Saturday, August 9, 2014

A(nother) return to Iceland

This July, I was lucky enough to return to Reykjavik for research and a conference (which actually had very little to do with Iceland and a great deal to do with Chaucer—go figure).  I was delighted to return to my favorite city, but I took two days at the end of my stay to travel north with a friend and visit an area that is very much not a city.

On the way up to Skagafjörður, we drove the scenic route around Hvalfjörður instead of taking the tunnel under the fjord.  There, we saw haunting mountains, strange abandoned buildings, and sudden rainbows. 

Then we had lunch at an odd establishment that was one part café, one part grocery and video store, and one part whaling museum.  I shall spare you the disturbing images plastered on the billboard outside the building (complete with a happy cartoon whale advertising the museum without an ounce of irony).  However, the food was very good and the view was even better.

We also had the—for us—thrilling experience of spotting a rainbow in the very village of Bifröst, which, as all Thor fans know, is the Norse name for the rainbow.  Had we pulled off the road into the lava fields, would we have found ourselves in Ásgarður?
Skagafjörður itself is just east of the Westfjords; at the head of the fjord is a charming little town called Sauðárkrókur, filled with pastel-painted buildings lined up along two or three streets. 
But my friend and I didn’t stay there.  On the east side of the fjord is a lovely village called Hofsós, even smaller than Sauðárkrókur, where you can get excellent fresh fish at the towns’ one restaurant on the town’s one main street. 

But my friend and I didn’t stay there either.  We stayed at a wonderful hotel called Litla Brekka, four kilometers north of Hofsós and nestled in the hayfields directly under the fells.

We stayed there overnight, and the next day, we drove back around the fjord and up the ten-kilometer gravel road to Reykir, where there is a hot spring called Grettislaug.  (The next two pictures arefrom last year's trip, when the weather was significantly better.)
The story goes that the saga hero Grettir, after swimming through the icy waters of the fjord, revived himself by sitting in the hot spring that is now named for him.  The reason he was swimming in the fjord is that he was an outlaw, and he had sheltered on a cliff island seven kilometers out to sea.  When his fire went out, he swam back to Reykir to fetch a torch.  What he wouldn’t have given for a box of waterproof matches, no?

That island, Drangey, which looks like a slab of meat dropped onto a slate, was the object of our pilgrimage.  We had visited Grettislaug last summer, but they only run tours to the island once a day, and we had missed it when we were last there.  So this year we determined that we would make it.  The boat tour takes you out into the fjord, past the lava formation known as the Kerling (the Old Woman)…

...and then around the island with its sheer, intimidating cliffs populated by thousands of fulmars and puffins during the summer.

The island can only be scaled at one point (in Grettis saga, he has a ladder that he pulls up to keep his enemies from getting to him).  You scramble up a narrow, muddy slope, hauling yourself up on ropes more than you actually hike.  All along the way, you pass puffins and other seabirds who watch you rather warily and don’t let you get too close.

And they have good reason to be wary, because once you reach the top—a surprisingly friendly, grassy meadow that looks like someplace in Ireland until you turn around and remember that there is a sheer cliff dropping a hundred meters into the sea—the first thing you see is a hunter’s cabin. 
It turns out that the tours of the island double as transport for puffin hunters, who stay on the island for a few days at a time during the hunting season in the month of July.
I’ve been told that puffin is very tasty, something like wild duck, but they are so cute that it seems rather unsporting to eat them. 
The only way it is legal to hunt puffins is by catching them in a net as they fly; they are rather clumsy fliers, but the net method is still inefficient enough that it presumably prevents overhunting. 
In any case, there was no shortage of puffins on Drangey, and the hunters take enough risks on those cliffs that perhaps they earn their harvest.

(Cliffs of Insanity, anyone?)

When all is said and done, it was a fascinating and beautiful trip to Skagafjörður, and even though we ended up with rope burns and soaking clothes and mud-caked shoes, I don’t think either of us regrets the effort it took to get there and back.  After all, at least we didn’t have to swim.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

It's not playing: it's reenacting!

What do you do on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the Deep South?  You could drink sweet tea on your porch…or you could go and watch a Civil War reenactment.  Guess which one I opted for this weekend.

I’d never been to a Civil War reenactment before, but I have been to a number of Renaissance fairs (or more usually, “Faires”), and there’s a similar feel to a reenactment.  In each case, you park in a grassy field, pay to get in, wander through booths that sell era-appropriate foods (like giant turkey legs and purple-flavored soda), try to avoid mussing up anybody’s era-appropriate clothing (like fox tails clipped to belt loops and pink Confederate army caps), and vie for a spot at the edge of the playing field where you can see the battle.  The only difference is that in one they’re using lances and in the other they’re using cannons.

The Battle of Anderson, I’m told, was fought somewhere in Anderson County in 1865, weeks after Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  I guess news traveled more slowly back then.  It was a minor skirmish, but what matters around here is that the Confederate forces won.  (I’m getting this from fellow audience members; all I can find online is that the casualty list was larger for the Union troops than it was for the Confederates: 2-0.  Maybe, when the war’s already over, he who has the least dead legitimately CAN chalk it up as victory.  Even if the other side has more horses.)

But the fact that the Battle of Anderson made hardly a ripple in the history of the war doesn’t mean it’s not quite a sight to see reenacted.  I won’t say there weren’t elements of comedy to it; no one “died” until at least 10 minutes into the half-hour battle, despite the fact that they were firing at each other from a few yards apart (and let’s not forget, there were CANNONS!).  No one wants to be the first guy to go down when everybody’s having so much fun shooting firecrackers at each other.

But it was exciting too, watching the horses charge back and forth (they, too, made it through the battle unscathed: no stunt doubles in rural South Carolina, I guess)…

…and hearing the cannons go off with an explosion you could feel in your ribcage.

(Aim—i.e. plug your ears)
The cannons also made the most awesome smoke rings I’ve ever seen.

And there were even moments that were oddly moving.  A Confederate soldier went down in a volley (all right, he sort of lay down gently to avoid getting grass stains on his uniform), and in the midst of all the smoke and action, one of the other soldiers sat there for a few minutes just patting his back.  In a battle that, I will admit, did not exactly sparkle with Oscar-worthy performances, this quiet and completely extraneous moment of tenderness was touching.

Toward the end of the battle, two young Union soldiers tried to desert and hide in the woods, and the Union general shot them both in the back as they ran.  Most of the onlookers probably didn’t even see it happen, but I was struck (not for the first time) by how coldblooded people can be in the name of honor.

Now that I think of it, the assignment of sides to these two little vignettes was probably very deliberate.  We are in the South, after all.

At the end of the battle, the lines were re-formed and the soldiers fired three volleys (the Union general, who doubled as the Master of Ceremonies, explained this to us): first, for those who had ever served in war, second, for those currently serving in the armed forces, and third for P.O.W.s.  Those volleys put this little skirmish in a much broader context: single-shot rifles and cannons on wheels have pretty much been replaced by fancier weapons, but when someone’s shooting at you, I don’t imagine it makes much difference what kind of gun it is.  It takes courage to stand your ground in the name of something you believe in.

It took courage to be a Confederate soldier, and it took courage to be a Union soldier.  Of course, there was no doubt among most of the audience members today as to who was on the “right side” of the Civil War.  While we were waiting for the battle to begin, I overheard a young boy point out the Confederate flag over the massing troops.  “See over there?” he asked his little brother.  “They’re the good guys.”


Monday, March 24, 2014

Sweet Grass, Sweet Tea, Sweet South

What could be better than spending spring break with two of my favorite people?  Well, other than spending it with three of my favorite people, I don’t really know.

Last week I headed to Charleston with my parents—my first visit to the “Lowcountry.”  Rain kept us indoors for a couple of days, but when we had good weather, boy did we make the most of it!  For instance, in the span of about three hours, we visited the Old City Market…

…White Point Garden…

…and Rainbow Row (which looked a little less rainbow-y in the light of a cloudy afternoon, but it still counts).

We also took a great “Gullah Tour,” led by a funny and entertaining guide named Alphonso Brown.  He introduced us to the Gullah language (which is musical and lovely but spoken too quickly for me to have gotten any of it in long-term memory) and to the Black history of Charleston.  I didn’t actually take any photos on this tour—partly because the bus windows were covered with raindrops, and partly because I was more interested in hearing what was said—but it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

Having more or less finished Charleston (at least for this year), we went to north Myrtle Beach for a few days.  Our first day there the temperatures were something like 20 degrees below normal, and my parents started making noises about being cursed, because the exact same thing happened to us last year.  However, we finally got some nice warm, sunny days to walk on the beach and laugh at the spring breakers who found it necessary to plunge into the water—sometimes fully clothed—despite the water temps in the 50s. 

I discovered I really like piers.  Don’t know why.

We also discovered Myrtle Beach has a boardwalk.  Who knew?

Vacation always ends too quickly (I am told that it has to so that we can go back to work to save up for the next trip), but I have some nice photos and a few new freckles to remember it by!