26 July 2006

hope for the future

A few months ago I complained about the lack of good ethnic sausages.
Over the weekend I found a cache of Polish sausages at my
(temporarily) local neighborhood store. Locally produced, they were emblazoned with intertwined Icelandic and Polish flags. I picked one of about four or five flavors, and brought them home, hoping that maybe, maybe Iceland was catching on finally. Yesterday I grilled them up and I am pleased to announce that the search is over. They were plump, spicy in the right way, and in no way containing the sheeps-dung smoke that permeates so many locally produced sausage products (and I'm not just talking about bjúga- think about it next time you eat the salami or pepperoni here, folks). These are some good sausages. Now all we need is a properly spicy Italian variety and I'll be happy as a clam.

In other culinary news, friend K introduced me to the ultimate in simple delicacies on those days when you need something to remind you of why it's nice to be alive in Iceland. Here's what you do- buy yourself a nice lil package of Icelandic lobster meat (available in the frozen section of your local Icelandic grocery store, pre-shelled or not). Thaw it out, pat it dry, then saute some chopped garlic in butter until fragrant. Add the lobster, some salt, and the seasoning of your choice (I went with a blended Italian mix, but next time I'm thinking lemon pepper). Simmer everybody together until the lobster is firm, then enjoy with abandon. It's even better if you have a nice fresh roll or loaf of bread to dip in the sauce afterwards. I had a carrot roll from the corner bakery near where I'm staying that was absolutely divine. If you want to make it a meal, serve with crisp chilled white wine and a blended-leaf salad. Divine, and takes all of a half hour to put together. I see more of this in my future!

now all I need is an apartment... any Icelandic readers have an aunt/cousin/sister's ex-boyfriend/grandma who has a small place that is not in Kjalarnes and is looking for a nice sensible tenant? Seriously, it's coming to the point that I am willing to beg on a blog.

Ship sighting: Cruise ship season continues with the arrival of the Deutschland. This German boat is on a tour of the northern lands, and is heading out to Greenland tomorrow. The ship is apparently working the vintage style for an older crowd, and you might have guessed from this poster view of it that I am quite fond of.

24 July 2006

In Fairyland

Yesterday I went on a Sunday drive to Þjórsárdalur, a magical valley tucked up beneath the shadow of the volcano Hekla. It was cloudy in Reykjavík as we left, but in typical fashion, descending into Hveragerði brought a total change in the weather. We turned towards Fluðir, then followed a wide, meandering glacial river inland, its milky turquoise color highlighted by the slanting afternoon sun.

We turned after crossing an incoming river to follow a typical dirt road through the reddish-brown glacial till, ending at a small parking lot where, for the first time ever for me in Iceland, I shed layers prior to starting in on the hike. The best way to get to the good parts of this sojourn is to wade, so we all wore old sneakers without socks, and stretchy pants so we could roll them up.

The hike starts out along the river in the valley, then we crossed through it to get to the higher side. The water is, as usual here, coming straight from a glacier, so in spite of the warm sun, the water was frigid enough to make my legs tingle after the crossing. We climbed up to a ridge that gave a glimpse of our final destination, a network of waterfalls about twenty minutes away.

After the easy walk we descended into the valley, an enchanting mix of greenery, moss, and fizzing waterfalls. This place is rumored to have the densest population of fairy folk and elves, and with the afternoon sun setting the water alight and turning the greenery golden, it was not hard to believe. The whole valley was scented with the rhubarb-fresh smell of angelica mixed with the fragrance of wild thyme that we crushed underfoot as we made our way down into the valley, and the only sounds came from surging, tumbling water, and the wind rustling the short birch trees.

Down in the valley, we climbed the rocks, splashed across the river and waded in the still corners, finding steady footholds among the mossy rocks and tugging water, discovering which places were warmer and which were cooler. I waded to this tiny island to lie down and enjoy the moment, warm in the sun, surrounded by such incredible views. It's hard to believe how many nooks there are like this in this country, tucked at the end of long valleys in the middle of forbidding-looking mountains.

On the way back, we stopped at the archeological site of Stöng (anyone familiar with Reykjavík's nightlife might know about the bar Gaukur á Stöng, named after this historic farm), an ancient homestead from Iceland's settlement times, abandoned in the 12th century when Hekla's explosion and ashy outfall made the area uninhabitable. When the volcano wasn't busy, it must have been a lovely place to live, strangely warm in this protected valley, fed by a busy river, and protected by fairies.

Ship sighting: Aida Blu with her creepy tadpole décor is here again, on another Nordic tour. Other than that it's the usual set of tankers and cargo ships.

20 July 2006

who needs the beach?

Yesterday was the most lovely of days, as Iceland goes. It was blindingly, achingly sunny, with barely a cloud in the sky, and unlike the usual pattern, the weather stayed straight until the evening that way. I skipped out of work early to go to Seltjarnarnes with a friend for the newly re-opened saltwater pool there. Of course, on a day like yesterday, it was crawling with people, kids hiking up their bathing suit leg-holes to ride bare-bottomed down the newly installed waterslide, and plenty of adults lying on deck chairs and enjoying the comfortably large soaking pool on the edge of the laplanes. I went to do my obligatory laps, enjoying the smooth, buttery feeling of the salt water, the extra buoyancy that made me remember being a kid in the lagoon side of State Beach on Martha's Vineyard. The sun streamed through the water, making electric ray-ripples on the blue tile bottom, echoing the disturbance I made on the water's surface and magnifying it outwards. In spite of the crowds elsewhere in the pool, I had the lane to myself, so I soon abandoned the disciplined crawl laps and played, skimming along the very bottom of the pool, hovering just below the surface and watching the ripple-patterns my hands made on the walls, and performing the laziest of backstrokes, just to watch the blue blue sky.

After abandoning my laps, we tried out the new steam-room, that had been closed last time I was at the pool. It's a chic-looking tiled deal, with a huge plate-glass window that has cracked already, in spite of being in use for only a few months. The door doesn't close automatically, so I spent a lot of time closing it for maximum steam-enjoyment. Still, the benches are nice and the steam is properly powerful. Has potential, but is not my favorite. Finally, we ended with a lie-down in the new shallow kiddie pool, the best part of the remodeling job, since it has a glass wall that looks out over the mountains to the south. With my eyes closed, lying on the sloping edge as the movements of the kids on the other side made waves, it really felt like the beach. Being on Seltjarnarnes even means having a touch of the seabreeze, so the smell was right too. We soaked for several hours so by the time we got out, I was fully brined. Even later in the evening, hours after I'd rinsed in the shower, the salty feeling of having been at the beach clung to my fingertips.

The day was too splendid to end at home, so I took to the streets of Vesturbær, camera in hand, to appreciate the lush volupuousness of a full summer day here, and I was not disappointed. The low light blanketed the lawns and gardens, making the poppies and peonies almost vibrate in their brightness. People strolled lazily, unburdened by coats and scarves and the usual tearing wind, and the lawns downtown were full of families. The warmth has made everyone relaxed and wonderfully irresponsible- I was not the only person to have left work early, and the wonderful thing about this is that nobody was surprised that people were heading out to enjoy the day. Everyone who lives here knows sunny hours must be enjoyed properly, and proper enjoyment does not involve sitting in an office.

Ship sighting: The world's largest traditional tall-ship, the Sedov, arrived yesterday and all the Russian sailors she brought along were loafing around near 10-11 in their full sailor-man regaila last night. I went down to see it at about 1:30 am, and it was as spectacular as it should be with the sunset light and mountains behind the looming masts. This 117-meter ship is based in Murmansk, and has had a rich life since being built in 1921. Read more about the history and specifications here. Apparently if you love it a lot, it's possible to go on board as a paying passenger. Now THAT would be a cruise!

17 July 2006


I spent the weekend with three friends at a summerhouse below the lupine-covered cliffs of Vik. Saturday was one of those gray days that made the grass appear almost neon and shrouded the peaks of the cliffs in mist, so we were glad to be in a house rather than tenting like our neighbors were. The cottage was a mini Siamese-twin pair of cottages tucked among the buttercups and the cliff walls. Although the ocean was a five-minute stride from the front door, the roar of the waves and the screee of the hundreds of terns permeated the house, even with the door closed.

After we had arrived and taken the obligatory walk down to the black sand beach, I climbed up through the lupines to a wedge of moss-covered rock halfway up the cliff, where I lay down to face the sky. After lying still for a few minutes, the fulmar living in the cliffs forgot my disturbance, and resumed their soaring. They rode the unpredictable air currents, ruddering their tails, passing not an arms-length from where I lay. I watched them conversing in their nests tucked into the cliff walls, their chattering accompanied only by the roar of the sea and the seeping drip of water oozing from the stones above.

Later, we all tucked up inside, as the rain swept in and started to spatter the windows. The house was slightly tacky in the way summerhouses are- fake stone paneling on the walls, jumbled assortments of knickknacks, too many decks of incomplete playing cards, and a refrigerator that hummed just a bit too loud. Still, it was just the place for reading, and we all spent the afternoon lounging lazily.

Supper came late, when everyone was finally torn from their books, puzzles, or napping. We only had two burners, so we grilled everything outside, in spite of the sheets of rain outside.
We made salmon covered in chopped ginger & garlic, layered with lemon slices and salt and pepper packets taken from the Esso station down the street, potatoes with a skyr-garlic-cucumber sauce, and a gigantic salad.
After dinner, we cleared the table and set to the obligatory card-playing, letting German mint-flavored chocolates melt above our tongues as we played rummy, drinking herbal schnapps and wine from juice glasses.

The storm made it almost properly dark, so sleeping was cozy in the loft, just barely big enough for the four slim mattresses. We left the window to the back of the cliff open, so the croaking of the fulmar in the cliffs whispered with the wind and the sea through the curtains on the tiny window. Lofts are lovely for sleeping when the wind spatters the rain in patterns on the roof, and your nose is inches away from the slope, cozy, dry, and safe. A favorite feeling.

The next day dawned an arc of perfect blue, so we went to the pool, of course. The complex at Vík is just the right size, with a gaudy snake-shaped waterslide, a functional country-sized pool (not quite
25 meters but long enough to feel like you are Getting Somewhere when you do laps), and two temperatures of hot tub. They had flippers and floats to borrow, so we flipped and floated across the pool before retiring to the hotter tubs, basking in the surprisingly balmy air and wind-free sunshine.

After swimming we headed back for more reading and eating, with the intention to bake an apple cake using the only heating apparatus we had- the barbecue. While it was "baking" I climbed up the cliffs to see the view from above, and to follow the brook that created the waterfall near the house. It was nestled in a shallow valley, and the grass grew thick around its edges, obscuring it so much in places that the only evidence was the sound. The wind was calmer there, and I found a mossy rock to lean against. This is the Iceland I didn't know existed, blooming with purple and yellow flowers, scented of fresh summer grass, looking towards the wedge of ocean where the brook dropped over the cliff, warm enough to contemplate shorts and a t-shirt.

I headed back after a few minutes to check on the cake progress, and to join everyone else on the deck reading books. Unfortunately, we learned that a barbecue is not the most effective baking apparatus, so in spite of our best efforts, the thing was completely scorched on the bottom. We scooped what we could out of the top though, and eaten with a dollop of sour cream, it was actually quite delicious. Worth making again in a proper oven.

The day was waning by then and we had to drive the three hours back to town, so we packed up the car and hit the road after one final trip down to see the famous view in the spectacular weather. On the way back we joined the stream of French tourists at Dyrhólaey for some photos, then it was back to the road and reality, such as it is here in Iceland.

Ship sighting: Although the town I visited is called Vík, or "bay", there is actually not much of a bay there. It's probably the worst place I could imagine trying to land a boat, with the roaring surf and jagged cliffs. So the only boat I saw over the weekend was a distant fishing-boat, almost on the horizon. It looks like the past two days in the REAL V-Í-K was the usual summer influx of cruise ships though, and two are slated to leave today. One is the Costa Classica, and they have a webcam on board so you can see what the harbor looks like from their deck Right Now (at least until 7pm GMT when they leave here). If that view of our currently cloudy bay was tempting enough that you want to cruise here yourself, check out photos of life on board here.

13 July 2006

parking lot Tivoli

Summertime means carnivals. I remember going to the local fair with a friend for three straight days when I was about nine years old, riding the Ferris wheel into the balmy dark of a rural New England summer, our feet grimy in our sandals from scuffing through the sandy soil, and our pockets full of the ONE FARE tickets that was the currency of the place.

In Iceland, they call them "Tivoli" after the legendary Danish park(Who, I might add, stole the name from the original ancient Roman Tivoli in southern Italy). A few weeks ago, the carnival came to town here, a fleet of bright-yellow trucks emblazoned with "Taylor made for YOUR fun" and unfolded brightly colored scaffolding to support all kinds of two-minute adrenaline rushes for the kids. It's taken over the back forty of the oversized parking lot at the mall near where I work. The rides usually fire up at about noon, blazing neon lights and jumbled tunes of glee. It may not be beach-boardwalk weather, but the sounds are all right as the screams of the riders rise above the tacky music, audible all the way in the office kitchen.

Today as I walked by on my way back from lunch, I passed a mini-rollercoaster towing five cars. The last one carried a few teenagers trying their best to not look too excited, and in the front carriage, a twentysomething guy whizzed by in a baby costume. He sported nothing more than a diaper and bonnet, and waved a pacifier in his hand as a friend recorded his progress from the ground with a video camera. Perhaps a bachelor party challenge?

Further along, in the corner of the fenced area, a group of caravans have created a mini-village, complete with rotary clotheslines and trousers flapping in the crisp Icelandic air. This carnival apparently comes from the UK every year, bearing a load of honest-to-God British carnies to set up, announce, and run everything. Apparently they had problems with these fellows and the Icelandic guys a few years ago when the Icelandic girls found the foreign blokes so exciting. Summertime.. hot romances and the music of the fair.

Ship sighting: Another rainy afternoon bringing another load of soggy cruise-boat travellers. Today it's the Kristina Regina with its all-Finnish crew. According to the itinerary, they're headed to Ísafjörður tomorrow. These boats look oddly huge enough in Reykjavík's majestically large harbor. I can't imagine how dominating they would be in that narrow, deep fjord in the north.

09 July 2006


Today is the kind of day that makes everyone fall in love with Iceland. It's warm (although when I look at the forecast it turns out it's only about 60 degrees f), golden sunny, and with the lightest of breezes. The cafes have put all their tables out and they are all full, people taking leisurely lunches, stretching out their bare feet to the sun. I can hardly believe it's Iceland, so green and fragrant is this place. There are roses blooming on the main square, and walking through the neighborhood is a craze of summer smells- freshly clipped grass, lilacs (or something that closely resembles them), and crisp breezes from the sea. This is why everyone stoically deals with those months of darkness and unpredictable weather- one day like this and it is almost entirely forgotten.

In other news of Icelandic legends, the nightlife here is something that is often discussed as the Most Amazing Party Scene, and I am not sure if it lives up to that billing after my few months here. People from all over the world plan trips here for bachelor parties, crazy weekends of decadence, and hopefully a hookup with an Icelandic girl (seems like it's always guys that want to take this kind of trip).

Based on my experience of this place, the nightlife can either feel too small or just right, with most of the bars and clubs in a walkable downtown area. No place is exclusively a bar or dance club either, so you could spend a whole day in a place, starting with coffee and magazines, then ordering dinner, followed by drinks at the bar, and finally moving to the back where the disco ball and colored lights add dance club ambiance. It makes for a strange mix at the transitional times when some people are finishing up their coffee and others are getting into the beers and cocktails.

The other really special thing about going out here is that if you're with a group, there are inevitably encounters with old friends, cousins, or former co-workers, who get absorbed into the group with much hugging and kissing. It has the feeling of being someone's house party without the dirty dishes in the sink, especially since so many of these bars and cafes still retain so many details from their former lives as homes. This camaraderie is one of the best parts of going out here- after being here for a few months, it's a rare night that doesn't turn up some acquaintance. Of course, if you're out late enough, and everyone's had enough glasses of Víking, even people you've never met start to seem like old buddies. Maybe that's the charm of the place after all, and why people love coming here.

These summer days when night never falls also have a certain timeless magic. Why does it matter if you stay out until five am when it's bright all the time? You'll be sleeping in the light no matter when you go home. To keep things feeling mysterious and nightlife-y and to give everyone the added gloss of intrigue that darkness offers, most places do try to create the atmosphere of evening with heavy curtains. Still, the curtains can always be pulled open to reveal the pink clouds and baby-blue sky that is "night" in July.

At the end of the evening when the curtains are opened, the music trails off, and the crowds pour onto the street, the festive atmosphere clings to the streets as people stop for hotdogs, waffles, kebabs, and sandwiches before dispersing into the morning sun-glow to sleep half the next day away. A curious way to spend a weekend but worth it once in a while.

Ship sighting: There's a sailing race going on now, a distance sailing race from France to Iceland called Skippers d'Islande. Yesterday the boats must have been arriving or leaving Reykjavík, so the harbor was swooping with white sails in front of Akrafjall. Based on the course map, they're heading to their final destination in Grundarfjörður further north. I also saw the research ship Seeadler I mentioned last post. It's still here, tied up at the main dock, and is due to depart tomorrow.

06 July 2006

Inside Iceland

These past few days, thanks to an outpouring of support and thoughtfulness from several unexpected sources (M, S, & K, I cannot thank you enough), I've been the guest in quite a few new houses here. For example, on Monday, friend K hauled me out of the house to meet her in-laws A & J. They live in one of the lovely houses in Vesturbær that was built in the 30s, and the two of them have been together since they met while Scouts in their teens. They were both sweet and accepting of the odd foreigner she'd dragged in, took me in kindly, and sat me down to a Chinese takeout meal.

Their house is fairly unassuming from the outside, but inside it's a treasure chest of Icelandic history. The entryway stair hall is painted with astounding graphic Art Deco patterns, and the rooms further inside are laden with antique furniture, paintings, sculpture, carpets, books, and family photos. As we dined, the stories of each piece in the room unfolded in a mixture of Icelandic and English- a table from a lawyer great-great grandfather, chairs imported from France, paintings from a stableful of Icelandic artists, and century-old chandeliers that were the earliest electrified lights in the country.

This family is apparently unique in Iceland for having so many family heirlooms, thanks to the prominent position of several ancestors in early Icelandic politics and society. Also, since they were important, there were plenty of photos of the grand old gentlemen themselves, featuring lots of whiskers, sashes, and important looking medals. Interspersed with these, the paintings were an odd collection of scenes from East Iceland where part of the family was from mixed with more modern Dufy-style pen and ink illustrations. There were also a few 19th century landscapes reminiscent of a painting I wrote a paper on in college. They didn't all quite go together, but each one had a story that meant something to the couple, and obviously brought them happiness to have around.

I also appreciated that in spite of the grandness of all these great items, everything was jumbled together in a cozy way, and used and appreciated in the same way as the cheap glasses from IKEA that are ubiquitous here. The house was comfortable, loved, and filled with the products of an interesting and interested life, and vases full of fresh flowers perfumed the air and mixed with the after-lunch coffee.

Ship sighting: I have spent quite a lot of time in my soon-to-be-former home these past few days, so I've watched a lot of boats come and go. Yesterday, two guys in an inflatable boat with an outboard motor drifted around in front of the house like friends on a fishing trip. They were dressed like some kind of rescue operation though, with bright orange safety vests and overalls, and they had no fishing poles. There didn't appear to be any urgency to whatever they were doing either- from my vantage point they were just kicking back and having a chat. Male bonding or something, I guess.

Today we've got a fishery-protection research boat coming, the Seeadler. It's apparently quite the thing in research vessels, so if you're hot for more info on what makes it cool, here's a datasheet with a nice side elevation drawing.