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I came upon two school children in a secluded corner at the National Museum of Iceland intently studying their chess moves. Perhaps, they took a break from touring the exhibits in a quiet area or came there purposely to their favorite couch to get that promised match in before the holidays. I hurried past and let them ponder checkmate peacefully.

Nordic splendor is celebrated daily in Rejyakvik, Iceland's capital city, by a passionate citizenry going about their business wrapped in down coats and sporting sensible boots.

Winter is lengthy, and people adapt in Northern climates. Almost every schoolyard I passed in Iceland, children bundled in snowsuits played on the equipment and squealed like contented little munchkins. I couldn't help walking away with a smile on my face, too, and wishing for a slice of their energy.

It's not unusual in coffee shops or bookstores to find patrons engaged in a board game or discussing the plot of a book with anyone sitting nearby over a cup of coffee. Or merely prolonging a conversation waiting out the sudden downpouring of ice pellets.

Everything is not perfect. Indeed, a portion of Icelandic people pine away the long hours of darkness drinking, and perhaps, the weather accounts for more than the average number of depressions, too.

The human mind doesn't discriminate when it comes to searching for centering. This rang out loud and cleared when COVID shutdown the world back in the late winter, and people retreated into their homes and apartments.

The bright, creative, and imaginative folks struggled with keeping focused. Many a writer had a mental block that stopped them in their tracks for weeks. Those who typically get bored became independent handy people fixing plumbing around the house, learning to make sourdough bread, and embracing the outdoors. Those who learned coping techniques fared the best.

Now that a spell of winter isolation will be upon us once again, I reckon that the chessboard and the snowshoes will come out of the closet. And the Icelandic schoolboys will be competing at a higher level.

When the tour guide requested that the group of fifteen return to the bus in half an hour, everyone was accounted for except for a solo male traveler. Someone went back to the Irish cemetery to see if he had gotten lost meandering through the gravesites. Finally, the bus driver maneuvered the road a mile down to the center of town if he had thought that was our meeting spot. There he was sitting on a bench unperturbed. He hopped on the bus without apologizing for holding up the rest of the group. It left a bad taste in everyone's mouth on the first day of travel together.

This proper gentleman in his late sixties joined a backroads tour through southern Ireland. He stayed to himself, respectfully skirting the usual conversation with others during the "getting to know you" phase of the trip. He was guarded in answering questions from the more outspoken of the tour group. Everyone settled into gossiping about him instead. "Could he have the onset of dementia"? "What about his facial bruise stumbling entering the hotel the night before?"

Solo traveling with a tour group has its own set of challenges. You have to step out of your comfort zone and reach out a bit more to engage with fellow travelers or remain elusive and hopefully satisfied like this gentleman.

One noontime on a quick lunch stop in Kinsale, County Cork, I went down the street to the Lemon Leaf Café with a couple of retired ER nurses from Seattle. I found that we had similar interests. Although they had been working pals for decades, they accepted the third person readily.

The small café was packed, and we had to find a seat on a semi-enclosed porch to the rear at a table for four. Still, we were elbow-to-elbow with other tables. We began pouring over a very extensive menu of healthy choices. While doing so, a little bird perched on the top of the extra chair wanting a bit of company. We took turns shooing the birdy away.

The wooden chair sat there empty in a room packed with diners until one of the nurses spied the solo gentleman searching for a table from the front of the café. She went to invite him over, and he appeared pleased by the smile on his face and the softening of his shoulders. We carried on our discussion and made sure to include him. Little by little, he opened up about himself. He had retired from a government job in Chicago and now had time for travel. He had traveled with two others in the past, and it seemed that both could no longer handle it. One of the nurses checked his bruise and asked if he was continuing to have a headache. He replied, "I'll be OK. I was disoriented when I arrived. Jet lag."

After we finished our lunch and separated on the sidewalk, I asked the ER nurses if he sounded like he had dementia. They were a little vague but thought that he was OK to be on his own for the time being.

You couldn't say that the solo gentleman ever warmed up to the group, although he appeared to be enjoying himself more and more. It might be best to leave it at that without reading into the story.

It's all in the art of the display. That introductory lesson I learned from my dad, a competent and successful retailer. High-end stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, or sidewalk sales in small-town Americana, follow the exact same principle.

When I walked out of a restaurant in Vila Real, Portugal, and directly across the brick road, there was a vendor that made me look twice at his assorted wares arrangement. My dad's wisdom came into play. It was a colorful and neat presentation with the plaid blanket as the finishing touch. The battered truck was clean, and the rusted hubcaps washed of traveling on muddy roads, telling me that the owner had pride in his work. He was ready for business.

Up and down the street, other vendors had similar hats, baskets, and hides for reasonable prices, in my opinion. I didn't cross over to examine items closer for fear that I would be required to put my bargaining skills into practice. (I'm excellent at that if you want to know).

Funny thing, though. If I had walked over to take a second look, one or more hospitable folks would have come out from under the coolness of the awning to tackle the sale. It wasn't a tourist town by any means, and the products were for the consumption of the local Thursday morning farmers market.

Not in need of another straw hat that I couldn't stuff in my suitcase anyhow, I strolled on to the bus stop where poultry, vegetables, and fruits keep my eyes roving from place to place.


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