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! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gipJ3JSUde8

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!