Monday, September 28, 2009

One Month In!

Hvernig er veðrið í dag? Það er rok og rigning. (How is the weather today? It is windy and raining—almost the only answer you’ll ever give in Iceland from September through April.)

I’ve been here for one month today, and I sometimes still catch myself thinking, “Can I really be here? In Iceland of all places?” For the first two days after I arrived, we had brilliant sun and no rain. Thereafter, we had lots of rain and no sun—not to mention the kind of wind that makes you consider putting ballast in your pockets—and only one or two days when the sun peeked out between showers. Today was the first entirely sunny day we’ve had since those final days of August.

I’m not complaining, really—the rain is usually on-and-off and not so heavy that you arrive soaked wherever you’re going. But on Saturday, I did have the unusual experience of walking through a downpour, then bright sun, then hail combined with gale-force winds, then more rain, then more sun, and finally snow! (It reminded me of a good friend’s experience in Edinburgh!) The Icelanders insist they get very little snow during the winter, but I suppose they must not count it when it falls but doesn’t stick. There is snow on the tops of the mountains north of the bay now and has been for several days. It’s beautiful and breathtaking—much more in person than in pictures. This shot was taken about three seconds before I was pelted with hail.

Our planned excursion to Reykholt was postponed until the first week of October due to professorial illness. So to have something worth writing about, earlier last week I visited the garden of the Einar Jónsson sculpture museum—he’s something of the Rodin of Iceland. His work is very allegorical and spiritual and lovely, so I thought I’d share a picture or two (the first is called Sorrow and the second Prayer). You can see this was one of the fitfully sunny days. (And by the way, how blogspot decides to format the arrangement is anybody's guess.)

Not having any particular intentions to go glacier hiking while I’m here, these pictures might be the closest I get to a glacier. This is Snæfellsjökull northwest of Reykjavik—you can just barely see it in the middle of the picture, but it was much more exciting in real life. You have to wait for very clear days to see it from the city.

A few more reflections on life in Iceland so far:

1) Skyr is a wonderful thing. It’s Icelandic yogurt, made from whey and flavored with berries or peaches or “bananasplitti” (which, as far as I can tell, is chocolate with just a hint of banana). Unflavored skyr, though traditional, is unpalatable—rather like eating solidified sour cream.

2) You never know what can be purchased in an Icelandic grocery store. I was rooting around in the apartment looking for something to clean the bathroom with and found a spray bottle of cleaner that was labeled in Russian of all things! Icelanders don’t tend to speak Russian any more than Americans do—why would they import something like this? I proceeded to use it to clean up, only gradually realizing that it was probably nothing more than Cyrillic Windex. But now the whole bathroom has a streak-free shine!

3) It does not feel particularly foreign to live here. Reykjavik is a modern, technologically sophisticated city, rather like any small city in the US. Most of the buildings date from the 20th century (blame the fire of 1919). Starbucks hasn’t invaded yet but there are Subway sandwich shops all over the place and ads for American movies just a few months out of date. But it’s the little things you notice—like the fact that the light switches are a different shape than American ones, and the hot water smells like hard-boiled egg because it’s geothermally heated. Or that the sun only rises to about 50 degrees above the horizon at this point in the year, even at the height of the day.

Maybe it’s not as dramatic a “living abroad” experience here as it might be in a place that wears its history on its sleeve like France or Belgium, but every little dissimilarity broadens your horizons just a bit. Maybe it doesn’t make a great difference in the long-run to know that Icelanders don’t have a simple or common way to say “please,” or that you’re expected to offer the plumber coffee and not water while he’s working. But every little thing just makes the world that much bigger.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Nothing New But a View

Borgin milli tveggja flóa. (The town between two bays.)

Today, having been thwarted in an attempt to file yet more paperwork with the Powers that Be, I decided to take advantage of a rare rainless day and explore some parts of Reykjavík that I hadn’t seen much of before. I didn’t bring my camera, but I’ll throw in some pictures from other trips to make scrolling down worth the while.

It’s difficult to get lost in Reykjavík—it’s pretty much a peninsula between two bays; if you see water with big mountains on the other side, you’re in the north part of town, if you see water with little mountains on the other side, you’re in the south part. Rarely are you far enough from the water that you could actually lose your way, at least in Vesturbær and Miðbær (the western and mid-sections of town). Today, I walked south until I hit the water, then walked along it westward until the trail ended, then crossed the peninsula (which is only a half-mile at most), hit the water to the north, then kept going west.

I didn’t mean to walk as far as I did, but when I saw the signs for Seltjarnarnes (the headland west of Reykjavík proper), I thought, “Oh, just a little further.” And when I saw this hook of land up ahead, I thought, “Oh, I’ll just get to that hook so I can see what’s beyond it.” I did stop there and turn around, but from that point I could see the lighthouse and was really tempted to walk to it too, but it was probably another mile and a half along and I knew I’d be too tired to walk back. It was quite a view, though, of the mountains on the other side of the bay with the clouds tufted on their tops like wool caught on the lava rocks that are everywhere here. The sea was just at low tide, and for once there was no wind, so the water was almost as smooth as glass, and as silent as a lake in winter. I couldn’t take my eyes off it for a long time.
Eventually I turned around and headed home, but then I saw this road leading uphill, and then a grassy hillock and then nothing but sky beyond it, and I thought, “Well, I’ll just see what’s up there.” I’m glad I did. I got to the top of the grassy mound, and it was the highest point on that stretch of the peninsula. I stood there with a bay on each side of me (or two arms of the same bay) and Seltjarnarness Church down the hill below me and felt like Ingólfur Arnarson must have felt when he landed there as the first settler more than a thousand years ago. The place is just a wonderful little improbable gem in the middle of the North Atlantic. Of course, I’m sure Ingólfur felt (and I will feel) quite differently when the winter sets in and the sun disappears, but the land itself is just breathtaking.

From there I headed home in earnest, and naturally managed to get myself stranded on the one spit of land that defies the “water north and south” rule—the arm of the harbor that extends out into the bay. I got to the end of it and realized that, unless I wanted to swim, I had to backtrack and take another road back to the middle of town. No matter, I found my way just fine, but I do have a blister on the back of my heel to show for it.

Tomorrow my class is planning a trip to Reykholt, the setting of one of the sagas, so if all goes according to plan I’ll have pictures and a tale to tell next time I get the chance!

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Taste of Real Iceland

Fyrirgefþu, þessi er rollan mín. (Excuse me, that is my sheep.)

Considering I’ve only been here two weeks now, I’d say I’m doing pretty well in terms of experiencing what makes Iceland “Iceland.” This past week, I visited one of the country’s famed thermal pools, I observed (“got right in the middle of” is a better phrase) one of the oldest continuous social customs in this part of the world, and visited what is termed the Golden Circle—very much a circle inhabited more by tourists than by Icelanders, but still, it’s culture.

The thermal pools: wonderful! I don’t have any pictures of the experience because, really, who wants to risk dunking the camera? So here's a pretty rainbow. But if you are ever in Iceland, do visit a thermal pool; every single town has one, many heated by natural springs and almost all outdoors. There are stories of Icelandic politicians (medieval and modern) holding counsel with visiting dignitaries while soaking in their “hot pot.” But there’s something exhilarating about running across the pool yard, wet and freezing cold in the constant Icelandic wind, then slipping into the hot tub to soak alongside Icelanders of all shapes and sizes, while the steam swirls up from the surface and the rain falls on your face. Honestly I thought it would be about as awful as it sounds, but it was terrific! And as one of Iceland’s national pastimes, it also happens to be one of the only inexpensive things to do in one’s leisure hours!

The social custom: the réttir (the annual sheep round-up)! With no natural predators and no particular reason to be paranoid, the Icelandic farmers let their sheep free-range in the hills all summer, and round them up in the fall to be sorted and taken in for the winter (well, the ones they don’t eat). The University organized a tour to a nearby réttir, and five of us from my program went along. They get the sheep into a big central pen (this one was built of lava rocks over a hundred years ago), then wade in amongst them, check their ear tags, and drag them over to the chute that belongs to the proper farmer. The chutes are arranged around the pen like spokes on a wheel. And it’s not just farmers who dive in: regular suburban Icelanders drive out to the réttir, put on galoshes, and start sorting right along with the farmers—even kids as young as five or six!

We happened to be in the pen when they delivered a new group of animals, and it was so packed with people and fluffy critters that we couldn’t get back out! I was literally knee-deep in sheep for about five minutes. It was unreal.

There were also many Icelandic horses there, some of which are allowed to range with the sheep during the summer, and some of which just happened to be kept there while people rode to and from the réttir (apparently this is a popular tourist option). Needless to say, I made some friends. And took a lot of pictures.

The Golden Circle: Gullfoss, Geysir, and Þingvellir. After the réttir, we climbed back on the bus (smelling strongly of sheep, by the bye) and drove to Gullfoss, the “Golden Waterfall.” Iceland has thousands of waterfalls, but Gullfoss is one of the most picturesque—not to mention the most accessible from Reykjavík. It’s no Niagara Falls, but I always thought Niagara was a little showy anyway. Gullfoss was nearly destroyed by attempts to build a power plant on top of it, but fortunately a woman named Sigriður, whose family owned the land nearby, managed to pressure the power company into abandoning the project (and the thanks she gets is that some people blame her for single-handedly delaying the modern age in Iceland).

Like the Irish, the Icelanders have not yet reached the point where they feel they have to fence off everything that might be mildly hazardous; in fact, the low-lying ropes that they put to keep people away from dangerous precipices really would be more effective at tripping you and sending you headlong over the edge if you weren’t paying attention than actually stopping you from falling.

Geysir, as you might guess, is the geyser from which all “spouting springs” take their name. It used to erupt regularly, but now, like poor Old Faithful, it has lost its oomph and is now just a very hot spring. However, Stokkur (I was told it means “butter churn”) is still quite feisty, and spouts about ten meters high every five minutes or so. What is really terrific is the aqua-blue bubble that forms right before the spout, but you just try taking a good picture of that with a digital camera.

Þingvellir (the first letter is the Thorn rune from Old English, pronounced “th”), or the Parliament Plains, are both the divide between the American and Eurasian continental shelves and the location where the Icelanders held their Althing—their judicial parliament—every year for a millennium, give or take.

I’m not the kind of person to get particularly excited about governmental history, but to say you’ve stood (more or less) on the very spot where a nation voted a thousand years ago to convert (again, more or less) from paganism to Christianity, that’s something. And the whole place looks like Middle Earth anyway, so a Tolkien fan can’t lose!

This is a very long post at this point, but as I don’t anticipate any more trips for awhile (the weather is starting to get very windy and rainy), it might be the last one of any interest—not to mention length—for some time! So until something exciting happens, cheers!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Thoughts, One Week In

Grafar, grafar, grọfum, grafa (The plural declension of one of Old Icelandic’s many strong noun paradigms. This word means “graves”—an indication of the kind of optimistic outlook we’re likely to encounter in medieval Icelandic literature? I fear so…)

Well, I’ve been in Reykjavík for over a week now, classes have begun, and I’m taking a break from reading about pre-state arbitration of disputes over murdered slaves to write a post! Honestly, the medieval Icelanders had a terrific sense of humor; it just doesn’t come across so much in critical sources. I blame the critics, not the Icelanders.

There's no reason for the geese; I just like them.

Last week I took a bus tour of Reykjavík with other English-speaking students from the University and learned several interesting things. For example, until the 1980s it was illegal to have a dog in the city (perhaps the reason there are so many cats here today?). It remains illegal to brew your own beer. And remember that oddly un-pious statue of Leifur Eiriksson in front of Hallgrimskirkja? Yeah, the Americans are responsible for that. Go figure. You can't read it, but it says, "The United States of America to the People of Iceland on the 1000th Anniversary of the Althing, A.D. 1930."

This weekend, a group of us from the program took a city bus to Hafnarfjöður, a little town south of Reykjavík that’s supposed to be the home of the most elves in all of Iceland. (The guidebooks say Icelanders frequently still believe that elves exist and interact with the world; I haven’t asked an Icelander about this yet.) The only “huldufólk” we saw were clay lawn gnomes, but the local park is constructed out of lava rock to have lots of hidey places for the elves to live.

A few reflections after a week in Iceland:
1) The Icelanders have a funny tendency to say things like “Yes” or “Umm” on the intake of breath. It makes me a little lightheaded to try to imitate, so I doubt this will become part of my speech pattern, in Icelandic or otherwise.

2) Temperature is relative. When everyone treats 48 degrees like it’s warm (no kidding: T-shirts and open windows everywhere), it starts to feel warm to you. Until it rains, but then you realize that rain is relative too. When everyone treats a drizzle like there’s nothing coming down at all, you feel silly putting up your hood.

3) Americans are way behind the power curve in language learning, as we always have been. Icelanders start learning English at 10 or 12, add Danish a few years later, and in high school choose yet a third foreign language to study. I am the only native English-speaker in my program right now, and everybody else can switch regularly from their native language into English and usually into at least two others at the drop of a hat.

4) Baking soda, when dropped into boiling water, causes an instantaneous and impressive frothing effect. This fact is perhaps not widely known because most people do not generally cook in kitchens stocked with mysterious white powders with Icelandic labels; it turns out that “matar sóði” does not mean “sea salt.”

And on that note, back to Viking Age Iceland for me! Next weekend I hope to go see the annual sheep round-up in the countryside. I shall report back!