Category: etc

Turning 30 in Reykjavik


The last time I visited Iceland was nearly 10 years ago when I was 20 years old. I was camping with an activist group of about 50 people from all over Europe and the U.S. and we were stationed illegally on the construction site of an aluminum smelter for the better part of the summer. It was 2008 right before the economic collapse in Iceland.

Today I turn 30 and I’m visiting Iceland along with an estimated 1.5 million tourists this year. That’s a lot for a country with a population the size of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania! I’ve been reading in the papers here in Iceland that the tourism bubble is predicted to pop like the banking bubble popped back in 2008. Tourism to Iceland has tripled in the last few years with airlines like WOW offering cheap, direct flights from Pittsburgh to Reykjavik.

We arrived in Reykjavik at 5am Icelandic time (Midnight EST) on Friday after a 5 hour flight. We picked up our rental car and drove it 45 minutes from Keflavik airport into Reykjavik. We grabbed a few pastries and sandwiches from Illy cafe, found our apartment, and napped until about 1pm. During our first day in Iceland we went to the grocery store, ate dinner at a swanky, dimly lit restaurant on the harbor, drank a bottle of wine, went back to the grocery store at 4am (with our 3 year old in tow) and ate a frozen pizza as the sky went from dusk to dawn in about 2 hours.

On Saturday we stopped by the Vesturbæjarlaug swimming pool in our neighborhood. The skies were overcast and it was chilly outside but the geothermal pool, hot tubs, and steam bath were perfect. At first we weren’t sure if it was ok to bring our toddler into the hot tub but then we saw a few moms nursing their newborn babies in the hot tubs.

After swimming we grabbed fish and chips takeout from the “Nice Price” restaurant in the harbor and took a nap at the apartment. With our inner clocks thoroughly confused at this point we stayed up until about 4am in the broad daylight (did I mention the sun never sets during Icelandic summers?!) and when we finally woke up on Sunday afternoon we walked to the “Nice Price” restaurant and got a fish buffet for the three of us for $100 (did I mention the food is really expensive here?!).

We then walked around the harbor, visited the Northern Lights Museum where Eliot viewed the Northern lights through a virtual reality headset and Erik bought a book called Sorcerer’s Screed which includes a bunch of Icelandic magic spells. From 8-10pm we went swimming in another heated pool called Laugardalslaug along with hundreds of tourists from all over the world. At 11pm in broad daylight we bought hotdogs from a stand outside the pool, went grocery shopping, and settled in for the night.

Today, on my 30th birthday, we will visit the Reykjavik City Library then drive to the Reykjadalur Hot River and go for a 3km hike. It’s sunny here for the first time in 4 days so we don’t want to squander it! Also I am such an old person but I kind of love it.


little babe (lil b)

464239_10150676038859593_793036820_oIn February 2012 I was in  my second semester of graduate school at the University of Toronto. I lived in a tiny, bright apartment with my dear friend Amy and we decided that it was time to add a third roommate to our lives.

We went to the animal shelter in our neighborhood and browsed the cats. I stopped to look at all of the big orange male cats because they reminded me of my childhood cat Paws. “We need a girl cat!” Amy said, “for our feminist apartment!”

She picked out a tiny grey cat tucked away on the bottom row of cages. “Oh look at this one!” she said.

I bent down to take a look. I studied the little cat and said, “This one? Her eyes are almost crusted shut!” Dried green pus covered her eyes. A vet tech nearby said, “Oh she has the cat flu because she’s been in here for so long! She actually came to us from ANOTHER shelter. Poor little girl!”

I took a look at her name and age, “Celine, age 8 years. 50% off.”

“Why is she 50% off?” I asked the vet tech.

“Because she’s an older kitty. All of the older cats are half off because nobody ever wants them.”

“Alright, Amy!” I said, “This is our new cat!”

We took home our beautiful $50 cat and over the next few days gave her eye drops, tons of affection, and fed her the best cat food we could buy. Deciding that “Celine” was too human of a name for a cat, we tried out a few other names including “Paw Paw” and “Emerald” and finally decided on “Little Babe” or “Lil B” for short.

She blossomed over the next few months and Amy and I fell in love with her.  Her bright green eyes were the greenest eyes I’d ever seen on any animal and a little brown speck next to her pupil made her eyes even more beautiful. Any time we had visitors to our apartment they commented on how beautiful she was, how much her face looked like a little kitten face, and how big her eyes were.

She also had the scratchiest meow that sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard. We joked that it sounded like the voice of an old woman who had been smoking for her entire life. And Lil B loved to meow. She would run to the apartment door every time we came home and meow non-stop in her scratchy voice. I grew accustomed to that abrasive voice of hers and began to love that scratchy little meow.

When I finished grad school I moved back to Pittsburgh for an internship and brought Lil B with me across the US/Canada border. I loaded everything I owned into my 1993 Honda Accord, with Lil B in her cat carrier on the front passenger seat facing me as I drove. I put all of her adoption paperwork and updated shot information into a folder and offered to show it to the border patrol guard.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“Paperwork for my cat,” I said.

“I don’t care about the cat,” he said, brushing the folder away. “Welcome back to the United States.”

That summer Lil B lived with me and my mom in my childhood home until I could save up enough money to rent an apartment in Bloomfield. “Bloom where you’re planted” was my guiding principle at that time so I thought it was fate when I found an apartment in a neighborhood with that time.

In this apartment I let Lil B outside for the first time since I’d adopted her. She loved to lay on the sunny concrete porch, eat the grass in our 5′ x 10′ yard, and run up the porch stairs to the upstairs neighbors where she would taunt their fat indoor cat who lay in the window all day long.

We moved from that apartment onto the second floor of a large Victorian home on the other side of the city in Wilkinsburg. In this apartment, Lil B only ever went outside to bask in the sun on the fire escape where she would flirt with “Mister” the downstairs cat. Unfortunately Mister didn’t have the same feelings for Lil B and he would hiss and scratch her. But she loved him so much. She would put her butt straight up into the air and become totally passive, purring extra loud when he was around.

When I became pregnant and virtually horizontal for 9 months (first because of nausea and later because of sheer laziness) Lil B never left my side. When I was in bed she would lay on my stomach with her face pressed against mine, as if she knew that I was in discomfort and needed her to stay with me.

When Eliot was born, Lil B panicked. For the first six months after he was born, Lil B would only come out at night while he slept. Tearing through the apartment every night and meowing as loud as she could with that scratchy voice of hers, she made it clear that she was not happy with this new addition to our family.


From Wilkinsburg we moved to Lawrenceville into a hot, second floor apartment with a really shitty front door that never locked properly. One weekend while we were away, the building door was left unlocked and the door to our apartment was kicked down by someone who then stole pretty much everything of value that we owned.

We came home that night to find our front door missing and most of our belongings taken but my first thought was, “I hope Lil B is OK.”

I cried when I found her, hiding under our bed, so relieved that she hadn’t run away or been hurt.

That was a really rough year. Adjusting to parenthood was really hard and I felt guilty for not giving Lil B as much attention as I had before Eliot was born. Lil B developed matted fur along her sides and she often had coughing fits where it seemed like she was having trouble breathing.

I took her to the vet and they said that the coughing fits were due to asthma and that hot weather and stress could bring them about. The matted fur, they said, was probably happening because she was stressed out by the baby crying all the time so she had stopped grooming herself.

The vet gave me a flea comb and told me to brush her with it every night. With its narrow teeth, the flea comb eventually worked out all of her knots and matted fur. After a few months of nightly combing, she looked smooth and beautiful, and began grooming herself again.

Last year we bought a house with a little yard and every night we began to let Lil B outside to enjoy the fresh air and explore the hillside above our yard. She always came back within an hour, scratching or meowing at the back door to let us know that she was ready to come back in. She loved those nightly adventures and I think she looked forward to going outside all day long, although she never wanted to go outside when the sun was still out. Instead, she spent her days napping on the living room chair or on the twin bed in Eliot’s room.

Lil B grew close to Eliot, eventually allowing him to pet her. She would sprawl out and let his little toddler hands pet her stomach, pat her head, even poke her paws. She was incredibly patient with him, never once hissing, scratching, or biting him. She was a tender, kind, loving girl.

Two weeks ago we felt a lump on her belly and the next day I brought her to the vet. They took a sample of the lump and after a few days called to tell me that it was cancerous. It also wasn’t the only lump, there were several lumps all along her mammary glands. Lil B had just turned 13 years old in February of this year.

Two days ago I came home to find her limping, with blood on her paw and on her stomach. Until this day, she had been eating, drinking water, going up and down steps, and even going outside every night, without exhibiting any pain.

I got her cat carrier from the basement and carefully pushed her into it. The only time Lil B has ever scratched me is when I’ve tried to put her into that damn cat carrier. She hates it. She scratched my arm and drew blood but I knew that I had to take her to the vet.

At the vet I was told that when blood starts appearing from the cat’s nipples, that’s the sign that it’s time to let them go. I knew that I didn’t want her to suffer and I was thankful that she had made it to her last day with fairly high quality of life.

The vet tech brought a beautiful knit blanket into the small procedure room and Lil B immediately began purring loudly, and crawled onto the blanket, grateful for its comfort. I held her, crying, while they injected her with muscle relaxer, and I felt her gradually become limp.

When Lil B’s head fell and her breathing became slow and soft, the vet came back in and asked if I was ready. “The last thing she will remember is your voice and you petting her,” she said.

While the vet gave Lil B two short injections into her arm, tears poured from my face onto the stainless steel table as I repeated, “You’re such a good girl, you’re such a good girl.”

I came home that day to Eliot playing basketball in the backyard with Erik. Without me saying anything, Eliot asked, “Where’s Lil B?”

“She has a boo boo, honey, so mommy took her to the doctor,” I said.

“Oh,” Eliot said, “I don’t like boo boos.”

For the last two days since she’s been gone, I miss her the most after Eliot has gone to bed. Right now as I sit here on the couch with my laptop, she would have been sitting on the back of the couch, next to my head, purring loudly and occasionally reaching out with her paw to touch my shoulder or my head. She loved being alone with me and took advantage of every moment that Eliot was asleep.

I cried tonight as I sat in the bathroom on the toilet, a time when she would always jump off the bed and curl up at my feet, then stretch onto the bathroom rug, waiting for me to scratch her back. Tonight as I sat in the bathroom, I looked down the hall at the empty bedroom where she would spend most of her time. No glowing green eyes or scratchy meow tonight.

I miss her for her sweetness, her gentleness, her loving head butts, and her patience with Eliot. I miss her for the way she always ran to the front door when I came home each day, just like a dog, meowing that loud scratchy meow, saying, “Hello! I missed you! I’m so glad you’re home!”

I miss her because my relationship with her demonstrated that it’s possible to care for and deeply love another living being that isn’t a human. Even now it seems strange that I’m crying for a little grey cat, but here I am, crying for her. She was a beautiful girl and I’m happy that we chose to bring her home to our little feminist apartment in Toronto.


weaning in wien


so here i am, laying on a patch of grass across from the united nations building in vienna, next to the danube river while topless women casually sunbathe. and i am thinking about how i came to vienna partly as a way to wean my son.

when i first learned how to breastfeed him it felt like a really painful burden. i didn´t feel particularly committed to doing it but i felt obligated to try. i wanted to give up so many times during that first month but because i gave birth to him in canada, i received a lot of free support from lactation consultants and home visiting nurses who all encouraged me to keep going. my goal was to make it to six months and then stop. i never thought i´d make it that long. it seemed like a totally unrealistic goal. but after the first month it got so much easier. my supply regulated itself and it was no longer painful.

when six months came, i saw no reason to stop breastfeeding. it was so easy and i had a great supply. my son was exclusively breastfed until that point and i figured since it was going so well we would just continue.

then one year came and that´s when i started getting questions, from my doctor, from my family, from my friends about when i was planning to wean. my new answer was “when he turns 2.”

on july 8th my son turned 2 years old and i was still nursing him at naptime and bedtime. i joked, only partly, with my partner that the only way i would be able to wean our son is if i left the country for a few weeks. so when the opportunity came up to take a paid trip to vienna for two weeks at the end of july, i took it. partly as a way to wean, partly as a way to engage in a cross cultural exchange, and partly as a way to reconnect with my non-mom identity.

now twelve days into my stay in vienna – or wien as the austrians call it – my child is fully weaned and i have stopped producing milk. it´s a strange thing, to miss something that i resented so much in the beginning, but it also gives me hope and serves as a reminder that things get better.

when i was nursing i had the feeling that i was capable of so much. after all, i had nourished a brand new human entirely on a substance that i alone produced! then later when nursing became more of an emotional need than a physical one i felt like i had the magical ability to soothe our son when no one else could.

i feel a little sad, losing this magical power of mine, but breastfeeding for two years has given me strength and resolve i didn´t know i had. these are my thoughts so far on weaning. all it took was a few weeks in another country to make it happen.

three days in buschberghütte


on monday this week isabelle and i packed up all of the supplies we would need to spend two nights, three days with 12 children in a small hut in the mountains in lower austria. the hut is called buschberghutte and it is one of about 40 huts scattered throughout the austrian mountains, where hikers and campers can stop to eat and sleep. buschberghutte happens to be stationed at the lowest altitude, compared to the other huts.

after a 1 hour bus ride from vienna to lower austria, we unloaded all of the children at a bus stop in a tiny village situated at the base of rolling hills, and then with all of our backpacks and sleeping bags, we began hiking away from the village along a tiny path into the forest with nothing to guide us but an occasional sign post with an arrow and the words buschberghutte written across it.

i think that first day of hiking from the bus stop to the hut was the most difficult of the three days, especially for the six american children. they expected the bus to drop us off right in front of the hut, and not to carry all of their bags up a winding path in and out of the forest and the hot sun. at some points, we stopped to set our things down and sing songs in the middle of fields, which did seem to help a bit.

when we finally arrived at the hut, the american children were especially surprised at how cramped their living quarters would be for the next three days. there were complaints from the children of not wanting to be there and missing their family, and it was honestly a difficult first day. thankfully isabelle and i work really well together so after lunch we facilitated a group discussion about how everyone was feeling and why. we then created group rules for our time at the camp, including how to treat everyone, what time we would wake up and go to sleep, and what inclusion would look like.

we then talked about what cultural differences the children have noticed during their time first in the united states and then in austria. the austrian children talked about how difficult it was to live with air conditioning in the united states – too cold! – and how the food servings were way too big. they also noticed that people who work in the service industry are so friendly and attentive – in austria they barely make eye contact with you! – the kids said.

over the next two days, we played countless physical activity and running games. isabelle and i had made jerseys from an old sheet for each of the children and then wrote numbers with permanent marker on each jersey. the kids were then split into two groups – odd vs. even numbers – and had to hide throughout the hills and then begin to catch one another. a bit like hide and seek combined with tag but you also have to call out the person´s name and number before you get them out. the kids loved this game.

we also hiked to another nearby village – this time without carrying our bags – and visited a school museum that was really beautiful. in the lobby there was a knowledge chair which was a silly invention from germany that involved pouring books into a large funnel which was then placed next to the pupil´s ear. it was meant as a way to learn subjects very quickly without actually having to read! this made for a great photo op with the kids. we then toured the school which had been operating since the 1800s and were quizzed by our tour guide on a bit of mathematics, literature, and science, as we moved through each room.

on our last day at the hut i worked with an austrian man named norbert in the kitchen to prepare a typical american meal for all of the children as well as the families of the austrian children – about 30 people total. the american children decided that this meal would consist of baked beans, sloppy joe´s, french fries, and corn on the cob. i had actually brought two gigantic cans of bush´s baked beans and several packets of sloppy joe seasoning from pittsburgh especially for this dinner. the kids then performed a skit for the families as donald trump vs. hillary clinton in a debate ranging from gun control to gay rights. it was really entertaining.

oh – and just before the families arrived, one of the austrian girls was doing a cartwheel and landed on her foot awkwardly. she was taken to the hospital that night and we just learned today that she actually broke her foot. as sad as i am that she broke her foot i am also relieved that it happened on the last day. so there it is – we survived three days in the austrian mountains with 12 children and only one broken bone.