I feel like I should offer some post hoc commentary on this blog post, but maybe next time. I think I’ve mentioned before that one of the most frustrating aspects of any form of chronic illness seems to be that we also become extra vulnerable to any acute illnesses that are going around. The two do not not play nice together, and there are currently a lot of acute illnesses “going around.” In the week and a half since I’ve been back to work, I’ve gotten sick with two separate strains of crumminess that are going around the office and have dealt with a “flare” (or whatever you call an uptick in symptoms of dysautonomia) in tandem with both. This three-day weekend is being spent in bed.
This post was written on 12/27/17 in Northern Iceland, after grocery stores had re-opened, we’d had a full meal cooked in our little cabin and we had seen the Northern Lights for what would end up being the only time the entire trip, because we later ran into a blizzard!
So, most places I have visited over Christmas are either “multicultural” (read: opportunistically capitalist) enough, don’t celebrate Christmas/Boxing Day as national holidays or are otherwise open for tourists on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Iceland isn’t.
Now, we knew this. We knew that we should either book a reservation at a high-end restaurant (the only ones likely to be open) before the trip – before the restaurant sold out – or plan to hit the local grocery store (our more affordable option) before about noon on Christmas Eve to stock up. We planned to stock up on Christmas Eve and drive to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula on Christmas Day, check-in to our hotel with its electronic self-check code, and use its kitchenette to make ourselves food while we explored the area on our own. We planned to avoid the lack of options by simply cooking like we always do. You know what they say about the best-laid plans…
We got in early, checked into our hotel around 8am Christmas Eve, set our alarms for a couple hour nap to temporarily ward off the accumulated jet lag and lack of sleep from our red-eye, and then planned to head out. We both slept through our alarms. When we woke up at 6pm, all the grocery stores – and even the gas stations – were closed, and even the opportunistic restaurants offering 100-Euro per person pre fixe menus were booked up. We were stuck in among the line of furious hotel guests (what did they really think the hotel employees could do at that point, anyway, to justify yelling at them?) who hadn’t done their homework scrambling to find an over-priced buffet for that night.
We shrugged our shoulders, figured I kept enough salty snacks on me as a matter of course that we’d have a funny story after this was all over, and decided we’d make it through until the 26th. No sense complaining, and people fast for a day all the time, right? Then we discovered that – though Iceland wasn’t ever part of the British Empire – they have embraced Boxing Day all the same (or some other justification for everything remaining closed on the 26th that I have yet to learn.) My gluten-free beef jerky and potato chips wouldn’t stretch through two and a half days, the hotel we were checked into in Snæfellsnes was self-check and offered no breakfast, and that part of the country was sparse enough in population and unpopular enough with tourists that there wouldn’t even be a convenient overpriced pre fixe menu though we were willing to pay for it: there just weren’t enough tourists to pay for it like there were in Reykjavik. Our grand plan to avoid being overcharged and deal with hoards of tourists by going to the tourist dead zone of Iceland – which coincidentally everyone we met in Iceland told us was also one of the most beautiful places in the country – during the dead days of Iceland meant 2.5 days of subsisting on the planned hiking snacks for salt regulation for the entire vacation that I had in my suitcase. I didn’t have enough that the two of us could avoid going hungry at all during that time even if we cannibalized my entire trip’s worth of “maintain functionality” snacks, but we certainly weren’t going to face starvation.
In absolute terms, we were dealing with about 48 hours without access to a real meal. We had access to some calories, but no meals. Lacking the appropriate fuel certainly further limited what we could accomplish physically traveling around the park – especially for me – but it was still an inconvenience, not an emergency. Eventually, with a full belly, we knew it wouldn’t even be that much of an inconvenience anymore: it would become a funny story of the time we effed ourselves by knowing what we needed and sleeping through the alarm anyway. Ha ha. Isn’t that hilarious?
But, it’s funny how just thinking about rationing food and “doing without” changed our cognition. We had exactly one meal we knew we had access to before the holiday-imposed hunger: our hotel in Reykjavik was still serving breakfast on Christmas Day. We both ate way too much at breakfast – until we were unpleasantly stuffed and probably made it worse for ourselves – because we “didn’t know where our next meal was coming from.” We surreptitiously grabbed some hotel ice and made little sandwiches from the bread and cold cuts from the morning platter. We brazenly snuck them out of the hotel in our backpacks despite the sign clearly telling us it was against hotel policy to take food away from the breakfast area. We got the idea from other tourists who were visibly doing the same. We were going to an area where we legitimately had no overpriced food available, even though we were willing to pay for it. Those tourists, presumably, were staying in and immediately around Reykjavik (hence why there was no call to open anything on the more remote Western Peninsula), but they just weren’t willing to pay 100-Euro per person. Maybe we had slightly more justification for breaking the rules than they did, as we truly lacked other options and they just didn’t want to pay for the options they had, but in the end we all were breaking the rules though we all had at least enough money to have afforded the trip to Iceland from North America, Europe, and/or Asia in the first place.
My Partner and I had to balance what was realistic to accomplish in our physical activity in Snæfellsnes, knowing we’d be quite hungry and that I’d likely be more symptomatic because going without regular meals is never a good idea with chronic illness. We started thinking about hard trade-offs and making a lot of sub-optimal choices. Yes, for us and for those other impromptu-boxed-lunch thieves at the hotel in Reykjavik that we saw there were hard trade-offs and sub-optimal choices for how to spend a holiday…
…And I can’t help thinking how blatantly unfair it is that that those breakfast thieves could very well be the same folks who back home in their respective countries could have been voters for Trump, for Marine Le Pen, for Nigel Farage or for Geert Wilders. Those same folks who were experiencing the cognitive and physical consequences of scarcity could at home be blaming the poor for their “moral failings.” I’d like to hope not. I’d like to hope they were all good Progressives in their respective homeland’s parties and making regular donations to charity, but there were just too many of them. Statistically, there were too many tourists from too many nations for there not to have been at least some right-wing voters in that bunch blithely doing what they needed to do in the face of scarcity to take care of themselves – without ever making the connection to poverty.
I can’t help but think how common the cognitive load of poverty is in America, my particular country. I can’t help but remember that 1 in 6 American children lacks consistent access to food. I can’t help but think that the short-sided thinking of “can we really do X, when we know we’ll be hungry” – even when doing X is the whole reason we came to Iceland at all – is a personal reinforcement for my brain and body of how chronic scarcity imposes a cognitive handicap on decision-making equivalent to lowering someone’s IQ by 13 points. I can’t but remember that we all – including my Partner and I – feel that 13-point deficit when we’re hungry, but that we blame the poor for it while absolving ourselves. I can’t help but think that these deficits could be erased for the poor as they were for me today with a hot meal, a warm bed, and a bit of rest and recharge. I can’t help but be frustrated that that 13-point deficit was felt by those tourists on Christmas Day, yet most of them probably never saw the parallels.
We faced tough choices over how to handle hunger on holiday, but we so easily could be facing those same choices in daily life. We could, like so many Americans, be facing choices between whether to go to our construction job while weak from hunger – and thus hopefully earn a paycheck to buy food later – or whether we’re so tired and hungry we’re a threat to ourselves and others while doing heavy labor on the job. We could be looking at our last hundred Euros and wondering whether to buy food or put gas in the car, instead of just laughing that we would gleefully have paid so much for a single meal had there been a reservation to be had. We could be facing indefinite hunger, instead of 48 hours of hunger.
Our social safety net was thin in America to begin with, and it’s getting thinner. We’re literally arguing in our halls of power over how best to take food from the mouths of babes. And those leaders, the most fortunate among us, are probably also going on holiday and acting as though the sky is falling – and maybe bribing a few restaurants to get a reservation even when everything is booked up – when they lack access to a meal for 48 hours. I don’t wonder how people can be so blind. I can’t wonder after seeing how they treat the disabled, but I wonder how the heck to get those tourists waiting in line for a reservation for dinner – any dinner – to connect the panic they feel right then to the plight of others without having them have to have a trauma history like mine. I wonder at the disconnects in human cognition – even understanding behavioral economics as I do – that can let so many people experience a controlled version of scarcity and its terrifying effects and still not connect to a deeper empathy for those for whom the hunger doesn’t end.
I connect it, because I have felt how bad things can get in other ways. Once you see behind one curtain, it makes it easier – though not always easy, as I’m sure I have my blind spots, too – to see behind others. But, how do I make them see? I doubt that going up to random tourists who are cranky from hunger and asking them to think about hungry children in their home country will earn me anything other than their ire for further spoiling their lovely holiday. It takes money to be able to buy a blind eye, and those with the ability to travel over Christmas likely have enough to do so. I doubt that for those who’ve always grown up with that amount of money, and never met anyone they care about who didn’t have it, that the poor are really people. We have a hard time viewing those we don’t know personally as real. I’m probably also someone they don’t view as real, ironically, even though I also had the money to be standing in the line in Iceland trying to throw around Euros for cheap Chinese.
I view poverty as a form of trauma, and my experiences with hunger for the past two days – and the fact I can tell I’ll have to edit this post heavily to make it make sense before I post it, as my writing is way worse for having felt that temporary hunger – have reinforced that. Our story had a happy ending. We found a single roadside restaurant unexpectedly open on Christmas Day along a random highway we’d traveled down to see a burned-out volcano. In that restaurant were the most magical hot dogs on homemade bread buns that I have ever eaten – and probably will ever eat. People make homemade hot dog buns. I’d never really thought of that before, as I’d only ever had store bought, but now that I know that fact, the packaged ones will never be the same. We only had to make it through about two 24 hour periods of hunger, thanks to those hot dogs. We got one thoroughly fantastic – and fantastically cheap – delicious meal Christmas afternoon to break the two fasts. We ate that hot dog because a guy with a small restaurant recognized that any tourists traveling this far out would probably be starving, and figured he could sell a few of the meals he was making for his family and local regulars anyway. He could be nice and break even or even make a buck. (He made more than a buck as, though it may be highly American of us, we tip for service. Supposed European tipping skepticism be damned – good service is worth a tip even when restaurateurs have a livable salary to begin with. We aren’t going to cheap out on the tip just because we technically could.) He will be rewarded by an amazing Trip Advisor review, because those hot dogs were freaking amazing. They’d stand up in my foodie memory even if we hadn’t been hungry. My hunger story turned into a story of an unexpectedly awesome meal that cost a few Euro, not 100. That happy ending isn’t the norm.
Thus, as my way of expressing gratitude, for the hot dog, for the ability to travel over the holidays in general, and for the funny stories that our brief experience with hunger have left us for the future, I’m writing this blog post to encourage others to do what they can for those for whom the hunger isn’t temporary. Make a donation to a food bank, re-think a vote for a politician who wants to dismantle food stamps or meals on wheels, and/or make an effort to make sure that your elderly or ill neighbor can get food in before a storm that may make getting out to get food at the store difficult. If you happen to find yourself in a situation of fasting – for Yom Kippur or for a diet or because you overslept an alarm on Christmas Eve – try and connect how cranky and fuzzy and confused you feel to the plight of others. Try and connect how hard it is to write a blog post or climb a volcano or do yoga when you haven’t had a hot meal that day. Then try and make a positive change for those who regularly don’t. I don’t know how to broach the topic of hunger to a bunch of tourists looking for an affordable meal on No-Boxed-Lunch Day, but I do know how to write this post and post it when I get back with an #advocacy tag, when the “Christmas season of giving” is over, but in many places the pantries are still bare.
And, so that my post about hunger gets more views, I’ll try and sneak in my message alongside a few photos of Snæfellsnes, which really is one of the most beautiful places in Iceland. I’m grateful that I got to enjoy it without getting too sick because I had a few hot dogs – and thus the energy to go out and see it.