International minutiae: Chores, errands, and daily life while traveling

You’ve had two days of ocean photos; now let’s talk about something considerably less glamorous. You’ve been warned… if you’re here for the scenery, come back another day!

One of the reasons we wanted to travel slowly — spending weeks or months in each place, rather than days — was that we wanted to live more like locals. Of course, there are limits. But by taking apartments (via AirBnB) instead of doing hotel stays, and being in each city long enough to run into some of the logistics of normal living, we get a taste of what it’s like to settle in a place — not just visit.

Crowberries (kraekiber) for sale at a market


{as always, mouse over photos for description, or click to enlarge}

Daily life fascinates me no matter where I am. I’d rather go to the farmers’ market than to a famous monument, the public library rather than a souvenir shop. I don’t know if the many little interactions I observe (and in which I am a participant) really say anything about the national character — I’m very wary of generalizations, e.g., “The people of people behave in such-and-such a way at the post office; it must be because their culture is so y” — but they’re interesting, anyway, and they make me think about how we all live.

Some of my observations and experiences:

The post office: Iceland

At the pósthús in downtown Reykjavík, you press a button and take a printout, and when the chime sounds and the red lights of the digital wall display show your number, it’s your turn. The Icelandic post is all red in my mind: red logo, red post boxes (similar to the ones in Scotland, but wall-mounted rather than freestanding), that number display, and the polo shirts worn by the employees behind the counter. When I hand over my letters and postcards, the lady weighs them, then opens a drawer where the stamps are filed neatly in numbered manila folders. She tears off the appropriate stamps, places them on top of my mail, and then leaves them there behind the counter. That’s it.

Several weeks ago, after our trip to the Lars Lerin exhibit, I ordered one of Lerin’s books from Sweden. (I couldn’t find any online sellers that would deliver to the US.) When it was time to move out of our first apartment and the book still hadn’t arrived, I worried. As we were handing over the keys to the host, I mentioned the book and she said, “Oh! This just arrived yesterday,” and handed me a letter. Of course I couldn’t read it, so she translated it for me.

Letter from the post office

I had to email my receipt to the post office before they would relinquish my book. I forwarded them the original seller’s confirmation email, and within minutes received an automated reply (again in Icelandic — thank you, Google Translate!) saying that if I didn’t receive any additional requests for information within 24 working hours, I could expect my package to be delivered.

Today our first host contacted me and said she’d received a notice saying my book was ready for pickup at the pósthús. I retrieved the notice and presented it at the counter. I had to pay 1056 krónur (about $8.70 US) for customs. The steely-haired lady who helped me was jovial, efficient, and fluent in English, and I was in and out in about 5 minutes. Before I left I asked about the clear bowl by the register, containing many colorful plastic buttons. She said, “There is a women’s shelter in Iceland, and they need a bigger house to live in. So we are selling these, to help them to buy a bigger house.” I asked how much they were, and she said 1000 krónur. I bought one and she told me, “Pick your favorite color!” I didn’t like their green or their pink, though I almost went with orange.

Fundraising button

The post office: Scotland

At the post office on Morningside Road in Edinburgh, I waited in line (I should say queued) for several minutes before it was my turn at the window. I passed my items through the opening underneath the glass, and the lady passed the letters back and asked me to place them one by one on the scale at my elbow. When they’d all been weighed, she took a binder out of a drawer and riffled through its pages to find the right stamps. They were in different colors but they all had the Queen’s profile on them. I paid for them, and then she handed back my cards and letters, the stamps, and a sheet of blue airmail stickers. A little bemused, I left the window and went to an empty counter and stamped all my mail. Then I went outside and stuck them through the slot on the outside wall of the post office.

Air Mail stickers

Another time I didn’t feel like walking down Morningside, so I went to the post window in the back of a little convenience store (I think they’d call them newsagents?). Same kind of window, same binder of stamps, but this time the South Asian lady took my letter and put the stamps on herself.

The post office: Canada

In Toronto our nearest post office wasn’t an official building, but rather a section in the back of the big Shoppers Drug Mart on the corner of Bloor and Spadina. There was a counter with a little mailroom behind it, a small waiting area, and some wall space dedicated to shipping boxes and padded envelopes for sale. The counter was open till 9 most evenings — far later than any post office I’ve seen in California! — but no matter what time I went, there was always a line, and only one young woman behind the counter.

Canadian stamps

Trash and recycling

Canada: The trash was collected in big bins outside the house, just like at home, with garbage and recycling separate, and a strangely small container for green waste and compost — maybe 5 gallons for the entire house.

Scotland: No compost as far as I could tell, but there was recycling. In Glasgow there were bins behind the tenement, and though they looked just like the black plastic bins at home, I was pleased because they had an opening on top (with brushlike bristles lining the sides, so things could be pushed in, but not easily removed — or perhaps the bristles are to prevent animals from going in?) and I didn’t have to actually touch the lid in order to put my recycling in. In Edinburgh we brought our rubbish and recycling across the street to a large neighborhood bin (smaller than a dumpster at home, but not by much). On the day before trash pickup it was always full to near-overflowing.

Iceland: In the downtown apartment we threw our trash into the standard black plastic bins, just outside the house. Here in 107, the building has a handy hallway chute — “like magic!” our host explained with a smile — and since it’s right outside our door, disposal couldn’t be easier.

Garbage chute in the 107 apartment

Recycling is a different matter. Here our host just told us to bag it and leave it for her to take to the recycling center in her car. When we were downtown, we brought our bags two blocks to a windy corner parking lot and put the plastics and papers through slots on the big bins (again, slightly smaller than dumpsters). Glass and cans had to go to a different center, so we just tossed those (fortunately there wasn’t much). The website has a chart telling how to recycle all kinds of objects from electronics to clothing, with info on where everything goes. Plastic goes to Sweden; glass gets crushed and made into landfill for Iceland, whatever that means. Sometimes when I walk around the pavements I wonder if there’s glass somewhere underneath.

Bottle-shaped recycling bin

Food shopping

I could go on about this for hours, but I’ll try to contain myself! One of my favorite things to do in a new place is go grocery shopping; my aunt laughed at me in Taiwan because I went into such ecstasies at Family Mart. I always investigate as many food-buying venues as possible: supermarkets, specialty shops, ethnic groceries, convenience stores, farmers’ markets, bakeries.

A loaf of mueslibrauð in paper bag

Sometimes I find unfamiliar produce, which always delights me; often I find unfamiliar animal parts, which usually disturbs me (at Melabúðin here in 107 Reykjavík, there are cooked sheep’s heads on plastic-wrapped foam trays in the warming cabinet, alongside the grilled chickens and what looks like baked fatty pork). The familiar can be a surprise too: bok choy at the Castle Terrace farmers’ market in Edinburgh, Iceland-grown Napa cabbage here (it’s called kínakal, Chinese cabbage). We see a lot of American brands here (there’s some Hellman’s in the fridge as I write) and many of the ones we got to know in Scotland too (like Fairy dish soap — or washing-up liquid as they say in the UK!).

Sometimes food shopping is easy, and sometimes it’s a guessing game. Asparagus and bananas are easy to recognize, but what are all these meats, fishes, and dairy products? What are these grains and flours in their opaque paper sacks? A surprising number of food words are easily comprehensible (a flat round can that says túnfiskur? no problem!), but there can be pitfalls even there. Milk is mjölk in Icelandic, but ab-mjölk is cultured milk and its tangy flavor has surprised many an unsuspecting tourist. Even in an English-speaking country there are new foods to discover: in Toronto we tried Québécois cheeses (I liked the flavor of Oka, but it smelled so horrid Erik refused to buy it again), and in Scotland I learned I like chipolatas. Today Erik came home with blálanga, which turns out to be blue ling; I stopped at Melabúðin after my errands to get green onions and cilantro so I could steam it Chinese-style (it turned out well). I could have gone more Icelandic and made plokkfiskur with it, but I had a craving for the tastes of home.

Bouillion at the supermarket.

One last thing: laundry (or washing if you’re British!)

In Scotland I was surprised to find both our Glasgow and Edinburgh flats without electric dryers. The Glasgow tenement had backyard clotheslines but it rained nearly every day of our stay! We set up our host’s drying rack in the entryway and laid some of our shirts and pants over the backs of the dining chairs. In Edinburgh, we put garments on the radiators too. I started to get used to line drying everything, but I was so glad we didn’t need to wash sheets as I had no idea where we would dry them! I was also pleased to find that our slightly damp clothes took well to ironing, and in fits of happy-housewifery and perfectionist glee I rendered Erik’s t-shirts smoother and more presentable than ever. I was thinking that no one in Scotland used electric dryers… then I talked to my new friend Aga, and she said, “I thought everyone had them! We have them at home in Poland too!” Huh.

In our downtown place in Reykjavík the washer had a drying setting, which we used for some items, but since we also had a drying rack I used that for the rest. As I said: I got used to it! Then we moved to this apartment in 107 and there is a single washer in the basement that is shared with all the residents. The laundry room is spacious with a south-facing window and yellow clotheslines strung from wall to wall (very suitable for bedding and other large items!).

Laundry room with sheets hanging on the line

What amazes me here is the assumption that no one will take anybody else’s things. The basement is never locked, and in it you have not just the laundry room (with everyone’s clothes hanging to dry), but everyone’s bicycles too, and several strollers (prams, baby carriages). It’s rather sad to think that at home this would never happen; and if anyone at home does leave anything out, it’s usually not the good stuff either — beaten-up old bikes or grubby toys, not nice things in good repair.

Bike room


Just out of curiosity, if you’ve read all the way to the bottom of this post, did it interest you? As I said, I’m fascinated with these kinds of things, but it occurs to me that other people might find this a supremely boring post: laundry, trash…!