Wednesday, August 22, 2012

I wish I was in Dixie…Oh wait, I am!

I had always kind of thought of Virginia as a southern state.  Except for NoVa, of course, which from all appearances cut ties with the rest of the state decades ago.  NoVa went corporate, the rest of Virginia went south.  It did secede from the Union, after all, and in most parts of the state it’s only about half a mile to the nearest statue of Robert E. Lee.  They grow peanuts and tobacco.  Sounds southern to me.

Then I moved to South Carolina.  Now, South Carolina is not the deepest of the Deep South: even as an outsider I know that.  But as soon as I found out that my neighbor hunted squirrels…in the backyard…well, I started to worry about what I’d gotten myself into.  And there’s definitely plenty of southern culture to adjust to.

Like the fact that the nearest grocery store is the Bi-Lo two towns over, nine miles away.  And the fact that there is one (count ‘em, one!) sit-down restaurant in my town and it’s closed when school isn’t in session.  And the fact that the town hall is right next to a place called Sassy Butts.  A BBQ bakery (whatever that is), not a strip club.  And the fact that I’ve walked to work for three days and already I’m known locally as “that strange girl who walks everywhere.”  And the fact that vowels and diphthongs have switched places in all sorts of words: “dog” is “dawg”—a diphthong leaning heavily toward two independent syllables—but “light” (for us Yankees, a diphthong) is the simple-voweled “laaaaht.”

But there’s a lot about southern culture that’s downright charming.  Like the fact that my landlady invited me over for a chat whenever I’m free.  And the fact that the guy down the street, without being asked, helped us lug my heaviest items up the stairs when I moved in.  And the fact that people mention God around here and nobody threatens to sue them.  And the fact that, when I’m walking in the street because there’s no sidewalk, instead of honking at me as they pass, drivers give me space and wave.  And the fact that a complex mail delivery problem was solved simply by speaking to the mail carrier in person on her morning route.  And the fact that I hear crickets and cicadas at night instead of passing cars and subwoofers.  And the fact that this is my neighborhood:

And these are my neighbors (the ones who don’t hunt squirrels):

So maybe this place will take some getting used to, but I suspect not very long at all, really.

In fact, I think I’ve got to visit this Sassy Butts place pretty soon, to see exactly what it is you bake at a BBQ (or BBQ at a bakery?).

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

There and Back Again: A Medievalist’s Holiday

I’m forever recommending Iceland as a vacation spot to my friends.  And when I discovered, as I planned my trip to a conference in Denmark, that Icelandair has free stopovers on the way from the US to Europe, how could I not take my own advice?

So I spent two wonderful (if jet-lagged) days in Reykjavik with a friend, and on the second day we took a tour to Thorsmork (in Icelandic, Þorsmörk: Thor’s Woods)—because what trip to Iceland is complete without a bus tour?

Thorsmork is a strange forested oasis in the midst of the most dramatically bleak subarctic landscape I’ve ever seen.  I don’t know how it got there, I only know that once you walk in, you think, “This looks like Virginia.”  In fact, I’m told that the Iceland the Scandinavian settlers saw when they arrived (before they cut down all the trees) probably looked a lot like it.  They probably arrived and thought, “This looks like Denmark.”

But in order to get there, you have to drive in a jeep or specially equipped bus over a volcanic wasteland, ford a river at least four times, and pass under the shadow of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano famous for stopping air traffic in Europe for two weeks in 2010.  (And causing my visiting family to evacuate in the middle of the night.)

Have you ever forded a river in a bus?  It’s a rather thrilling experience.  I was not 100% convinced we weren’t going to tip over.

The way to Thorsmork used to pass by a beautiful glacial lagoon, but the jökulhlaup (the flash flood caused by an eruption under a glacier) from the 2010 eruption smashed through the natural dam at the lower end of the lake and left only a steep-walled ravine in its wake.  They discourage jeeps from driving down into it because the glacier is still melting into the old lakebed, leaving swaths of quicksand in the ash.

The gray ash, by the way, is still visible in the soil two years later.

I love hiking, and the main attractions of Thorsmork are the trails frequented by foreign and local campers all summer long.  Our tour guide took us up a short but steep mountain in the middle of the nature reserve (I never thought one could get so hot in a country where the temp maxes out at 60 degrees!), and the view from the top was spectacular.  To the north, Mýradaljökull, to the east, Eyjkafjallajökull, to the west, the sand-colored mountains traversed by the 50 km Landmannalaugur trail, to the south, the vast gray lava plain running to the sea and the Westman Islands.

By comparison, Denmark was homier but rather less dramatic (though the plane my friend and I took to Copenhagen was called Eyjafjalla-jökull!).  The conference was in Aarhus, up north on the Jutland peninsula.  I’d been there before in mid-winter, but it’s much more inviting in the summertime!  The view from the train that goes from Copenhagen to Aarhus looks rather like the American Midwest, only with more windmills.

And when I visited Himmelbjerget (a 147-m “mountain” beloved by Danish poets and naturalists since the mid-19th century), I could pretty easily convince myself I was looking down into Hobbiton.

Some interesting personal observations about my trip to Denmark:

* Rain puts a damper on everything, especially when one is drenched by a passing bus 15 minutes before one’s presentation.

* The field of medieval Icelandic studies is rather like a large village: you might not know everybody, but you’re no more than two degrees of separation from even the most preeminent of scholars.  In the same session in which I (humble young interloper from the English department) gave my paper, another paper was given by the granddaughter of the man who pretty much founded 20th century saga studies.

* Cobblestones, though an aesthetic choice for pedestrian walkways, are hazardous even when one is completely sober and wearing sensible shoes.

* When a red-eye train claims that the ride will last four and a half hours, what that really means is that you experience about 15 twenty-minute train rides, each one punctuated by people shuffling on and off, conductors passing through to punch tickets, and the recorded voice interrupting your nap to announce the “næste station.”

* Denmark may not have Iceland’s “midnight sun,” but its summer days are a lot longer than the ones we get back home, and that means more time for being outdoors and exploring!

* I have become accustomed to the European hostel practice of requiring guests to rent their linens.  I was unprepared, though, for our hostel in Aarhus to limit “linen” to sheets and a blanket.  If it hadn’t been for a very kind (and better prepared) fellow conference goer, I would have had to use my pillowcase for a towel.

* No matter how much I hate the American tourist mentality that everything should be in English, when the instructions for buying a ticket and boarding the correct train were all in Danish, I was completely miffed.  I was scolded both on the way to Aarhus and on the way back for not punching my ticket correctly and my only response was, “I can’t read Danish!” (the second time uttered rather peevishly because it was 1:30 in the morning and I couldn’t fathom why the Danes didn’t cater to a sleep-deprived monoglot like myself).

So, object lesson: bring an umbrella, follow the advice of Hitchhiker’s Guide and always know where you towel is, and make friends with someone who speaks the language.

And stop in Iceland on your way to Europe.