As A Teenager in Iceland (While The Orioles Win The Series)

The flag of Iceland, in the Flag Court at the Commons

I’ve only been to one foreign country in my entire life, and I had to miss watching the Orioles win the World Series to get there, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

In the summer of 1983, I was a nineteen-year old working in passenger service for Butler Aviation (handled today by Signature Flight Support) at BWI Airport. I was one of perhaps a dozen pax service reps, with a number of kids my age, and we acted as the on-site crew for charter flights and airlines with limited service, such as Air Jamaica and Icelandair. It was a pretty good group, mixing youth with experience and we were good at what we did. Generally, we had a great time, mixing in laughter with the work, meeting interesting people from around the world, in the easy days before international airports were high security facilities.

A lot of my most interesting memories are from this time in my life. Probably the best is when the wonderful folks at Icelandair decided to send a few of us (myself, Lisa Merkey and Debbie Hutton) to Iceland for the weekend, all expenses paid. We were informed late that summer, and since none of us had passports, we had to hustle down to an office in Washington to get them. If I remember correctly, it didn’t seem like much of a hassle at the time (except for going into Washington). We were scheduled to leave on Friday, October 14, providing our flight had open seats (being freebies, they wouldn’t let us be the reason seats weren’t sold, but this is standard airline procedure, and we understood).

As the date of departure approached, the Orioles advanced through the playoffs. My future wife and I saw games 1 & 2 of the American League Championship Series at Memorial Stadium. The Birds lost Game 1, but came back to take Game 2. It suddenly occurred to me that I might be in Iceland as the Orioles played for a championship; I was uneasy at this, but never once considered passing up the chance of a lifetime to watch baseball. What if I turned this opportunity down and they lost?

When the appointed day arrived, we arrived at the airport, luggage in tow, to work the flight that would eventually take us across the ocean. We knew from the passenger list that we would probably make the flight, unless people showed up at the last minute wanting a ticket (you could do that back then). Iceland in the fall is not a popular tourist attraction, so we felt pretty confident. (Why did people go to Iceland at all? Icelandair offered inexpensive continuing service to Luxembourg, in the middle of Europe, as long as you didn’t mind a stop in “Ísland.” At the time there was little service to Europe from the area, so this was a popular option.)

That night was also the third game of the World Series, which the Orioles won 3-2,  putting them up in the series 2-1 over the Phillies. I was a huge O’s fan, and now it seemed entirely possible that they could win it all before I got back home to see it. It was dangerous to think this way, but I was pulling for one Philadelphia win, so that the series would return to Baltimore.

The flight left late at night, and when we got on, because we were left to open seating, the three of us were scattered throughout the 707. On the bright side, however, we were given a stack of free alcohol coupons! (See the bottom right corner of the photo above.) I was feeling very grownup and worldly, so I used mine on Grand Marnier, which helped me doze off.

I woke up in the wee small hours of the morning, and looked out of the window at a vast unbroken whiteness. This was Greenland. I was too excited to return to sleep. Just before the sun rose, I snapped this photo:

A few hours later, it was Saturday morning. The plane touched down at Keflavik Airport, and the pilot announced that the temperature outside was 43°. I was shocked; I was in Iceland and that was no different than Baltimore in December. What he didn’t tell us was that the winds were blowing at about 20 miles per hour, and they cut right through you. There was no jetway, just roll up stairs on the tarmac, so the frigid air punched me in the face as soon as I stepped out of the plane.

After getting our bags, we took a van to the Hotel Loftleiðir, which wasn’t plush, but that didn’t matter, because we were in Iceland.

The view from the hotel was amazing. The countryside appeared nearly flat, except for the beautiful ice-covered mountains visible from my window. Here’s a picture I took:

We didn’t have much time, so that afternoon we went out to see the town of Reykjavik. Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital and its largest city, but of course, this is relative. To us it seemed like a quaint, small town. It also seemed as if every business was closed. (We later found out that closing for the weekend was the norm.) We walked around the small streets and took in the chilly, windy atmosphere. Soon we found ourselves at the water’s edge, where I snapped this photo:

We were hungry, and finally found what appeared to us to be a small delicatessen that was open; the shop specialized in salads and fish. I ordered a fish sandwich, and tried to tell the young lady who took my order that I didn’t want lettuce. Having left my Ensk-islensk Vasaordabok (English-Icelandic Dictionary) in my hotel room, I couldn’t come up with the word. (Icelandic is the language of the original Viking explorers, almost perfectly preserved today.The only Icelandic word I remember today is þakka þér fyrir, which sounds like “thakka thair feerer” and means “thank you very much.”) As it turned out the word was salat. Salat/salad. I felt stupid.

Continuing our walk around town, we were struck by the lack of trees, shrubs and animals, which no doubt are made rare by the biting cold. Here are some pictures I snapped as we walked:

After a time, we saw this large tower on the top of a slight rise that looked like a promising tourist attraction, so we made our way to it:

As it turns out, this is a church with a statue of Leif Erikson in front of it. The statue was a gift from the United States in 1930:

The church was unlocked, and we climbed to the open windows at the top (stronger, even colder winds up there), from where I took this photo:

At this point we were frozen solid, and since nighttime, with its promise of even more frigid weather, was closing in quickly, we decided to head back. With some difficulty we hailed one of the few taxis, which returned us to the hotel. This was another strange experience. As the cab idled in front of the hotel, and we tried to figure out how much kronur we owed, the meter kept running, changing the total. Kronur is worth a lot less than dollars, so every time we looked up, the number seemed outrageously higher. Eventually we threw a bunch of Icelandic money at him and dashed out of the cab. We knew we had probably overpaid, and that we had probably been taken advantage of, but we were foreigners, and teenagers at that. What could we do?

When I got back to my small, sparse hotel room, I discovered a radio built into the wall above my bed; soon I was on Armed Forces Radio, listening to the Orioles game. I only heard a couple of innings, however, before the ladies arrived to pick me up for another cab ride, this time to the Club Broadway in Reykjavik.

The Broadway was smoky, loud and crowded, a place where people had no problem invading your personal space and putting their hands on you, which, as an American, I found very awkward. A live band was playing American music badly, and we soon found a few open seats at one of the long tables. I went to the bar and ordered a vodka and orange juice, which was made as an Old Grand Dad and orange juice. After much struggle to explain what I wanted, I settled for a gin and tonic.

When I got back to our table, I found myself seated next to a chatty Icelandic guy in his early twenty’s who considered himself a bit of an expert in things American.  He spent the next hour explaining to me that America had been infiltrated by a vast Ku Klux Klan conspiracy; he even showed me, by tearing apart his pack of Marlboro cigarettes, how they sent secret messages to each other using the colored circles on the inside flaps of the box. I listened politely before excusing myself to get another gin and tonic. After a few more hours of smoke, loud music and screaming at the person sitting right next to you, we headed back to the hotel, exhausted from our long day.

The next day we stayed close to the hotel, because we had a flight to catch. I did a little shopping at the hotel store, where I discovered, after finally figuring out how to convert kronur to dollars, that my cokes were costing me six dollars each. On the other hand, a nice wool scarf (which I still have) and a jar of caviar were dirt cheap. (I didn’t get the caviar because I was down to my last ten kronur, which didn’t buy anything. I still have it:

Finally, it was time to check out and head to the airport. Here’s my hotel tab and receipts from what little shopping I did:

And here are my souvenirs:

On the flight home, the ladies took the last two open seats and I got the “jump seat.” This is a fold-down seat located directly behind the cockpit. It wasn’t very comfortable, but I was happy to be on the plane at all. Another perk to being up front with the crew is that when we descending into O’Hare in Chicago, I was called into the cockpit. The pilot pointed out the window excitedly and said, “Loook. See-Ka-Go, See-Ka-Go!” As I peered curiously through the clouds, I began to see the entire city of Chicago, sitting on Lake Michigan and laid out before us. I thanked the captain for his thoughtfulness; it was a nice touch.

In Customs at O’Hare, I found the first American man and asked, “I’m from Baltimore. Have you heard about the World Series? What’s going on?” Gruffly, he said, “Yeah, I dink you guys won it.” And that was how I learned that the Orioles were World Champions. We got into Baltimore in time to see the buses from Philadelphia arrive at Memorial Stadium, where they were attacked by the throngs of fans who had been waiting all night. I was later told by coworkers that BWI had broadcast the end of the game on monitors around the terminal, and that when the last out was made, the concourses shook.

No matter. I had my memories of a very cool weekend in Ísland (take that however you want to), and I wouldn’t have traded it for the world, not even for the World Series.

In Britain, “The Wire” is Reality and Baltimore is a Scary, Dangerous Place

A truly fascinating adventure in journalism is playing out this week.

British journalist Mark Hughes, in an exchange program with the Baltimore Sun (who sent their crime reporter, Justin Fenton, to London), has been in Baltimore recently, hanging out with our beleaguered police department. While he’s here, he’s been filing reports for his own The Independent, a London daily. Let’s just say that his stories have not been helpful for the Baltimore Tourism Department. The English best know Baltimore from the HBO crime drama “The Wire,” which portrays Charm City as, well, let’s say less than charming. Baltimore officials have long complained that the show promotes a false image of the city for the sake of ratings. Are they right?

Here’s an excerpt from a Hughes story:

“This was Baltimore exactly as I have seen it countless times on The Wire, but on this occasion it was real life. It was a Tuesday night, on the corner of West Fayette and North Carey streets, and it was the evening’s first shooting. There would be four more before the end of the shift. Two of the five, including this one, were fatal.”

Hughes has also reported on the corruption trial of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, and her contentious relationship with the Baltimore City Police Department. Unfortunately, neither Dixon nor Police Chief Bealefeld would make themselves available to be interviewed for the stories, no doubt because there’s little good to be said about Baltimore’s out of control crime problem. Not that Dixon and Bealefeld are entirely to blame – there have been five Police Commissioners in the last ten years, and Dixon is relatively new to the job. They’re just the latest in a long line of politicians and appointees to be swallowed up by the hopeless morass that is Baltimore City, and they are obviously very touchy about it.

Others are less hesitant to explore Baltimore’s deficiencies. In 1989, Maryland Senate President Mike Miller told a WBAL TV 11 reporter that “Baltimore is a (expletive) ghetto. It’s worse than inner city Washington, D.C.” In 1997, authors David Simon and Edward Burns released “The Corner,” an expose of Baltimore’s drug and poverty-driven neighborhoods. Of course, if you live in the city, this is not art, this is your reality.

Meanwhile, Fenton’s stories note that Britain’s police use of DNA evidence is futuristic compared to Baltimore’s, and that the sound of fireworks reminded him of home. His fourteen hour ride-along to the “underbelly” of Manchester produced contacts with a car full of pot-smoking teenagers, a kid whose bike riding behavior raised false suspicions, a slightly inebriated (but not technically drunk) driver, and a fruitless search for a man with a vegetable knife and a home that was wrongly believed to have been burglarized. Hughes, on the other hand, found himself at the scene of a shooting only minutes after he got into town. Awesome.

The two reporters have also been blogging about their experiences. These blogs reveal a contrast that could best be described in a SAT-type analogy: London is to Baltimore as Paris is to Mogadishu. Tremendous.

What all of this journalism convincingly demonstrates is that we big-city Americans exist in a frightening world largely unknown to the people of other industrialized nations. Because of our equal devotion both to the rights of gun owners and the rights of criminals, we suffer from a preponderance of both. It’s a bad combination.

Of course, were we to give up these rights, we might begin to address the violence inherent in American society, but we all know that’s not going to happen. Americans fear government encroachment and the loss of civil liberties far more than they fear for their lives. Is this rational? Probably not, but it’s part of the American DNA, and there’s no escaping it. As a people, we will consent to be destroyed from within rather than give an inch where personal freedoms are concerned.

So yes, London, I guess “The Wire” is a pretty accurate portrayal of Baltimore after all. There’s no need to pity us – this is the society we have chosen. We complain about it ( a lot), but really, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

And congratulations, Baltimore – this is your life.


 

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned Since Those Heady Days After the Wall Fell

In 1989, I was the proud father of my first child, a son. It was also the year my wife and I bought our first house. And that year, I, along with much of America, watched the fall of the Berlin Wall on television. That’s also where I heard about the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu, and the arrest of Erich Honecker. For me, it was like seeing Allied soldiers shaking hands at the Elbe River.  The Cold War was over, and we won.

Later the next year, my mother gave me a small cardboard box. Inside the box was a tiny chip of concrete, which the box claimed had been part of the Berlin Wall. I doubted the authenticity of the “relic” almost immediately, but I cherished it anyway. Not because of its monetary value, or even its supposed historic significance. I kept that box because to me it represented the day we gave communism the final beatdown it had so long deserved. For me, a child of the Cold War who had grown up with Third World War nightmare scenarios, that box represented the day the good guys won, and the oppressed people of Europe took back their countries. The box didn’t hold a fragment of dusty concrete; it held the self-righteous vindication of my entire worldview.

Of course, I was a lot more idealistic in 1989. (To give you a sense of my naiveté, it hadn’t even occurred to me that nature didn’t make humans with the body types of Jose Canseco and Mark McGuire.)  I can distinctly remember thinking that the people who had lived behind the Iron Curtain were going to join us in repudiating their pasts and that before too long, the entire industrialized world would be (relatively) friendly bastions of pro-Western capitalism and democracy. I assumed that Cuba would fall to revolution within weeks and that China couldn’t stand alone forever. Once China had “converted,” of course, their North Korean dependents would beg their cousins in the South to reunify. Vietnam would finally come to its senses, demonstrating that we had known what was best for them all along. President George H.W. Bush spoke of a “New World Order.” At the time, there was little doubt which nation would be directing this “New World Order.” In my view, the new boss had arrived.

As it turned out, Communism hung tough in a few small pockets of the globe, and one really big pocket. The euphoria of the young democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, with their cardboard Statue of Liberty and willingness to stand before tanks, couldn’t bring freedom to China. Tyranny dies hard, I suppose. Russia’s path to democracy has been filled with stops and starts, and some there remember the old Soviet Union with a whitewashed fondness, because those were the days when Russians felt powerful. Rather than being our democratic partners, the Russians have opted to be the loyal opposition. So have the reunified Germany and France, for that matter. Cuba continues to poke a stick at us from across the Straits of Florida and Vietnam hasn’t admitted to the error of its ways.

November of 1989 seems like so long ago now. The United States, knowing what was best for everyone else, tried to direct the “New World Order,” with mixed results. Nowadays, I wonder whether world leadership is really worth all of the grief. I suspect many others wonder, too. I guess people just don’t like to be led, even if it is by the “good guys.” But, you know what? I am the father of teenagers, so, I understand. I didn’t understand much in 1989, but in 2009, I understand more. Maybe not a lot, but more than I did then.

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