Why my fiance gave me a simple engagement ring (& why that rocks).

Sean and I met during a leisurely summer at Bucknell University, the summer before our senior year. 

Although we’d probably interacted many times (Bucknell is pretty small), we hadn’t really spoken until that summer. But we became friends, and then more than that. We spent our nights playing beer pong in his fraternity basement, and our days floating down the Susquehanna River, or laying in the sun on the academic quad. It was the closest I ever got to the college glory days.

Sean and I four years ago, during the summer we met, and us now!

Sean and I four years ago, during the summer we met, and us now!

Four years later, we both live in Boston. We’ve been through a lot together: terrorist attacks on our city, job successes and failures, the deaths of family and friends, my stint in grad school, a lot of travel, his grad school applications, many apartments and lots of great moments with friends. We didn’t talk about marriage initially, but during the past two years or so, we slowly began to talk about it more and more.

By the time we hit 2014, we each knew we'd found the one.

But as with many members of our generation, the question was more about when we should start the whole shebang than if we should do it. When did we want to move in together? When would Sean start school? When would we be able to afford something like a wedding - or an engagement ring, for that matter - amidst loans and despite decently paying jobs?

Eventually, and after many late night conversations, we decided to move in together this fall, and to get engaged this summer. Our narrative seemed to make sense. 

To be honest, though, I didn't even want an engagement ring initially (an engagement puppy, however, was at the top of my list).

I didn’t understand why diamond rings had to be so expensive, especially because I never wear jewelry, and Sean and I aren’t exactly rolling in the dough. And while I believe in the symbolism of wedding rings, I also think engagement rings - and especially diamonds - are just a marketing ruse pushed on us by the diamond companies.

[Have you heard of Da Beers? He created the "diamonds are forever" campaign in the early 1900s because there were too many diamonds and he was having trouble selling them. Before that, women often received a thimble and a bottle of wine when they got engaged. Diamond engagement rings are completely consumer driven, with little to no tradition backing them.]

But Sean and I went to a local engagement ring store anyway, just to see what the rings looked like.

And I surprisingly fell in love with a beautiful, tiny rose gold band, encrusted with very small diamonds. The ring was simple and it looked right on my finger, which I didn’t expect. And while it wasn’t cheap, it also wasn’t crazy expensive. It would be something I would be proud to wear and something I’d feel comfortable with Sean buying, too. It felt reflective of our current life stage. It was a winner.

Sean took note, then dove into the world of Etsy to have something similar professionally made just for me. The result was the ring he offered to me on the top of Mount Major when he proposed last month, and it was even more beautiful than the first one I'd tried on.

There it is - the ring!

There it is - the ring!

My engagement ring was the start of all the things Sean and I had planned together, at least symbolically.

I expected it, and I was excited about it. Sean is my best friend, my better half, and the person I want to spend my life with until I’m old and gray. I could not be more thrilled to be his wife. 

But that ring came with more than just the "him and I" stuff, too.

It also came with assumptions about what I was “supposed” to do as an engaged woman in America, and judgements about what my ring should (or shouldn't) look like. And that part... that part is the unexpectedly tough part that I didn't necessarily sign up for.

Since our engagement, I've gotten a fair number of not-so-subtle ring comments (“oh, how cute” has been common), along with looks that were clearly full of surprise at the simplicity of my ring. It doesn't look like you'd expect, and that's okay. (The rebel in me secretly loves this feeling of non-belonging, but is also a little bit wary of it).

But this simple ring is teaching me a lot of things about how I want to be in the world, too, and how liberating it is to change the narrative, to do something outside of the norm.

I'll tell you this: the wedding industry is a scary beast.

As it inflates (and inflates, and inflates), our generation’s sense of what is normal for a wedding has become pretty skewed. A $30,000 wedding, despite significant debt in your twenties? Okay! A $5,000 ring, despite the fact that we’re pinching pennies on our groceries each week? We’d better do it, because everybody does. And it's SO easy to get wrapped up in that, to want to do the thing (or wear the ring) that you so envied on Facebook last month.

And that's why I'm writing this: I want you to know that there is another way, if you want it.

For Sean and I, a simple, beautiful, dainty ring was a much better reflection of our relationship and of where we’re at right now in our twenties than a huge diamond would be. I’m proud to wear it.

For other people, a diamond might be what they've imagined for their whole lives... and I say go for that (if you can, realistically). I even know of couples who've given engagement bikes, or engagement cast iron pans, or who've promised themselves to marriage with no rings at all. That rocks.

For me, this ring has been reminder to stick to what Sean and I are, to what we've always been, and to stay in the moment. It’s a reminder to keep our wedding, and our relationship, always within the bounds of reason - to focus on the people we love, rather than the things we're supposed to buy.

While Facebook may make it seem like you’ll be judged if your significant other doesn’t pick the perfect huge diamond (because the size of that diamond is a direct reflection of his love, right? ack!), and while Pinterest may have you convinced that the Etsy table numbers you covet will make for the most beautiful wedding ceremony of all time… you can (and you should) do whatever you want. Because in the end, you're really the only one who will see that ring on your finger every day.

It's rough out there, with social media showing us what everyone else's lives look like.

It can make me feel like I’m doing my twenties all wrong. But take it from someone who’s in the midst of a war with the wedding industry: you, too, can break the rules. And it can feel pretty damn liberating.

My Guide to Traveling in Iceland

In a stroke of genius tourist marketing, Icelandair released $300 round trip tickets direct to the volcanic island of Iceland last year. And as a poor twenty-something with a never ending supply of wanderlust-infused energy, I bit.

That's how I found myself atop an Icelandic horse last week, riding through lava fields in the stark daylight that is 11 pm during the summer months in Iceland. My best friend Holly and I ate native Icelandic delicacies, wandered between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, stood above awe-inspiring waterfalls and bathed in natural hot springs.

We also learned a lot about the country of Iceland itself, which is home to just 300,000 dry-humored blonds (and 80,000 horses). Here are some Icelandic need-to-knows, in addition to a few recommendations for things you can't miss if you plan to visit the volcanic island, too.

Iceland is green, and Greenland is icey.

You've probably heard this before, and it's vaguely true. We flew over Greenland on our way to Iceland and it was definitely not green.

This is Greenland from the window of our Icelandair plane. Definitely not green.

This is Greenland from the window of our Icelandair plane. Definitely not green.

 

However, Iceland isn't really green OR icey. The word "Iceland" actually just means "island," and the terrain is volcanic. The country has no trees (any trees you see have been imported) and most of the landscape is made up of either low shrubbery, farmland or lava fields. So if you're planning for a green, pleasantly- temperatured vacation spot, think again. At its warmest in June and July, Iceland's temperatures hover around 50 degrees F (60 degrees is a literal heatwave in Iceland - people were tanning in the 45 degree weather while we were there).

I'm reminding you of this because we didn't bring warm clothes, and I ended up wearing seven layers on our visit to Gulfoss, the biggest waterfall in the country. So plan accordingly: wool socks, even in the winter; mittens, hats and gloves. Don't plan to buy those things in country, either - you'll break your bank account in half before you've seen a single glacier.

There's daylight at night, or no light at all.

During the summer months, Iceland has 24 hours of daylight. 

This is what Iceland looks like at 10 pm (#nofilter) in the summer.

This is what Iceland looks like at 10 pm (#nofilter) in the summer.

 

That can be tough for jetlag, so make sure that your apartment or hotel has blackout blinds, and bring an eye mask just in case. Also remember that this flips in the winter, and the country is plunged into almost constant darkness. This matters for planning excursions (and for being able to feel your fingers and toes), so think twice before heading to Iceland in the middle of January.

Your cheap flight is not indicative of the country's actual prices.

Because Iceland is both an island and a Scandinavian country, prices are high. We went to the grocery store to buy bacon for breakfast while we were there, and we were surprised to find that 12 slices of bacon would cost us almost $20 USD. Yikes. When you go out to eat, meals will probably cost you $20 USD or more, so it's also a good idea to try to get an apartment (airbnb is great) with a kitchen.

That said, certain things will be cheap because they're grown or produced locally - dairy isn't expensive, for example, because they have lots of cows and goats on the island (Icelandic yogurt rocks). You should also stop by local bakeries.

... which brings me to alcohol prices.

When we got off the plane, the Icelandic travelers headed straight for the duty free store. Holly and I picked up our bags, thinking that we'd just buy a bottle of wine in Reykjavik later that week. We were wrong. Liquor was illegal in Iceland until about 30 years ago, and that prohibitionary thinking still carries some weight. There's only one government-run liquor store in the city (and it has weird hours) and your draft beer will cost you around $10 USD at the local pub.

So do as the Icelandic do, and buy your alcohol before you leave the airport. If you do decide to grab a beer in town, remember that excessive drinking is really only acceptable, culturally, on the weekends. The locals don't go out until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, either (although they stay out until 5 am). Happy hours are great, and we recommend Bunk Bar or Kaldi Bar.

Iceland's best when you're enjoying the scenery.

The best parts of our trip involved getting out of Reykjavik, where we were staying in a quiet airbnb, and traveling into the beautiful landscapes of the countryside. If you have the time, I highly recommend renting a car and driving Ring Road, the road that circles the entire island - it'll take you about a week. You can stay in guest houses (or holiday homes, as they call them) and spend your time hiking, bathing in natural hot springs and drinking hot tea. We were only there for a long weekend, so we took advantage of several tours rather than driving around on our own. 

The Golden Circle Tour, is a must-do. We took a tour with Iceland Horizons, which picked us up at our airbnb in a small tour bus and provided us with an excellent all-day guided tour of Gullfoss, a huge waterfall; Geysir, the 100-foot geyser after which every other geyser in the world was named; and Thingvellir, the national park that holds the site of the historic Viking Parliament, as well as the gap between two tectonic plates.

Game of Thrones films at Thingvellir, so you may recognize the rocky landscapes from Northern GOT scenes.

Game of Thrones films at Thingvellir, so you may recognize the rocky landscapes from Northern GOT scenes.

 

We also took a horse-back tour of the lava fields around Reykjavik, which was the highlight of my trip. A friend recommended Islenski Hesturinn, a company owned by a lovely Icelandic couple - and I'm recommending it to you now. Normal horses have three gaits, but Icelandic horses have five. We were able to experience the tolt, the smooth gait that falls between a trot and a canter, and it was something I will never forget. Begga is a fantastic guide and the Icelandic landscape at night is truly something to behold.

Icelandic horses are some of the kindest horses I've ever seen - they're incredibly pack minded and intelligent.

Icelandic horses are some of the kindest horses I've ever seen - they're incredibly pack minded and intelligent.

And you should also eat the food, even if it's expensive.

Splurge on at least one good meal in Reykjavik - you can't miss the seafood. On our first night, after exploring Reykjavik, we ended up at Tapas Barinn, an Icelandic tapas restaurant that allows you to try six courses, plus dessert, for a fairly decent price. We ate puffin and whale as part of our tasting platter (I wouldn't eat them again), but were also given some of the most amazing cuts of fish I've ever tasted. Although we didn't get a chance to eat sushi while we were there, that's also something I'd recommend.

Ironically, my other favorite Icelandic meal was a hot dog from SS Pulsa, a small but famous hot dog stand near the fleamarket in old Reykjavik. Don't even get me started on those hot dogs, loaded with fried and fresh onions, and topped with an amazing mustard sauce. I could probably eat one of those every day for the rest of my life.

Take a moment to sit in Reykjavik's coffee shops, too.

Holly and I spent a lot of time wandering through the city's many coffee shops, munching on waffles and consuming cappucinos and caffe lattes. Our favorite spot was Mokka Kaffi. If I ever need some quiet to write a book, this is where I'll live.

Avoid the tourist traps, when you can.

Ah, the Blue Lagoon. I will say this: I would have been disappointed if we hadn't gone to the Lagoon, because those iconic "here I am in a natural hot spring" pictures were what brought me to Iceland in the first place. But in all honestly, the Blue Lagoon, while relaxing, is definitely an overpriced tourist trap. It's great that it's pretty much the only tourist trap we ran into (more on that later), but it's not a local experience. If you do go, you should visit on the way to or from the airport - it's on the way there, but it's about 45 minutes from Reykjavik. You only need two hours at the pools, and you could probably find another quieter pool in the outskirts of Reykavik that's quieter (and far less expensive).

And take the FlyBus.

Before we arrived, we worried about getting to our airbnb from the airport. But the FlyBus is the easiest, most fool proof airport transport option I've seen anywhere. The main airport is about 45 minutes from Reykjavik, but you can buy your FlyBus ticket when you land. The buses leave as they fill up, and will take you directly to the city's main bus terminal (where you can transfer for an extra $10 or so, if you choose, and be driven directly to your hotel). On the way back to the airport, we choose an option that dropped us off at the Blue Lagoon for a few hours, and allowed us to store our bags.

In fact, I wouldn't worry about safety or transportation in Iceland at all. The crimes rates are nil (there's nothing like blinding daylight to make you feel safe in the middle of the night) and the Icelandic people we met were startlingly kind (did I mention that their English is also perfect?).

The bottom line...

Iceland isn't a full-fledged tourist destination - not yet, at least - which is why I loved it. After several years of traveling through Asia and Europe, I savor moments where I feel invisibly surrounded by another culture, and this was certainly the sense I got in Iceland many times over.

I would, however, caution you to set your expectations to low before you go. We met many people who complained about having nothing to do in Reykjavik, and they're right that it's not a bustling city. It's just the opposite in fact: sleepy, padded with mittens and hats, populated by students and fisherman and restaurant owners. It's a place to escape the hustle and bustle of your own city, with some added Scandinavian charm; but if you're looking for wild parties and long lists of activities, this is not the vacation spot for you.

If you do choose to go, I'll say it again: savor the landscapes, and the coffee, and the intricacies of a culture that's built on darkness, quiet community and farming. Buy your own groceries, settle into a coffee shop for the afternoon, read a book and eat seafood. Don't expect much, and you'll be pleasantly surprised.

From Lisbon to Seville in BlaBlaCar

Five strangers squished into Victor’s Citroen C4. Silvia’s jean-clad leg pressed squarely against mine, ankle to hip. Kiko pushed in next to her, leaning on us as he shut the door. Jason took the front seat because of his long legs. “I’m small,” Silvia said, “but I’m wide. I’m a Mediterranean woman.” Victor pulled his car into Lisbon’s afternoon traffic and we were off, winding through Portuguese and Spanish landscapes on our way to Seville.

When we changed our travel route from Lisbon to Seville (rather than Lisbon to Madrid) we found ourselves with few travel options. We could take an overnight bus, or spend 7 hours on an expensive plane flight. Frustrated, I typed our travel plans into “Rome2Rio”, one of my go-to travel sites, and saw that they recommended something called BlaBlaCar.

Intrigued, I started my research. BlaBlaCar is a rideshare website that connects drivers with people seeking rides in European cities. Started ten years ago, the site now claims that 500,000 people use the service each month. Drivers and passengers create profiles (one “blah” means you’re less talkative, and three means you won’t shut up) with information about themselves. Other passengers can review the drivers, and drivers can also review passengers. And the rides are cheap – they usually cost somewhere between 20 and 40 euro, depending on the distance. After a lot of research, I found Victor’s profile on BlaBlaCar. He was driving to Seville on the day we needed a ride. Feeling brave, I signed up.

Rideshare companies like BlaBlaCar are becoming increasingly popular in Europe. A quick Google search yields results of over 20 difference rideshare companies and websites for European countries. This puzzles me. When Jason and I decided to to use BlaBlaCar – admittedly because we wanted to save money and time – we thought we might be putting our lives on the line. Who gets into a car with a random Spanish man and hopes for the best? We did, and apparently thousands of Europeans do as well. Americans, on the other hand, have only two companies that offer rides like this.

During our drive, I ask Silvia why she thought BlaBlaCar was popular in Europe and not in America. She didn’t answer directly, but said that she was afraid to travel to America because anyone can buy guns in our country. She’s traveled the world, but America scares her. She doesn’t trust it. Sadly, I’m not sure many Americans trust each other, either.

Silvia is originally from Milan, although she’s lived all over the world and speaks five languages. She worked as a television producer in Spain for many years, then moved to the UK to work at a bookstore. She’s tiny, with a pointed nose that makes her look like an inquisitive fox. Her bright red coat reaches her knees and her greying hair is cut short. Kiko, her husband, has a red beard and a kind, quiet demeanor. During our drive, Silvia talked enough for the both of them, rarely allowing for silence. Kiko had just finished his PhD in Medieval History, she told us, and they were living in Lisbon while he completed a post-doc fellowship at a large university. Silvia was well educated, too – several bachelors degrees, a masters and an in-progress PhD about Spanish history, specifically focusing on the cultural art of bullfighting.

Victor, our driver, spoke almost no English, so Silvia translated. Victor is an architect, commuting to Lisbon every week for work and Portuguese language classes. He’s also an architecture professor in Seville, and drove immediately to the local university after dropping us off at our hostel. He’d been married three times, he said.

Later, Jason laughingly said that Victor should have had his own soap opera. He certainly looked the part. I also decided part way through the trip that Victor used BlaBla car to abate the creeping loneliness that must have plagued him during his twice weekly drives from Lisbon to Seville. He appreciatively listened to Silvia as she talked his ear off about cultural differences, Spanish landscapes, food, bull fighting, and whatever else struck her fancy.

Four hours later, Jason and I found ourselves in metal chairs at a Spanish rest stop outside of Seville, eating jamon and bread while our travel companions drank their third coffees of the trip and chain smoked cigarettes. Silvia bought a bag of Spanish goodies for her in-laws. She and Kiko were traveling to his hometown of Seville to see the dentist – she pointed to her crooked, yellow-brown teeth when she said that – and to see his family. She seemed apprehensive about both, although the dentist worried her more. As we sat at the rest stop, watching cars enter and exit the parking lot, I had one of those, “How did I end up here?” moments. Those moments, deeply puzzling and exhilarating, give me faith in my ability to navigate the world and faith in other people, too. Those moments are the reason I travel.