28 February 2006

how to explode

Today is Sprengidagur, the Icelandic Mardi Gras, which translates as "exploding day". Here's how to do it yourself:

  • Take equal parts salted lamb meat, boiled carrots, and boiled turnips.
  • Cut into bite-sized pieces
  • Make yourself a nice thick split-pea soup
  • Mix that stuff all together so you get a pea soup with all the chunks of meat and veggies
  • Repeat (and repeat and repeat if you're like some of these guys)
  • Explode

Apparently that's the way to do it, although the explosion hasn't happened yet. One note: Only foreigners eat salad. Monochromatic meals are cool today, so leave those healthy greens for tomorrow! If you can't manage to find salted lamb, a New England boiled dinner will give you a pretty similar experience, although that's got the great advantage of horseradish, one of my favorite condiments ever.

This day is hot on the heels of Bun Day, in which children swap spanks for buns. We didn't have to spank for our buns that were delivered to the office kitchen yesterday afternoon, but the general idea is that the kids spank their parents and receive buns in exchange. Of course everyone had a jolly time talking about at work ("I actually got spanked last night instead of this morning" *raised eyebrow*). That one seems much more a candidate for explosion that this salt-lamb contraption, but what do I know, being the foreigner here.

And now, would anyone like a wafer-thin mint?

Ship sighting: The big dry-dock where Magni is hasn't got any other action currently, but the small boats part further down the street has a new one. This drydock has usually had a population of small, fairly threadbare boats so I haven't commented on it before, but now there's a tidy little ship Sóley in for repairs. It's not the same Sóley as the sand dredger which was on a mission somewhere else yesterday- I saw it come in from the west yesterday afternoon to take up the usual place late in the day.

24 February 2006

Forget Paris

This is my new Favorite City to visit. I'm staying in the midst of a book fair (complete with Beethoven-playing xylophonist), cafes of all varieties, stores galore, and art galleries everywhere. Instead of staring at cars and roundabouts while sipping coffee, it's canals, people on bicycles, and curliques on the tops of brick buildings. This evening I ate at one of those places that are Just Right (thanks Carmen- you were right about the pie!) with all the right atmosphere and friendliness so you don't feel odd and lonely eating by yourself.

It's on a corner next to a humped bridge, probably the only uphill in town, so the bikers passing by came into view working hard to make it over the cobblestones. The tables there are slightly chipped and the chairs don't quite match, but every table has its own (Peugeot) pepper grinder and smooth white candles in mismatched candle holders. There was just the right level of chatter and music, and the menu was a simple two page spread.

I chose the soup and ravioli, and both dishes were full of fresh vegetables cooked just enough to be a beautiful color, served with thick chunks of brown bread with olive oil for dipping. As I ate, the dusk started to fall above the frilly tops of the 17th century canal houses. I could see the TV on in a third-floor room across the way, and bicycle headlamps wove their way along the canal next to me. The cafe crowded in with people-students from the nearby university, friends, and a few pairs on dates. A leather-trouser-clad man's pipe smoke wafted gently from the corner, mixing with the smell of the toasted sage on my pasta.

I walked home in the dark along the other side of the canal, crossing the humped bridge as a boat glided under, leaving a fizz of wake behind. The spokes of the bikes parked in ranks in the racks glinted in the streetlamps as people wandered by, and the lights of the cafes and restaurants I passed poured onto the red bricks of the bikeway. Now I'm back in my cozy Art Deco room, listening to the sounds of the city, a comforting mix of trams, bikes rattling and whirring, and murmered Dutch voices rising from the street.

Checking up on the canals

I've made it to Amsterdam by train (about two hours north of where I was earlier in the week) through all kinds of agricultural land criss-crossed with canals, paddocks, and neatly organized crops. Now I'm in a spiffy hotel (that I LOVE and would definitely stay in again) with a great view from the window. Haven't seen much of Amsterdam yet but so far it's as liberal as advertised, with a Soho-ish feeling of narrow streets, interesting architecture, and very specific stores and restaurants. I've forgotten what it's like to have all this choice and variety. Dinner will be an entertaining challenge!

Since Icelandair doesn't fly direct to The Land tomorrow, I'm here until Sunday. A whole day plus afternoon of time just to be here, and on an expense account for my meals :-D

I think this will help make up for the grueling three days I just had...

Ship spotting: If I ever wanted to become a Boat Connossieur in a more urban country, this might be the place. I love that the canals are all looking scenic and everything but seem to also be used for transport as much as roads here. There's loads of cool flat-bottomed canal boats chugging up and down everywhere, and on the way in to Amsterdam on the train I saw houseboats of every variety.

invisible country

So, here I am in Holland, but I haven't actually seen much of anything actually. Everyone's all "oo, foreign travel on an expense account, so exciting" but it's really not so amazing. I've been here since noon on Tuesday and all I can really say about Dutch culture and countryside is flat, they have great road signs, and apparently the croquettes are great. I've seen the inside of three offices but that's pretty much what you'd expect anywhere. Industrial carpet, neon lights, plate glass, and some lightly padded chairs, and you get the picture. Yeah, some different light switches and a bottle opener next to the toilet in my hotel room (can ANYONE explain this one?) but I have yet to see much of anything else. I went to dinner yesterday and my surprise 3-course meal ended up being cod with lobster sauce for the main dish. Why am I in Holland for this if I live in Codfish Land?

Sure, it's better than going to suburban Connecticut (my last business trip destination in my former job) and I understand more Dutch than I expected, but at the end of a day of intense discussion, the last thing I want is mysterious words and an anonymous bed. I have always been in new countries for the experience of being in new countries, so all my energy is focused on the experience, but now I have no energy left for that. I hope that my bonus day in Amsterdam will be enough time for me to learn something about this place, so if someone asks me, "and how do you like Holland?", I'll be able to have more to say than, "lots of bikes."

Ship sighting: Believe it or not, I DID see a boat today! There's a canal behind the hospital I was at a meeting today, and there's a gravel works (I think that's what it was) on the other side of the water. They had some kind of gravel-transport boat tied up there. I think of water and rivers as an untamable wildness so it was weird to see this perfectly straight, calm channel of water there at the end of the street just like any other road. I was there yesterday and I hadn't even noticed that the street we parked on ended in the water. That's almost cool enough to make up for the eerie flatness of this place.

21 February 2006

Harbor watch abroad

So there's no harbor here for me to inspect but I am all over this church I can see from my hotel room and I can guarantee it's not moved since I arrived an hour ago. I haven't seen much of the country but so far Holland is as billed. There's a few windmills, some canals, a lot of highways on REALLY flat land, and bicycles galore, with their own bicycle stoplights. Iceland seems so very far away right now, especially places like Heimaey where J and I climbed the cliffs to see that view only two days ago.

I had planned to have some Big Fat Blog Posts about the trip, partly so I can remember it later for myself, but I'm not sure when that's happening with this Whirlwind Holland Tour (three cities so far in one day). The whole weekend was bathed in glorious un-Icelandic sunlight, and the island is one of the most otherworldly places I have seen. I think it's my New Favorite Place in the Land.

Ship spotting: Um, I saw the sign to Rotterdam on the way somewhere today, but that's about as close as I got to boats, except for the drive through Hafnarfjörður this morning. I'd love to go to Rotterdam and see some of the really big ships sometime. Not on this trip though.

20 February 2006

zippin, zippin, zippin

I just got back from an incredible Secret Trip that J planned in honor of Konudagur, the special just-for-the-ladies holiday, and now I am off again tomorrow. I'm going to spend the rest of the week in Tilburg (Holland) at my company's other office. Hopefully I'll have a chance to update this from my hotel or something, because I have some great stories from the weekend. J took me to the famed Heimaey, site of the 1973 eruption that destroyed a third of the town and built a whole new island.

I didn't know I was going on this trip until just today, so if anyone knows anything about Tilburg, Amsterdam, or even just Holland, please post a comment. I will be getting a day or two to explore and I want to enjoy it.

17 February 2006

Unexpected benefits

One of the things I hadn't counted on with this blog writing was that I'd actually get to MEET some of the people who read and occasionally comment. These Voices from Beyond have started to come to The Land with surprising regularity, and in the past few weeks J and I have met 3 of the people who read our blogs. It's been awesome, since the people who are actually interested in reading our weekly ramblings about the random stuff we notice appear to also be the kind of people who make for good lunchtime or evening company. They're the kind of tourists who want to know about what it's like to live here, and not just complain about the prices and the unpredictable weather. Plus, the people who've come here recently are obviously not coming for the usual wintertime vacation. You can't get a tan and you can't ski here right now, so you'd better be coming for the Icelandic atmosphere.

It's also been great because J and I are able to get an almost regular infusion of those American products we just can't live wtihout. People who've gone back and forth to the States know by now that if you offer to bring something to an Icelander from the States, you might end up carrying more than you expected. J had to ferry a steering column for a Jeep once, for example. Things can be either so expensive or simply not available that an offer to carry and ferry is pretty exciting. We've been kept in Cap'n Crunch and various other can't-get-it-here stuff since January thanks to all the visitors.

So if you're coming, let us know, but be careful if you offer to carry stuff... you might end up bringing a steering column! (Maybe I shouldn't say that... I could cut off the cereal connection...)

Ship sighting: Yesterday was another seriously rough day on the seas with high winds and even higher gusts. Still, there was some kind of boat that floated stationary in front of Akranes for a while, then moved further out to sea. Nothing of that sort was listed in the ol' harbor website, and it was too far out to be the dredger. Must have been pirates.

15 February 2006

dirty secrets

Outside of Iceland, many people hold this country up to be a paragon of environmental engineering, saying that finally there is a place that gets it. It's not entirely true, folks, and here's why:

Icelanders do NOT know how to turn off water or lights. Every time I got to the pool, I have to turn off at least one shower that has been left on when the user was done. They're off swimming or putting on mascara, leaving the shower dumping a Gullfoss-sized stream of water on the floor. I always turn them off, only to find that next time it's happening all over again. Water fountains here are not designed with the on/off switch I knew so well from my childhood elementary school building. Here they just pour and pour. Nevermind that they are actually being used only maybe 5 percent of the time.

The same goes for lights. Every time I go past the two individual bathrooms in my office, someone's left the light on. I haven't figured out who the culprit is, but it is starting to get silly. Unlock the door, switch off the light- it can even be done at the same time with different hands. You're done and on your way!

These are some basic things that almost every American child learns quickly and at a young age. Don't leave the shower on and don't leave the lights on. I know that it can seem like a pointless thing in this country that is spilling over with water like this. It gushes from the glaciers in roaring, surging masses, it oozes from rocks, it pours from the skies. How could we possibly EVER run out, right? That's what we thought about all the massive forests in the United States when the first European settlers arrived. Where are all those forests now? That water isn't doing much good going down the drain anyway, so why not switch it off and get in the habit now?

Also, we have this great recycling center just down the street from our house. We can recycle cardboard, wood, bottles, newspapers, but not glass. I find this extremely strange, and it maddens me every time I have to throw out a glass bottle. Can't we do something about this?

There does seem to be the beginning of awareness, as the stórtónleikar we went to in January was an environmental benefit, but it seemed to be targeted at "the other guys", the builders of the dams in the East. It's not all about the outsiders though- the residents of Iceland can do a lot on their own too. Iceland HAS done some amazing things with the resources available here, and showing off the technology is one of my favorite things to do when visitors come. I am proud to be living in a place that figured out such a cool way to handle these gloomy winters. Let's take that thoughtfulness all the way though, and turn off some taps and switches!

Ship Sighting: J and I made it home yesterday afternoon in time to see Arnarfell coming in. It's listed on the Samskip website as being due in the Westman Islands in two days. I'd love to see this big cargo ship docked there at those tiny islands.

13 February 2006

the less appealing side-effects of moving abroad

Moving to a new country is a great experience and I am so glad I did it, but there are a few things that have marred the fun of my first (almost) six months as an official ex-pat:

1) New germs. I got the flu shot and everything, and I work in an office surrounded by doctors and nurses, but I am still getting sick all the time. Every other week I find myself feeling wretched and spending hours at home during the week. J said it was like that for him last year but this year has been better, so I hope this improves. I love the view in the day at home but I don't want to be seeing it mid-week all the time. Fortunately, the Icelandic sick day policy is MUCH more sane than at my old company.

2) Forget about convenient online ordering with companies from the States. This may be easier if the country you move to is not as tiny and off the international radar as Iceland, but J and I have experienced many US-based companies refusing to accept Icelandic credit cards or even American credit cards with Icelandic addresses. They claim the Icelandic banking is not sophisticated enough. Ha!

3) Time differences are perceived as being more significant because it is a foreign country, so many of my friends don't call anymore. What is even more frustrating is that there is all kinds of technology that allows cheap-to-free calling but the people I would love to stay in touch with are reluctant to actually use it. I haven't talked to most of my friends since I left, and only the most persistent of family members have stayed in touch. I did know that this was a possibility when I moved, but it doesn't make it any more pleasant!

Ship Sighting: Thanks to the #1 side-effect of moving abroad, I was home again today so I saw it all- Sóley, cargo ships, the Danish research vessel, and lots of tiny boats. At least the view is great when I am stuck at home.

12 February 2006

The crows know

Iceland is full of crows. I watch them swooping at each other from my work window all day, perching on the railings of the 8th floor balcony, and sailing on the wind gusts that whip them in arcs above the roof. They sit on lampposts along the highway, and their black shapes coast past our window in the mornings, their wingtips almost grazing the window. They never seem to be bothered by the weather either- when all the smaller sea birds are huddled somewhere, the crows are still out on the railings, coasting in the gusts and wheeling on the wind. They fit well with the landscape here, with their craggy black shapes and mysterious air. Crows have stories to tell, just like the cairns that march across the lava fields here.

They've been here long enough that their stories are part of the mythology too- Odin is said to have two ravens named Thought and Memory that brought him the news of the world every day. Perhaps they are still at the job, and that's why there always seems to be a watchful crow perched somewhere in sight, wherever I go.

Ship sighting: The only action I saw today was the sand-dredger Sóley back in the harbor mouth with the lower part of the hull painted a spiffy cranberry color. J and I did stop by the Viking ship sculpture on the water, something that most tourists visit when they are here. In typical "I live here" fashion, I have only been past it once on foot, although we drive by it every day on the way to work. We had some time to kill before a birthday party so we caught the last rays of sunset-light and the nearly full moon at the sculpture, and since it IS a ship of sorts, I figure I can rightfully mention that photos are here and here.

09 February 2006

Famous in Iceland

The other day I was watching a Eurovision semifinal pre-show gameshow, and I caught a glimpse of one of the judges that looked familiar. I called J over and when he was on screen again we realized we knew him- he'd been another guest at a dinner party we'd been to a few weeks ago. Now, there he was on the national TV station of Iceland as a Eurovision trivia expert. I am so used to things on TV being distant faraway places (even NYC seems distant if you live in Boston) and faraway unknowable people that I didn't trust it really was him. When I asked another guy who'd been at the same party he said, "oh yeah, the guy is a HUGE Eurovision fan- that was him."

I should, of course, mention that the reason I was even watching the semifinal of Europe's biggest pop-cheese contest on a Saturday night was because I knew someone singing in it. He's a co-worker of mine and I had no idea he was so well-known by the rest of Iceland until last month. J and I had even been referring to one of his group's songs for months without knowing that I sat across from one of the singers every day at work (the immigrant shyness takes a while to break through).

I'm getting used to this though- when I read one of the two Icelandic tabloid magazines, I flip through to see who I know in them, not what the famous people are wearing. This same co-worker of mine was on the cover of one last week,looking dapper in a jaunty fedora, and I spotted him again inside, as well as a guy I was in Icelandic class with, who is also the editor of a newspaper here. I'm starting to wonder if the magazine sells because it's gossippy or because everyone likes to see their friends in print. If I've only been here for 5 months and I can recognize people on TV and tabloids on a weekly basis, it must be almost daily for someone who grew up here.

Living in the main city of this tiny country also means that chances are I will recognized the filming location of locally-produced commercials and tv shows. For example, over the summer there was a Coke ad with lots of footage downtown Reykjavík, some car commercials that show neighborhood streets, and the Icelandic Idol competition is filmed down the hill at the Smáralind mall. When there are recaps of "hot" events that happened over the weekend, it's also often been concerts I was at. Yeah, it's a case of big-fish-small-pond, but it's nice to have someone you know to root for in TV shows, to see your local 'hood all slicked up with professional camera lenses and tv commercial editing.

Ship sighting: Sóley is out of the shipyard and back to the sand-dredging duties somewhere in the harbor. I also spotted some spectacular cargo ship departure action two days ago. After weeks of gray soggy weather we had a glowing clear day after a fresh dusting of snow, and as this boat sailed just after sunset, the huge dark shape of the boat with the dual cranes anchored down was silhouetted against the blues of Arctic mountains and the sea that caught the glimmers of early moonlight. I didn't get a chance to check the harbor website so I don't know which ship it was, but the way it was blackly perched on the horizon contrasted dramatically with the frigid colors of the harbor. I think Iceland knew I was getting a little sick of the never-ending fog and threw me a spectacular evening like that so I'd fall in love with the harbor all over again. It worked!

07 February 2006

Sister ship!

Last week I got an email from a guy in the UK, asking me about a ship I'd sighted in the drydock here, the Víkingur AK100. He knew all sorts of specific details about the ship, including the original brand and type of engine in the boat, and included a link to an old photo of a boat he hoped was the same. I consulted with co-workers and we decided it probably was the same one (what do you think, gentle reader?)

In the next email, he offered me more information, and a link to his own website. He said:

"The reason I am looking for the ship is that I believe she is (or was) an identical twin to one that I am currently looking after as part of a voluntary restoration team. Our ship was originally christened the "Freyr" and registered in Reykjavik as RE1 in 1960. She was sold in 1963 by her original owners and renamed Ross Revenge and operated out of Grimsby here in England. She retired from fishing in the late 70's and worked as salvage ship and tug for a few years, but found a new lease of life in 1983 when she was converted to be an offshore (pirate) radio station. She did that until 1991, and since that time has been looked after and restored by a voluntary group and is now effectively a living,floating museum. We've always known that 3 identical ships were built at the same works in Bremerhaven as all our plans and blueprints show three different sets of serial numbers, with two crossed out. However, we have never been able to track down the names or registrations of the other two. It was only this weekend that someone gave me information relating to the names, hence my current quest to find the Vikingur AK100. The other ship turns up no references at all on Google, etc. Incredibly, it also seems there was a fourth identical ship, though built at a different works in Bremerhaven. We're not sure if this was the same works under a different name, or a different company entirely."

This story is awesome for a couple of reasons. First, I love that the ship sighting part of the blog (appreciated by few, I feel) has brought such a cool story. We're bringing people together across oceans, folks! Second, I love that this odd old boat I saw here most likely has a buddy that was a renegade radio station. Third, this UK-dwelling ship was the Original RE1 back in the day. I wonder how the ship registering people decide who gets it- is it always the best and brightest of the fleet? How do they decide when to hand over the crown?

We're still looking for more definitive information though, so I dug up a guy in Akranes that had a website with photos of his family and photos of the ships he had worked on, including the Víkingur, as well as the email of the fleet manager of the company that owns the boat. I'm also hoping that someone who reads this might know more. All my ship-questions have been answered by posting them here before, and this story is definitely worthy of further pursuit.