfect, it was beyond my expectation. Perhaps I did not even know what to expect! I felt so lucky to have the resources to be here and at the end of the day, everything in life are reminders of how lucky I am, the great food, the nice people, the weather, the sun! I will never take things for granted. I have never been this appreciative of how fortunate I am until now.

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Reykjavik left with us the impression of a beautiful night city and I became even more fond of Iceland at the end. Northern lights, when it is meant to be,  when it is the right moment, I will see you some day.

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The coolest (not literally) country – Iceland Part 2

Let’s start off with homemade Icelandic breakfast: Skyr, (Skii-er) the local yogurt like cheese and it tasted…healthy. Blueberry skyr though, was good.

Note to self: follow what a local buys when doing groceries in supermarkets…

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Remember how in High School you studied Geography and you thought to yourself- when on earth will I be able to use these tectonic plates and currents theories ever? Well, I had my chances right here at Iceland. It was around 8 degrees considering its geographical location, it is extremely warm. This is because of the gulf stream that brings warm current all the way up from Florida.

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Iceland is really the perfect Geo field trip. You get to see Eurasia and North American tectonic plates, waterfalls eroding the cliff and volcanoes etc. Iceland thus have the privilege to utilize geothermal energy and they use a lot of water to cool off those plants and here comes the wonderful by-product- geothermal pools ALL across Iceland.

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They were amazing. Because we went in the low season, the pool was so spacious, water a creamy blue, just the right temperature with periods of mist passing by… We saw the sunrise and overlooked the black mountains all over.

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This saved my life. I wouldn’t be able to continue the trip if I did not have such a relaxing morning floating, lying down, drinking strawberry smoothie and just let the sun penetrates my skin and hair.

The latter part of the day we roamed around Reykjavik again under the flawless weather. The famous Dreamboat sculpture right by the bay… as if it is ready to sail out anytime.

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Watching young adorable children skating under technicolor graffitis with their parents watching over them

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It is that time of the day again, as the sun goes down, it radiates such soothing rays of light all across the sky, through the clouds and all the way into my heart. My whole body warms from inside out. I felt so peaceful in Iceland, it’s like calming music is playing in my mind all the time.

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Did that sound like the end of part 2? Well of course not because I still haven’t mentioned much about FOOD. This is Iceland’s best ice cream place according to Trip Advisor. We walked pass it so many times without realizing this is IT.

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Such a colorful and bubbly family-owned shop. The owner’s daughter told us that they open and close whenever  they FEEL like it. Imagine this business model in Hong Kong? Doomed. But right here, it’s just so lovely. I wish I own a crepe shop that opens and closes whenever I want to.

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Hazelnut ice cream with banana icelandic pancakes (= crepes in France)

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That’s my snickers ice cream with chocolate fudge sauce on pancakes. The more fattening the food, the better it tastes like – the number 1 tragedy in the world. oh well.

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This is frozen pancake with vanilla ice cream wrapped inside dipped in caramel and chocolate sauce on each end with coconut and almond toppings. Or to sum up in one word = heaven.

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Apart from the relaxing routine, we understood a little more about the history of the Icelandic people by visiting this sweet little open air museum. It’s basically a real life model of the lives of Icelanders back in the days before modern civilization.

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There were a small church that became someone’s house at some point and other civilian cottages.

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The tour guide demonstrated how Icelanders eat without a table (I want one of those), how they sit on skulls to milk the cows, how they make wool sweaters, how they cram many people under one roof because they were poor, and smoke ham right over their pot while cooking 🙂 Genius.

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In the kitchen, there was already a waffle maker, how cute is that? Icelandic people were even tinier than me and their beds were just like baby cribs.

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Who says Iceland isn’t cool? 😉 practically the only nice car I saw in 4 days though, Icelanders are rather modest.  All the more reasons to like them 🙂

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People in Iceland are funny, nice, and they don’t do things just to rip off tourists’ money. They genuinely want visitors to appreciate the country that they so very much loved. We had to beg the guys to open the souvenir shop for us.

End of Part 2