When I was in Europe last year, I had been invited to come back and speak at three different conferences this year too, in England, Poland, and Finland; all in the month of March. I thought the only reasonable way to do that was to hop over the Atlantic one time and stay for the whole month. Between conferences, I would speak in some of the Skeptics in the Pub and other such gatherings that couldn’t afford a foreign speaker otherwise, and maybe divide the costs to cover the whole trip.
I would have thought that few people would go to Iceland in February, but it has become quite a touristy place. Some places like Gulfoss and the cave behind the falls at Eyjafjallajökull are frozen over and not safely accessible in the winter months. Yet there were more tourists then than when we were there last May.
I wasn’t speaking in Iceland this time around. But it was the cheapest way to get over the Atlantic. Flying direct from Dallas to Manchester was $1,800.oo Flying to Belfast was $1,500.oo And flying to Dublin was just over $700.oo But I saw that if I booked a flight to Boston ($90) and then another flight from there to Reykjavik ($110), and then to Glasgow ($35), I could do all three for less than $250.oo That’s how I have to book everything, as cheaply as possible.
My wife and I love Iceland. So our friend, Þor Viðar Jónsson found me a cheap rental cabin an hour and a half east of Reykjavik, way out in the wilderness. This one had an outdoor Jacuzzi, so that we could bear the frozen nights at 40° C, just watching the sky. There we spent three nights hoping to see the Northern Lights. This is a major bucket item for us. We’ve just missed the Aurora Borealis and the Aurora Australis a half dozen times where they kept appearing just before we got there or right after we left. Even now we still haven’t seen them, as it was overcast or snowing that whole time. But our friend, Þor [Thor] ran us around and showed us many splendid sites, hot springs, geysers, waterfalls, and such, so that this trip was definitely better than our last one. My favorite moment of that trip was driving out to our cabin where all I could see was a grey winding road fading into a white void. There was no clear horizon because the snow blended into the low level clouds. It was other-worldly, almost like driving through the Construct program in the Matrix. It’s amazing to me that I drove for hours at a time in freezing temperatures with fresh ice and snow all around and never lost control or slid even once.
On our last day there, I heard there was a professor who wanted to meet us for dinner, and I was happy to oblige. I can’t say much about Icelandic cuisine. I didn’t want to try blazed sheep’s face nor fermented shark either. But at least I can now say from experience what horse meat tastes like.
I have to credit Brian Eggo of Glasgow Skeptics as one of a few outstanding hosts and organizers who did everything they should to make the event the best event they could. We enjoyed our quaintly odd hotel, and we particularly liked the venue. Waxy O’Connor’s was a multi-level pub that felt a bit like being in an Escher painting. It was fascinating just to walk through it.
We were there only one night. The next day we took a train to Edinburgh. Originally I was supposed to speak to a Humanist student group, but they cancelled at the last minute. The University wouldn’t let them charge admission, and they realized they “couldn’t afford me” otherwise. So we enjoyed the Royal Mile and the castle of course, and flew out again the next morning.
We rented a car in Belfast and followed the northern coast. I toured the ruins of Dunluce castle, and walked that scary suspension bridge at Carrick-a-Rede. And we went to the Giant’s Causeway. There I think I found the spot where they took the cover photo for Led Zepplin’s Houses of the Holy.
Our host there was a local blues musician named Ryan Hannah. We stayed at his house in Lisburn, and the venue was a tiny bar around the corner. Northern Ireland wasn’t anywhere I ever wanted to go before I got there, because of all the bombings I heard about as a boy. But now I quite like the place, even though two more bombs went off while we were there.
The Republic of Ireland
This was my 3rd trip to give a presentation in Dublin. Many thanks to Michael Nugent and Atheist Ireland for all they’ve done and always do to take care of everything. It’s so easy to enjoy Dublin -especially when there’s a large gathering of friends and fans waiting in a luxurious hotel lounge. We snuck into one of their basement meeting rooms to record an interview for Freethought Friday with Ashling O’Brien and Ciarán O Floinn.
My friends, Brad & Jalena Levin very generously invited us to stay for a week at their flat in Greenwhich, but we were hardly ever there. We stayed one night, and I had to give a talk in Worthing the next day. The day after that, I was speaking in Buckinghamshire. Then it was back to London, where I spoke to the Council of Ex-Muslims. I had no idea what I could tell them, but it turned out they wanted to know what it was like to be raised as a Mormon. Since that talk concerned a lot of my personal life, it wasn’t recorded. Many in the audience didn’t want to be recorded either.
The one day in England when I wasn’t scheduled to speak anywhere, we met Louis Joon, the filmmaker who made Gothsploitation. He was orchestrating a mildly-erotic live stage act at a metal club in Camden. So we spent the night head-banging and drinking Lemmys. The following day, we met up with YouTuber Cristina Rad and gave a different presentation for the Atheist Humanist and Secularist conference in London’s Conway Hall. On our last day in London, we interviewed Maryam Namazie about her experience as an Iranian refugee. I spent the latter part of the day arguing with Muslims at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. We recorded a lot of video but couldn’t get anything worth uploading. As expected it was a surreal exploration of insanity, but our recording was virtually inaudible as well as unintelligible.
There were five days between the last gig in London and my next scheduled appearance in central Europe. We had to be somewhere in that time. So I found a really cheap flight to Paris, and a cheap flat to boot. I wasn’t speaking in Paris because I was told that everyone there was already atheist and not interested in activism. That information came from Josef M. Schomburg. He met us at the airport and guided us through Paris. He also acted as a translator, and immediately solved a significant issue with the flat we had rented. Thank you, Jo.
So with his help, I got photos for my book at Notre Dame, and ate some snails. The only thing I really wanted to do was take my wife to see the Louvre. Cristina Rad had the same idea. She and a mutual friend, ‘Data Jack’ came by train from London, and the four of us then discovered that the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays. Fuck. So we did the next best thing, and went to the Pompidou. Guess what? That’s closed on Tuesdays too. Shit. There was only one thing left, and that took the whole rest of our day. We had champagne at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Booking travel four months in advance, I found a flight from Paris to Rome for only $21.oo, and again we found an overnight flat cheaper than any hotel. It was a charming room overlooking the square and within site of the Vatican. The museum in the Vatican is interesting only because it is full of treasures stolen from other cultures. Otherwise I don’t recommend it. We were herded like cattle through a maze of corridors such that it took a couple of hours just to get to the Sistene Chapel. Once there, they demanded reverence. There weren’t just signs saying ‘Silence’, there was also a loudspeaker yelling “Silencio!” There is a certain irony in that. They also won’t let you take any pictures, and they’re really strict about that -as if Michaelangelo’s most famous work wasn’t immediately available online. Lilandra tried to take a picture outside the gate but a guard grabbed her, and I heard: “CAMERA OFF!” “DON’T TOUCH ME!” He was grabbing the arm that she needed to turn the phone off. “SILENCIO!”
The only other thing we wanted or had time to see in Rome was the Pantheon. But before we left the Vatican, I recorded a promotional video for the Reason Rally, and gathered a crowd of curious onlookers in the process.
The Czech Republic
Slávek Černý arranged a live discussion with Czech Atheists, hosted by Robin Kopecký. Both of whom took me on a wonderful tour of Prague, which is a beautiful city. I was also pleased to see that many of the Czech Atheists were professional scientists and really pleasant people as well. While in Prague, my wife found a Heavy Metal clothing store called the Metal Shop. There were so many cool items there that I knew I either couldn’t stuff into my pack or sneak through customs.
When I first booked this trip, I was supposed to speak in a town called Saarbrücken. For whatever reason, they couldn’t schedule a venue for the right day. So that fell through. Before they cancelled though, I knew I had to speak in Düsseldorf too. So I booked a flight from Prague to Frankfurt, expecting to pick up a rental car there, because Saarbrücken didn’t have an airport. I don’t mean to sound trite, but I forgot how small Europe is. If I had picked up the rental car in Prague, I could have left our hotel at checkout time, driving the autobahn all the way to Düsseldorf, and I would have gotten there before our plane landed in Frankfurt. I would’ve actually beaten the plane even though I had further to go, because I would have had a six-hour head start. What is especially frustrating about that is that flight was one of the most expensive of the whole trip. Once I finally did find myself on the autobahn, there was so much traffic that I couldn’t go any faster than 210 kph. Dontcha hate that?
We’ve had such good luck with hosts on this trip. Our German contact, Stefan Soehnle was an immediately likeable and charitable good humored sort. He not only took us all over his town, but he ran us over to Köln as well. He also served as translator when I spoke to his group. Afterward I also interviewed Rana & Nadir, two ex-Islamic apostates from Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh respectively, now living in Germany as refugees.
I dropped off the rental car and took a train to Amsterdam. There I met my friend, Pieter Droogendijk. He was again an excellent host: set us up in a nice hotel, took us to dinner, and even paid for our train passes to the Rijksmuseum and the House of Escher. He was very generous and much appreciated. He also introduced me when I spoke to his group in Delft, which I think is a suburb of the Hague.
We were greeted at the airport in Copenhagen by a YouTuber named Vogter. He and I both voice-acted in a Darkmatter video, If Atheists Went to Heaven. He took us immediately to another skeptics group. Their recording of my presentation is the one I opted to mirror on my channel. Vogter also proudly showed us around town, including one particular sculpture that he said I would get a kick out of.
When we flew to Stockholm, it was a little different story. I hadn’t heard from Sweden in a couple of weeks. So I had to get my own hotel, unsure if I would be speaking there or not. I had been in touch with the organizer for a couple of months, but the venue wasn’t announced until less than 24 hours before I was supposed to speak. We still filled the room, but it was tiny. It was a charming pub with a nice decor, but it this room only had enough chairs for 15 people.
They say Scandinavia is expensive, and they’re not kidding. The hotel offered to do a load of laundry for me and presented me with a bill for $1,200.oo. Even if the hostess didn’t know how much that was, she knew the value of 9,000 Swedish Kroners. I’ve bought cars for less than that, good ones! So I balked of course. I was then told “it was a digital error”, meaning that they accidentally charged me ten times too much. But they still charged me $120.oo for one bag clothes with no dry cleaning. They said that was the holiday rate, even though it was the Tuesday after Easter. We got the cheapest room we could, and this hotel looked really nice. But the bill was more than twice what we’ve ever paid for the most expensive hotel we’d ever stayed in before.
When we went to Norway last year, we stayed with our host in his apartment. Because he told us hotels, restaurants and such were cost prohibitive. Now that I’ve had to pay for a Scandinavian hotel and the meals that came with that, I know what he means. $790.oo for two days is a bit much when the ad said it would only be $150.oo per night.
Sanal Edamaruku, president of Rationalist International, had arranged for me to speak at the Indian Embassy in Helsinki. Turns out the Indian Ambassador was an atheist too, and very concerned about the evil influence of religion on politics. He gave us a chauffeured ride home and invited us to dinner the next night. Again we stayed in a tiny apartment rather than a hotel, and Lilandra really liked it. She said it was ‘cozy’.
This time we had two hosts taking care of things. Zenon Kalafaticz lead us around and Dariusz Kedziora pulled the strings behind the scenes. Before the conference, Zenon took us to an annual public reenactment, exactly like this one he recorded earlier. A huge crowd in medieval costumes marched on the town center in honor of Kazimierz Łyszczyński, who was executed for atheism in 1689. Because he wrote of The Non-Existence of God, his tongue was pulled out and his hand cut off before he was decapitated. Because that’s how irrational beliefs react to reasonable ideas.
Sanal also attended the atheist conference in Warsaw and was staying in the same hotel. I knew some of his activist history in India, and took that opportunity to interview Sanal about that.
That night at dinner we learned that the Polish government was now under the rule of extreme Right-wing Catholics, and that they were about to ban every form of abortion regardless of circumstances. So the next day, Lilandra and I found ourselves outside their Parliament building taking part in a massive protest. A crowd of several thousand had assembled brandishing coat hangers, a symbol of what happens when safe and reasonable abortions aren’t available. Shortly after that, there was another massive protest in front of our hotel. This time hundreds of Poles in uniform protested against the possibility of a Russia. I guess since Poland borders on the Ukraine, they see a Russian invasion as an imminent threat.
I booked a flight out of Warsaw at 6:00am, which meant that Dariusz had to drive us to the airport at 4:00am. Special thanks for that! What’s more, my phone died inexplicably. So that our alarm didn’t go off. Normally we would have woken up on our own and made our way to a cab or a train or what have you. So if Dariusz hadn’t called our room to wake us up, we’d still be in Poland.
We flew two hours to Amsterdam and then another eight hours to Toronto. There we were met by another friend and atheist activist, who goes by the name of Christine Peace. She also proudly showed off her town before I gave my presentation to Toronto’s Center for Inquiry.
United States of America
Being so close, I received a last-minute invitation to come to CFI’s home office in Amherst, New York. This time I did not get to tour the town, nor the sister city of Buffalo either. But I met with an hold high school buddy who lives there, and I toured the CFI complex with Debbie Goddard, the outreach director, who I think runs everything. This trip enabled us to pass by Niagara Falls.
The next day, we flew home after six weeks away.