Friday, March 26, 2010

What a Trip

Velkomin til Íslands. Við vonum að þið njótið brottflutningsins ykkar. (Welcome to Iceland. We hope you enjoy your evacuation.)
For months and months I’ve been looking forward to my family’s visit to Iceland--playing tour guide to an appreciative audience in a country I have come to love very much is only slightly less exciting than the simple fact that my parents and sister actually braved the crazy weather to fly out to the middle of the North Atlantic to see me! And it was quite a visit, I must say--perhaps more remarkable than we had hoped. Certainly more remarkable than we had expected.

With a little over a week to spend in and around Reykjavík, we made the most of our time--visiting the famous flea market in town just a few hours after my poor family stumbled sleepily off the red-eye and trudged back to my apartment in the wind and on-and-off rain (which, by the way, accompanied us practically the whole time they were here).

We hit the Blue Lagoon the next day--the geothermally-heated pool in the lava fields (which I had visited in January but hadn’t swum in until this visit). It was so wet and foggy when we first got in that we couldn’t see the far side of the water--in fact, we couldn’t see each other if we got more than ten feet away. It was all very mystical, once we got over the strangely primal fear of being in water up to our necks, isolated from everything familiar and solid--and we stayed in the water for five hours, squelching our toes (and, let’s be honest, our hands too) in the soft silica mud that coats the bottom of the pool and is bottled and sold for big bucks in town.

The next day, it was the Golden Circle (Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss--the Parliament Plains, the geyser park, and the waterfall)--another obligatory tourist activity. I had been there on a big bus tour the same day we attended the sheep round-up in September, but we rented a car this time and practically had the whole of Þingvellir to ourselves. Not only was the experience more personal, but it was significantly easier to line up a picture without getting strangers’ elbows in the shot.

After that, there was of course a horseback riding trip for my sister and me--the 'advanced rider' version this time, though we couldn’t figure out why you had to be advanced to take this trail, unless it was simply for the fact that we tölted more than we walked. It rained on us the whole time and my sister gallantly called it an “epic” experience, but weather notwithstanding, it truly was intoxicatingly exciting to be out on the river delta, splashing through the water on our sure-footed ponies and feeling very much like the first settlers of an uninhabited Iceland. My pony, for the curious, was a big-boned, fuzzy black fellow named Nekvi, and he was a terrific tölter; my sister’s chestnut pony, Frísa, was less of a tölter but a real sweetie. (Google “tölt” if that means nothing to you--I’ve written about it before, the first time I rode here.)

During the week, my family was very accommodating, entertaining themselves (to say nothing of sleeping on my floor night after night!) while I ran back and forth between being with them and going to classes. We saw just about all the interesting museums in Reykjavík--and a few that weren’t so interesting--and experienced some nice traditional Icelandic foods too (we’re talking lamb stew and flatbread, not putrefied shark or pickled ram’s testicles--what kind of hostess do you think I am?).

Then, this past weekend, we rented a car again and drove down into South Iceland to visit Skógar one day and Vík the next. We saw three absolutely stunning waterfalls (Seljalandsfoss, Gljúfurárfoss, and Skógafoss) and drove across the heart of saga territory while I regailed my very patient family with stories from the sagas. (Over there you can see the place where Gunnar’s wife let Gunnar die because he slapped her one time years before...oh, and over there is where Njal was burned to death in his own home. Oh, and did I tell you the story about Auðr, who bopped her enemy in the nose with the bag of coins he was trying to bribe her with? That happened in the Westfjords, but it’s a good story anyway.) I must say that, even beyond the beautiful waterfalls, it was an entirely strange experience being in South Iceland because there are simply no real towns. Once you pass Hvolsvöllur (itself a town of maybe 1000), it’s just small farms widely separated from each other, dotting a truly vast landscape, until you get to Skógar--and even that is little more than a hotel and a museum of curiosities (which, by the way, is very entertaining). It was almost unreal to realize that there was absolutely no place to stay the night--not even a place to eat!--for mile after mile of deserted road. It was more like driving in parts of the American West than anything--mountainous Utah on one side of the road and pancake-flat Illinois on the other, until you reach the sea.
We doubled back from Skógar and stayed the night at a farmer’s house near the Bakki airport (remember I was saying how the tradition of hospitality lives on here? It’s true--I can attest from first-hand experience!). At least, that is what we intended to do. A little after midnight, we were woken up by the farmer, who told us we had to evacuate to Hvolsvöllur because a volcano had erupted under Eyjafjallajökull, the glacier a few miles away. Needless to say, we didn’t argue. In fact, when we got to Hvolsvöllur, we just kept going and drove all the way back to Reykjavík, watching the red glow on the clouds--the reflection of the volcano in the sky--disappear in our rear-view mirrors. The farm where we were staying was in the flood plain, and they were worried less about lava and ash than they were about flash flooding from glacial melt--but then, it IS a volcano after all, and who knows what might come out of it? It turns out it hadn’t actually erupted under the glacier but beside it--a much safer event, if anything involving lava can be called safe. If you haven’t yet seen pictures of the eruption, check out this video, and practice your Icelandic at the same time:

So there was no Vík for us--a disappointment, to be sure, as the area is famously dramatic and beautiful--but we do now get to say that we were four of the 450-some people evacuated due to the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption of 2010. My parents and sister were very good sports about it all. (Can I just say, though, that it WOULD be my luck to take my volcano-paranoid family on a trip in South Iceland when a volcano that hadn’t erupted since 1821 suddenly decided to open up and spew molten lava all over the place?)
And THEN, as if the volcano wasn’t enough, on Monday when my family was supposed to fly out, the mechanics at Keflavík Airport went on strike, causing such chaos and delays that my dad just rebooked for Tuesday. Not that I objected to having a bonus day with my family, but first of all, I think they were rather tired of sleeping on the floor every night, and second, they had kind of "finished" Reykjavík and we were hard-put to find anything entertaining to do for that extra day they were here! But the strike ended Monday afternoon and the volcano wasn’t putting out enough ash to close the airport, so my family was able to make it out Tuesday evening.
I miss them already, and I hope they’ll remember the fun parts of their visit--but really, Iceland? A volcano AND a strike? What kind of sense of humor does this island have?!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Jaunt in Denmark

Græsset må ikke betrædes (The grass may not be betrodden—the amusingly formal Danish way to say “Keep off the grass”)

Where to begin after a week-long trip around the beautiful country of Denmark? I simply can’t detail everything we saw—there’s too much, and you can read a guidebook for a more accurate report on the attractions of Scandinavia if you really want to. So perhaps a brief overview, then some thoughts.

I flew into Copenhagen last Wednesday with a friend of mine who also happened to be presenting at the Århus Universitet conference on medieval Iceland. She had brilliantly discovered that Kronberg castle in Helsingør is just a train-ride away (it sounds like Elsinore because it is Elsinore!)—so naturally we two Shakespeare buffs had to take a quick detour to see Hamlet’s castle.

We got there just in time to see the courtyard and the casements (the terrifyingly labyrinthine, pitch-black cellar rooms where soldiers stayed during sieges), but it was so worth the trip.

Then it was back to Copenhagen to catch a different train to Århus where the conference was held. After getting over the shock at discovering that Århus has a population the size of all Iceland (about 300,000 people), we came to like the cozy, quaint city very much in the few days we were there. The conference, by the way, was terrific—all graduate students and therefore lots of free exchange of ideas, with none of the intimidation that can accompany full-fledged scholars when they sit in the back of the room with their arms folded as you stammer through your paper.

It was quite chilly in Denmark, but we were lucky and had very good weather while we were there. We missed our bus-stop going to see the Moesgård Museum outside of town and so ended up walking a half-mile on a country road through the snow-covered hills (and trees!) of Jutland. The walk was almost as great as the museum itself!

On Sunday, we reluctantly parted from Århus and took the train southeast back to Copenhagen (which is on the island of Zealand—something my geography-impoverished mind never picked up on until the train passed through an underwater tunnel to get there). Because all the museums are closed on Mondays, we raced through the National Museet (so many artifacts that my Old Norse Religion class refered to—it was like meeting celebrities!) and the Statens Museum for Kunst (the art museum—some lovely Danish paintings by artists whose names I will never, ever remember).

We explored Strøget, the world’s longest pedestrian shopping street, drooled copiously over the 17th-century books the antiquarian bookstores just had lying around on their shelves, and tried our best not to let our jaws drop too far when we realized how much food costs there. If any place can make Iceland look cheap, it’s Denmark with its 30% sales tax.
On Monday we walked all over (and I mean ALL OVER) Copenhagen, visiting the Rundetaarn for a bird’s-eye view of the city and seeing the famous Den Lille Havfrue statue (the Little Mermaid statue in the harbor). We managed to find the graves of Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen, and also the smørrebrød sandwich shop that my grandmother ate at when she was in Copenhagen some 40 years ago. Some good things never really change. The only thing we missed was Tivoli Gardens, which, sadly enough, are closed until April.
At last, it was “hej hej” to Denmark (pronounced “hi hi”—a very cute Danish way of saying good bye), “hæ hæ” to Iceland (pronounced the same way—a less creative Icelandic way of saying hello).
We got back on Tuesday and were pleased to find all the snow washed away by a week’s worth of rain! Enough of the virtual tour; I could go on and on, but I’ll curb my enthusiasm and move on to a few thoughts on my first impressions of Denmark.

First, every single corner of the downtown area of Århus and Copenhagen is photograph-worthy. There are so many charming red or yellow brick houses and churches that they don’t even bother to name them all on the maps. You turn a corner and ta-da—there’s an 18th-century church right in front of you. It was so overwhelming, in fact, that we walked right by the royal residence of Amalienborg palace and didn’t even distinguish it from all the other beautiful buildings. Copenhagen has its sketchy side too, of course, and its architectural monstrosities from the 60s and 70s when the world lost all artistic sensibility, but on the whole, it still feels like Hans Christian Andersen’s hometown.
Second, Danish is a bizarre language. The joke among Scandinavians is that it is impossible to understand a Dane—a stereotype I thought had to be exaggerated until I heard the language spoken for the first time. This is not my own analogy, but it’s accurate: if a person tried to speak with a mouthful of hot porridge while at the same time trying to blow on it to cool it off, they would give a fair impression of the sound of Danish. Where Icelandic is clear, articulated, and on the tip of the tongue, Danish is throaty, full of vowels, and short on consonants. An example: in trying to find the cemetery, I asked a fellow at a 7-11 (which, by the way, are far fancier in Denmark than in the U.S.) where the street called Kapelvej was. “What street?” he asked. I showed him on my map. “Oh,” he said, “Gawewai.” Yes, that street, thank you. I’m sure it’s a lovely language to those who know it, but to me it sounded like it was only spoken by people half-asleep or perhaps intoxicated.
Third, since Iceland has made me a bit of a hotdog connoisseur, I have to say that Danish hotdogs are more satisfying than Icelandic ones. They come in funny buns like half a hollowed baguette, so the hotdog is enclosed all the way around and about half of it sticks out from one end of the bun. The condiments are squeezed in between the bun and meat, usually overflowing from the top. Quite unique, I have to say—but the flavor just about makes up for the fact that you pay twice as much for a Danish hotdog as for an Icelandic one.

Fourth, Icelanders are everywhere. After the conference in Århus, we all went out to dinner and, toward the end of the meal, there were some toasts made in Icelandic. The folks in the next table over suddenly cried, “Eruð þið íslensk?”—Are you Icelanders? Because they were. And not only were they delighted to run into several of their countrymen, it turns out they knew one of the folks in our group! This led to much rejoicing and a spirited round of some Icelandic folksongs. (For some reason, one of the Icelanders from the other table pointed right at me and said, “American.” I must have a tattoo on my forehead or something that I didn’t know about.)

Fifth, it’s lovely to be back in Iceland where I can at least distinguish the words people say to me even if I don’t know what they mean, and where I know how things work and can do my laundry and enjoy all those comfort-of-home niceties.
Sixth, I hope I can get back to Denmark someday soon….