Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Heading Home for the Holidays!

Gleðileg jól og farsælt komandi ár (Merry Christmas and a happy New Year)!

The time has come: exams are over, papers are turned in, Christmas shopping is complete, the sun is rising at 11:06 and setting at 3:34, and I’m flying out tomorrow! It’s a ridiculous commonplace, but I can’t believe a whole semester has already gone by. I still can’t even order a hotdog in Icelandic if I want them to leave off the onions!

Reykjavík is lovely at Christmastime—though not as impressively decorated as I’d expected given that everybody kept telling me how “they do Christmas right in this town.” But then, they did have a complete economic meltdown last year, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see one or two fewer strings of lights on the shops these days. I did think, though, that the city Christmas tree, an annual gift from Norway since the 50s, was amusingly little. I’d been expecting something like the titan they put up in Times Square, but it turns out it’s only about two stories high and rather on the scraggly side. Of course, last year the poor tree got burned during the protests over the economic crisis (the kreppa, as they call it), so perhaps the Norwegians were asked to supply a little less fuel this year in case the same thing happened again. This morning, though, I did see a group of school children standing around the tree, holding hands and singing, and they looked so very much like the Hoos down in Hooville I really wish I’d had my camera!

Iceland has some intriguing Christmas traditions that they seem to be rather proud of. First off one should mention the unique (some would say ghastly) concoctions they came up with a thousand years ago in their turf kitchens—or imported from Norway. One of those is kæst skata—fermented stingray. Traditionally it’s eaten two days before Christmas, during Þorláksmessa—the Feast of St. Thorlak, patron saint of Iceland. But my Icelandic instructor confided that she doesn’t particularly like it herself. They also sell great big jars of pickled herring with cranberries (jólasíld—actually quite good!), a special brew of Christmas beer, and brennivín—liquor flavored with caraway, which apparently you either really like or really don’t. There are other, more palatable traditions like lamb stew and laufabrauð (“leaf bread”—a thin, intricately decorated pastry), but somehow I don’t actually see those around that often….

Though they don’t get the whole time off (I think Icelanders have been found to work the longest hours of any European nation), the Christmas holiday is not just the 25th of December. Oh no, you start the festivities with Þorláksmessa on the 23rd, continue partying on Christmas Eve (Aðfangadagur), then you have Christmas Day itself (Jóladagur), followed by “The Second Day of Christmas”—Annar í Jólum! And if you keep to the tradition of the Yule Lads, you can manage to stretch Christmas out for 26 days!

The Yule Lads (Jólasveinar) are something in between Halloween goblins and Santa Claus. Lately they’ve been much incorporated into the Santa-and-elves tradition (for over a hundred years, for example, they’ve been leaving oranges in children’s shoes the way nineteenth-century Santa did), but they are still said to be the sons of the mountain ogress Grýla. (Some report she lives on Esja, in fact!) Grýla herself eats badly-behaved children—coal in the stockings is for sissies—and her cat, the Jólaköturinn, likewise eats the poor kids who don’t have new clothes for Christmas! In fact, I’ve heard from multiple printed sources (that makes it true, right?) that in the 18th century the parliament actually passed a law forbidding parents from threatening their badly-behaved children with a visit from Grýla and her sons!

Now, however, the Jólasveinar are much more mischievous than frightening. With names like Þvörusleikir (Stick-Licker), Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler), and Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Grabber), they’re supposed to come down from the mountains one per night the 13 nights before Christmas. While in town, they’re always looking for something to eat—or steal first and eat later, preferably. But they leave gifts now too, and I doubt anybody misses the scrapings leftover on the bowls these days. After Christmas, they head back to the mountains, one each night. It’s not Santa Claus, but it’s a pretty nifty tradition anyway.

So much for Christmas in Reykjavík. Tomorrow I’m flying out to New York City to spend a few days with my sister at Sarah Lawrence (where even the squirrels wear black) before heading home to Virginia for the holidays. If you know me, you know what a family girl I am, and I’m beside myself with anticipation! I hear the firework display during a Reykjavík New Year is unbeatable, but I’ll trade it for a quiet holiday at home.

I’ll report back, of course, either after my New York adventure, or after my return to Reykjavík for the spring semester! Until then, bestu óskir um gleðileg jól og gott og farsælt komandi ár með þokk fyrir það liðna! (Best wishes for a merry Christmas, and a good and happy New Year, with thanks for the year past!)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Time for Exams and Papers

Ég á að vera að lesa (I ought to be reading)

December has begun, and classes have ended! And it’s probably fair to say winter has begun in earnest too, considering we got a heap of snow over the weekend. With the end of classes came the completion of three papers but also the beginning of exams—so I can’t yet say that the semester has successfully finished. I’ve taken one final so far and have three more to go, and I can say it’s a very different system from what I’m used to!

First, exams are a very official affair here—they’re proctored by people hired specifically for that purpose, and they’re held in rooms specially set up with desks placed at large distances from each other. They even go so far as to assign each person a numbered desk at which you are required to sit! I can see the system working for a huge math class, or for taking the Boards or the Bar exam, but for ten people translating half a dozen paragraphs of Old Icelandic? It seemed like overkill. But they tried to make it look more efficient by scattering us around a room shared with students taking an exam for another class.

It wasn’t just that the system was strange, though—it’s that it has at its heart the assumption that students are cheaters and must be monitored and prevented at every turn from engaging in their duplicitous, natural behaviors. The system isn’t Icelandic, of course; I know many American schools work the same way. But coming as I do from not one but two universities ruled by an honor code that assumes a student’s word is good and that he can restrain himself from cheating if he pledges not to, I find it profoundly insulting not to be trusted.

An example: all semester, several of us in the program have been using a PDF or online dictionary to translate from Old Icelandic to English—first because a PDF won’t put you overweight when you’re lugging your bags back home on the plane and second because the dang paper dictionaries are so expensive! Then, lo and behold, the last day of class the prof informs us, as if we should have known all along, that we would not be permitted to bring our computers to the exam. Obviously. We must be prevented from looking up the translations online, as we undoubtedly would if we had our laptops! I was flabbergasted: if I tell you I’m not going to cheat, what makes you think you can’t you believe me? (And, secondarily, could we not have been told about our criminal tendencies early enough to track down a printed dictionary in time for the exam? This second objection was allayed by the prof scrounging up some borrowed dictionaries for our use, but my first and prime objection stands!)

Beyond this saddening mentality that students are not trustworthy—the one big beef I have with this otherwise lovely university—life goes on here in Reykjavík, despite the five hours of daylight (not kidding—I just looked up the statistics) and the snow and ice on the ground. The place is getting decked out for Christmas, and I’ll put some seasonal pictures up next week before I come home—to put us all in the spirit! I’ve been requested (how seriously, I’m not certain) for some fun “that’s-how-they-do-it-in-Iceland” tidbits. Be careful what you wish for!
1. When I wrote months ago that Icelanders keep their windows open when it’s 40 degrees, I thought this was remarkable. I have since realized that Icelanders keep their windows open no matter how cold it gets! We had a high of about 23 degrees yesterday, it was breezy and blowing snow, and did that induce the locals to shut their windows? Never! The best I can figure it is that here, warm = stuffy. They’d positively melt into puddles in a Virginia summer.

2. Iceland has multiple Independence Days. They gained their freedom and sovereignty in stages instead of in a war (what a civilized way to go about it!), so they celebrate each stage on its anniversary. Yesterday was one of those days, but I didn’t even understand the explanation when someone told me what exactly it was they were celebrating.

3. Celebrities have a different status in a country this small. Actually, I’m told celebrities have a different (here read more human) status everywhere but America, but I’ve recently seen this in Iceland for myself. Háskólakórinn had a concert yesterday of patriotic Icelandic music, for the holiday. It was just a small thing, in the entryway of the main building on campus. Afterwards, one of the Icelandic members of the choir came up to me and asked, “Did you see that older woman in the front row?” Yes. “Do you know who she is?” No. “She’s the former president of Iceland. The first woman president in the world.” And nobody had even blinked an eye seeing her there! Boy am I glad I didn’t goof up too badly!

4. We may be destined to see the sun only four hours out of every day in January, but the sunrises and sunsets make up for it. Where at home the sky turns pink and orange for maybe ten minutes before twilight, here you get those wonderful colors for an hour or more! Sure, you see them at 11 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon, but that doesn’t make them less amazing.

5. The hot water pipes in the city frequently run directly under the sidewalks and main roads, meaning that the pavement is too warm for the snow and ice to stick. I may have mentioned this before when we got our first snow, but it’s much more noticeable after a snowfall of several inches. So you’ll have long swaths while you’re walking where, even after a snow or a hail storm, the way is perfectly clear. Of course, these swaths will be followed by others which no one has bothered to shovel at all, so you alternate between walking comfortably and ice-skating downhill. Farðu varlega: go carefully.

6. Retro is in here. Everything you can buy at the Kringlan (the biggest mall in the country) is black, puffy, and layered, and the asymmetrical hairstyle is totally hot right now. Even (heaven help us!) mullets are coming back! When I was in Dublin I found that fashion there came to the US about a year later. Please don’t tell me I’ll come home in May to a resurgence of American mullets.

7. You can buy pre-boiled potatoes and canned coconut milk in the grocery stores here, but their peanut butter doesn’t have enough sugar (give me Jiff!) and you have to go to a different store to buy alcohol and yet another store to buy medicines. Not just prescription meds—Tylenol and Nyquil too! And you have to request them, you can't just browse the shelves. Chalk it up to an American sense of privacy, but why does the dispensing chemist need to know I have a stuffy nose?

8. Iceland is a banana republic, as a friend of mine likes to say. No, seriously: they grow bananas here! In greenhouses. I decided after I found out my friend wasn’t joking about this fact that I wasn’t going to be surprised by anything else that happens here. I’m sure it’s a resolution I won’t be able to keep.

9. It is much more fun to blog than to study Old Icelandic noun paradigms. But I don’t get class credit for blogging so to work with me!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lights! Action! Silly camera.

Tónleikar undir norðurljósum (A concert under the Northern Lights)

After three months’ worth of preparing our twenty-minute contribution to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Háskólakórinn (the University Choir) finally gave its performance, this past Saturday and then again on Monday! We were really just window-dressing, since the majority of the symphony is…well, symphonic. The orchestra played for almost an hour before we even came onstage! But the Ninth Symphony is so energetic and thunderous, we didn’t feel like we missed out being only in the climax. Here’s a youtube link of part of the final number!

The church where we performed (Langholtskirkja) is one of the most popular concert venues in the area—and you can tell how small a population Reykjavík has from the fact that it only seats 500 people. It’s also one of the more “normal” looking Icelandic churches (in contrast with the Sydney-Opera-House one in Kopavogur and the freaky stingray one northeast of town). However, it’s way out in the suburbs, a bus-ride of several miles, and I had some rather comic adventures trying to get there the first time.

First, I got on the right bus but going the wrong direction. Oops. The driver let me off downtown with the instructions to get on a different bus and to get off again at a place called Vogar. (Keep in mind that this is five o’clock and dark as midnight, by the way.) I get on this new bus and discover that the driver is probably the only person in Reykjavík who doesn’t speak more than a few words of English. Half in English, half in Icelandic, I ask him to tell me when we reach Vogar so I can get off. He doesn’t go to Vogar, he tells me. I think you do, I tell him politely. He tries to get me to change buses at the terminal, and I finally pull out my bus map and show him the stop—which, by the way, is in fact on his route. Fine, fine. We drive away and eventually he stops and calls over his shoulder, “Vogar!”

So I get off. There’s nothing but suburban neighborhoods all around. Where is this church? After hemming and hawing for awhile, I head for some neon lights, find myself at a movie theater, and beg directions. After several attempts, I find a local who tells me I am not, in fact, at Vogar, but a good mile away from it. (I won’t say that the bus driver was being vindictive: it’s nicer to think that he just didn’t know his route in the dark.) She inks out a path on my map through the housing areas for me, and I set off.

I wander the suburbs in the dark for half an hour, never entirely lost but always half-disoriented, and finally I stumble on the church. Thank goodness! But the doors are locked! Deciding I am entirely star-crossed for the day, I circle the church and at last find a side door that is unlocked. I go inside, and for all my adventures, I’m still early for rehearsal!

Fortunately, I seem to have exhausted my bad luck that evening, and I had no problems getting to Langholtskirkja and back after that. In fact, I think the stars must have felt they owed me one, because on our second attempt to glimpse those elusive Northern Lights on Sunday night, we succeeded! It wasn’t one of those electrically stunning “curtain” displays, but we saw them nonetheless: a green, glowing band snaking across the sky over Akranes, on the other side of the bay. I’m very glad to have seen it, because it’s one of those things you’re just supposed to do when you go to these crazy subarctic countries.

A group of us sat on the rocks in the freezing cold, in the biting wind (biting but not throw-you-on-your-back forceful this time), with the sea at our feet and the stars overhead and the aurora borealis on the horizon. The stars themselves were stunningly clear; the North Star is directly overhead—talk about disorienting! For almost an hour, the lights shifted and moved as slowly a green sunrise—hence the name!—and it was still flirting with us when we finally left for fear of never feeling our fingers again.

My camera, though great in other respects, doesn’t have the capability of taking an exposure longer than a second or two, and you need much longer exposures for something like the Northern Lights, but I discovered when I adjusted the level on the shots I did take, that even though there’s no color to the image, you actually can see the streak in the sky that is the lights. Just imagine it in eerie, unnatural, beautiful green, with the stars peaking through where it’s thinnest. (The bright light on the right is the town of Akranes. Too bad we couldn’t arrange a blackout for the event.)

This is the last week of classes for us, and although Icelanders don’t have a Thanksgiving (I imagine it would be called something like Þakkadagur if they did), I’m still thankful for all the wonderful things I’m getting to experience here, and for the fact that I’ll soon be coming home for Christmas as well!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 16, 2009

One Week + Two Adventures = Long Post

Fögur er hlíðin svo að mér hefir hún aldrei jafnfögur sýnst, bleikir akrar en slegin tún (Fair is the slope, fairer than it has ever seemed to me before, the gold-brown meadows and the mown hayfields—Gunnar’s words in Njáls saga when he decides to die on his home farm rather than live in exile abroad)

Even with the remarkably good weather threatening to end very suddenly this week, we managed to squeeze in two more adventures in the last days before winter. The first was a class trip to the territory where Njáls saga takes place, in the south, between Selfoss and Vík, and the second was a four-girl trek up Mount Esja. First the field trip:

It’s remarkable how tied the sagas are to the land here. I’ve already mentioned how Icelanders in the know never seem to tire of pointing out a hill and saying, “That’s where such-and-such and event took place in so-and-so’s saga.” Whether the events are fictional or not, they are set in very specific locations, most of which still have the same names as they did a thousand years ago, and many of which look very much as they did when the stories are set—if perhaps without the trees, which were all cut down by the end of the Middle Ages.

We stopped at several places on our trip, most amusingly at a place in Hvolsvöllur called the Saga Center, where we ate watery cream-of-green-bean soup in an imitation Viking hall and wandered around amid freakish four-horned sheep taxidermied to the walls. Several members of our group go a hold of fake swords and replica tunics and had quite the epic battle in the parking lot. (I was not among them: I was transfixed by the demon sheep-heads!)

The real meat of the trip, though, was our stop at Hlíðarendi, the farm of the hero Gunnar, Njáll’s best friend, and then the stop at the site where Njáll himself was burned to death in his own home. Such are the wholesome contents of the sagas.

Hlíðarendi is still a farm, now with a charming nineteenth-century church and graveyard. It sits on a steep hill (the name means “Slope’s end”) overlooking the incredibly flat valley—also still farmland—that is bordered on the far side by the glacier Eyjafjöll, and the sea. When it’s clear, you can see the Westman Islands off the coast. It was probably while riding across this very plain that Gunnar spoke those famous words in praise of Iceland’s beauty; I referred to them before, in my entry about our horseback-riding trip.
The place is indescribable. We stood on the precipice staring, open-mouthed, barely breathing. The sight even inspired my avowed atheist friend to turn to me and say, “Whoever wrote the Bible must have been thinking about this place when he described what the Creation looked like.” Especially at the moment when we saw it, with the sun in our faces over the ocean and the blue-black clouds hanging over the glacier, it wasn’t hard to imagine what it must have been like when the light was separated from the darkness. I couldn’t help but think also of The Magician’s Nephew, when Aslan walks back and forth across the plains, singing Narnia into existence. It made all of us, if only for a moment, spiritual beings.

The area where Njáll was burned (Bergþorshvoll) is striking in less dramatic ways. It’s a quiet private farm, no ruins, no evidence that anything special ever happened there (though the burning, tragically, was in all likelihood a historical event). In fact, we were practically loved to death by two farm dogs to whom we were clearly the most exciting thing that had ever stumbled upon their corner of the world. It’s a lovely if unremarkable spot—it’s impossible to believe that something so terrible could have taken place there.

But on to Esja! We’d been told by friends for the past several weeks that they’d recently gone on the hike up the mountain and really enjoyed it. It’s supposed to be the home of Grýla, the she-troll whose twelve sons are the Yule Lads—the Icelandic version of a less-friendly Santa Claus, coming down into town each of the twelve days of Christmas and stealing as well as giving presents. I’ve wanted to climb Esja since I arrived and discovered there are trails up to one of the peaks (you might possibly have noticed my constant, bordering on obsessive, photographing of the mountain—in fact, the picture behind the blog title is of Esja). So yesterday we organized ourselves and took the long bus ride to the trailhead.

So late in the season? you might ask. Well, we’d checked the weather and it was supposed to be cold (about 37 degrees) but not rainy, and even though Esja was hiding her head in thick clouds, we were determined. What we didn’t bargain on was the wind! The only comparison I can make to the wind on a bad day in Iceland is what it feels like trying to walk across an open area in Nebraska in the middle of winter. The force is so powerful it knocks you off your feet (quite literally—I was thrown to the ground more than once!), it wrings tears from your eyes, it snatches the breath right out of your lungs (is this why the Icelanders say “yes” while breathing in instead of out?).

More sensible souls might have turned back, but actually there were quite a few people braving the slopes—and not just tourists, which I took for a good sign, as tourists tend to be rather stupid when it comes to taking risks. So, taking our cue from the Icelanders, up we went! On a good, calm day, I am told it takes about three hours to hike up and then back down (the vertical height is about half a mile, but the trail is about two and a half, one direction); it took us almost five hours. I’ll admit I’m not in as great shape as I might be, and I had to stop and rest quite a bit—fortunately there are plenty of friendly seat-height rocks along the way—but mostly it was the unrelenting wind, which was so incredibly strong that it frequently took all my strength just to move forward a few inches at a time. I felt barely tethered to the earth and wished for about thirty pounds of ballast in my bookbag.

Once you get past the first mile and a half or so, the trail gets much steeper, and in fact I lost the path entirely at several points and wandered along the heath toward where I saw the other hikers (my group got rather strung out along the trail), and I even ended up on the wrong face of the mountain once and had to backtrack. I felt very much like Frodo (can you blame me?) and not just a little like Bjartur from Independent People, if anybody has read that. The last hundred vertical yards are more scrambling up rocks than walking; they’ve put a few chains in the slope for people to pull themselves up on the steepest parts. I kept intending to quit and turn back, but then I was tempted farther and farther up—I was so close to the top, how could I give up?

And I made it. All the way to Þverfellshorn, which is not the highest point on the mountain but is nevertheless the end of the trail. It would probably have been a great view if it was clear, but the point was entirely in the clouds, which gave the impression of being much higher than it was. It was (as my Boston friends are fond of saying) wicked cold up there. The wind was no less powerful than it was on the lower slopes, there was no sun, and it was actually blowing ice crystals from some unseen source in the clouds. I hurriedly signed the guestbook (thanking Grýla for the visit) and began the long descent to the parking lot.

By the time the four of us girls had all reached the bottom (not before I fell several more times, my feet swept out from under me both by the wind and by loose rocks), our legs were about as steady as limp noodles, our faces were wind-burned and our noses chapped, and it was hailing. We looked at each other and kept saying, “Can you believe we just did that?” Next time we’ll check the wind-speed as well as the weather before we head up. But what an adventure!

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Brief Excursus on Language

Þat gøra hér ungir sveinar, er lítit mark mun at þykkja (Youngsters do this here, which will be considered of little note—What the giant-king tells Thor during a sporting game, but which is equally applicable to the inflection of Icelandic nouns)

As nothing particularly adventurous has happened this past week here, I thought I might take this opportunity to digress about the difficulties of learning the Icelandic language. The sentiments, I should think, could just as easily be applied to any heavily inflected language—probably more so, in fact, in cases like Russian or Greek—but as Icelandic is the example nearest to hand at the moment, Icelandic it is. Besides, I’m putting up more pictures of geese and whatnot, so scrolling down might be worth the effort.

Let’s take a simple, if inelegant, sentence as our starting point: “I bought the two bottles.” In Icelandic: “Ég keypti tvær flöskurnar.” Let’s compare it with any less inflected language, say Spanish: “Compré las dos botellas.” Say you’re learning Spanish as a beginner, and you come across this sentence. You see the word “botellas” and think to yourself, “Well, the s means it’s plural, and the a means it’s feminine. So the word would be “la botella.” Even if you don’t recognize it as a cognate, you look it up in the dictionary and—presto!—you have a shiny new word to put in your pocket, which you can whip out at any convenient moment and use correctly in a sentence.

Now let’s turn to Icelandic. Let’s assume for a moment that we are not confused by any of the other three words in the sentence (that we can figure out, for instance, that “keypti” is the past tense of the verb “kaupa” and “tvær” is some inflection of the number “tveir”). This leaves us with the funny creature “flöskurnar.” We don’t know what it means and we want to look it up in a dictionary. This simple act involves great gymnastic contortions of decipherment which a student may or may not be able to manage without flying to the reassuring aid of a teacher.
First, we have to figure out that “nar” is not part of the root word at all, but is actually the suffixed article meaning “the.” (Don’t even try looking up “-nar” in the dictionary—it would be listed under “-inn,” if at all.) Now we’ve got “flöskur.” Our first thought (because we’re beginning students and the inflection of the article doesn’t immediately set off any grammatical bells in our head) is, “It must be a masculine strong noun, right? It ends in ‘-ur.’” Wrong. This particular deceptive “-ur” marks a feminine plural.

Let’s say we figure that out (no doubt after thumbing through our dictionary in vain looking for the masculine noun “flöskur”). So we chop off the ending and figure we must be able to get something from “flösk,” to which some as-yet-unknown ending will be added. But there’s nary a “flösk” in the dictionary either, because we also have to realize that the u in the ending triggered that snazzy device called u-umlaut, so the o (which looks, with its umlaut hat, more like a surprise-face than anything) is actually an a in disguise.

At last, we’ve got “flask.” Good heavens, that looks like an English word! Hearts pounding, we flip through the dictionary. Yes! There it is! “Flaska”—feminine weak noun, meaning “bottle.”
Triumphant, we scribble down our translation and tell ourselves to remember this lovely new word. However, the next morning, we want to ask, “What is IN the bottle?” And here our trouble begins again.

Do we use the dative or the accusative? What IS the dative of “flaska”? Does it have u-umlaut? Do we need an article attached to the end? What on earth should THAT look like? (Non-native Icelandic speakers get cookies baked for them on my return to the States if they guessed “flöskunni.” What? No takers?)

When we learned the word “botella,” we picked it up and put it in our pocket to use whenever we liked. When we learned the word “flaska,” it came rooted to the very fabric of the language. It requires lengthy grammatical exegesis just to use it in a simple sentence, and we might as well try to put one corner of a fishing net in our pocket and expect to walk away without dragging half a ton of rope, fish, and seaweed in our wake.
It is astounding for a speaker of a language as little inflected as English to realize that people—children!—can learn and speak an inflected language with speed and coherence, much less with ease and grace. I hope this little digression will not be construed as an attack on Icelandic—I find it a truly beautiful language entirely worthy of all the efforts that have gone into protecting and celebrating it.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Camera! Action! Wait, no lights?

Allt hitt sýnilega og ósýnilega (All things seen and unseen)

If I may be permitted to borrow and corrupt a phrase from the Creed, this past week has been quite full of things “seen and unseen.”

Things I set out to see and did see: the lighthouse at the end of Seltjarnarness; Reykjavík’s only yellow-sand beach; the Perlan up close at night.

Things I set out to see and didn’t: the Northern Lights.

Things I did not set out to see but saw anyway: a seal, an incredibly bright full moon.

Things I did not set out to see and didn’t see either way: Halloween costumes. (Halloween is a non-event here, as evidenced by the fact that the only word for the day in Icelandic, which is normally so intent on finding its own word for everything, is borrowed: Hallovín.)

Last weekend I took advantage of the good weather and walked along that sea trail I’m always talking about, from Reykjavík proper all the way to the extreme end of the peninsula, where I finally got to see the Gróttuviti—the lighthouse set on a point that becomes an island every high tide. There’s nothing special about the lighthouse in particular, but I like lighthouses and that was enough of a motivation for me.

I also got to see Esja, my favorite mountain north of the city, and its neighbor Akrafell in some lovely early morning colors. (This is early morning sun-time, not clock-time, mind you; it was about 10:30 in the morning, but the sun had only come up two hours before.)

Then, yesterday, I took advantage of yet another nice day (how convenient when good weather happens to fall on a weekend!) to walk around the south side of the Perlan (that space-agey domed building I posted about awhile back) and down to the sea trail on the south side of town. Well, first I stopped at the Kringlan Mall to buy socks, because with all the walking I’ve been doing I’ve completely worn through half the pairs I brought with me! But then it was on to the trail.

After cutting accidentally through a graveyard, nearly falling on black ice, and wondering how all the old people I shared the trail with managed not to break their hips on the slick surface, I found Reykjavík’s beach, called Nauthólsvík—or more specifically, Ylströnd. They actually imported yellow sand to cover over the native black pebbles! Not only that, but they pump hot water into the sea when the beach is open so people can wade as though they didn’t live just below the Arctic Circle. The effect is rather hilarious than impressive, especially given that the whole place is only about the size of a basketball court, and they put a native twist to the idea of a beach by building a hot tub right at the edge of the water. But at least Iceland can say it has a beach, and that’s clearly what the motivation was!
Having tested the water to confirm that they do not, indeed, pump hot water in when the beach is technically closed, I continued along the sea trail and soon came across a black pebble strand (much nicer, I think, than the fake yellow beach) where a father was pointing out to his son something in the water. I followed his finger and to my surprise realized that there was a harbor seal about 20 yards out! Seals aren’t usually found around Reykjavík—and it’s even stranger to see one alone—but it was quite a sight. He was clearly playing peek-a-boo with the father and son, and when they left he took up the game with me. He’d dunk underwater, then pop up and look at me as though I was the oddest thing he’d ever seen. Then he’d dunk under again and come up a few feet to the left or right, then look at me some more until he decided to go under again.
It was so clear all day that a few of us decided to brave the cold (the bank sign said it was 34 degrees, but I am certain it was lying) and hike up the frost-covered hill of the Perlan in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights. Unfortunately, two factors were against us: there was not much magnetic activity in the atmosphere, and there was a full moon. So we stood looking out over Reykjavík for about an hour, knowing that we had to get up for an 8:20 class in the morning, and the Aurora Borealis didn’t see fit to show up for our pains.

But we did get some good pictures of the city and the Perlan in the dark!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Reykholt and Winter!

Vetrur byrja snemma hérna (Winter begins early here)

Imagine my surprise when I looked at the Icelandic calendar left in my room by its former occupant and saw that October 24 is labeled “Fyrsti vetrardagur”—the first day of winter! I don’t know how they figure it or what measure they used to decide it, but it is now officially Icelandic winter.

But don’t tell the weather that. We’ve had a week of 40-degree temps, very little wind, and very little rain. We even saw the sun a few times. As long as this lasts, I’m not complaining!

This past Tuesday my program finally had its long-delayed trip to Reykholt, a little town just inland from Snæfellsnes (see last week’s entry). The official reason for the visit, of course, was that Reykholt was the home of Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241), father of Icelandic historical and mythological writing. What Chaucer is to English literature, Snorri is to Icelandic (and, for that matter, Norwegian) history and legend. In fact, in my Old Icelandic language course we’re translating parts of his Prose Edda, and as a post-midterm treat, our prof took us down to the Arni Magnusson Institute and let us see—even touch!—the most important manuscript of that very Edda. This may not seem like a big deal to people with more sensible priorities, but we medievalists were in awe. The smell of the vellum alone left several people quite high.

We were very fortunate on the day of our trip: it was clear and sunny and only moderately windy. Of course, the temperature was below freezing, but we spent enough of the time inside that no one suffered frostbite. I think. We stopped first in Borg, a little town (if you can even call it that) where Snorri first lived. It’s also the setting for Egil’s Saga, and so there’s a semi-abstract sculpture there of Egil’s daughter Thorgerd convincing Egil to compose a poem in memory of his dead sons (instead of starving himself to death in his grief, which was his first plan).

It’s a striking sculpture in its own way, but I can’t help but think how artificial it looks against the backdrop of the mountains and the fjord.

From Borg we drove to Reykholt proper. I was riding with our professor, who pointed out historical places of interest along the way, named all the mountains and bays, and told us which peaks made for the best hiking. I’ve never met a people so conscious of the life of their land as the Icelanders are. Another gross generalization, I suppose, but among the Icelanders I’ve met, their knowledge of the land and its history (not so much national history as the story of events that took place in particular locations they can still point out to you) far outstrips anything I’ve seen at home. Examples: we see a perfectly conical mountain and our professor tells us, "Oh, yes, that's a mountain formed by a volcanic eruption underneath a glacier"; we see an uncannily dome-shaped mountain and he says, "That's called Eirik's Glacier," proceeding to tell us the story of the outlaw who escaped capture by hiding there.

Reykholt means “Smoking wood,” and even though the woods are gone now, the valley still smokes from hot springs everywhere you turn. There’s an institute called Snorra Stofa, attached to a newly built church, which houses a great library of relevant research material. (Some in the group are already plotting ways to secure housing in the guesthouse there next spring for some thesis work.). But the real attraction is behind the building. That is where you can see the ruins of Snorri Sturluson’s home, and a rebuilt hot spring (still functional!) that he used for his bath. I mentioned before that there are stories of Icelandic diplomats modern and medieval entertaining visiting dignitaries in their hot pots—Snorri was the medieval example. He was also murdered somewhere close to this area (a hazard of medieval politicians), and some people in the group were convinced that his ghost still haunts the place. It is Iceland, after all; I wouldn’t be too surprised.

It was getting late in the day by the time we finished exploring there and I had to get back to town for rehearsal (our professor, knowing my obligation, kept trying to hurry the others along by saying, “Come on, choir rehearsal!”), but we stopped at one last place: Deildartunguhver—the largest hot spring in Iceland, possibly the world. It’s not as dramatic as the geysers, but it is nevertheless an astounding sight to walk up to this twisted, branching river and realize that it is boiling.

There is a pipeline that pumps hot water from Deildartunguhver all the way to Akranes and Borgarnes—and Akranes is forty miles away! The pipeline actually follows the road, and it is covered by earth most of the way. You can tell it’s a hot-water pipe because the grass grows much greener on top of it than on the surrounding land. Sounds like the beginning of an Icelandic proverb, no?

I was fifteen minutes late for rehearsal despite our professor’s best efforts, but I stood in the back and pretended I’d been there the whole time. Perhaps the conductor didn’t notice….

Monday, October 19, 2009

Snæfellsnes in October

Hér býr húldufólkið (Here there be elves)

The university system in Iceland may not allow for a lot of holidays, but it does have the virtue of giving its students a full week-long reading period (vinnuvika) in October, which we enjoyed this past week. Naturally, we took advantage of this study period to abandon our books and take a little jaunt up the coast to Snæfellsnes, the storied peninsula north of Reykjavík. It is the turf on which many sagas take place, the land that inspired Halldór Laxness to write Kristnihald undir Jökli, and the location in which Jules Verne set the opening of Journey to the Center of the Earth. You can imagine what this place must do to people.

The whole, long peninsula is a study in contradictions: sheep-dotted farmland that ends abruptly on one side at the feet of sudden, slate-gray volcanic mountains (here picture Mordor), and on the other side at the sea frothing madly on the rocks. The coastline is punctuated with towns, but most of them consist of a single neighborhood…and of course a few Bónus stores—the ever-present yellow-and-pink grocery chain with branches all over the island. Even Icelanders have to eat!

At the very tip of the peninsula is Snæfellsjökull, the glacier I mentioned a few posts ago as being visible from Reykjavík on a clear day. Well, most days are not clear, and the day my friends and I drove out was no exception. It didn’t rain on us much, and we even got some of that precious sunlight we go for days without seeing, but the glacier was entirely capped in thick clouds. We could only see its rocky foot, which looks for all the world like just another mountain. The story is that if you see the top of the glacier, it’s taking its hat off for you, saluting you. Around strangers it is shy, and apparently we lacked the necessary charm to induce it to uncap for us.

But we did see the black-pebble beach called Malarrif (when I say pebble, I really mean rocks the size of human hands, worn perfectly smooth by the sea).

And we saw the two bizarre columns of basalt called the Londrangar. A story is told (mostly to tourists) that the tower-shaped one is an elf library and the wider one is an elf church. The folks in Ólafsvík assured us that the story is modern and not traditional, but can’t you see where it comes from?

We stopped at Hellnar (year-round population 9, says my guidebook), where the waves barrel in and out of a wonderful cave-arch of lava called Baðstofa (Bath-house). During nesting season it’s full of seabirds, but the day we were there it was only the five of us flightless anomalies clambering over the rocks. There is something to be said for playing the tourist outside of tourist season, even if it means being blown over by the wind.
The mountain Stapafell (another elf-home if stories be true) presides over Hellnar looking very much like a real-life version of some child’s mud-volcano.
The next town over is Arnastapi (population a whopping 15, says Google), where randomly-placed lava towers interrupt the smooth workings of the little harbor. And I do mean little; there was room for maybe two tiny boats to be moored by the dock!
One final little glimpse of Iceland this week, this one from Reykjavík again: it’s the Imagine Peace Tower, built by Yoko Ono in honor of John Lennon. Run by the renewable energy, the tower in the bay is lit up between the anniversary of Lennon’s birth and that of his death (October 9 to December 8), and the beam of light—which is all the tower consists of—can be seen all over the city. Whatever you may think about Yoko’s effect on the Beatles, you have to give her credit for a nice idea.
Even if, with a low cloud ceiling, the spotlight looks like Reykjavík is summoning Batman.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Trotting and Tölting

Mig dreymir hesta (I dream of horses)

Iceland is a country of only one horse breed, but even if they had been hard to find (which they’re not), you know I would have found them eventually! Yesterday I had what I might title my best adventure here yet. The réttir was wonderful and Gullfoss is beautiful, but how can you compete with a two-and-a-half-hour horseback ride through lava fields? I have now experienced the Icelandic horse’s "tölt"—its famous fourth gait. (It’s a powerful, quick pace similar to the smooth gait of a Paso Fino; if you’re interested, check youtube for “Icelandic horse tolt” and you’ll find plenty of videos.) What more could I ask for from my Icelandic adventure than that?

As always, I couldn't take pictures on the drive over, and we weren't permitted to take photos while we were riding (you can imagine the havoc that could ensue with the combination of feisty horses and riders more interested in their cameras than the reins), so I'll do my best just to describe what it was like. Forgive me my florid tendencies and proclivity for simile; Iceland makes even the most prosaic observer wax poetic, and horses have always been my muse, so this post was doomed to effusiveness from the start.

The drive from Reykjavik to Eldhestar (the name means Fire-Horses) is like driving along the bottom of a drained seabed: unearthly shapes in stone covered with moss so thick it looks as though it could only have grown underwater. There are no trees and no grass in the highlands.

A comic interlude for which I am grateful not to have photographs: to protect us against the weather, we were given huge Michelin-Man-style suits, which would have been big on me in any case, but naturally they ran out of smalls before I got to the front of the line and I was given a large. The legs had to be rolled up at least ten inches in order for me to walk, and the crotch sat squarely between my knees. We were matched up with horses according to our riding experience, given a thirty-second lesson on horsemanship (“What was that last part? How do we stop?” a first-time-rider friend asked me anxiously), and we set out. Resume poetic:

We rode out from the farm alongside a sleepy stream, on a trail between grassy meadows used for grazing and, a few, for hay. On the straight, level stretches, we would “tölt.” My little mare, Mosa, a smoky blue roan, is newly trained and hasn't yet mastered the discipline of the gait, but I was able to persuade her to do it on and off, until she got excited and leapt into an extended trot instead.

We crossed the stream and the horses plunged in as though they didn't notice the water was only just above freezing. They even stopped knee-deep to drink! We kept riding in the grassy lava fields, where other horses grazed in the shadows of bizarre lava formations overgrown with moss. Some horses lay in the sun or stood on hillocks like goats, watching us impassively as we tölted by. We felt honored to be noticed by these kings of the plains.

From high up on a hill we could see the whole harvest-yellow valley stretched out below us, crossed with trenches dug in the lava, with the lava heaped into walls right alongside the ditches, dividing the meadows from the hayfields. The sky was a pale winter blue—so vast it might have been an inverted tropical ocean—and the mountains stretched broad beneath it, capped with a dusting of snow. The plain was dotted with horses of every color, and at every bend and turn we discovered more of them, grazing and gazing and popping out of the brush like natural animate outgrowths of the lava mounds.
Up on that hillcrest, with my beautiful little Mosa under me tossing her head in the clear cold air and urging us faster! faster!, I thought I could never be unhappy if this ride could simply go on and on forever.

There is a scene in Njal’s Saga in which the heroic Gunnar, outlawed and condemned to choose exile or death, stops on his way to the ships to gaze at his homeland. In a moment of descriptive feeling incredibly rare in the laconic sagas, he says, “How lovely the slopes are, more lovely than they have ever seemed to me before, golden cornfields and new-mown hay. I am going back home, and I will not go away.” On our ride, I think I understood, if just for a moment, what would make an Icelander die for his bare little hayfields huddled on this tiny isolated island just below the Arctic Circle.

We passed a marshy lowland bird sanctuary and the sound of our little sure-footed horses stirred up great flights of birds. Dozens of geese, half a dozen pairs of swans, even a falcon wheeled over us, and the swans splashed down nearby like seaplanes in formation. Passing a farm where a shaven waterdog barked at us excitedly and a gaggle of white domestic geese ambled out of our way, we crossed into more meadows, these densely populated with hundreds of grassy hillocks just a foot or two high, and not much wider. What they are and what strange process forms them I do not know, but seeing their hunched forms casting shadows on their neighbors, you can imagine why the legends tell of trolls caught out at daybreak and turned to stone.

The trails here were alternately muddy and grassy, and our horses' hooves cracked through frozen puddles like shattered glass and whispered through the rippling grass like waves hissing on a beach. But the wind roared with a fervor it usually reserves for mountaintops in winter, with nothing on the plains to check its rush from the highland to the sea.

Our ride ended back at the arena where we began, and we slid down from our horses (not a long drop), wind-burned and deafened, saddle-sore, unable to feel our face, hands, or feet, and (if I may only speak for myself) as blissfully happy as you could ever imagine.