Tuesday, November 30, 2010


(Because ‘tis the season.)

A dear friend recently reminded me how important it is to be grateful. Now, I consider myself a fairly mindful person, and many events in my life have taught me not to take anything for granted. But it’s all too easy to remember to be grateful for the big things and forget the little things (or vice versa), or even to forget whom we’re being grateful to in the first place.

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving (both with a big T and a little one), here are a few of the many things I’m thankful for—and maybe a few things I should be thankful for but usually forget:

For music, the language of angels
For autumn, my favorite season
For winter, because it has to come before spring
For heat, because I know what it’s like to be cold
For hunger, which reminds us to be grateful to eat
For the twenty-first century, because as much as we fret over it, and as great an antiquarian as I am, I wouldn’t have wanted to live in the fifteenth
For my education, and all those who made sure I got it
For my family, about whom I can’t say enough (though my friends probably wish I could)
For all the people in my life, from the dearest of friends to the passing acquaintances, because they remind me how very big the world is and how very small I am
For the sky, for the same reason
For the sea, likewise
For the moments when something takes your breath away and makes you feel like flying, or makes you laugh like a child
For holidays
For literature
For horses
For cats
For chocolate

I don’t see any reason to divide sober thankfulness from the sheer pleasure of things in and of themselves; surely any pure and innocent sense of pleasure is already a half-articulated prayer of thanks to the one who provided it, or made us sensible to its charms? At least, I hope that the God who made sure Adam wasn’t lonely and who turned water into wine to keep the party going wouldn’t mind my putting chocolate on a par with the grandeur of his ocean. (Perhaps I should also mention at this point that when I hear atheists and agnostics express their “gratitude” for something no human gave to them, I always feel a secret hope that someday they’ll realize who it is they’re really thanking. I’m not an aggressive evangelist, but I’m always happy—no, grateful!—to gain a new brother or sister.)

Even as I sit here trying to wrap up this post, I keep thinking of dozens more items that I could add to my list. My health, my job, my freedom…I could go on almost ad infinitum. I won’t, just because the list is probably tedious enough as it is. But it’s uplifting to spend a moment thinking about the things we have that we have no right to expect from life—things others don’t have, or things we can appreciate that others might pass over as unimportant and unremarkable. I think if we spent a little more time in that kind of meditation, maybe we’d brood less on what we don’t have, and maybe we’d find ourselves just a little happier right here and right now, exactly as we are.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Apologia Pro Studio Suo

(Yes, I did have to use my Latin dictionary to get that right—Aquinas may have written Latin like a native, but I write it like a dunce.)

I love books. I love reading them, I love writing them, I love buying them, I love receiving them, I love giving them, I even love smelling them. But I don’t just love them for what’s inside: I am a definite judger of books by their covers. And their end-papers. And their margins. The book itself—not the text but the collection of pages between two boards—thrills and enthralls me. When I was an undergrad I used to go to the stacks of the library and delight in blowing the dust off of books that hadn’t been touched in a generation. (Here they’re too handy with the Swiffers to build up enough for a decent cloud.) I was thrilled to discover upon coming to graduate school that, even if they over-dusted their stacks, there were actually professors who thought these blockish things were a joy as well—and better than that, a legitimate subject of scholarly attention!

My very first year of grad school presented me with a course in scholarly editing that dramatically altered the trajectory of my studies (shifting from medieval language interactions to medieval manuscript culture may not seem like a sea change to anybody else, but to a grad student it’s practically a religious conversion). I followed it up with a course on bibliography (the description of physical books, not the writing of Works Cited pages) and had a ball measuring page thickness and counting quires in hundred-year-old printed vellum artist books. I then took paleography (the study of manuscripts) in Iceland, and let me tell you, you’ve never seen a room full of more excited people than our classroom on the day when we got to see the priceless manuscript of the Snorra Edda. I believe the instructor accused us of drooling.

Now that I’m working on my dissertation, I’m digging around in (mostly photocopies of) medieval books looking for marginalia—little comments and doodles made by scribes and readers wherever they found space in the manuscript. Nowadays they discourage us from writing in our library books, but it’s an age-old tradition. Even those naughty drawings that more prim-and-proper folks usually try to erase or scribble out have a long tradition; I remember seeing a medieval sketch of a nun picking unmentionable male body parts from a tree where they were growing. Truly, modern teenagers have not come up with anything that somebody didn’t already do more creatively 500 years ago. That’s not what I study myself, but you’d better bet that was the first thing that caught people’s eye when scholars started caring about marginalia a generation ago! I’m fascinated instead by the little complaints, the little notes-to-self, the verses of love poetry, and the random drawings of fish and flowers and creatures you might think the artist thought looked like a lion or an elephant only because he’d never seen a real one. They give us just a glimpse of what it was like to work in a medieval library. Turns out, it was a good deal like it is to work in a modern one now: it’s always too cold or too hot, your eyes get bleary, your hand cramps up, and pretty much anything you can think of seems abundantly more interesting than whatever it is you’re actually supposed to be doing.

Maybe that’s why we get so many mistakes in manuscripts. Interestingly enough, words like “not” tend to get skipped quite a bit. It makes a rather large difference whether “the king heard his prayer” or “heard not,” but half the time the mistake goes entirely unnoticed.

Not that the printing press has saved us from the plague of error, of course: for the clumsy phrase “slip of the pen” we simply now have the peppy little word “typo.” I make a habit of keeping an eye out for interesting typographical errors in books, especially in antique stores that sell books printed before the advent of the all-knowing Microsoft Word spell-check. I remember one old book that caught my eye by the title on the spine, which read, “John Donne’s Fright From Medievalism.” What was it about the medieval that so frightened Dr. Donne? I wondered, pulling the book off the shelf and opening it. The title page read—I assume correctly—“John Donne’s FLIGHT from Medievalism.” Eminently more comprehensible, but somehow sadly less intriguing.

You would think that at least modern typography would have saved us from the typical medieval problem of not being able to read the handwriting in the book you’re trying to copy, but it’s not so. Just recently, I had occasion to poke my nose into the French section of our library and encountered another mistake that amused me greatly. Here is what the book was actually titled:

(“Parler vulgairement” or “speaking vulgarly,” though it’s a pun because the book is about medieval French language, which was called “vulgar” that is, vernacular—like the Vulgate Bible, which just means that it’s translated from Hebrew and Greek.)

But the cover designer clearly thought, “Hey, it’s a book about medieval things. Let’s use a font on the cover that looks like a medieval manuscript hand.” Hence the cover and flyleaf:

And the poor book binder hired to add an institutional hard cover to protect the paperback one inside clearly looked at the title and thought, “Hmm, that’s not English. Oh well, guess I can figure it out.” Hence the title on the hardback spine:

Which all adds up to a very confused graduate student staring at the shelf saying, “Well, that’s the call number, but "Darler Gulgairement" is NOT the title I’m looking for!”

Typo-hunting is the great pastime of grammar geeks. This version of the game might well be considered the next level, both because examples are rarer and because they’re usually so amusing when you find them. It’s like Where’s Waldo in the library.

You know, for when you need a study break.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tricker Treat

Was I the only kid who grew up thinking that the phrase we shouted at the kind folks who opened their doors to us costumed vagabonds on Halloween night was “Tricker treat”? I don’t think I realized it was the ultimatum “Trick OR treat” until I was past the tricker-treating age. I always assumed that a tricker treat was a particular kind of treat that had to do with Halloween, which (like sugar plums or figgy pudding) was probably not as good as it sounded and hence had been replaced by Snickers and Dum Dums and Sugar Babies.

Halloween, I must say, was never my favorite holiday—nothing could compare with Christmas when I was a kid. Or now, for that matter. But like any kid who was allowed to, I had great fun dressing up and going door to door in our neighborhood gathering candy in a plastic pumpkin-shaped basket. The basket was small, so when it filled up I would dump it in a plastic bag my father obligingly carried around as he escorted us from house to house. I remember dressing as Zorro several times (who cares if he was a guy? He had a cool horse and he got to play with swords!), a butterfly, an Indian (I believe that’s what the package called it—Halloween is not a PC holiday), a clown, and only once a princess (my best friend was going to be one—I bowed to peer pressure).

We lived in Utah for several formative tricker-treating years, and I remember bundling up like an Eskimo underneath my costumes; it still strikes me as odd to see kids in Virginia running around in costumes that bare their arms and legs at the very end of October. I feel they’re missing part of the experience somehow. If you’ve never tricker-treated in the snow, you’ve never worked hard enough for your candy.

Which, by the way, is always slightly less fun to eat than it is to collect. I hated (and still hate) hard candies, and hard candies that come with a cardboard stick inside them that you have to chew around still strike me as particularly unappealing. And if you got anything with mint or peanut butter in it, everything else in the bag started to taste like mint or peanut butter very quickly. I often still had candy from Halloween left over in July (only the least tasty things, of course), at which point I think my parents were justified in quietly disposing of it.

I was always thrilled to get candy you could play with—candy cigarettes were a favorite of mine even though the flavor wasn’t very exciting. They don’t sell those anymore (or rather, they do, but they call them “candy sticks” as if we don’t figure it out from the imitation cigarette-carton packaging): apparently it’s bad to let children use their imagination if it entails pretending to do something we don’t want them to do in real life. Perhaps it’s a legitimate concern, but never once as a kid did I (or for that matter any of my friends) lose sight of the divide between play and reality. Just because I pretended to smoke my candy cigarettes did not in any way mean that I thought it was a good idea to smoke real ones. For one thing, you can’t eat real cigarettes when you’re done with them and that takes all the fun out of it. I pretended I was a runaway quite a lot, but never once did I actually run away. I pretended I was a pony too. It didn’t mean I thought I was one. That’s why it’s called pretend.

But soap boxes aside, I’m beginning to think Halloween is even more fun when you’re not a kid. This occurred to me the first year I dressed up to hand out treats instead of tricker-treating myself. It was such a laugh to see all the kids parading around as superheroes (Power Rangers were big that year) and Sesame Street characters and inanimate objects—much more fun than just getting to dress up as one thing yourself. It was fascinating to see which kids would push to the front demanding their treats (Power Rangers) and which ones hung at the back waiting for the crowd to disperse (princesses who didn’t want their tiaras knocked off)—and which ones refused to come up to the door at all (toddlers clinging to their parents). Well, I WAS dressed as a clown, which I suppose counts as frightening to some people. And besides, we spend so much time telling our kids not to talk to strangers—especially ones offering candy—that the whole idea of Halloween must seem rather baffling to the smart ones.

They say that there’s nothing better than being a kid at Christmas unless it’s being a parent at Christmas. Not having kids myself, I can’t weigh in on that, but having wandered through Charlottesville’s traditional Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn of UVA, I can say that I appreciate the spectacle (and the costumes) much more from behind a camera than I ever did from behind Zorro’s mask.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Confessions of a Former Invalid

This past Saturday marked four years since I was hit by a minivan crossing the street on foot. (I mention the event without preamble because I hope that anybody who reads my blog already knows about this rather dramatic incident and won’t be shocked by the revelation.) It left the minivan with a broken headlight and left me with a thrice-broken pelvis, a concussion, and nerve damage in my left leg.

Everything is healed except the nerve damage—and honestly, how important is it, really, to be able to make fists with your toes?

But that’s not what I actually want to reflect on: I thought I’d spend a serious moment or two sharing what I learned from being a helpless, bedridden patient, and how it’s changed my outlook on both health and sickness. It has occurred to me that very few people my age are fortunate enough (and I mean fortunate) to have a brush with serious health threats and then recover to the point that they can truly appreciate their wellbeing and comfort. Maybe my reflections won’t mean anything to someone who hasn’t experienced being an invalid, but on the off-chance that it might, here goes.

I learned that nurses have a very difficult job and deserve every ounce of respect we can give them. The doctors (bless them too, of course) see a patient for five minutes, prescribe an IV or a test, and disappear down the hallway. The nurses check the IVs, prepare you for the tests, help you get to the bathroom, clean up when the meds make you sick, keep you company for as long as they can when you crumble into a ball of nerves and fear in the middle of the night. Their hours are awful and they spend more time with bodily fluids than most people would even care to imagine.

I learned that when people hear you’re in the hospital and say, “Well, at least you’ll get a chance to catch up on your sleep,” they have never been in a hospital. Coumadin shots at 2 in the morning, doctors’ rounds with sleep-deprived residents at 4, the constant beeping of monitors and the snoring of your heavily-drugged suitemate…not to mention the fact that you’re broken!

Also, when folks say, “I guess you have plenty of time to do your reading,” they have never been on strong pain medication. I tried to read Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowles” while on morphine. This was a bad idea. I STILL don’t understand that poem, and I blame it at least in part on the fact that I first encountered it while under the influence of controlled substances. And besides that, if you’ve never felt it you simply cannot understand the entirely debilitating enervation that comes from being unwell. The meds make you hazy, the lack of sleep makes you incoherent, and you just can’t muster the energy or the enthusiasm to apply your vacant mind to anything. I couldn’t even check emails while I was in the hospital, I was so incapacitated by the whole experience.

I learned that people are not themselves when they are unwell. You get cranky, petulant, waspish, and impatient, and God bless the people who put up with invalids, and God bless the invalids who manage to keep smiling. My first suitemate in the hospital was like that—a gentle soul in for some kind of joint replacement and patient as an ox through all the tests and the surgeries. People like her are a blessing to those around them.

I learned, too, that we are bodily creatures, as much as intellectuals wish to live in their minds. Never before was I so acutely aware of how entangled my own being is with the physical body that houses it. The hospital strips you of your dignity in so many ways—through no fault of its own, but simply because it doesn’t (can’t) care about your intelligence, your soul, your individuality: you are there because your flesh and nothing else matters. You are pierced, palpated, scanned, and transported like a piece of meat—the hospital ward is the great equalizer, and it is a humbling equality. I will never again take for granted the dignity of being able to shower by myself, walk down the hall without pulling an IV along like a lame pet, put on my own socks, sleep without a monitor, wear underwear.

More importantly, though, I learned a great deal AFTER I got out of the hospital. I also learned—and this is the most profound lesson of my experience—what it might be like to live with chronic pain. The nerve damage to my leg extended, at first, to my lower back (I did, after all, break my pelvis right next to where it connects to the spine), and though they swore up and down (after their barbaric tests) that my sciatic nerve was undamaged, I had the constant, unrelenting symptoms of sciatica for almost three months. The six weeks on crutches was nothing compared to the jolts of electric pain shocking through my back and leg every few moments, day and night. Neuropathic pain is cruel without being a properly treatable injury. I don’t want to harp on the discomfort, because obviously I was able to work through it, and so many, many people suffer infinitely more every single day, but, just for a short time, when the doctors shrugged and said, “It might get better. It might not,” I did realize what it would be like to look into the years and years of future and think, “I might always be like this. I might never be comfortable again.” It is a cold, bleak feeling. It has given me a much more profound respect and sympathy for those who actually DO live in constant pain, and have no hope of ever being free of it.
Last but not least, I learned how incredibly blessed I am to have a wonderful family who dropped everything to come and be with me, and, once I’d been released from the hospital, to take care of me at home. Funnily enough, it never occurred to me right after the accident that my parents would drive down from DC to the hospital; I was quite surprised to see them in the doorway of the holding area where I was put until a room could be found for me. I blame the concussion for my surprise. My poor sister, after being so distracted by the news of my accident that she put her cell phone through the laundry, took the long bus ride from New York to Charlottesville to surprise me with a visit. My father used up all his vacation time to be with me, and my mother put her entire life on hold to be my live-in nurse from October through Thanksgiving. I am, indeed, blessed.

I am changed—more emotionally than physically—by my brief stint as an invalid; if my experience can mean something to others, I would consider it doubly worth its inconvenience. I learned what it was like to be helpless, to need others for absolutely everything, and I learned how to appreciate feeling well.

And always to have health insurance.

And not to jay walk.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


At last something to report that didn’t only happen inside my head! This past weekend my parents and I went down to Knoxville to see my sister, who is in Tennessee (the Volunteer State, I’m told) as an AmeriCorps volunteer. We were so excited to have a family reunion for no other reason than that we could do it!

I’d never been to Knoxville before, and even though it seems to have been hit disproportionately hard by the economic whatever-we’re-calling-it-now, I do have to say it has an incredibly cute Market Square—which, being a Charlottesville resident, I habitually called the Downtown Mall. I had to be corrected multiple times. My sister and two of her fellow AmeriCorps buddies also have a very cute house which they kindly opened to us during our visit. Actually, I’m not sure we asked if we could stay there or whether we just crashed, but either way, nobody kicked us out—Southern hospitality!

We had a lovely time together over the weekend, going to a huge flea market, seeing an unprecedented two movies in one day (one of which was Secretariat—see my previous post to understand how close I was to cardiac arrest due to ecstasy the entire time), playing dominoes, and getting an introduction to what my sister does in her job. Sustainable farming in the urban jungle—only wild idealists would think to try it, but that’s how the world gets changed. They’re very successful, I hear, and my sister has already learned more about solar dehydrators and rain catchment systems (and more about turnip greens, baby spinach, and okra) than I ever really knew there was to know. Example: you can make your own diesel fuel. Go figure! Part of the project of this farm is to raise awareness for sustainability issues, and after this weekend, I think my sister can consider my awareness raised!

Things that go wrong are always funnier than things that go right (and more interesting to those who don’t have an emotional investment in the heartwarming parts of a trip), so here are a few amusing snafus we encountered (or rather committed) during our visit:

- Believing we were driving toward a Burlington Coat Factory, we navigated very carefully to the geographical center of Knoxville. Explanation: we were using an iPod Touch to get directions and the map was so small we didn’t realize that the star was the starting point of the trip, not the destination. This is why an iPod should not be used as a substitute for a GPS system. I also believe I have now been permanently taken off navigator duty.

- In an attempt not to eat my sister out of house and home during our visit, we went to the grocery store nearby and picked up cereal, milk, and such things. We proceeded to eat absolutely none of it. Except the hot dog buns, which we only used because my sister already had hot dogs at home that we ate for lunch. This somewhat negates our efforts not to deplete her food supply.

- In trying to find a place to eat dinner before our second movie on Sunday (this one at one of those great two-dollar second-run theaters), we drove to no less than four places before finally getting fed. We asked directions from a local for the nearest pizza place, drove a good deal farther than she had indicated before finding it, and then discovered that it was take-out only. So we decided to be adventurous and try a mom-and-pop pizza place a few blocks away. No luck—it was carry-out as well! So it was back down the road to an Olive Garden—which we found, once we went in, to have a long enough wait that we would have missed the start of the show. So back down the road in the other direction once again to a little dive of a Chinese place, where we overheard one of the worker’s daughters exclaim, “Ooh, look, a dead bug! It’s got mold all over it!” However, the food was very good and none of us have food poisoning. (Side note to this story: when we got to the movie theater, we discovered a pizza place right next door. Oh, the irony.)
But the exception proves the rule: the fact that these little anecdotes are the biggest snags we hit in a weekend road trip from Virginia to a city half of the family had never seen before should just serve to indicate just how successful a venture it really was. We’ve always been lucky to have a very close family, and we say a hearty “Pshaw!” to anything that might separate us—even four hundred miles of highway.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Tribute to the Horse, Or: The Anatomy of an Obsession

I believe it’s an Arab legend that says God took the wind and shaped it into the first horse. To non-horse-people this probably makes about as much of an emotional impact as saying God took the Slinky and shaped it into the first cat. To horse-people it is the stuff of ecstasy. Could there be any myth more fitting than one that harnesses the wind into the arch of a neck, the toss of a mane, the thunder of hooves? Human beauty may inspire more poetry, but I think equine beauty would inspire better, if only somebody more talented than myself would write it. That’s a sidelong apology for waxing poetic as I always do when the subject turns to horses, but this post is my way of explaining myself, if I can.

When it comes down to it, I think no language has a term for the horse that is beautiful enough to suit that prince of animals: horse, cheval, caballo, certainly not the unfortunate pferd—who came up with that one? At least Icelandic’s hestur has something of the rush of wind in it, and Latin’s equus has a liquid, flowing beauty, if only it weren’t for the word’s recent association with a Daniel Radcliffe play. So, beautiful or not, horse is the term we have, but the thing itself is so much greater.

It’s not just that the horse is the most beautiful creature God put on this earth (me? Biased?)—though I seem to harp on aesthetics more than anything else. What makes the horse’s beauty so unique is that it is that rare kind of beauty that man can touch without spoiling it. There are few things as wonderful as a horse and rider working in tandem, both loving the ride, both supporting and encouraging each other. If dog is man’s best friend (and it’s true that a dog on a bad day is more effusive than a horse on a good day), horse is his only partner, in everything from farming to warfare. That partnership has too often been abused, and it almost always falls short of perfection (have you ever seen a rider take a header when his horse decides he doesn’t feel like taking that jump after all?), but I’m an optimist, and I refuse to be deterred.

I’ve always been a lover of all things with fur. I gravitate toward animals at social gatherings the way some people gravitate toward children or the open bar. But horses, horses are special. Through no fault of my poor parents, who don’t like the creatures themselves but very kindly indulged me, I have been madly obsessed with horses ever since I can remember. Collecting toy horses, drawing horses (I was forbidden in middle school art class from picking horses as the subject for any more projects), taking pictures of horses, reading about horses, watching for horses on every drive through the country. And, of course, when the opportunity presented itself, riding horses.

I must admit I am not a particularly good rider—I have barely enough leg muscle to make myself go, much less a horse, and my balance is questionable at best (as evidenced by my remarkable tendency to slide right off the saddle at the slightest provocation). But what kind of obsessee would I be if I let that stop me? Whenever I’m around “real horse-people”—people who own horses, are in “the business” of horses, grew up in the saddle—I inevitably reveal myself to know very little about horsemanship and to be capable of even less. (Witness last weekend, when I was given multiple sets of instructions on how to lead a lazy horse faster, all of which completely failed in execution. YOU may be able to lead a horse to water, but it remains an open question for me.) But what does that matter to one obsessed? I make myself useful mucking stalls and sweeping aisles—anything to be near to horses, to have the sweet smell of hay and saddle leather around me. I think it’s a very good thing that horses are entirely unimpressed by admirers, because if they were any more impressionable sort of being I think I would prove to be a terrible sycophant.

Now, it’s hard to be romantic about horses when you’re covered in dirt and working with the average old nag you find in most barns—maybe that’s why “real horse-people” tend to make fun of their horses more than they boast about them—and any horse can be just as exasperating and uninspiring for a horse-person as a screaming toddler is to a kid-person. They bite. They kick. They roll in the mud right after their bath. They stretch their necks out and drag their feet so that they amble like cows. They run you into fenceposts when you’re riding. And do they really have to drool so much when they pull their heads out of the water bucket? But then, a magical moment will happen all of a sudden between a horse and his human—he’ll arch his neck and throw his shoulders into his trot like a dancer showing off for the audience, he’ll prick his ears and look just like the most beautiful study Leonardo ever dreamed of, he’ll rest he face against your chest and sigh softly into your shirt. And those are the moments that even down-to-earth “real horse-people” secretly delight in and come back for, again and again.

So I remain unabashedly obsessed, and unabashedly romantic. In fact, when I see movies I’m usually more enamored of the hero’s horse than of the hero—give me Silver and you can keep the Lone Ranger; give me Tornado and…we’ll negotiate about Zorro. When Shadowfax materialized on the screen, unearthly and breathtaking, I sincerely forgot that Gandalf and Legolas were even there. I think it brought tears to my eyes.

It has become a joke with my family and my friends that I turn into a five-year-old whenever I see a horse: whether it’s onscreen or out the window, I have an embarrassing tendency to squeak, “Horse!” and point him out, even if he’s nothing more than a spot in the background. I try very hard to suppress this in professional situations.

Looking over this post, I know I haven’t done justice to my fixation, or indeed to the poetry that is a horse at his best—horse-people will know what I mean without my being able to articulate it, and non-horse-people can just smile and shake their heads. I can’t make someone not already inclined to it catch their breath at the flare of a nostril, or go lightheaded at the sound of hooves on turf, or skip with excitement at the thought of getting to pet the pony at the petting zoo. For a horse-person, no horse is too average to invoke the ideal, and no contact is too trivial to set the heart racing.
If you don’t believe me, stop by my apartment: it’s plastered with pictures of horses cut from old calendars. They may be the most convenient and economic method of covering bare wall space, but I’ve been known to spend long and happy moments just admiring whichever picture my eye happens to fall upon, no matter how often I’ve seen it. Such is the way of obsession, and long may it live! We should all have such things that set us thinking of beauty and joy in a world that’s got far too little of either.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Ricecapades: Confessions of a Haphazard Chef

(As promised, some lighter reading this time around!)

I love cooking. And several people in my life (my mother, my grandmother, even my first boyfriend) went to great pains to set me on the right track and instruct me in that mysterious art of turning raw eggs, dry beans, and baking chocolate into omelets, soups, and cakes. In fact some of my most cherished moments past and present are exchanges of recipes and cooking secrets, but sometimes I do get the feeling I’m probably the most recalcitrant student who ever entered a kitchen.

You know how everybody jokes that if you put a sign up next to a red button that says, “Do not push,” you’re effectively guaranteeing that the next person who stops by will reach right out and push the button? I’m rather like that in the kitchen: let a recipe say, “Fold, do not stir,” and I’ll immediately start to wonder, “What would happen if I stirred?” And so I do. Of course, if the recipe had said, “Do not stir or your meringues will turn to toffee,” I would have folded. I learn either by thorough explanation or by (sometimes calamitous) experimentation—those are apparently my only two methods.

One of the reasons for my cavalier attitude toward instructions, I suppose, is that following them does not guarantee smooth sailing. Take, for instance, the instructions on the rice bag: “Fluff with a fork.” The first time I tried that I hit a pocket of steam that burned my knuckles. Instinctively I pulled my hand away, with the fork still in my grip, thus flinging sticky rice ALL OVER THE KITCHEN. I was cleaning rice off the stove, the floor, the walls, the cabinets, and even the window for a week. Laughing the whole time, by the way. More recently, an attempt to pour rice one-handed out of the bag and into a measuring cup resulted in at least half a cup of rice scattering in all directions across the counter and the floor. Hence the title of this post. At least it wasn’t sticky this time. Apparently I should just be forbidden from cooking with rice—though I have to say I never burn it to the bottom of the pan!

But my other reason for disregarding instruction is the sheer joy of experimentation. I’m like a kid with a chemistry set, only I get to eat what I make (if it’s palatable) instead of just having to clean it up afterwards. What’s the fun in following a recipe when you think you might have a better (i.e. tastier, or maybe faster) way of doing it? Sometimes your way turns out to be the wrongest way possible, but you never know until you try.

Therefore, I substitute shamelessly, and I measure with the precision of a chimpanzee. My excuse for the first is that while I lived in Philadelphia and was cooking on a shoestring budget, it became a bit of a game of mine to substitute or completely replace at least one ingredient in every recipe I made. My excuse for the second is that when I was in Ireland I had no measuring cups or spoons and learned to cook using the hit-or-miss “eyeball” method. One steers clear of messing around too much with the chemically reactive ingredients, of course (yeast is yeast and baking soda is baking soda, and neither—I have discovered—is the same thing as baking powder), but everything else is fair game! Real cooks will no doubt be horrified by my propensity to substitute a tablespoon of “Italian Seasoning” for pretty much any savory spice I don’t have on hand or have never heard of. “Use 1 C butter, not margarine.” Why not? In goes the Country Crock! I should note that I have never had a disaster caused by substituting margarine for butter. “Add a dash of cayenne pepper.” Is a dash bigger or smaller than a pinch? Shake the spice bottle over the pot until something comes out. I should also note I’ve never had a disaster caused by using a pinch instead of a dash—though shaking spice bottles without a shaker lid can, indeed, cause catastrophes.

Here, for your entertainment and not necessarily for your reference, are some substitutes I have tried in recent memory, for better or for worse:

Honey is NOT a satisfactory substitute for syrup when applied to pancakes. Syrup, however, can be a tasty substitute for molasses in bread dough.

Italian Seasoning, however flexible, is NOT good in three-bean salad that calls for fresh basil.

Skim milk CAN stand in for whole milk, whatever they tell you—nothing is going to blow up or fail to bake because it’s got less fat in it. It may turn out less thick or less moist, but that’s what you’ve got to expect when you’re cooking with milk-flavored water instead of the real thing!

Likewise, I’ve never, ever been able to tell the difference in baking and cooking with non-fat sour cream as opposed to full fat. Though maybe I’m a philistine.

Canned chicken works just fine in pies and chicken salad—any dish that has enough other flavors to disguise the slight tuna-fishiness that the can leaves behind.

If you’re going to substitute cocoa powder for baking chocolate, use shortening and NOT vegetable oil if the chocolate is supposed to set (like in icing)! I had a very droopy cake result from using oil instead of shortening. Think of that scene in Sleeping Beauty where Fauna the fairy decorates the cake before she bakes it.

Blueberry pie filling is NOT the same as canned blueberries. Pie filling can, however, make a very nice pancake or bread loaf—but it will turn out the color of Barney the Purple Dinosaur. So will your teeth.

And of course we’ve already established that salt and baking soda do not accomplish the same thing when added to boiling pasta. (See my blog from last September.)

I make myself out to be a real dunce in the kitchen, but I promise I actually make very tasty things—or at least they’re tasty to me. And I’ve only given myself food poisoning once! How else are we supposed to discover new things? (Though suddenly I’m foreseeing a precipitate drop in the number of invitations I receive to potluck dinners….)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Going Medieval

I wrote this essay awhile ago in Iceland, but I was reminded of it by a recent discussion of periodization in our grad student medieval colloquium. (Yes, medievalists are so enthusiastic that they need a colloquium to share the thoughts that spill over when class time runs out.) It turns out my views here have already been expressed by Hegel (go figure), but I hope I’m at least more readable than he is.

Disclaimer: avert thine eyes if a little Catholic dogma will offed thee! Check back next time when I tread more neutral grounds. I am contemplating a post entitled “Ricecapades.”

Some Modern Medieval Thoughts on History

As a budding medievalist, I had always been puzzled by and old question posed by some of the foundational scholars of literary studies: when did Western culture develope a sense of history? The reason I was so puzzled is that scholars traditionally answered this question by saying “in the Renaissance,” and this tradition, transmuted into Core Principles, has become a persistent if often disputed pillar of academic thought over the past hundred years. But this answer made no sense to me. Had those making this claim never read Chaucer, with his comical aside that “we don’t court today the way Troylus and Cresseyde did back in Ancient Greece, but they got along well enough in love anyway”? Had they never encountered the pervasive sense of nostalgia that cast the eyes of medieval thinkers back upon the Classical era as one of nobility and prelapsarian achievement from which their present day had fallen? Did they honestly believe that the entire medieval culture existed in a Freudian infantile state, not knowing that “then” isn’t “now” and “now” isn’t “later”—that humanity had collectively not yet reached the Lacanian mirror phase and learned to distinguish “I” from “Other”? The notion struck me as ridiculous.

The notion IS, in fact, ridiculous, and it took me a very long time to realize that this is not what those scholars (or at least the good ones) were suggesting. In fact, scholarship of the past twenty years has pretty well booted that old answer out the door—the thing is, many scholars still speak (and worse, teach) as though the Renaissance is when history came to be. But on a personal level I have recently discovered that the question itself had always seemed odd to me because those who asked it were speaking from an entirely different perspective than mine. I had never felt that the medieval sense of history was infantile or primitive because, in fact, I share it.

When medieval thinkers reflected on the past, it was with a sense that the past was still a part of them. All the figures of history had some significance for the present, whether as precedent or symbol. This attitude is the founding principle of typological readings of the Bible—indeed, the interpretation of all history: David was a prefigure of Christ and the Vandals who sacked Rome were a prefigure of the Vikings who raided Northumbria. Nothing in the past was entirely remote from the present. This is the attitude cultivated by the Communion of Saints. The dead were no longer “here” in a physical sense, but the physical was all that separated them from the present and even that barrier was permeable; they interacted with the “now” through miracles, they were accessible by relic and by prayer. Sometimes, they even sat up in their corporeal bodies and spoke! Even with such extremes set aside, in a time organized around saint’s feast days and a geography organized around pilgrimage, Peter and Paul were no more remote than a father or a brother who died last spring.

Granted, the medieval sense of what actually constituted history was significantly different from what has counted as history since the Renaissance; legend and myth were just as potent as factual events, and for much of the medieval period only the most penetrating and exacting minds drew strict lines between them. As it turns out, there’s much to be said for such a broad view of reality—but that’s a soap box for another derby. The definition of history is not what those foundational scholars I mentioned were primarily interested in. If it was, they would have asked instead when Western culture began to define myth as a genre. And even then, the answer would not be “in the Renaissance,” because such thinkers as Bede and even as far back as Augustine had a clear sense of the fantastic as opposed to the factual. What our scholars were really asking about is when Western culture began to encircle the individual in his discreet moment with a fence that segregated him from everything that was not “I” and “now.” Essentially, they are asking when the Communion of Saints died.

And now we can understand why the answer has so often been “in the Renaissance.” With the rise of humanism, man began to see himself as a remote being, unconnected to the past, separated from the future, and cut off from all the other remote beings floating in space around him as if by a cosmic accident. This at last is the “individual” that scholars of early modern literature have held that the Renaissance “discovered.” I believe that current critical thought would say instead that the Renaissance CONSTRUCTED it—that is, this perception of individualism is a cultural phenomenon and not a natural one or even the only one to which a civilized person might adhere—but the old ways are deeply ingrained in the academy and the old thoughts refuse to die. I myself would side with the “construction” rather than “creation” of the individual, of course, but not just because I am a scholar. Rather, because I am a Catholic. “Catholic,” by its very nature, encompasses universality—not an artificial conglomeration of discrete parts but an organic whole of creation. No man is an island, no moment is independent of what came before and what will come after. There is still a train of thought that holds Peter and Paul at no greater distance than a departed father or brother. The Communion of Saints has not died at all.

But, in some circles, it has been forgotten. When scholars of fifty years ago looked blandly back on the past and sought the moment in history when history itself came into being, they were on a quest that would have been incomprehensible to medieval thinkers, and it has resulted in the relegation of medieval thought, at least to some, to the realm of childish credulity and simplicity. But the notion should be incomprehensible to a Catholic thinker as well. The reason I did not understand the answer is because I could not understand the question: the medieval sense of history, in its fundamental form, is my own. One of the most encouraging trends in the academy is an increased awareness of the intellectual validity and productivity of viewpoints other than the disinterested and narrowly scientific, and the academy will be all the richer if this more flexible thinking permeates the foundational structures that underly university scholarship and instruction: it will open higher learning back up to seeing this innately Catholic viewpoint as more than a mere relic of the era before history began to be.

Monday, August 30, 2010

No Thanks, I’ll Walk: Thoughts on Being a Pedestrian

I have never had a car. I have a driver’s license (and it cost me a great deal of stress to obtain it, which is why I don’t let it expire), but I have not driven in almost a decade. I was a terrible driver back then and I have no reason to believe I’d be any better at it now. So I have hoofed it through college, a job in the inner city, two lengthy trips abroad, and going on four years of graduate school. So I think I have some claim to the self-professed title of “consummate pedestrian.” But sometimes, I think the title ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

At the top of the list of Reasons Why Sensible People Choose to Drive is the safety factor. I’m not talking about being mugged, though I suppose you’re more likely to attract a mugger while on foot than while zooming by in an SUV (I should note I lived a whole year in one of the worst parts of Philadelphia and never met a pickpocket or mugger—people are usually more harmless than we’re led to believe). I’m talking from the perspective of the girl who got hit by a minivan while crossing the street four years ago. Okay, I was jay-walking, but still, somehow I think the damage would have been less if there’d been a car surrounding me at the time. I still got a ticket for the incident, so clearly it’s all the same in the eyes of the law.

Second to safety, I suppose time is the next factor. Everything takes more time when you have to walk or take the bus. Grocery shopping is particularly epic. Harris Teeter is less than three miles from my apartment, yet I have to walk to campus to catch the bus, wait for the bus (which never runs on time), take the bus all the way to the end of its tortuous and ambling route, do my shopping with a hand-basket instead of a cart to make sure I’ll be able to carry everything back home, and then repeat the whole bus process in reverse. All in all, it usually takes over two hours, door-to-door-to-door to get a half-gallon of milk into my refrigerator every week. One guaranteed way to exasperate me is to ask me to bring a watermelon to a dinner party. I tried it once. It was exhausting. And I don’t even like watermelon.

Another consideration is what walking does to your body even if you DON’T get crunched up by a minivan. The possibilities of heat exhaustion, sunburn, and (at least in Iceland) windburn become serious considerations in whether you decide to attend functions or not. Temperature dictates when you leave the house; I remain a little bemused by car-owners who complain about having to run errands “in the heat of the day” when for 90% of the time they are enclosed in a nice, comfy, air-conditioned vehicle designed to prevent them from working up a sweat. Besides all that, my feet are half a size bigger now, after a decade of walking, than they were when I graduated high school. I can’t maintain a pair of socks longer than a month because I walk right through the heels (other people apparently walk through the toes—I guess I’m strange in this). In fact, I walk right through my shoes as well, and have been known to eke out a few more weeks’ of wear by shamelessly duct-taping the pair I’ve got until I can mooch a ride off somebody to a shoe store.

Because of course the whole culture is working against you as a pedestrian. In college you get along well enough, but once you hit “real life,” everybody just assumes you have a car. Sure, that apartment is perfect for you, but you’re going to pass it up because how would you commute when there are no bus lines and it’s a five-mile trip, without sidewalks? Have a dinner at a professor’s house ten miles from town? Better find a car-owning buddy in your class fast. Have a college alumni association event in the next county? Got to skip that one—no other alums in the area to drive you. Want to meet out-of-town friends at the State Fair? Plan on getting up at 5 in the morning to catch the bus to Richmond where you can meet your friends to drive the rest of the way. And coming back, just don’t expect to get home before midnight because that’s how the buses run. Need to go to the hospital in the middle of the night? Better hope you’re not too sick for the half-hour walk.

And then it rains.

People who have cars, particularly if they’ve had them from high school on, don’t often think about these things. People who don’t have cars think about them all the time. But there is some good too, things that might even outweigh sheer cowardice in my continued refusal to join the car-owning coterie. I like walking. You can do all sorts of things while you walk that you can’t properly do while driving. You can listen to music, or say your prayers, or recite poetry (a favorite of mine), or stop mid-stride to take a picture of a squirrel. Do that in a car and you’re likely to get rear-ended—and probably run over the squirrel to boot.

When you walk everywhere, you notice a lot more of the world than when it’s flashing by at 40 miles an hour. You notice when the bush on the corner first buds in the spring, and you notice when the honeysuckle comes out even before you see it, because you can smell it. You learn to identify birds based on their songs, and you figure out when garbage day is for every neighborhood you walk through. You become a walking almanac, noticing the first hints of autumn simply because it feels cooler walking into the shade; when it’s really Virginia-style summertime humid, it makes very little difference whether you’re under trees or directly out in the sunshine. You become a pretty decent weatherman because you need to know whether to walk fast (or run) in order to get home before the thunderstorm.

And then there are the health benefits, not just to you but to the environment around you. If you walk to and from the gym instead of driving, you get an extra 15 minutes’ mild cardio workout. Do that a couple times in a day and you can skip the gym entirely. And I like knowing that, when I go to class or to church, no one is the worse for my travels—there are no added carbon emissions into the air, there’s no extra noise pollution, no heat, no fumes. I like not caring what gas prices are, and I like not having to worry about that wad of bills with the googley eyes that represents “the money I could be saving with Geico.” But most of all, I like knowing how the earth feels under my feet, whether it’s frozen or parched dry. I like knowing the contours of my neighborhood the way some people never even know their own yards, and feeling every rise and fall in the road as I go, like the earth breathing under me.

Someday, in fact someday soon, I will inevitably get a car. You can only mooch rides off your friends for so long, and free bus passes only last as long as you’re a student. But I hope I won’t ever forget what it’s like to be a consummate pedestrian—for good and for ill. In any case, for right now at least, no thanks: I’ll walk.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Blogger Paradigm Shift

Hello to my blog-following friends! Forgive the long silence: I promise I did nothing of interest during that time that hasn’t been better reported on elsewhere.

Since I’m no longer a traveler, it seems appropriate that I make some changes to my former travel-blog. Let’s face it: the only people who find life in grad school noteworthy are the grads who live it. So for the sake of making this blog worth the time it takes to read it (I hope), I intend to start putting up occasional little reflections and essays, sometimes formal, sometimes not. (I discovered recently I like writing essays—not academic stuff but meditations and commentaries like Chesterton and Lewis used to write.) And if something interesting happens, well, I’ll comment away on that too! I hope it offers—if not much meaning—at least some amusement. It is “nearly nonsense,” after all.

So in that spirit, here is my first reflection, on Moving:

Two days ago, after a wonderful summer at home, I moved into my new apartment in Charlottesville for the start of the fall semester. It took two trips in a packed-to-the-gills van from D.C. with my saintly parents; it was over 90 degrees both days, I live on the top floor of a three-story building, and I have a LOT of heavy stuff. Keep in mind my dad did all this heavy lifting with a missing fingernail, and my mom did it while recovering from a long-term injury to her shoulder. Like I said, saintly. But all that schlepping aside, the boxes are unpacked, the dishes are washed, and (134 thumbtacks later) my pictures are on the walls and I am starting to feel settled.

It’s odd what sorts of things make you feel at home. Pictures on the walls help (even if they’re cut-out calendar pages put up with tacks, dormitory-style), but I realized this weekend that what does more for me than anything else is carpet. Maybe it’s because all my childhood homes were carpeted, but I feel more at ease in this place, more apt to run around without my shoes on, than I ever did in my previous two apartments, both of which had hardwood floors. I guess there’s just something about bare feet that says “home.”

For interest’s sake, I’d like to make a few notes on some of the odd design elements in this new place. For one thing, the front door has a peephole that is six feet in the air. What six-foot-tall person even NEEDS to check a peephole before opening the door?!) For another, the outlet in the bathroom shuts off whenever the light is off, forcing me to keep my charging electric toothbrush in my bedroom, of all places. Classy. In addition to that, every outlet is installed sideways except that one in the bathroom, meaning I only have one choice when I need to recharge my camera batteries, which have to be vertical. See previously mentioned problem with this outlet. Three cheers for keeping the bathroom light on for eight hours straight? But hey, I know (and deeply sympathize with) a couple who are currently itinerant because their condo has been uninhabitable for months due to an invasion of mold. So I guess things like giant-height peepholes are nothing to complain about. I’m just commenting on them, because they’re weird.

Oh, but it IS strange moving back to a town after having been away for over a year. It’s a little like trying to have a conversation with an old friend who doesn’t remember you. You walk around recalling shortcuts and favorite haunts and no one knows you from Adam (or Eve). The shortcuts are gone because of construction, and half your old haunts are something completely different from what they used to be: there are new eateries, bars, and fast-food chains in their place. It’s not all bad, of course—I’d go for a Dunkin’ Donuts over Rita’s Water Ice any day, and Bodo’s Bagels is still on the Corner, so the world hasn’t ended—and every now and again I recognize the face of a fellow grad or even a former student (whose names I never remember), but it IS an unsettling sensation. It feels like trying to put on a shoe that fit last year but just doesn’t anymore. Sometimes you’re not sure whether it’s the shoe that’s changed, or you.

I’m pretty sure it’s the shoe; how much could I have changed in a year? After all, I’m not the one who underwent a facelift called the South Lawn Project. I know what rotten shark tastes like and have a newfound appreciation for the cornucopia that is an American grocery store—but that’s about it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Iceland A-Ö

Vertu sælt, Ísland, og þakka þér fyrir allt! (Good bye, Iceland, and thank you for everything!)

After nine months, which flew by so very fast, I am flying out tomorrow afternoon! Well, that’s the plan, if the Eyjafjallajökull volcano condescends to let me leave. It’s been an amazing year, and it’s been an amazing last week here too!

I was lucky enough to have one of my good friends fly out from Maryland to visit me, and of course it ended up being a much bigger for her than she expected—thank you very much, volcanic ash cloud. She got routed through Glasgow, then Akureyri in the north, and then she had a 6-hour bus ride from there to Reykjavík! At least she was able to come at all, though, and we’ll just hope that doesn’t happen again tomorrow afternoon!

We had two lovely adventures together in the few days she was here: first, we saw the puffins! I didn’t think I’d have a chance to see Iceland’s most famous bird before I left, but my friend was clever enough to find a tour that was operating already—so we went! Puffins are adorable birds—clumsy and frantic in the air, bumbling on the ground, and oddly formal in their tuxedo outfits with those ridiculous toucan-colored beaks. We were entirely charmed.

Then, the next day (having rescheduled once due again to the ash cloud), we took a day tour to Akurkeyri and Mývatn! Akureyri is the “Capital of the North,” and Mývatn (the unprepossessingly-named “Midge-fly Lake”) is one of Iceland’s greatest natural wonders. We stopped at Goðafoss, a horse-shoe shaped waterfall that’s almost as famous here as Gullfoss on the Golden Circle. It’s not very tall, but it looks a little like a miniature Niagara—only without the hydroelectric power plant and casinos.

The lake itself is dotted with pseudo-crater islands, the remnants of ancient volcanoes that exploded and left great pockmarks on the land. We were so lucky in terms of weather! We had only a little rain here and there, mostly while we were on the road, and only one stop where we couldn’t see anything because the fog was so thick. Sadly, that stop was Krafla, an active volcano—but I think I might have seen enough of volcanoes already, thank you very much.

The next stop was Dimmuborg—the Dark City (or, more accurately and more creepily, the Dark Fortress). It is a vast field of basalt formations left by volcanic eruptions underwater, and legend goes (in the North at least) that Grýla and her thirteen impish Yule Lads live here. I personally kept looking over my shoulder for orcs.

Also at Dimmuborg is another section of the rift where the Eurasian and North American continental tectonic plates are drifting apart. Here, you can stand with one foot on each plate, straddling a gap half a foot wide and several yards deep. Talk about a tourist photo op!

Then there was a geothermal site to visit: Námaskarður, I think it’s called. It was eerie to be standing in the midst of what looks like the surface of Mars, knowing that all of Iceland is turning green and lush everywhere else!

Because our flight wasn’t until late, we had the bus drop us off in Akureyri so we could see the town. It’s a city of some 17,500 people, but it only took half an hour to see the downtown shopping area. Akureyri is famous for several things, including its burgers, which are eaten with béarnaise sauce and with the French fries inside, and its stoplights, which are shaped like hearts.

With those adventures under our belts, my friend departed (this time with much less hassle!) for home and I decided to check one last thing off my to-see list: the Reykjavík Zoo (Húsdýragarðurinn). It’s not a big zoo and it only houses native or common animals, but I got to pet a cow and see a baby goat standing on top of its mother—and best of all, I got to take pictures of a very lively Arctic fox! Well worth the entry fee, even if they did look at me like I was speaking Chinese when I tried to ask for a ticket in Icelandic.

I decided to title this post “Iceland A-Ö” because Icelandic adds several letters to the end of their alphabet and has removed the Z (along with C and Q) altogether, so A-Ö is the local version of A-Z. But I haven’t gotten to know Iceland from A to Z yet. I’ve reported on things here and there, posted pictures where I could—yet there’s still so much more to see! I hope to come back here someday, and someday soon.

But as a final reflection, I’ve put together a list of things I will and won’t miss in Iceland, as well as an answering list of things I look forward to at home:

Things I won't miss in Iceland
-Never finding ANYTHING on the shelves in the library (Dewey, come save us!)
-The wind
-The cold—the really, really long cold
(The fact that this list is so short should give you a sense of how much I’ve liked it here—or at least how nostalgic I’m feeling at the moment.)

Things I'll miss in Iceland
-Safety (You could probably walk drunk and naked down the creepiest ally at 3a.m. and nothing would happen to you.)
-The smell of the sea
-The super pure tap water, and the geothermally-heated hot water that never runs out
-The really blue sky (when you see it, that is)
-A phone book organized by first name

Things I'm looking forward to at home
-Not having to use big heavy adaptors for electronics
-Being able to play local DVDs on my computer
-Having more than four choices for cereal
-Real peanut butter (Oh my goodness, you have no idea.)
-Talking with native speakers
-No longer being the only “dumb American” in company

I hope to continue this blog, not so regularly, but perhaps when I have good pictures to put up or ramblings to share. Thank you for reading, and verið sæl (be well)!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Westward Ho!

Barbara Ara bar Ara araba bara rababara (Ari´s Barbara brought Ari the Arab only rhubarb—an Icelandic tongue-twister)

At the very beginning of the school year, our program director told us that one of the highlights of the program would be a class trip to the Westfjords in the spring. The Westfjords are to Iceland what the Aran Islands are to Ireland, or maybe what the Pacific Northwest is to the US—rugged, stunning landscapes where the old ways of life have not yet entirely died out. Well, at last the long-awaited trip arrived, and now I can say that not only was it one of the highlights of the program, but it was one of the best trips I´ve ever taken!

I am entirely at a loss to describe the Westfjords. Even my pictures don´t capture how amazing the land is. The road skirts the coast, weaving around every fjord (and there are many!) so that you can see the place you´re trying to reach but you know it will take you two hours to get there because you have to drive around this massive body of water in order to reach it. The villages are few and far between—in fact, even Ísafjörður, the biggest town in the Westfjords, has only 2500 people, and the village where we stayed for two nights, Flateyri, was so small the owner of the local swimming pool was able to track us down an hour after we left in order to return a pair of gloves someone had forgotten!
We spent four days driving in this bleak, stunning, practically untouched subarctic fantasy land, visiting saga sites and archeological digs, as well as touring a museum of magic (the picture is a magic staff for changing the weather), a maritime museum, and a fish factory owned by our program director´s cousin. In fact, everything in Flateyri seemed to be owned by a cousin of our director—it´s that sort of town.
It is still winter in the Westfjords—in fact, it was hit or miss whether we would be able to complete the trip as planned because there is a high mountain pass that is closed in bad weather, and there was a real possibility of snow. Actually, there was a snowfall the day before we drove through that pass, but it wasn´t bad enough to cause the road to close. For the most part, though, we had very good weather, and we were very conscious of how fortunate we were in that department!
On the one hand, it´s unreal to stand at the top of a mountain pass and say, “Here, on this very spot, on this same road, a saga hero decided to ride to his doom.” It was especially unreal to hike down to the site of another saga hero´s famous last stand, and find it to be a peaceful and deserted mountain slope now, with no evidence of the violence that occurred there a millennium ago. (This hike, by the way, was not for sissies—it was very steep with loose rocks most of the way, and a patch of dwarf birch forming such a thick undergrowth that we were quite scratched and bruised by the time we wrestled our way out of it.)
On the other hand, it was really wonderful to get a sense of daily life in the Westfjords now, something we couldn´t have done without the knowing aid of our program director. Towns get wiped out by landslides, farms will be isolated for months on end when the roads close, there is only one real grocery store in the whole of the Westfjords, it is winter until June. It is a hard life, especially for the farmers and the fishermen, and it is fast disappearing as people leave the old farms for an easier and more profitable life in the city. Most of the towns in the Westfjords are made up primarily of summer homes, populated only a month or two each year. The depths of winter must be incredibly bleak—but while we were there, we experienced as close to the “midnight sun” as most of us will ever get!
Driving back on Saturday night, seeing Reykjavík rise out of the ocean as we came south, we realized what a big city the capital is. Some 100,000 people may not seem like much in terms that the rest of the world uses, but when you´ve gone for three days without seeing another car on the road, and when you run into the same tourist twice because there are so few places for tourists to stay…Reykjavík suddenly looks much, much bigger.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Summer Comes to Iceland?

Gleðilegt sumar. Njótið snjósins og öskunnar (Happy summer—the traditional greeting on the first official day of summer—Enjoy the snow and ash.)

It seems that every time Iceland makes international news it’s for something bad—either because the country owes more than it can count to the UK and Holland, or because its volcanoes are causing travel chaos all over Europe. Best joke I’ve heard about the volcano at Eyjafjallajökull: There’s no C in the Icelandic alphabet, so instead of paying back the Brits in cash, they’re paying them back in ash. For all that, Reykjavík hasn’t seen any ash fall because the winds tend to blow it east instead of west, and Keflavík airport is still running just fine—the flights are getting cancelled on the continental end, not the Icelandic one.

We have, however, had plenty of snow leading up to Iceland’s first official day of summer, which is today. (Iceland doesn’t have spring: until today, it’s been winter.) Today it’s trying to get above freezing and we have a little sun, but two days ago we had a snowstorm, though fortunately it melted right away. They tell you in the guidebooks that Iceland has winters pretty much like Virginian winters. This is true. What they don’t tell you is that these winters last from September through April. But as we’re now getting daylight from 5a.m. to 10p.m., I suppose we do have a few advantages over home!

Last week I was delighted to have my Californian friend visit me along with two of her friends, and we had a lovely time, though unfortunately I had to beg off on a lot of the fun because it was the last week of classes for us. Still, I got to see the Golden Circle with them again (Þingvellir, Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall)—and it’s different every time you go—and on Saturday, after our other two guests had left (one of them even making it safely to England, right before the eruption!), my Californian friend and I braved the cold to go on a tour of Snæfellsnes peninsula.

I’ve written about this place before, back in October when I went on a day trip with my friends, but it was much better weather this time and we saw things we wouldn’t have seen without a guide. We stopped at the Gerðuberg basalt column cliffs, the Djúpalónssandur black pebble beach, and Arnarstapi harbor.

I actually liked the black pebble beach we visited in October better, but this place was lovely as well. It was the site of a shipwreck in the mid-20th century, and the rusted metal remains on the beach as a memorial, but the beach itself is full of dramatic rock formations and pebbles so smoothe they seem like they can hardly be real.
In October, Snæfellsjökull (the glacier where Jules Verne set the beginning of Journey to the Center of the Earth) was being shy and hid its head in the clouds. But for this trip, we got amazing views of this most famous of Icelandic glaciers. The entire peninsula is too beautiful and dramatic for words, but the glacier itself stands like a king over the mountains around it.
Last time I was on Snæfellsnes we couldn’t spare the hour it takes to walk the sea trail between Arnarstapi harbor and Hellnar (which, to the best of my knowledge, is little more than a collection of summer homes for wealthy Icelanders), but this time we were able to do that, and what a walk it was! The shore is piled with cliffs, crags, and outcroppings of lava and basalt, some of them forming incredible arches and walls with huge holes in them. Birds that I was told were oyster catchers (my take: seagulls) are already nesting there, and when they were disturbed by our walking too close, their cries and calls echoed on the cliffs like sound effects from a pirate movie.

We drove right through the Berserkjahraun lava field (the story goes that two berserkers fell for a Snæfellsnes farmer’s daughter, and in order to earn her they built a road through the lava field, only to be killed by the farmer as they relaxed in a sauna after finishing the job), and we ended our day with a trip to the Bjarnahöfn shark museum.

Yes, there is a museum dedicated entirely to the hunting and putrefaction of Greenland sharks. The old fellow who runs it, Ólafur, was a shark hunter in his youth, as was his father, and he gave us a personal tour (translated by our guide) and favored us with samples of his famous “delicacy.” I learned a great deal, actually, but I felt that my first taste of hákarl in February didn’t particularly need an encore.

It was truly wonderful having my friends visit me, and I’m very grateful to the volcano and the Gulf Stream for allowing their flights to go out safely, but now my little vacation is over, and it’s back to work on finals and the thesis. Such is the life of a student!