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.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Snow in October

Getum við talað á ensku? (Can we speak in English?)

Every once in awhile when you’re trying desperately to learn a new language, you have moments of brilliance, when all the nonsense syllables you hear and read (or at least some of them) suddenly make sense. I had such a moment at church yesterday, when I was fumbling along in the final hymn, holding the hymnal about five inches from my nose as though seeing the Icelandic words closer up would make them easier to pronounce—and suddenly, I realized I knew what I was singing. Not every word, but enough to know what the song was about. That’s the first time it’s happened to me here, and I was elated. Of course, I am still incapable of ordering a hot dog in Icelandic, but we take what we can get.

I have joined the University Choir (Háskólakorinn) this semester; they encouraged non-Icelandic speakers to audition by promising Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as the performance piece (what choral singer doesn’t know how to sing German, after all?). Then, once they had us in their clutches, they added a second performance consisting of about a dozen Icelandic songs (to be sung from memory)…and one piece by John Lennon. I am one of maybe four or five singers who can’t converse in Icelandic (the others are German, Finnish, and Spanish—all fluent in English), and the choir director has this idea that if he keeps speaking to us in Icelandic, we’ll suddenly be able to understand him. I will say that we’re getting very good at numerals (he’s constantly calling out measure numbers), but when he announces what we’re singing next, I have the greatest difficulty distinguishing the names of the songs from the rest of the sentence!

But the choir gave me an opportunity this past weekend to see a part of the country I might not have seen…mostly because there’s nothing to go to see. As many big choirs do, this one has a semiannual “choir camp/retreat” in an out-of-the-way old boarding house down south near a coastal town called Þorlákshöfn. The boarding house itself is a few miles away from the town, surrounded by lava fields and farmland. Spending the weekend there, I got to know some interesting cultural quirks—like the insistence on removing shoes upon entering a building no matter how dang cold the floors are on bare feet, and the strange proclivity to leave windows open even when it is below freezing outside.

I think the Icelanders have an unfair reputation for quaintness, though: the choir members I’ve met are as much like any other population of young people you might meet in the US or continental Europe: energetic, political, humorously cynical, and always ready for a party especially if there is beer involved. Having seen, as if from the outside, European stereotypes of Americans (loud, pushy, materialistic, and fanatical), I truly do resist lumping all Icelanders into one little box; I only mention these generalizations to counter what the guidebooks insist on telling you about the Icelanders who still believe in elves.
We had to drive over the low southern mountains to get to Þorlákshöfn, and it had just snowed. (Another cultural anecdote: college-age Icelandic drivers are just as aggressive as college-age American drivers.) It was too dark and stormy to see much on the way there, but on the way back, it was just after sunset and the sky was this amazing cobalt blue, and the hills reflected the sky and the full moon.
I include these pictures not so much for their quality as for the overall effect: combine the image in the one with the color in the other, add the moon, and you can imagine what it was like. This place continues to take my breath away.