The Land of Fire and Ice

Iceland at sunrise

Now that the haze of being in a time zone 8 hours ahead of my native time has worn off I can share my observations of Iceland. First know that I don’t travel to judge. I have never identified much with my own culture so I travel to observe, maybe to find a place I do identify with. Iceland, although stunning, perplexes me on many levels.

The impression most Americans have about traveling to Europe is that it is more expensive than home, well it is in most cases unless you can do it on the cheap as I do. Iceland, however, is hella expensive no matter how little you buy….and, outside of the metro area of Reykjavik, there ain’t much to buy. I am not a fan of big cities so I tend to avoid most or don’t linger too long. I did not go into Reykjavik but passed by it quickly twice. I intended to visit on my last day but just driving by it one thing was very obvious…..the influence of America. Strip malls, car lots aplenty (mostly American names), bright neon lights and a KFC, Subway and Taco Bell on every corner and lots of traffic, no thanks, I’ll pass. Outside of the city is much different.

In my previous post I was in a remote town about 5 hours drive outside of the big city. During my voyage around the area I passed through about a dozen towns or villages, most smaller than Olafsvik (pop. 1000), several containing less than a handful of houses. Most coastal villages have a harbor, a fish processing plant, and if you are lucky a combo gas station and grocery store….a term I use loosely….. (Segway alert).

Let’s talk about food here for a moment since it is the most necessary thing there is (water is abundant, they encourage you to suck on the glaciers here). Traveling on the cheap with a gluten intolerance I don’t typically go out to eat much. I tend to locate the grocery store and stock up. In outer Iceland the variety is severely limited. Since I did not see a farm that was not for hay or horses I would image that most of their produce is imported….which would explain all the shrink wrap and probably the shocking prices….almost as much as meat! Meat, too, is limited and if you see a steak (that you can afford) you had better grab it because there might not be any the next day. I bought one pound of beef stew meat and 3 heads of garlic and it cost me $20. This leaves little desire to impulse buy and might cost you an arm and with groceries being this expense, I didn’t even venture into the only restaurant I could find open in a 100 mile radius….this may also have a little to do with the fact I can’t read Icelandic and their specialty is split and roasted sheep’s head. I just can’t bring myself to,eat something that is staring up at me…call me picky.

Every Icelander is taught to speak English in school but you NEVER hear them speak it unless you engage them with it first. It’s almost like a strange sub culture but I am grateful they speak English because outside of the city you hardly see it either…it makes getting gas and money a terrifying challenge!

Iceland

Olafsvik, Iceland

Olafsvik, Iceland

Well, in the wee hours of the morning I made it to Iceland safe and sound yesterday. I plan on being here for 4 days, 3 of which I decided to spend about 5 hours (Google Maps lied and said 3 hours) north of Reykjavik on the Snaelfellsnes Peninsula…a decision that I am hoping doesn’t bite me in the ass when I need to head back. Being winter, my tiny KIA rental car comes complete with tiny snow tires, a necessity since the long drive from the airport took me through all sorts of terrifying winter driving conditions.

I had hoped for better weather but didn’t set my expectations too high. I knew it could be any combination of icy, rainy, windy, snowy….but this is Iceland and it is frequently all of the above. This morning the weather had promise to be tolerable for exploring the area but took a turn and I can hear the tempest scratching at the window…

I had researched the beaches around here beforehand hoping to find a few to comb. While there are many here, the sparse population is not big enough to generate much glass waste so I didn’t expect to find any. As it turns out I found a well rounded handful on the icy beach closest to my room!

Despite driving across Iceland for 8 hours yesterday I did not get to see much of the landscape due to the low clouds. I could see the foundations of some seemingly spectacular rock formations and a few waterfalls, but for the most part the ceiling was too low. From what I can tell this is a very stark landscape, I don’t recall seeing a single tree on the drive north that wasn’t intentionally planted in someone’s yard.

I have to mention that I find it hysterical that all the way out in the remote village of Olafsvik, my room is furnished almost exclusively with IKEA stuff – lamps, bedding, kitchen, fixtures, bath, rugs….all of it! I got to the village early and drove around noticing how many windows were open….odd since it was a blustery day (as are most days here I’m guessing). It turns out their homes are geothermically heated, which is abundant on this volcanic island.

This time of year here the sun rises around 11:30 am. It is one thing to have to get up before daylight to go to work, but to sleep in and then get up in the dark and wait hours until daylight is a very strange feeling. As I sit here now waiting for the first glimmer of dawn….it’s 10:15am and the sky is still pitch black!

Homeward Bound

image It was only a two week trip but it felt like much longer than that! Usually on these annual trips, as some of you know, I am gone for months. Over the years I have averaged about 30 to 35 lbs of sea glass each trip, this year in 2 weeks I was able to glean 28lbs off the rugged UK coast. I love the glass here. Most of it comes from a time before plastic, you can just tell by the thickness and shape of it. Some pieces have been tossed around for so long they are perfectly rounded.

People tell me I am so lucky to comb beaches for a living or say things like “beach combing abroad…must be rough”…..well…it can be. The weather I endured this year was by far the worst ever. Most of the time I was combing beaches in near-gale force winds, rain, sleet, hail and snow….sometimes all at once! I usually come prepared for this but sometimes water proof garments just don’t live up to their promises….and I know well by now the difference between ‘water resistant’ and ‘water proof’!

It also can be quite dangerous. Just yesterday a beach comber in California was presumed to be lost to the sea. Its easy to get so focused on what you are doing that you forget how unpredictable a place the beach can be. Usually each trip I find myself in a predicament where that voice in the back of my head says “no one knows you are here, is this a good idea?” Sometimes I turn back, sometimes I am more careful, and sometimes I am already in that dangerous place and have to make choices that may or may not work out in my favor….so far so good.

This year I was on a beach at the bottom of a 160′ cliff in Scotland that I got to at low tide. I knew I would be cut off when the tide came up but found a ‘goat trail’ that would lead me up the cliff another way, so no worries. The problem was it had been raining and it was muddy. I had climbed up about 70 feet up and got to a place where the trail had washed out. It was grass straight up to my right, and straight down to the rocks below on my left and the trail was only about 6 inches wide. I was already in mud and to jump across would also land me in mud. Nothing but grass to grab on to and it pulled out of the ground easily. So after a few long minutes of contemplating my options I jammed my hands into the muddy grass as deep as I could and hopped across. At that moment I took a grateful breath and quickly moved on but that night as I lay in bed I was terrified reliving what I had done. I was truly lucky.

But I digress…overall it was a good trip. I visited with old friends and met some new ones. I found some really amazing pieces of glass, some colors I had never seen before! I was introduced to a new stretch of beaches and had an incredible day with a great tour guide. Yesterday I found a neon yellow…think Mountain Dew. I was so excited when I got back to my friends’ house to show her and it was no where to be found…must have jumped out of my pocket….I was bummed. Oh well, many other beautiful finds along with a few new ideas and designs that I can’t wait to create!

 

Scottery

imageI just finished beach combing for 2 days in St. Andrews, Scotland and found some incredible bits in the shadow of its castle. I love this quaint little town for so many reasons. Named for the patron saint of Scotland it is home to the oldest university in the country (and that is old) and is also the birthplace of plaid-covered golf. St.Andrews Cathedral, in ruins since the mid 1600’s, was the largest church to ever be built in Scotland and was the center of Medieval Catholicism….and it was massive! This town has been a settlement of one sort or another for thousands of years and you can see it wherever you look….the old cobble under the new cobbled streets, the hand-built stonework of the many university buildings, the ruins of the castle, the cemetery yard of the cathedral, the leaning houses and shortened doorways, clan plaid everywhere….so rich with history.

Just a little bit of history for those who want it. I never cared much for history in school, I prefer to discover it where my interest lies. Speaking of which….sea glass, right?

On the recommendation of a fellow sea glass artist I stopped at beach in the kingdom of Fife (I love saying that I was in a ‘kingdom’!). Kirkaldy, was the center of Scottish pottery in the late 1800’s so the beach is loaded with lots of tumbled shards of all sorts….I can’t wait to sort through all of it!

I had a 4 hour drive down the coast from St. Andrews down to a friend’s house in Sunderland area of northern England. This part of the UK produced glass for most of Europe during the Victorian era so finding sea glass here is common. Since I wasn’t in a hurry and the weather mostly cooperative I took the coastal route and stopped at a few towns along the way. It is safe to say that if there is a town on the coast here…it has a beach.

I am now in northern England in an area famous in the world of sea glass collectors for its ‘end-of-day’ glass….scrap glass discarded after making all sorts of things. There is such a wide variety of the colors you find and after 4 trips here, I am still blown away by the colors and pieces I find….you will see what I mean soon enough…..

 

And so it begins

imageWhat a great day! Yesterday I left the west coast of Ireland in the midst of hurricane conditions (and yes, my plane left on time) and today I am walking the beaches of northern Scotland with my coat off and the sun on my face!

I am currently staying in the town of Stonehaven, just south of Aberdeen. The old part of town where I am staying is a cobbled fishing village where the paved streets wrap around houses that were there long before there were streets. And then there is the beach….

I always marvel at the evolving transformation of a beach over time. I have lived on Lopez Island for 10 years and I have watched as each beach has changed since I first set foot on it so long ago. Since arriving in Stonehaven yesterday I have combed the main beach during 3 consecutive low tides (2 today) and it was so wildly different each time. The weather is near perfect yet the beach was flat and rocky yesterday, this morning was sandy and steep, this afternoon it seemed like all the rock was all on one end and sand only on the other. How odd for sunny skies and calm winds? Tonight the wind is howling so I can’t wait to see how the morning tide forms it up!

I was able to rent a car in the UK (but not Ireland…and from the same company???) so today I scoped out some beaches on Google Maps and headed out. I don’t have a smart phone or GPS, I have always been lucky following my nose…and it helps to know where the coast is at all times! The coast of this part of Scotland is dotted with small towns, most of which have a cove or beach. Although I didn’t get to all the ones I had planned, I did cover quite a few….damn you high tide! Stonehaven alone, was worth the trip and I have found some really beautiful pieces here – thank you beach!

Today I also combed beaches in the shadow of a castle as well as some tiny fishing coves south of Aberdeen…all of which had treacherous climbs that left my legs noodley….it has been a while since I have done this and my body feels like it is mad at me! It might be the cliff hanging or the mudslides (no, not the drink) but I came back covered in mud with a big pocket full of sea glass! Tomorrow I will set foot on Stonehaven’s beach for a quick comb and then head south combing my way down the coast to St.Andrews where I will be for a few days. Supposedly the sea pottery is good there…..we will see…but only after ibuprofen and coffee….

On the hunt again!

Well, I have begun my annual hunt for sea glass (heretofore referred to as the ‘hunt’)! This years’ trip will be a quick one after a 4 day pit stop in West Kerry Ireland, where the music feeds my soul….and the whiskey ain’t too bad either…..for this years hunt I will fly to Edinburgh, go north to Aberdeen and comb my way down the coast to Northern England. I am not sure if I will have a car or take the train….I choose not to have credit cards so renting a car becomes a bit tricky to navigate. Each year the rental agencies shift their policies on debit cards, even down to the actual office location, and with all our abilities to communicate, it is still difficult to find out who will rent me a car. I have always driven away but not always after the first or second try. We willAerlingus see, public transportation in the UK is stellar and I can still get to remote beaches by train….

Anyway….short trip? Yes, not the usual months of scouring coasts of the world, this years trek will only be 2 weeks. I love Scotland and have been several times but not to this coast. I will end up at an old favorite in Seaham. I always meet new people on these journeys so I am excited to stay with friends and meet some new ones!

2015 was a busy year so I figured I would spend the grueling air travel time to get anyone interested all caught up!

I was blessed in May to acquire my very first studio space in a great old building called the Greyling Gallery….former artist colony now various uses, still beautiful and the creative energy still lives there. It took some time and effort and help from my son and my best friend – you guys rock! Still need to work out kinks in the lighting but it looks great and I love to create there! It has a space large enough for ample work area and display space….come check it out if you are ever on my lovely little island!

Originally I intended to just have showings by appointment and open studio hours for holidays and special island events. The response I got during the holidays coupled with the fact that it takes far less effort to put out a few sandwich boards and open my doors than it does to haul and set up my booth makes it game changer.

I had to give up one of my longer running markets in Friday Harbor to do it which means leaving a great bunch of artists. I will still be at the Lopez Island Farmer’s Market and Roche Harbor in the summer but will have regular open studio hours….look for the sandwich boards!

2015 Calendar has been updated!

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Hi all! I have been very busy since I returned home from my beach combing travels and now it is time to get on with the season! I have just updated my calendar on the “EVENTS” page with all the dates and locations of sales venues, farmers markets, studio tours, street fairs, festivals and shows that I will be participating in this year. There are a few that may get added or changed but for now it is as close as i can get it.

I hope to see you – it is going to be a GREAT summer!

The life of a professional beach comber

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I get asked a lot if I find my glass while ‘on vacation’. When I do these sea glass trips every year it is technically work. It is part of what I need to do in order to maintain my business. I could buy my glass to supplement what I could not find at home like I used to before my children left the nest. Now that my kids are grown and gone I can travel as I always wanted to with the added bonus of being able to write it off as work!

I feel that I should explain further though, while combing beaches abroad sounds like the best job ever….and it is…it is also a lot of work. I don’t get up in the morning, throw on my flip flops and grab a thermos of mojitos and head for the beach, there is lot of prep work to do.

When I travel like this I usually spend 2 -4 days in one place before on the the next location, usually a half day of travel away. This alone requires a lot of planning since I do not typically rent a car. There is the coordination of getting from one place to another by plane, train or bus…..sometimes all three. So there are time tables and maps to scour. I usually stay in private homes through Airbnb, so that means coordinating arrivals with the host and yet more maps. I usually spend a few hours every few days just planning the next leg of the journey.

I don’t know how the world functioned without Google Earth, because it is my greatest tool when I travel. Once I pick a location, I get online and look at satellite maps of the area to determine where the beaches are, how close, how to get there. Since I choose coastal towns there are usually several beaches to choose from. Then I consult the tide charts, can I get 2 good combings in one day? How early do I need to get started….and most importantly, where do I find coffee in the morning?

Once all of that is planned then it is time to prepare. Keep in mind that I am doing this all in winter…January through March, so the bathing suit stays home and my beach wear equates to several layers, fleece lined pants with cargo pockets, several pairs of socks, gloves, hat and scarf. I have plastic baggies and wet wipes, water and food enough for the day.

And I have to mention the work out I get from beach combing 4-8 hours a day! You all know what it is like to walk through a sandy beach or a gravelly one? It can take a lot out of you! After 6 weeks of this I have to brag that my legs have never been in better shape!

I often feel like that road-weary rock star who gets on stage and has no idea of what town he is in! I wish I could have my own roadie who updates me every morning….”Good morning Ms.Hoffman, today you are in Barcelona, the language is Spanish, the currency is the Euro, today’s low tides are at 9am and 4pm, here is a map of the area, the current time is 8:30, here is your piping hot latte…aaaand go!”

Verre de mer

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It seems like I have let the last few days slip away in France without reflecting on where I have been. I am currently in Paris and will be flying to the Seaham area tomorrow night for what I am hoping to be a sea glass extravaganza!

I began this week with with 2 days in Saint Malo in the Brittany region of France. Saint Malo has a very well loved and well preserved old town complete with castle and ramparts that surround the medieval part of the city. The coast here is dotted with lots of little islands, mostly fortified with some sort of military structure on it. In WW II it was part of German occupied France. The city has an interior harbor that is protected by the ramparts and old town. When the Germans realized the U.S. army was preparing to invade they destroyed most of the locks, quays, breakwaters and machinery in the harbor to prevent handing over a functioning harbor.

It is true that the beaches, as I have found most French beaches to be, are flat and sandy, good for summer sun bathers and windsurfing. This particular area had just enough gravel to gather some nice pieces of sea glass. Not a surprise that most of the sea glass I found happened to be some shade of wine bottle color! I love the olive greens personally and was tickled to find a bunch of citron colored glass which I have not seen anywhere else. I did find some real beauties but most of the glass is not jewelry grade.

Next on the agenda was 2 days in Ouistreham in the Normandy region. Ouistreham sits on Sword Beach on the eastern end of the D-Day beaches. Although this particular beach was invaded by 29,000 British troops, the people who live here fly French, British, American and Canadian flags.

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I spent the entire day walking along Sword Beach and part of Juno Beach and felt it appropriate that it was a grey, dreary day. It felt like sacred space. As I walked the beaches looking at the older houses along it, I couldn’t help but wonder what people 70 years ago might be thinking or seeing as they looked out their windows at the sea, at the sky. Most of the sea glass I found is more recent, although I did find one piece that might be traced back to the WW II era, I was a little relieved that the sea glass findings were few.

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I do have to share a funny thing that did happen while beach combing here. Several years ago back at home on Lopez Island, my best friend and I were heading to the beach when he happened to grab a bag of marbles he wanted to “seed” the beach with. He hates it because he never finds any and I find lots. I always joke that most people lose their marbles, whilst I am the finder of marbles! Anyway, we threw out about a dozen marbles, some of which were very distinct in their detail, a year later I found one of them on our beach and nothing since. Combing Sword Beach I happened to find a marble JUST like one of the ones we threw out! I had to laugh out loud because I had now found one of Guy’s marbles…in France!!!

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