29 December 2006

Multiculti Holidays

Having my family here has been a special kind of special this year, the cross-pollination of my two worlds in a new way. They've taken to the traditions here with gusto, from the candlelit midnight mass on Christmas eve to the must-have stack of books I received as gifts. My mom added her own special twist to the Icelandic traditions herself, with a glaze on our hryggur that's made a few Icelanders wrinkle their noses when I described it but was to-die-for delicious. We're swimming all the time, exploring Þingvallavatn in the murky gray of a December Day in Iceland, and exploring power stations where I've had to figure out how to eplain things like "turbine efficiency" in Icelandic for a stoic hydro engineer.

Christmas day was a three-country meeting of my family, K's family, and my German friend F over the most Icelandic of meals, all the trimmings included- hangikjöt, potatoes in cream sauce, Ora beans*, malt og appelsín, laufabrauð, red cabbage, carrots. I was rather uncertain about many of these things last year, particularly the malt/orange soda blend and the beans, but they've grown on me, rather like my high-school's traditional and initially frightening combination of stewed tomatoes and peanut butter on toasted bread. These things take a little time but then you're wedded to them for life, it seems.

After a fantastic evening of swapped stories, great wine and too much food, my family and I took a detour up to the church that overlooks Mossfellsbær and the entire city of Reykjavík. I'd explained the tradition of illuminating the graves for this time of year so we went to see it for ourselves. It was nearly midnight but there was still another visitor, paying respects to his ancestors in one corner of the cemetery. We wandered slowly through the rows of graves in the crunchy dusting of snow, many stacked with flowers, plants, and garlands, the smell of the flaming paraffin candles wafting on the breeze off the not-too-distant sea. It's a strange way to end a Christmas celebration, there on a ridge of illuminated graves but it seemed like the right thing to do that night.

*I just learned that if anyone's either curious enough about these, or living abroad and missing them enough, it's possible to buy them here. These products are the most authentic flavor of Iceland I can imagine!

24 December 2006

Gleðileg Jól!

I went to the pool this morning, and the place rang with people wishing Merry Christmas to each other. One woman even said it to the crowd of unknowns as she left, receiving a chorus in return. Iceland's fun at Christmas, and this year I get to share it with family. The members who already have seen Iceland once have come again (parents and one brother) and are staying here through New Years. We've experienced the mall crowds, joined half the country as they paraded down Laugavegur last night, and today we're going to cook the traditional hamborgarhryggur thanks to the able help of B who offered emergency boiling (or not boiling) advice. I'm singing in the welcome-to-Christmas mass this evening, then tomorrow it's hangikjöt and cream sauce. Thanks to all the wonderful people here who have opened their homes to us, and I wish you all a fantastic holiday, whenever you celebrate it!

19 December 2006

northern winds

Am reporting today from the almost-Arctic town of Akureyri. I arrived yesterday with a plane full of co-workers, and although half had intended to fly back yesterday, everyone got stuck here overnight due to high winds. The airport here is on a little flat of land that juts out into the massive fjord where the town is located, so the combination of cross-winds and tiny planes meant we were all isolated. I'm told that this can happen often, and we discovered several others in the same hotel that had been similarly grounded by the weather.

Sadly, it was also very warm and cloudy, so the famous snow was dingy and gray, and the roads full of ice. Everyone had good times sliding up the hill to swim after work though, then back down again afterwards. We dined at Strikið, the top-floor location offering views across to the tiny lights on the opposite side of the fjord in one direction, and the illuminated facade of Akureyri's iconic church the other direction. The wind continued to howl as we ate, bending the windowpanes, jangling the christmas lights strung along the stairs to the church and making the stars suspended over the streets below sway crazily.

Later we had coffee at M's house, full of wood trim and red-checked curtains. We had freshly-baked Icelandic Christmas cookies, the rare and special kind with the chocolate top, the buttercream filling, and the almonded bottom. Everyone keeps telling me about how annoying and difficult they are to make, and yet everyone keeps on making them. My Icelandic speaking abilities are still to the level that makes me mostly a spectator but after a day of only-Icelandic meetings I was saturated enough to be keeping up with almost everything, jokes included.

It's hard to explain the surreal feeling of being there in that house, knowing that outside the massive snow-covered mountains loom all around, the wind sweeping down their dark and uninhabited slopes. This was ordinary life for the others at the table but for me I couldn't stop mentally comparing to the other life I could have had, and did have, in a place where the weather doesn't hold such sway over daily life, where I'm not infused with this ancient language. Two years ago I didn't know a word of Icelandic, and now some element of it will never not be a part of me. Soon I might even be able to participate in the conversations, but for now I'm happy to at least be able to follow along.

It's 11 am now, and the rising sun is just turning the clouds above the mountain out the window to golden peach. The wind's still sending the clouds surging across the fjord, and I can see the water churning angrily, even though we're miles away from the open ocean here. In only three hours, the light will again be fading, and a few hours later, if the wind releases its grip on us, I will return to the chaos of Reykjavík.

14 December 2006

það aldin út er sprungið*

yesterday evening's choir rehearsal gave me much food for thought. Since it's That Time of year, we were firing up the Christmas tunes, and of course they've all got Icelandic versions. We sang "joy to the world", "silent night", and a few other favorites that I know absolutely by heart already in at least one, if not two languages. I love Christmas music so it's been a special treat to learn these versions that only a handful of people know internationally, even if singing them does make me laugh a little at the unfamiliar feel of the Icelandic syllables.

We also went over Iceland's national anthem that we'll sing for the new years festivities, my first time hearing and singing this one! It was originally written before Iceland's independence as a hymn, so it's got full four-part harmony and an extended range that makes it hard to sing. However, it's definitely got that Icelandic Song Feel I now associate with the practice room and all these weeks of walking to rehearsal as the sky darkened and the weather grew crisp.

This song is interesting though, because several people I've asked about it have been hesitant to say they definitely know all the lyrics and would be able to sing it right away. Unlike the American anthem, which is trotted out before most sports games and everyone seems to know, this one doesn't seem to be as participatory. Seems that people know it and love it but just don't sing it, even though it's in the church psalm book (is the US anthem in the average church book?).

So if all y'all want to join the craze and spread the word of the Ice-anthem, have a listen here (I suggest the "Blandaður kór a capella" mp3), and read more about it in your language of choice here.

*a favorite carol of mine, also known to my English-speaking readers as "lo, how a rose e'er blooming"

12 December 2006

'tis the season

I came back from Holland to find that Iceland’s inexorable flurry towards Christmas was in full swing. The office is trimmed with silver balls and lights, garlands string down Laugavegur, and Icelandic carols stream from all corners. It may be the darkest time of year but this country knows how to put on a show. This morning I went for a swim at the pool where the white light garlands bedecked the panel of windows along the back, and on the notice board it’s crammed with notices of Christmas concerts. Walking home, I passed the grocery store that had set out the advent candles near the door, and a cart full of pine branches that exuded yuletide evergreen fragrance.

Today at lunch we had the special Christmas eve dinner- ham, potatoes, carrots, and brussel sprouts, accessorized with jam and of course, purple cabbage. Almond pudding with cherry sauce followed, and then, as the rising sun brightened the massive white expanse of Esja to the north, we listened to Christmas carols sung by co-workers. Nothing like the Icelandic rendition of “We wish you a merry Christmas” to put one in the mood and remind me that although some things are familiar, this still ain’t quite home.

Still, things do fit better than last year. I know when the hangikjöt’s coming, I know to expect candles and ginger cookies, and while there are and will continue to be some new flavors and experiences, those things I remember from last year are already welcome in their reappearance. Also, I remember jealously watching last year as our daylight slipped away, mourning each minute’s disappearance. This year I’m looking at the numbers only when someone outside of Iceland asks how the light is, but it hasn’t been a preoccupation like before. It’s dark, it’s light, but it’s always changing. The hour and a half of pre-sunrise is a special electric time anyway, when the hillsides are still dark but the promise of sun burns flourescent on the horizon in the form of shocking pink clouds and blazing rays that light up the sky. I sit on the southern side of the office, so the sun’s short arc is now all in my view, from the prolonged sunrise to the lazy progress at sunset. It may not be gorgeous weather all the time, but these transitional times are three times longer than in Boston, so when it is clear, there's plenty of time to enjoy it.

06 December 2006

front-row seat

I am posting now from inside a houseboat on the Amstel canal in Amsterdam. I came north yesterday to meet friends who had rented the boat for the week, and it was a wrothy trip. The boat is exactly everything it should be- built in 1890, owned for some years by an artist, and all rustic wood and interesting cupboards. It's tied next to a grand-looking crown-topped bridge and even has its own garden-raft, complete with a resident pair of swans.

After a dinner of Indonesian rice dishes together last night, I took a solitary walk through the streets of the city. Something about being in this city always makes my life feel like such an otherworldly adventure- these crooked buildings, these canals, bicycles, and boats, the humped bridges trimmed with lights that couldn't be more scenic if they tried.

When I returned to the boat, I found everyone sitting round the wood stove in the main room of the boat, where the dark wood and huge skylight created a cozy and restful place in the windy night. A was in the process of knitting mittens, but abandoned it in favor of staring into the fire, and M was reading the Dutch translation of a houseboat book that I remember reading in the library in high school. In the section about Holland, there was even a picture of this boat that I must have looked at almost 10 years ago. Outside, the trams rumbled over the bridge, and passing canal traffic created wakes that made the ropes creak and the shadows from the lights swing with the motion.

The boat is relatively spacious and things are not tied down or behind railings like other boats I have been in, since it does not appear to have moved in decades. It does have a mast but never had engines, so it has spent most of its life tied up in this small section of canal. Still, its boat-y tendencies are undeniable, with the narrow stairs, the hatches and short doors that latch down in several ways, and the gangplank that brings you back to shore. The motion from the wind and water is just slight enough that one can forget you're in a boat until you see the swing of the lantern or hear the mysterious water-sounds that gurgle somewhere along the hull.

We're at the juncture of another canal with a drawbridge over it, so I just interrupted my writing to watch a barge of sorts churn through and swing down the Amstel. Lots of traffic out there this morning, including lots of glass-windowed tourboats, in spite of the rain that sweeps past hastily. I see blue sky out there though, so perhaps the day will clear. Still, there's nothing quite like waking up in a houseboat with rain spattering the skylight, the remains of last night's fire still keeping the room cozy. I'm reminded of my parent's summerhouse- the lovely sleepy quiet of rainy mornings, the odd accumulation of things that don't quite go together but mean something and somehow belong in the place, the tiny rooms, and the smell of summer cottages and water.

I could stay in this boat all day but the whole of Amsterdam awaits across the gangplank so it's time to finish the coffee and go make plans now!

04 December 2006

what does it feel like?

I have an older brother who spent a lot of time living abroad before I ever had a passport, and he was the first real flavor I got of what life might be like living and travelling outside of the US. I remember him telling me that the days never could seem as crappy because at least you were living in this much-desired place, and that there were lots of tortoises in Athens. He told me this because it's always those little things that make the difference between being somewhere and reading about it in a book. There's always something that makes it personal for you.

Here in Holland, those things are accumulating for me- I can find the shops that sell marzipan shaped like partly gutted fish and school satchels, and I've tasted the bottlecap-sized ginger cookies available at every reception desk and shop at this time of year. I now know that some people still DO wear the iconic wooden Dutch shoes, and that carrying an umbrella while cycling must be a somewhat effective method for staying dry in the rain. I've learned that a side dish of potatoes must come with every meal, even if the main plate already has mashed potatoes, and that Dutch men like a lot more hair gel than the average Icelander.

I always wanted to see the minutiae of everyday life in new places- what is sold in grocery shops, what the advertisements on TV are like, what people do on a Monday evening in a village. This evening I watched that unfold as I ate dinner alone at a brasserie around the corner from my hotel. The butter yellow windowframe at the front looked out over a carless street full of activity. The rain that started an hour before had glossed the road and made the people coming from shops across the square hurry past, their parcels clutched close. Just outside, under the restarant's awning, a single candle flickered in blue glass on the wicker cafe tables, and across the way, people ducked into a glowing pub. There were pool tables in play inside- I could see the flash of cue ball as it rolled across the felt, and outside a man leaned against the doorframe in the middle of an involved conversation.

Monday evening was in that winding down stage: to my right, the waiter from the adjacent restaurant set out the trash barrels, a lit cigarette illuminating his face slightly, as couples paired beneath umbrellas passed. There was a bit of wind that made the awning trimming flutter and set the white Christmas lights swinging along the length of the street, and inside I could hear the sound of scrubbing in the kitchen, a extra rhythm section for the tacky French Christmas tunes that played in the nearly empty restaurant.

The bells of the church struck ten as I settled the bill, then I went from being observer to participant as I too stepped outside into the street and joined the dispersion of people, everyone headed home to a warm, dry place somewhere in this short Dutch town.

29 November 2006

lingonberries and painted horses

I'm posting to you from Stockholm, on my way to Amsterdam. The short notice of the flight meant a circuitous route, and rather than my un-favorite Heathrow, I ended up here for a few hours. I'm part of what seems to be a large migrant horde of business people, most of them besuited men.

There's not enough time to really learn much about here other than my quick lunch and interactions with the airline personnel, all of whom were very friendly if not always very helpful. Still, I'm curious enough to want to come back and see more than the inside of this vaguely 70's style airport.

25 November 2006

frozen tide

When I was a kid on the beach in the summer, I used to always wonder what it would look like there during the winter. How does snow look on a beach? Would there be ice on the ocean anywhere? Since those days, I've had plenty of chances to see snow on the sea while living here, but I've never really gotten up close and personal, so this afternoon I went down to where I'd gone back in August to see what the shoreline looked like frozen.

The snow along the shore was almost untouched by tracks as I waded through the ankle-deep snow and down to the black sand beach. It was low tide so the frozen sand expanse reached far out to sea below the grass and rocks, exposing kelp and tiny tide pools. The kelp had been completely encased in a prickly layer of frost, and the rocks along the edge of the shore were similarly frosted. Out to sea, the black silhouette of a single seabird bobbed in the calm water, and overhead a myriad of tiny planes were angling in to land.

On the shore, the rocks that edged the beach curving to the south were completely enfolded in ice, shiny like glazed German Christmas cookies, and across the bay, Bessastaðir´s tiny assemblage of buildings hunkered beneath the ghostly pastel formations of the mountains. I stood there on the shore for twenty minutes, watching the sun-glow fade from the houses on the coast, and listening to the swans call to each other as they flew overhead. The landscape was so static at that witching-hour, the tide pools still and frozen, the sea empty of ship traffic, and the seapath behind me quiet save a few hardy walkers with a squirmy flock of King Charles spaniels.

Since that quiet moment hours ago, the wind has started to whistle again, the clouds drifted in, and the darkness has closed around us. Just like so many experiences here, the moment was fleeting yet incredibly memorable.

*Sunday Addendum: I went back down there at a slightly earlier time with K, and we enjoyed the similar weather conditions along with dozens of other people out walking. I once again experienced the usual sensory overload of winter ocean sunsets and took lots more pictures.

24 November 2006

November new year

On Wednesday evening, after a full day of work, singing, and work again, I heeded a plea from a co-worker and headed downtown dressed in gala party attire. As I mentioned earlier this year, I work with a guy in a well-known Icelandic group, and last night they were shooting a video for a new years song. Everyone in the group had called their friends with the same request- wear sparkly clothes and come have some free beer.

So we all trailed into the plush Deco-style bar in the basement of the National Theater, where the band had already been at work rehearsing and taking holiday-themed photos. A makeup artist (I'm told she works with Bjork as well) was adding eyeshadow to various party guests, and my friend K did updos for several (including me). Tinsel-trimmed party hats appeared from somewhere, horns and those curly blow-things (what ARE these called? I don't even know how to find a picture of what I'm talking about) that I remember from parties as a kid.

After about 45 minutes of sitting around watching hairdos and eye makeup in process, we were all ushered into the "set" room where the band had been practicing their mime-singing after the photo shoot. Everyone was sprinkled liberally with confetti and streamers, and then the director stood on a chair to instruct in rapid Icelandic (I was the only non-Icelander in the whole room). The scene: 25 seconds to the new year at the best party ever and we love the band.

And indeed I did. They've got great presence even when not actually singing (we were hearing a pre-recorded performance), and it was rather fun and silly to be dancing around among balloons and confetti and streamers with horns and party hats on a Wednesday evening. We rang in the new year about six times in various takes with slightly different instructions, then it was a wrap. Everyone brushed off the confetti and then it was time to finish the beer and hang out.

I love the unexpected randomness of life here. I can spend the day working intensely, then go sing Bach, and then be a dancing extra in a music video. As I said before, part of it is the small-pond syndrome, and since Iceland's got everything a country has on this small scale, it's much easier to have your nose in a hundred different activities. I can't wait to see how the result comes out!

22 November 2006

night café

Last night I met friend B downtown at one of those semi-subterranean cafes that are sprinkled at the feet of this town. The clientele of these little grottos tend to be more student-oriented, and usually decorated with a jumble of Fascinating Objects. Behind my seat was a vintage coffee grinder, and the front windowsill and ceiling-level shelves were littered with other grandma's attic finds- a vintage typewriter, miniature painted horse, toy car, wooden skis, and small still-life paintings. In one corner, a neon-illuminated cake display went through a stuttered and squeaking rotation, displaying a thickly frosted chocolate cake.

As with most cafés at this time of year, the illumination was heavy on the candlelight- each table with its own tealight, glass-sided lanterns along the waist-high ledge, and wall sconces of a similar low wattage adding glow. The tables were slightly scuffed wood with chairs to match, and although the place was a fairly no-nonense spot, the table we sat at was still covered by a pressed, freshly laundered red-checked cloth. It's always the little details at places here in Iceland that get to me. Here we were at a place where 19-year-olds were hanging out to do their homework and there are fresh linens on the tables.

B and I opted for the seasonally-appropriate jólabjór (Christmas beer), talking to the accompaniment of the easy-listening Icelandic tunes that fit perfectly for the unpretentious ordinaryness of the evening. Among other things, we discussed the speed of change in the society here, and the fast infiltration of international cultures that is changing the landscape of the city here. Last night was just the kind of moment that may succumb to these changes, with all those little factors that combine to make the evening what it was. Part of the reason I write so much on my blog is because I want to capture how it is here so I can remember this Iceland, this Reykjavík, as it feels now.

After hours of talking, our candle guttered with a puff of smoke and it was time to go. Outside, the cars swished on the wet road and the eaves everywhere dripped noisily. All the squeaky-cold still weather from the day before was gone, replaced by a blustery spring-like warmth that brought out the tangy scent of the black cottonwood bark. The snow on the ground had gone soft, its formerly crisp whiteness turned translucent from melting, and the black sidewalks glistened. Iceland is an ever-changing place, and I'm just glad to be here witnessing it.

21 November 2006

silent city

Last night I walked home late in the evening, after the traffic had stopped, in a Reykjavík I'd never quite experienced before. Under a clear, still sky, the city was almost as silent as the glacier had been, interrupted only by a single car on the opposite side of Tjörnin. Orion blazed above Þingholt, and although I spent most of the walk scanning overhead, not a smidgen of northern-lights green disturbed the velvet night.

Underfoot the still-fresh snow squeaked gently, and my breath puffed white like steam swirling from a hotspring in the cold. This is my kind of winter weather- just chilly enough that you appreciate mittens but still and crisply clear. The streets were so silent and undisturbed, I noticed things I'd never observed before- the pipe stubs at the corner of the cemetery wall that issued forth gentle steam through the prickly bare rosebushes, the sound of water surging beneath manhole covers in the street.

Hringbraut at that hour was completely barrren, making it hard to believe it could ever be bumper-to-bumper with cars. I'm always surprised at how definitely this city Goes To Bed. Even in Boston, a town known for the Puritain values, there still seemed to be some kind of motion or just the feeling that somewhere else, someone else might be walking or driving. Here I could stand in the center of this busiest of roads in the places where the nail-tires had created dips in the road without any contest.

For some people, being carless and having to walk all the time might seem like a drag. Sometimes it is a little bit, when it's bitingly cold and windy and you are carrying lots of things, but it also means I have the chance at these moments, alone with the city sparkling silently, frigidly around me. I also know that for some people this kind of quiet can either feel frightening or boring, but it never seems that way to me. There's something in the combination of the vast sky arcing overhead, the short scale of the buildings here, and the snowmen still standing proud in the yards and on the pond that gives me a comforting feeling that things are as they should be.

20 November 2006


Last night as I got home from the James Bond movie, the clouds that had been hovering on the horizon finally swept over and the snow started to fly. The wind kicked up too, and soon the view outside the window was completely white. I snuggled beneath my duvet and listened to the wind and the prickling of the flakes on the panes, safe in my feather nest for a cozy sleep.

The next morning I woke as the day was just getting bright, to the clear voices of children and the scrape of a shovel. The snow had stopped but the wind still pulled snow-tornadoes from the lawn outside, and the sky was low and murky. A few hours later I laced up my hiking boots and waded out the door too meet a friend downtown. As I've probably mentioned before, they're not much for shoveling and plowing here, so I was trekking through shin-deep snow on the sidewalk, occasionally stepping out to the road where the drifts got high.

Along the way, I detoured through the cemetery to take photos of the magically transformed landscape. In spite of the wind, the pine trees were still snow-laden, and the metalwork railings had been traced with blown snow. Everywhere was confectionary sugar, cakes of snow perched atop fenceposts, and a few single tracks of footprints. On the other side of the cemetery, people were digging out cars and frolicking on the wide, frozen expanse of Tjornin, making enormous snowballs and snow angels. I may no longer be a kid but I still get giddy feelings about a fresh snowstorm like this and the fresh dampness of the air afterwards.

Further in town, the cafes were quiet but the hill at Arnarholl was sprinkled with sledding kids. I love that downtown is sledding ground here. After lunching, I headed seawards, where the gulls in the water were being flung around by the enthusiastic sea, and the wind made for a treadmill-like flying condition, as they flapped and flapped with no forward progress. The clouds to the north were moody and low, but the weather remained storm-free and strangely warm after the days of frigidness.

After an inspection of the harbor and the ships in town, a scratch behind the ears of a self-important short white dog, I made my way home through the blue light of dusk, admiring the light-effects on the tidy houses and the snappy use of color that makes Reykjavik what it is. A good Sunday.

16 November 2006

we are tougher than you

In the past three days, the balmy weather of Sunday has descended into a special kind of frigid, with temps hovering around -7c for the most part. That in itself is quite tolerable to my New England raised self, but what makes it spectacular is the steady wind that's currently clocking in at 20mph, with gusts at almost 50. After the warm day on Sunday, the snow all disappeared, so the landscape has that peculiar frozen-looking deadness that's enhanced by the ever-sinking sun.

Everyone here keeps going on proudly about how this must be THE COLDEST I have felt EVER, but to be honest, it's about like my high-school years on an exposed hilltop in Vermont. There were even times in Boston that were that cold, so I'm used to it, people. I've got three cashmere sweaters that are in heavy rotation right now, a jaunty hat, a sweeping scarf, and mittens, all serving me nicely. As I was walking downtown last night, I kept checking... cold? Nope, still toasty. It's all about layers, and befriending people who will knit you things.

Wind like this IS rather preposterous to walk in though, and reminded me of a story my mom heard before I moved here. My mom's got a friend who's been in the international diplomatic circle her whole life, and when her friend heard I was moving to Iceland, she said that the only thing she knew about the country was from someone who had been stationed here some time ago. She'd been told that it was necessary to tie the kids together so they didn't blow away in the fierce weather here. At the time, I dismissed the story as anecdotal and rather goofy, but now I'm not so sure. I've had enough plokkfiskur to make me a little more earthbound than a grade-schooler in the wind, but last night I found myself laughing as I sailed sideways across Lækjargata, the wind ripping my cold-stiffened iPod wire from my ear and untwirling my scarf from my neck.

I'll admit that I wouldn't want to have to deal with weather like this all the time, but as I've said before, the weather here's bound to change in a few days. Until then, I put on my best New England face and lean into the wind, and do my best to find the interesting features of weather like this. For example, I discovered cool ice-effects in the waterfall-wall outside the city hall. It's gonna be a long winter if you can't find something worth admiring.

12 November 2006

twisted tongues

Yesterday I went to a party at a house where four women of different nationalities live. Naturally the crowd matched their diversity, with a count of at least 9 different countries represented. There was almost no overlap in the primary languages, except for one Swiss guy who found himself with Germans as well as a Frenchman to talk to.

Growing up in the US, it was of course part of the education to learn another language, but it was rather like a hat to wear at Ascot. Not very practical, but you pull it out every now and then, impress everyone, have a good laugh, and then put it away in favor of something more useful. I learned French in school, and enjoyed it tremendously but I didn't have a chance to actually use it on real French people until age 20. This is the common story. You can travel six hours on a plane and still be in the United States where everyone still speaks English, and there's all the diversity of landscape and climate and population density in one country that you could ever want, both for business and pleasure. So, knowing another language is a nice thing but hardly necessary.

Then I come here, and an idle mention that I speak French blossoms into having to edit proposals in French, and then I keep finding places and pockets where it's the most useful language to communicate. Evenings out or in usually bring me into contact with half a dozen other nationalities, so any other language knowledge is bound to come out and put through its paces. Even my three sentences in Russian and the other three in Portuguese have been enough to surprise and create a connection where there wasn't before.

The lack of shared words doesn't seem to stop people from communicating anyway though. For example, last night at the party I came upon three goldsmiths having a riotous conversation, but none of them spoke the same language with the same abilities, so they'd resorted to a blend of Pictionary, good guesses, and gestures. Other conversations would begin in one language, switch to another midway through, then back to a third for the benefit of a newcomer. Here, nobody is impressed if you can speak another language, at least unless you're from the US. Then everyone falls over themselves with amazement that I learned it there and don't sound like a mangled goat when I talk. It happens, people, and there are a lot more of us out there that can do it.

I still feel woefully inadequate when most people are fluent in at least two languages and have picked up two or three others while studying, working, or just for fun and thrills. If I stick with this lifestyle maybe it'll happen to me too, but for now I'll just have to be content with understanding the Danish cooking instructions on the back of the frozen veggies, or the sign about gastronomical diseases in Norwegian that's been put up in the bathroom at my work.

Ship sighting: This afternoon as I was heading to the pool, there was a little fishingboat in a driveway I pass often. It was wonderfully out of context there in the midst of the usual Reykjavik neighborhoodness- house, driveway, house, yard, trampoline, minivan, boat. When I passed by later, a tarp had been rigged up over the stern and I could hear conversation underneath. I guess they've got a DIY preparation for the next fishing season going on under there.

11 November 2006

renewed vision

I just walked home in the fresh darkness of an animation-perfect snowstorm, the kind that confidently layers itself on your coat and hat in a no-nonsense way and swirls beautifully in the lights. Iceland's definitely figured out how to do outdoor illumination thanks to the almost constant use in the winter, so the familiar places looked strange and different under this snow-glow and mysterious lighting. I took pictures along the way, enjoying the stuttered look of the snow that my camera captured, the vertical columns of snow in the recessed ground lights near Tjörnin, the striped effect where the underground hot water pipes had warmed the sidewalk enough to melt the coating in places, and the way this short city can manage to appear imposingly majestic as it hangs on to this windswept rock in spite of the weather that roars around it constantly.

It sometimes takes a while to fall back in the rhythm of appreciating winter but I'm finding my pace. I grew up with snowstorms but I still fall in love with them all over again whenever I see it for the first time each season. I know it's not always going to be postcard-elegant snow that falls mostly vertically (since precipitation is rarely vertical here) but right now, right here, I'm loving it.

09 November 2006

agnus dei

It's that time of year, when things start to get Very Dark and in choir we've reached the Agnus Dei movement of the chorale we're learning. These things seem to always go together, bringing back memories of high school when the pre-season ski training started and we were in the final preparations for the end-of-semester concert. We'd come in to evening chorus from the dark blustery weather, breathless and pink-cheeked, squirming puppy-like with the extra energy of country teenagers and filled with the wind blowing atop the Vermont hills we trained on. After warm-up, we'd sing, running through the beginning parts we knew well by then, and finally, agnus dei, the always coming near the end of the standard Latin mass or chorale. Promises of resurrection amidst the sorrow, often sung quite high, usually less complex than the other parts before, but so very beautiful. Even at 15, this was moving to sing.

Many of these masses and chorales seem to use the higher registers of the soprano voices, so they're hard to sing early in practice, but there's always that moment when my voice releases and I can find the high notes again. It all blends together then- time past and time present, Iceland and Vermont, the cycles of seasons and large pieces of music, and the combined effort of many voices in four-part harmony. It's not always perfect but it's so worth it for those times when everyone finally starts to feel their part and the way the voices weave together.

I'm comfortable in this familiar experience singing masses, but the longer I'm here, the more universal the whole experience starts to feel, especially in the cold and dark now when the fragrance of the moss is muted. When I walk at night, the staccato of a one-way cellphone conversation from a passerby will snap me from my reverie and internal singing but I disappear back into the sensory experience around me quickly- the prickle of cold on the inside of my wrist where my glove is rumpled, the automatic shift in the way I walk when I hit a patch of ice, the constant scanning of the northern sky for any sign of green (none last night). Cold and windy dark fit together with the music of redemption, like jam and lamb fit, like apples and cheddar.

08 November 2006


More than 450 years ago, the last Roman Catholic bishop of Iceland, Jón Árason, was killed. In recent years, interest has returned in his life and poetry, and last night was the anniversary of the beheading, so there was a presentation of a newly published book about him last night at the national museum. I went with H to listen to a reading from it by an actor, hear some songs from the period, and witness the presentation of the first copy to the Minister of Education from the Alþing. Although I still don't have perfect Icelandic comprehension, verses like the ones last night are perfect for me- a very set structure full of rhyming, and since he was a bishop, it was mostly religious vocabulary, something I've got a decent grasp on. Regardless of whether I understood or not, the setting was appealing, with the sun fading from the stained-glass windows in the stair hall there, and the resonant voice pouring Icelandic over the crowd. Many people think Icelandic is not a particularly beautiful language, but I disagree. With the right voice it's a buttery thick experience, full of richly rolled r's and strong rhythms.

After the presentation of the book to the Minister of Education, we headed downstairs to the photo gallery for wine and schmoozing. I got lost in the photo exhibit there, a series of pictures entitled "unknown perspectives". The pictures were for the most part quite ordinary- early to mid-century views someone floating on an inflatable raft, people washing fleece, a backyard strung with laundry, or people pumping gas. The idea of the exhibit was exploring the reason why someone had decided that moment was important enough to document it, and maybe learn more about these scraps of the past. In a country as close-knit as Iceland, chances are someone who passes through the gallery will know something about one of the images. There were papers available to fill out if you recognized someone or had location information, or had some possible interpretation why it was a documentable moment. I love stuff like this- the most ordinary of scenes from lives long ago given a space where you're allowed to spend 10 minutes staring at it while constructing your own story about why someone cared about the events portrayed.

While I wandered through Iceland's past, H had been busy hobnobbing with the Minister of Education, so she introduced me, and we had a short conversation in my best Icelandic before heading out to do one of our semi-regular evenings of tasty food and economics editing. I've now become quite well-versed in the ins and outs of foreign direct investment in Iceland, the knowledge-capital model, and the Edgeworth box. I never know when this might come in useful.

Before going home, we decided to check in on the US election event I'd heard about, so we went to the university student hang-out that had been madly draped with American flags. I had been expecting a few lonely souls there, but the place was already jammed with earnest Icelandic students, a small posse from the US Embassy, and one professor from BU who's teaching a class here this semester. They had a projector showing CNN, and soon after we arrived, the prof and one embassy guy went up to explain the US election process with an Icelandic woman (I didn't catch what her connection to the crowd was). It's odd to hear a 10-minute presentation on this process you've known about forever, especially when you're pointed out individually in the crowded room as the person who's from the state with all the Independent party representation (Yay Vermont!). During the question period, the crowd showed its stuff by asking all manner of thoughtful questions on the topic. It almost made me proud to be from this interestingly complex country, even if I don't want to live there right now.

07 November 2006

wakeup call

Every day on the way to work, I pass a tiny tree outside the National Library near where I live. It's only about a meter taller than I am, squashed between a parking lot and the mini-plaza outside the library entrance, but for some reason, it's The Place To Be if you are a bird in Reykjaví­k. These past two mornings as I went by in the frigid darkness, it's been blooming with fat birds, tucked among the red-berry laden branches. They're all busy chattering, singing and chirping to each other, and although there aren't many spots on the branches, they all seem to be quite democratic about everyone having a turn so the traffic flow is constant. It's like the Dunkin' Donuts of the local bird community, where everyone's got to swing by for a gossip before they go off to their bird-deskjobs, whatever that entails here in Iceland.

I'm usually rather in my head when I leave the house, nose buried in my scarf, iPod at the ready, but the cacophony of this little tree is enough to snap me out and remind me to look around myself, and feel the strange crunchy spring to the partly frozen earth in the grassy spots, then look upward and observe the odd way the high clouds are illuminated by the sun that still hides below the horizon, and breathe the freshly frigid air that never fails to clear head-cobwebs. Even in the dark, there are still things worth paying attention to.

06 November 2006

All hail

Last weekend was the perfect weekend to do Not Much with proper style. We had a lovely storm on Saturday night, which I spent as it should be spent- candlelit dinner with friends followed by lying on a windowseat with a wooly blanket, 80's movies and a purry tabby cat, while the wind blustered and the rain and hail clattered outside.

Of course, one must not stay inside all weekend, and the grand thing about Iceland is that the pools are always open, even when hail threatens. So, K and I went to Árbær, where I remembered again how much I love swimming. It's odd how many things have become part of my life in the past year that I can now not imagine being without. Crunchy onions on my hot dog, red currants, quick access to the freshest of air, and swimming. I love the smooth feeling of the water, the way a slight change to the angle of your head or hips creates a totally new streamlined effect, that rewarding zoom when you kick up the pressure against the pool. Then there's the frisson of movement at the end of the pool that results in a quick change of direction, the constant evaluation and reassessment of the timing so that the breathing and strokes come out just right at the end of the lane. I love the rhythm of the breathing, and how I can feel the difference in my singing control when I've just been swimming before. Yesterday, there were leaves on the bottom of the pool, so every sweep of my arm sent them swirling in a subaquatic tornado across the blue tiles, and the snatches of view when I turned my head above the surface were tree-filled and swiftly moving.

But I digress. I had that can-swim-all-day feeling yesterday, but as my arms just started to go leaden, the mushroom-gray clouds that had swept in started to shed prickly hail. I ducked under the water and rolled on my back so I could watch it fall on the surface. If I was close enough, I could feel the moments of cold as each ice-pebble dissolved on the warm water. When I nudged under the lane dividers and made my way to the nuddpottur, the kids were all ecstatically scooping up handfuls of hail from a corner where it had collected, and watching it melt in the hot water, delighting in the frigid/hot contrasts.

Weather here is certainly a participator sport when you know you can be almost naked out in almost every variation there is to offer. A bit different from the pool of my youth, where a sniff of rain was enough for the lifeguards to sound the everybody-out for fear of lightning. It's rather a non-issue here, so you're welcome to swim at any time- high winds, snow, rain, or hail. I already liked to be aware of the cycles of nature around me, and my childhood lesson on how to survive winter (do stuff outside regularly) still applies here.

As I type this now, the wind has kicked in once again after a relatively calm day, and I can see that snow has begun to spiral and hover in the streetlights. Perfect weather for a swim!

03 November 2006

burning questions

I've kinda fizzled out on the WOW posts after this week's writing, so I'm not going to try. However, I have two questions for the multitudes, both here and abroad:
  • why are there multicolored pennants stretched across Laugavegur, each painted with a nicely-detailed silhouette of the female reproductive system, fallopian tubes and all?
  • why, after not worrying about them for almost two years, am I currently obsessed with the unavailability of Reeses Pieces and peanut butter cups here in Iceland? I've started scanning shelves idly for peanutbuttery goodness and it's a no-go here. All licorice and English stuff. I might have to request an emergency ration from the US at this rate.

and in other news, Christmas is apparently hot stuff right now. Yesterday afternoon I witnessed a Christmas fashion show for kids at the mall, complete with inappropriate club tunes, 3 year-old models strutting the runway, and foam snow. They're stringing up the lights on the lamp-posts and hanging garlands everywhere, and on Tuesday I went past a function hall that was crammed with whole tables of mini-Santas wrapped in plastic. As I said last year, with no holidays to stem the Christmas-tide from encroaching well into autumn, they get their holiday on pretty early here.

Ship sighting: I went down to the harbor a few days ago for some photo time and found all kinds of lovely ship and fishing detritus sprinkled around the dock. I happened upon a news crew doing some whale-hunt reporting, so I think my lopapeysa was seen on the news that evening.

02 November 2006

driving through rainbows (part 4)

(note: all links here are photos I took on the trip)
The next morning everyone slept late in the dark hut, and when I awoke, I was again alerted to potential beauty by the tiny square of bright color in the hut's glass door pane. Outside, I was just in time to see the sun cresting to the left of Iceland’s highest mountain peak, Hvannadalshnúkur and turning everything it touched pink and peach. We’d missed the view when we came the night before, since the snow had closed itself around us, so this moment of reveal was astonishing- the crisp deepness of the blue shadows accenting the tiny and large contours in the snow, the sparkling frigidity of the sun winking through the textured snow and the massive blue arc of sky above. On a micro-scale, the surface here is not like the surface of a usual field of snow. It’s prickly from wind and frost, in tiny ice-crystal mountains that crunch and squeak underfoot.

We cleaned up the hut and secured the door from the winds, then set the GPS for a northwesterly direction. The weather’s complete clarity promised good views to the northwest from another peak beneath the glacier, Bárðarbunga. We first stopped at a hot area near the hut where the glacier had melted and the land steamed beneath in crusty hot patches. The temperature of the air there was so instantly cold that filaments of steam had frozen in delicate ice-straws on the ground. Even the slightest vibration from my foot was enough to collapse a 2-foot section of these fragile formations.

Back in the car, we continued across the open landscape, able now to see all the dunes and undulations in the snow in the sparkling day, unlike the day before. On the horizon, mirages appeared over features of the landscape, making mountain contours hover darkly, then shrink and disappear like water on a hot pavement, or whole sections of the glacier ahead heaved in time with the jouncing car. We stopped for coffee near a snow gauge sprouting from the glacier, where N reported that the temperature was –17c. It was hard to believe though, since I was cozy in just three layers- a tank top, a lopapeysa, and a wind shell. I’m starting to think that the major key to Icelanders surviving here so long is the magic of Icelandic wool, and thanks to my cold-weather youth training, I’m comfy having it directly next to my skin.

As with all stops, I wandered away from the vehicles slightly to inspect the snow and the view. It was in wind-packed chunks there, and I worked one loose with the toe of my hiking boot. Underneath, the snow glowed dimly blue, the life-force of the glacier humming beneath the surface. Two days in a white landscape opens your eyes to all the colors that are actually present- blue, gray, yellow, and later I even saw red, green, and orange. Paring away the usual landscape noise that people introduce brings a special kind of visual freedom with it.

We drove on to the Bárðarbunga peak, another ecstatic reveal moment of the trip. None of the members of the group had been there on so clear a day, so everyone exploded in superlative words when the ridge curved away to reveal the vast landscape spread out below. Photographs simply didn’t do it justice, although we all did our best. From this peak on one glacier, we could see three others, the furthest in the distance the always-beloved MFG (my first glacier), Langjökull, and then chains of enfolded mountains dusted with snow in all directions.

On the way down from the peak and on the way to the edge again, G offered me the driver’s seat of the Rover so I could try the feeling of snow-driving. I learned to keep my hands outside the steering wheel in readiness for unseen surface irregularities, how to navigate the curious texture of the landscape, and where to pay attention for cracks. When we got to the steeper part, I relinquished it again, to the ovation of C&F in the back seat. I’m not much for driving but this was rather fun and I wouldn’t mind doing it again.

Our glacial dismount was much smoother than going up, and soon we were climbing the moraine at the base. We paused to inflate tires (built-in air compressors on these vehicles) and that’s when I noticed the multicolored sparkles in the snow. Rather than the usual clear twinkle, I could make out all the colors of the rainbow. When I pointed it out to everyone else, I got gentle questions about the state of my eyes or the quality of whatever I’d been smoking. I kept seeing it though, as we drove through the snowy landscape and across rivers, and after insisting a while longer, finally everyone else in the car saw it. Rainbows in the snow, but only when we were angled a particular way relative to the dropping sun and the crystal snow-surface. They followed us for the next hour, sometimes appearing in three directions and leading straight to the horizon.

It’s always a little heart-wrenching to come down from a remote and spectacular place and see civilization approach bit by bit. First road signs, then road features like bridges, banked corners and the yellow road-edge posts, then pavement beneath the tires, then powerlines and guardrails. We pulled into Hrauneyjar as the light was fading from the sky to find B waiting in the kitchen door, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. We unpacked C & F from the Rovers, had some coffee and cake, then took a final photo of the posse before everyone parted ways and headed back to lights, traffic circles, and crowds.

The next day I woke early in the darkness and pulled on a sweater that had been with me on the glacier. Although I hadn't worn it, its mere presence there was enough to become infused with a faint fragrance of hákarl. It's not a generally friendly smell, but that morning it was a comforting reminder that I'd been to this great place. My lens solution bottle had also become compressed from altitude like I'd been on an airplane. Four days later, the smell of shark has faded from my clothes and the bottle is back to normal, but I'm still thinking of being up there, out in the silence and open space. I actually brought a tiny pouch of sand with me from a beach on Martha's Vineyard, and on Sunday morning I sprinkled it over the snow near the huts, the wind snatching it and distributing it invisibly among the snow crystals. It's still up there, gradually working its way through the layers of snow, and eventually, maybe, someday it will once again return to the Atlantic ocean in a few millenia. I like that thought.

01 November 2006

Glacially cozy (part 3)

The huts at Grímsvötn were built to house volcano researchers, and are remarkably equipped given their location. A large cloakroom is naturally a necessity, with lots of space for soggy hiking boots and puffy coats, then inside, a functional kitchen complete with all kinds of spices, a gas stove, and special snow-melting contraptions for water. There was a collection of books in several languages (Icelandic Little Prince anyone?), literature on the volcano, and maps and atlases, then a long table and benches near a window that was totally obscured by the massive layer of accumulated snow and ice outside.

The rest of the hut was taken over by a bunk bed area that probably could sleep 16 comfortably, with another table in the center. On one side, tucked under the sloping roof, was a nook with a skinny mattress and a few spare benches. I was informed that this was the nooky-nook, the only chance at privacy in this open hut. The construction of the interior was all pale wood, the bed-frames detailed with carved accents, and strewn with dark-green throw pillows (stylish!)

Soon after we arrived, the other two from the group that had been down helping to fix a broken-down vehicle further down the glacier appeared, and we were complete for the night. Then came dinner. As I mentioned earlier, B at Hrauneyjar had piled us with provisions, but we also had already come with two legs of lamb and salad fixings. Someone fired up the grill outside and put the lamb and reindeer to cook, and then N (one of the late-arrivers) went to town in the kitchen making a sauce while H-the-younger did the traditional Icelandic caramelized potatoes. G pulled out a white damask tablecloth from the back of his Rover; we scrounged candleholders, opened wine, and prepared salad. It may have been a group of mountaineers and able to rough it very successfully, but this night it was pure elegance.

When everything was cooked to perfection, K (late arriver #2) carved the lamb and the deer and we gathered round the table near the bunks (very Roman). The food was incredible- the best sauce I’ve ever had, impeccable lamb, and the first time I’d had reindeer steak. We ate ourselves silly, the conversations still rolling in three languages- staccato Icelandic, bubbling French, and occasional English. We finished up with chocolate, but nobody had much space for dessert after such a meal. We slept early that night, although I was without clock or phone the whole weekend so I have no idea how late it was.

Later that night, I shimmied out of my sleeping bag and into my lopapeysa to head outside to go pee. Since there were no usable windows in the place (all were covered in ice), the only light came from the door, and even from the back of the dark hut, I could see the green cast to the square window. Outside, the snowstorm had cleared away, leaving the full expanse of open sky above, all of which was blazing with northern lights. I’d always thought that they only appeared to the north, but there, that night, they surrounded me in leaping, scrolling illumination. I stood on that ridge for probably 20 minutes, the gently persistent glacier-air nudging my back as I stared above. I think I’ve tried to explain the eerie effect of the lights before, but it’s never quite good enough. At its most genteel, they are the nighttime equivalent of a rainbow, a pale swash of green arcing in the sky. The most vigorous swirls in horizontal tornadoes, then straightens out and flickers, waves like banners in a breeze, and on special nights there's a curious tumbling-dominos effect. There on the glacier I got it all, plus static light-tassels that hung from nearly directly overhead, all in a scorching alien-green so bright it turned everything below it green too.

When I managed to tear my gaze away from the sky and look lower, the silent snow spread in all directions, without a single light or sign of another human. This experience was so far removed from anything I thought I’d be doing in my life, and such an amazing synthesis of serendipity- the massive natural forces at work around me: volcanoes, ice, perfectly clear, still weather, and astounding northern lights. I almost felt like an intruder on this stoic and deceptively peaceful expanse of snow. I know that glaciers are furious and inexorable things on a grand scale, and if the weather is disagreeable, it’s far from a friendly place, but that night it was exactly where I wanted to be.

31 October 2006

destination Grímsvötn (part 2)

First, for those of you who aren't familiar with Icelandic geography, I should mention that this most active of volcanoes I went to is also in the middle of the largest glacier in Europe, that covers 8% of Iceland's terrain. So, in addition to cozying up to my first active volcano, it was a twofer with a glacier thrown in. The drive to the edge of the glacier was still within the realm of the known for me, rather like driving on sand as a child on Cape Cod, only with mountains. We made quick time to the hut on the southwestern edge of Vatnajökull, then came the fun stuff.

Where the ice of a glacier meets the earth, all kinds of interesting things happen. There's tremendous shifting of sediment and ash from off the glacier, in addition to melting and shedding of ice chunks. All this makes for a bit of a thrilling time when attempting to climb up. We sloshed through the half-frozen and secretly fast glacial lagoon/river on the edge, pausing to winch H's Rover out of a tight spot partway over, then it was up to the ice. It turned out to be far steeper than predicted, and with little to no soil or snow to give us purchase on the ice, the vehicles were having a slippery time of it. Late autumn is also a challenging time to climb glaciers, since the summer melting cycle results in many cracks that may now be partly hidden by snow. G's vehicle found one of those (after I mentioned it looked a little dodgy) so then H had to winch us out.

The way didn't seem to be getting much better, so H-the-younger (brother of H) strapped on crampons and his lopapeysa, and armed with a walkie-talkie, walked up a few meters to see if it got better. Prognosis not good, so we turned around and headed down to the bottom again to attempt in a different location. However, in order to GET to the other location, we had to negotiate some sizeable mounds of sediment. I'm not scared of heights or being in remote places but the hairy near-vertical climbs and descents had me wondering what exactly I'd agreed to in coming on this trip.

Still, the combined mountaineering and glacier knowledge of the posse, and general level-headed sense made me feel that they weren't making foolish decisions and knew the capabilities and limitations of both the equipment and themselves. Plus, these cars were equipped- three kinds of communication methods, shovels, snow anchors, winches, fire extinguishers, waders, and who knows what else (plus CD player!).

And ok it was. Next attempt had us up on the blue ice quickly and easily, where I was soon able to marvel at the glowing depth and mysterious colors of the surface rushing beneath me. Ice! Lots of it! We progressed quickly then, following a GPS track from a previous trip, watching as the elevation rose rapidly on the dashboard display. Soon, the ice stopped appearing so blue and began to take on a mottled white as we hit snow. Time to stop to deflate tires- for snow driving, the tires were reduced to single-digit PSI, and eventually when we got higher and into deeper snow, down all the way to a squashy 3. In celebration of arriving on the snow, we all also had a piece or few of hákarl, then back into the cars to press on.

It was mostly silent for a while as we headed further, then over the radio there came a call from H. The box of hákarl had somehow shaken loose and had opened enough to allow its perfume to escape, and the French guys (C & F) were having a bit of a hard time with it. Then another call- "all ok, we're just driving with the windows opened"

The weather grew lower and grayer as we got higher, then soon became proper snow, eliminating the mountains in the distance and making it harder to see the contours of the snow ahead. In an expanse this large, the snow drifts and accumulates rather like sand, in dunes, in washboards, and small dips, so the ride was a little shaky as the visibility became thinner.

Another call on the radio "C & F can't handle it anymore. We've gotta switch". They gratefully piled in with G & me, bringing the fermented shark-scent in with them on their clothes ("good for the lungs", says H-the-younger), and then we continued further into the snow. Eventually even the horizon line was gone, and we were driving in a perfectly white landscape ("gives me vertigo", said C). I could only just barely make out the texture rushing by immediately outside the window, but everything else was as if I were under a clean bedsheet. At times we'd hit strangely deep snow and have to rock the car out a little, and had to take the tires down to 3 PSI at one point where it was too deep, but we made steady progress, and eventually on the left side we could make out a sooty ridge. Grímsvötn at last. We turned off the GPS track there and stopped at the base of a steep slope. Finding a shallower side, we climbed to the top of a knife-edge of marshmallowy reddish-black soil. Digging down a finger's depth into the sediment was almost too hot to touch, so vigorous is the geothermal activity there. Below us spread the wonder of geologic processes at their most active- a progression of explosion points that were at various stages of being once more consumed by the moving ice. Some areas steamed, and further below, shadowy crevices in the snow hinted at ice caves.

The easiest way to get down from there was to slide, so we all zipped down to the bottom and got back into the cars for the final ascent to the mountain huts on the highest ridge (about 1700 meters above sea level). These three hunkered-down buildings are atop another razor-thin edge of the caldera where Grímsvötn lurks, so they're equipped with tremendously toasty geothermal heat and even have electricity. Due to their exposed location, they're also entirely covered in thick ice that's required a complex double-door construction on all the openings- windows and doors. Unfortunately, the group there on Friday night had not unlocked the sauna hut, so we couldn't try out what makes this hut so legendary, but it was still a welcome and cozy place after the thrilling day.

30 October 2006

Hákarl brings people together (part 1)

As those of you who've been inspecting my photo page know, I went on an incredibly memorable trip this past weekend to Europe's most active volcano, Grímsvötn. This was already an unusual enough prospect in itself, but the divergence from previous trips in the highland direction began almost immediately. On the way up to the standard highland starting-point of Hrauneyjar, we took a right turn off the dark road in Þjórsárdalur. After an increasingly skinny progression of roads and a few hairpin turns, we ended up in a silent, slightly protected valley where a rough shed stood, its unlatched door flapping in the breeze. We ducked inside and piled our clothes on the bench inside, then out the opposite side, stepped into a deep, square tub of perfectly warm water. This complex had originally been built for sheep-washing, but now is almost entirely forgotten, save a few savvy bathers. I haven't been to many of these hidden springs, but this was definitely the most developed and the most hidden I've been to. After a frowzy day at work, tempestuous stormy weather in Reykjavík, and the frenzy of getting out of town on a Friday, this was also the perfect way to detach and forget about everything.

We then continued on to the meeting-point of the group I was going with, the end-of-civilization stop at Hrauneyjar. I'd last been there in August on one of the biggest travel weekends of the summer, and the change was noticeable. Last time, the place sprouted with lopapeysa-wearing Icelanders, Italians on motorcycles, Hungarian power trucks, and scads of other foreigners. This time it was only our group (a posse of mountain guides that are G's friends, most of whom I'd never met), the cook of the place, B, a Swedish woman who might or might not have been B's wife, and two French tourists. The French guys had heard Landmannalaugar was The place to visit in Iceland, so they'd arrived and attempted a few kilometers into the highlands before they decided their vehicle was totally unfit for the trip ahead.

Things began ordinarily enough- we ordered food, we coordinated with the other members of the group who were in various locations either further ahead or not quite there, we looked at the maps of the trip plan....

and then came the hákarl. One of the guys in the group (H) had been given an extraspecial chunk of the famous Icelandic putrid shark delicacy, which he'd cut up into proper chunks- none of those "tourist bits", as he called the little morsels you can buy in the airport. I'll confess that I had not yet tasted this stuff, but as the only girl and the only foreigner in this group I was entrusting my life to for the weekend, I knew I had to finally take the plunge. H extended the Toothpick of Challenge across the map spread on the table, and I went for it. It went down surprisingly easily, and then, high on my glee of Finally Eating Shark, I went to offer some to the French guys, and then innkeeper B had to have some too. This resulted in him producing the celebratory bottle of Brennivín, and he poured shots for all, overpouring mine on to the table and floor in his generous enthusiasm.

Somehow everyone- innkeeper and Swedish lady, French guys, and our group ended up at a table together after B brought out the stereo to add atmosphere (I seem to recall it was Irish tunes with Icelandic lyrics....). We explained the relative merits of going-out places in town for the French guys, we discussed the merits of the excellent shark (by then I'd had two more pieces and was well on my way to foreigner-expert status), B and G discussed how they were from the same tiny town on the south coast, and I was busy listening and translating from all directions, as the only one who had a chance of understanding the three primary languages of the table (there was a sprinkling of German too, at times).

Then, up sprang B to offer the next treat that Hrauneyjar was hiding, the hot tub. He dashed outside to fill it, then returned with his arms overflowing with towels for all of us. Eventually we did end up out there, but it was not quite as warm and cozy as the sheep-tub earlier in the night, since the area lacks the body-scorching naturally heated water. Still, we had to stick around in thanks for his tremendous hospitality, especially when he brought out pints of beer for all. To keep the teeth from chattering, we all sang songs, and then when we couldn't stand it anymore, we headed down the little corridor in the back to sleep while the wind whistled round the building.

The next morning I awoke to a 10-minute cycle of techno cell-phone alarm clock music coming from across the hall where the French guys remained resolutely in bed. When it finally ceased, I dozed off, and then the next thing I heard was B calling to them that they'd been invited to join our group and that he was making us all egg and bacon breakfasts. I rolled out of bed, suited up in cozy clothes for the trek ahead and went to the kitchen where hot coffee and two kinds of juice waited. B then came out with massive plates laden with toast, two eggs (he cooks a mean over-easy egg), a tangle of bacon, and a hillside of fries (fries at breakfast?). With the exception of H-the-younger, we were all defeated by the stack of fries, but B was undaunted and offered us more eggs or extra toast, then hangikjöt sandwiches and a carafe of coffee for lunch. Because we were adding two more to the group, the then plied us with food for dinner as well- potatoes, and since he didn't have any lambchops, a massive reindeer steak and several bottles of wine. I'm not sure if it was the strange emptiness of the place in the off-season, the mutual acquaintances, or the hákarl that did it, but we left much richer than we'd arrived, and with two French guys too.

So we climbed into the two Land Rovers and headed northeast, following the dirt roads into the highlands and to the edge of the glacier.

26 October 2006

filling in the gaps

Yesterday I decided to take the long way home, so I went to Hlemmer to walk the length of Laugavegur. Since I was there and it was early enough in the day for shops to be open, I crossed the street to check out the Asian store that opened a few months ago. Joy! A bonanza of Asian goodies awaited within, starting with cheap kitchenware and working its way back to the coconut vinegar and generous stacks of wasabi tubes. The refrigerator section contained all kinds of exciting things too- green peppercorns still in their as-grown clusters, huge chunks of fresh ginger, and a variety of dried mini-fishes that should appeal to the most hard-core harðfiskur-and-hákarl eating Icelander. I loaded up on noodles and seasonings, then threw in a few goodies that took me back to the old Porter Exchange days of college- the Kasugai wasabi peas, and Pocky. Sadly, they didn't have the legendary Men's Pocky, or the favorite snack of my first year in college, tomato salad pretz, but finding these other treats were enough to send me out of the shop skipping with joy.

It seems like every time I resign myself to having to go without some culinary experience that was part of my life in the US, I discover little shop or restaurant to take care of the need. Dejected about Indian? Austurlanda Hraðlestin takes care of you. Lost over the lack of Asian treats? Incoming! And THEN, if it wasn't enough to be able to burn my nostrils with wasabi whenever I want, I discovered a new shop's opened on Laugavegur that has a gaggle of Mexican seasonings. I'm afraid to hope that spicy Italian sausage wagons will join the waffle cart downtown on the weekends. If that happens, I'm applying for citizenship immediately!

25 October 2006

Ansel Adams

Yesterday morning the ride to work was like moving through a monochromatic photograph. The flat black of the mountains was traced in white, and merged frigidly with the low gray velour sky. It's lopapeysa-and-hat weather here already, and the crowds on Laugavegur have disappeared into fur-edged coats and colorful mittens. Winter comes when it likes here, and arrives fiercely, and according to the Icelandic two-season calendar, it's right on schedule. The darkness has also been closing around us like a sleeping bag being zipped up, the crack for air shrinking by almost 7 minutes a day. When it is sunny, the angle of the light reminds me of Decembers in Vermont, and makes me want to listen to pared-down Renaissance music (another peculiar feature of my schooling).

At the pool, a few hardy souls turn out to scuttle like hermit crabs across the frosty pavement and sink gratefully into the toasty water. Yesterday the crowd was particularly slim, since they'd drained the pool for paintwork and were only just refilling it, the water streaming across the empty poolbottom with a merry hotel-lobby fountain sound. I stayed for a good hour, enjoying the sensory experience of lying in the eimbað until I couldn't stand the heat, then sitting outside until frost formed on the edge of my swimsuit, lather, rinse, repeat. I left drowsy and warm, the heat-embers within well rekindled. Cold weather is much more enjoyable when there's a chance to scorch yourself so many different ways, and the hot-pots are MUCH more atmospheric in the velvet dark with the steam spiraling skywards.

Then this morning on the way to work, I got into a discussion with my (very kind and awesome for driving me so much this fall) co-worker about snow here, and apparently Icelandic could teach the world a thing or two about words to describe this weather. There are words for snow that blows during the storm, snow that blows without a storm, and all variations in between. As we pulled into the dark parking lot, he offered one final grand word for the day, hundslappadrífa. It translates literally as dog's-paw-snow, and is used to describe those big fat flakes that look like a dog's foot. I'm going to have fun when the snow starts blowing here!

Ship sighting: Nothing exciting to report in the boat-traffic arena, but the Icelandic Port Association reports that they were at a trade show for cruise ships in Italy, trying to stir up excitement for the ol' RVK harbor and a few others. So more cruise ships to look forward to next year, I guess.

23 October 2006

a different kind of whale watch

As some readers might be aware, Iceland has recently resumed commercial whaling. There's been small amounts of whaling for scientific purposes for years, but this decision has opened up the allowance to hunt whales of other species. In true Icelandic fashion, this has become a spectator event, so yesterday morning I went with friend G and two others out to Hvalfjörður to see the recently caught fin whale. I remember driving through the abandoned whaling station at the side of this fjord over a year ago, choosing to take the slow route where most people decide to save the hour and take the tunnel.

Unlike that ghost-town atmosphere last time, yesterday the whaling station was abuzz with activity and cars. Whole families had turned out to observe the massive creature be turned into steaks. By the time we arrived, the skin had been removed and lay in three-foot wide strips on the ground, and off to one side, the lower jaw bone, curved like the prow of a rowboat. I went to touch it, and the resiliant texture was exactly like rubber, with a membrane that was peeling off in thin layers that felt like the outer coating on a decaying old-fashioned raincoat.

There were men crawling all over the partly dismembered whale with long saws on the end of poles and spiked rubber boots, slicing into the side of what was left, and then after a little more work, someone fired up a winch, and they pulled out a filet that was probably 20 feet long. It slithered silently along the plastic floor covering and disappeared into the nearby processing shed.

There's something so honestly matter-of-fact about seeing this kind of thing. It's food, humans eat other animals, and this is what must happen in order to eat it. No ceremony, no apologies. It was also quite surreal to watch men scaling the blubber-encased carcass with their spiked boots, there on that golden-sunny calm Sunday afternoon in yet another spectacular Icelandic setting.

I've had a lot of discussions about whaling with people here these past few days, and while not everyone is for it, the ones that aren't don't point to the inhumanity as their objections. They mention the dubious economic benefit, or the possible loss to the whale-watching industry that's been growing tremenously in recent years. There's been talk of the hypocricy of those who object then going out to dig into a hamburger that's the product of a factory farm in South America where the animals hardly have a life, or the strange emotional connection people have to these mammals, the possible lack of understanding that there are many different species, and not all are endangered. There also seems to be a certain "we do what we like in our waters" component to it, although I find it odd that the whole whaling operation is run by just one guy. And finally, I wonder if it's just another display of what seems to be part of the national character, to do things that might be unpopular or difficult, just to show that it's possible, whether it's harboring Bobby Fischer or driving on a cracked glacier.

Ship sighting: Hvalur 9 was the ship that brought in the whale, and it was tied at the end of the whaling station dock, steaming silently. This boat and its three companions have been tied together down at the harbor for years, until Hvalur 9 was hauled to the dry dock a few months ago and given a complete makeover. Now we know why.

19 October 2006


I returned to Iceland on Monday morning after a weekend in Boston, and the landscape and my life re-absorbed me quickly. In the week I was away, winter came to Iceland, and the past three days have been freezing cold, with blazingly clear skies and snow on the mountains to the north. It’s energizing weather, with sunrises and sunsets that make my heart ache from all the uncontainable beauty. The nights have been equally stunning- perfect stargazing and the swirling green of the northern lights overhead. I missed that in Vermont- every time the evening was clear, I’d find myself unconsciously gazing to the sky in the north. Those kinds of habits die hard- it’s like growing up as an x-c skier and panicking when I woke to the sound of rain on the roof in January (nooo! The precious snow would be lost!).

The things that make America great are also the things that made it overwhelming after being there a week. The abundance of everything- words, food, shopping choices, are fun for a while, but made me realize why it’s so easy to end up with so many extra things you don’t really want when living there. If a pair of trousers is only $12, it’s easy to just buy them, only to discover that at home you’ve got 10 other pairs just like them. An afternoon at Filene’s Basement in Boston brings on a strange kind of desperation- I must buy these things NOW. The deal is too good, the item too unique. Of course, I did give in to a few things, all brightly colored- gold shoes, magenta corduroys, a flaming turquoise coat. The last one illustrates the difference between Iceland and Boston so very well too. I wore this coat on Newbury Street on Sunday, garnering several compliments from female shopkeepers and a street-length of flirtatious looks. In Iceland, it went virtually unnoticed a day later. Wearing brights is just what you do here to compensate for the approaching dark.

As for words, America is packed with them, and it’s not just because I can understand what’s going on. Signs and advertisements crowd around you in competition for your time and attention- the faded old painted ones on the brick facades in Boston, the billboards that line the highway in Massachusetts, even the traffic signs. Iceland’s got the multi-lingual friendly European signs, all brightly colored and for the most part wordless (STOP seems to have made it internationally though, with the exception of stubborn Francophone Canada). Of course, I did also experience the aural overload I’d been warned about. For example, on Saturday evening I dined with my friend M, a music producer with a finely-tuned set of ears. Still, I was hearing three times the conversational input from the crowded restaurant than he did- the guy three tables away talking about the raisins in his trail mix and his love of white baseball caps, the cozy couple behind us discussing their favorite New England country retreat, and the people on the other side of the room ordering from the waitress. Is it just because I understand it all or is it the volume of the voices?

One abundance I did love tremendously was being in New England at one of the best times for produce. The weather was still warm enough for fresh tomatoes, herbs, salad greens, and other vegetables arriving at the table hours after being in the soil, and late enough that the glorious crop of apples was available. People here in Iceland simply do not know what a proper apple tastes like- crisp, brightly white flesh, and a perfect balance of sweet & snap to the flavor.

Coming back here is home now though, regardless of apple status. The humm of Icelandic across the office is comforting, and my activities here have enveloped me so quickly that my half-unpacked suitcases are still strewn across my room. As we came in on Monday morning, I woke from my uncomfortable plane-doze and feared that this windswept land would have lost its inexplicable intrigue but it’s still there, although no longer as a foreign country though, but just where I live. Home.

Ship sighting: am debating pausing this portion of the blog since the winter brings pretty much the same rotation of boats constantly. The same cargo ships and a little activity on the Icelandic fishing fleet. Of course, the news that Iceland is going to resume commercial whaling might change things slightly. I’ll never stop looking to the harbor- it just may not be so reportable in the next few months.

14 October 2006

travelin' slow

Yesterday was a splendid October day, so I called up my long-time friend J, who taught me to ride when I was 9 years old, and then headed over to her rambling farmhouse/barn complex. She's got four horses, two of whom I've known since I started riding, and they're still as lively and grand as I remember when I was a kid eager to do anything to be around horses. We tacked up Robin and Ruby and mounted up for a ride on the dirt roads I spent so much time on as a child, since she lives right next to my grade school. The roads were much like where I'd been driving a few days ago- smoothly packed dirt surrounded by maple trees, occasional fields, and a few grand old farmhouses.

J and I reminisced about the horses I'd learned to ride with and where they ended up, the other little starry-eyed horse-loving girls that had learned with me, and the many changes since then. After rambling for a while, we shortened up the reins for a trot, the two horses matching pace perfectly for a few steps. They're driven in a carriage together and are half-sisters, so they're used to finding pace together. When we slowed to a walk again, the "good girl" pat on Robin's neck was fuzzy under my palm. Winter's coming, and her furry coat has started to come in already.

Horse speed through a landscape is a completely different experience from driving, walking, or biking. This living creature with their different way of seeing will spot things you didn't notice to shy at, and the rhythm of your journey is generated by the rolling motion of their hips transferred through to yours in the saddle. After trotting, the heat from their bodies seeps through the legs on your jeans, and the scent of horse, hay, and heat rises from their skin. The height is also an unusual perspective- tall, yet out in the open so things you can't notice with other transportation methods become clear- the texture of the water in streams, the view over the roadside stone wall, and of course, the occasional passing tourist grinned with glee at our added touch of rural picturesqueness. Don't get that when you're on a bike!

I rode Robin yesterday, and I thought of all the shared experiences and memories of her that have made this horse like one of my grade-school friends. I know about her fly allergy, and the time J took her and another half-sister to a driving competition, and the summer before was full of long uphill trotting sessions to condition her. I remember the way she always had the front stall in the barn, and when J sat in the chair near the door, Robin would remove her hat and toss it on the floor. She was also my mount on a multi-day riding trip in high school that now is a memory of bright May days, and fields bursting with dandelions. It's hard to believe she's almost 20, but fortunately, her safe and well-loved life has been kind to her, and neither she nor her half-sister Ruby show any signs of serious equine antiquity.

I've got to leave Vermont today, but I'm leaving with a great appreciation for the landscape, the people, and the experiences I grew up with. It wasn't always easy for my parents here, but they stuck to what they believed was important, and I can't say I disagree with their choice. Much like my life in Iceland often feels, I had moments of such disbelief over the past week, as I caught up with former teachers in the town's general store (and a general store it truly is- everything from video rentals to grapefruit spoons and freshly-ground coffee), drove the roads that were my daily commute to school, or harvested pumpkins in my parents' garden. This is an uncommon way to grow up but I wouldn't have wanted it any other way, so many thanks to my parents!

10 October 2006

Growing up

I've been in Vermont these past few days, reliving the experiences and places that made me who I am today. My parents live in a small village in Vermont on the Connecticut River, and the schools I went to from age 4 to 17 are within a five-minute drive of their house. On Saturday, we went up to my grade school, and my brother and I went rambling through the trails where we both learned to ski, descriptively named things like "stonewall trail" and "the ravine trail". Everything seems much smaller than it did then, but we remembered many of the soggy spots to avoid, the places where the trails intersected, and the contours of the places that were most fun to ski.

The next day we went to the high school, a blend of fierce academics, fiercer art, and a busy farm, all concentrated around this classic dairy barn. The annual autumn festival was on, so it was a non-stop conversation the whole day with fellow alums, old teachers, and other people I hadn't seen in years. This school has been around since the 30's and is a steady provider of surprisingly talented alums, ranging from opera singers and well-known actors to academics. Whenever I return for a visit I'm astounded that this used to be my daily view from the parking lot, and that I was allowed to be so immersed in everything- to visit the pig shed during a free period, and then go skiing on the fabled trails that have produced so many Olympic-quality skiers.

After a full day there, I headed north along the most scenic interstates I know, rtes 91 to 89 that wind along the Connecticut River and then west over the spine of the Green Mountains to Burlington. My close friend A, whom I met the second day of college orientation, just bought a house in the Winooski River valley up there, and I had to see her and it. It's a classic old Vermont house, with sloping wood floors, funny corners in the upstairs rooms, and a porch swing out front. I arrived at dusk, in time for homemade pesto on pasta and a welcoming leg-rub from their gray tabbycat.

The next day we were up early (jet-lag is fun coming this direction) to drive a little more than a dozen miles upstream on the Winooski River, where we set up two inflatable kayaks and put in for a day of drifting, paddling, talking, and lunching on the little islands in the center of this shallow, smooth river. The day was clear and the cool burned off quickly for perfect weather. There was an occasional breeze that sent trails of maple leaves from the trees, sprinkling the water with color. Ones that had fallen slightly earlier hung suspended under the water's surface like insects in amber, backed by the clear pebbled bottom of the river. We passed through the occasional rapids that squeezed next to smooth rock outcroppings, drifted below pastures and crops redolent with the scent of cow manure, and everywhere, the frenzy of fall lit up the landscape.

We came ashore finally just below the house, and carried the kayaks along the road home. Our feet were muddy and my shoulders a bit sore from the paddling, but it had been a worthy day. This morning everyone had to go to work, so I took the leisurely way home along a road that passes through village after village, each one a cluster of 18th century houses crowding up against the narrow road. Vermont is laced with these places, tucked among the hills, rows of farmhouses, Victorian municipal buildings, grand old barns, and lots of woodpiles. I forgot how quietly majestic this landscape is, all fuzzy with trees, and hiding the views coyly behind the bends in the road and the stands of maples. It's perfect for slow exploration, and any skinny road on the map is sure to reward with great views. For example, I chose to end my drive home along rte 121, an Iceland-worthy road that looked and sounded important but ended up being an unpopulated dirt road through the sugarbush. Perfect.

05 October 2006


Today I'm leaving Iceland again, and for the first time in over a year, I'm flying west. I don't have to pack my plug adaptors for the computer for once, because I'm going back to the States. I haven't been in an English-speaking country, save a layover in Heathrow, for that whole time. I'm both curious and nervous about what it'll be like- will I realize I miss everything tremendously and want to move back? Or, will it remind me of why Iceland is where my future lies, at least for now?

I've heard from several long-term expats that going back is a bit of sensory overload, since every single conversation is a comprehendible chance to eavesdrop, whether you want to or not. The few English conversations I hear, even if it's two people in a crowded bar of Icelanders, will rise above the rest of the buzz, ripe for picking. Now it's going to be whole stores, streets, towns of people speaking English. Cacophony! I'm sure I'll forget though and try to throw in a "herna" or two when in a shop.

The ol' US of A is going to have to try pretty hard to woo me back though, I thought as I walked home last night. After a convivial evening with A, a friend who'd moved from Iceland in August, and a crowd of other friends, I walked home under the nearly-full moon along the edge of the pond, my ears ringing with the safe-travel wishes from everyone. A light wash of northern lights splashed across the clear sky above the mountains northward, and under my feet I scuffed yellow birch leaves on the lava sidewalk. The air was still and fragrant with the autumnal leaves, the last blooms on the rosebushes, and that smell of Iceland- harbor, moss, sulphur. Wherever else I go, and wherever else I may live in the future, I will always have this little piece of the country tucked away inside me. It may be frustrating sometimes but when the rewards pay out, they pay out huge.

Ship sighting: In a more general harbor-report, yesterday I noticed the first snow atop Esja. Just a thin coverlet of a skin on the highest part, but winter is certainly creeping down from the mountains. This morning is one of those great fall mornings, with the bright clear sun working to banish the overnight frost from the lawns- lovely weather for those guys on the fishing boat I can see twinkling on the horizon to my left (apparently I CAN see ships from where I live now, just not as many).

02 October 2006

in training

One of the things I love about going to new places is putting something I learned in school into context finally. When I was at university, I had a job in the art history library, showing slides for the art lectures. I got to peek in on American architecture history, French impressionists, and Dutch Renaissance painters. The last one was full of paintings of these huge, low landscapes, often more sky than land, showing fields of perfect flatness edged with a few buildings or distant church spires. The class was taught by an archetype of an art history professor- frizzy brown hair streaked with gray, lots of autumnal tweedy clothes, and perpetually late, but when she spoke about these paintings, I wanted to see these landscapes, imagining this curiously pastoral place like none I'd seen before. Growing up in Vermont meant a farm of rolling hills to me, and these were all sky and just a little strip of carefully sectioned land.

So imagine my thrill at finding that the train ride I have to take every time I go work in Holland passes through these very fields that were being painted so many centuries ago. The names- Delft, Haarlem, Utrecht, are all the names I read while preparing the slides, and in spite of the incredible Dutch population density, the views are still there today. After changing to the southbound train at 's-Hertogenbosch, it's farms and tiny villages the rest of the way to my destination, punctuated even with a few windmills. Last week some kind of floral crop was blooming, so we whizzed past patches of flaming orange and chartreuse, and in between, the carpet-smooth pastures were dotted with cows and sheep. Unlike the wild scruffiness of Icelandic sheep, the Dutch ones are lozenge-smooth and almost all white. For some reason the people in that area are also fond of that peculiar breed of useless horse, the mini. Space may be limited there but I still cannot understand the reason to own such a creature. All the labor and expense of a full-sized horse and you can't ride it.

I've tried to explain this particular breed of glee at finally BEING there to people in Iceland and others I've met on the road, and it seems that only fellow Americans can understand it. So much of American education is devoted to Stuff That Happened in Europe, and it's very difficult to really grasp it without an idea of what the landscape feels like, how the cities are, and the character of these countries. There's only so much you can get out of a slide as you sit in a dark New England auditorium thinking about the chicken nuggets you just had for lunch in the dining hall. Still, I have to hand it to these professors who managed to make these landscapes and experiences so interesting that I wanted to see them for myself, and that when I finally did, I remembered so much of those dark hours years ago.

Ship sighting: The train trip also crosses the Rhine, which hums with shipping activity. Just below the train bridge there's even a little On Time III-style ferry that crosses this massive river.