31 August 2006

sounds of Holland

back in the center of the town I visited last time, I'm sitting next to my fourth-floor hotelroom window. The air is warm but still a little chill, and the sounds of the square below drift up to me here. There's the rattle of bicycles and the punctuating clang of a bell, the occasional motor scooter, but mostly the lazy summertime sound of the outdoor cafe across the street. The unfamiliar sounds of Dutch voices blend with the laughter into a hum that could be anywhere- reverberating off the brick walls around us and floating into the thinly overcast sky.

An outdoor concert is playing in the square, obviously someone that has followers, so I can just barely hear those who are singing along with the band. They're singing in English now, adding to the universality of this moment, as long as my eyes are closed. When I open them though, I see the dim bulk of the same church I looked at last time, the white lights that outline the windows of the building above the cafe, and the streams of bicycles, their red tail lights glowing in the evening.

Earlier today I was in our Dutch office, after the usual long day of flying, driving, and intense work. I got an email from my brother that contained photos of my young nephew playing on the beach on Cape Cod with the rest of my family, and for just a moment I felt terribly lost here in this sea of yet another strange language, intertwined Dutch highways, and carefully cultivated forests. Why am I here when my whole family is there in those familiar, loved places? Right now I wouldn't trade my life for anyone else's, but sometimes that soul-delay of travel makes for the occasional forlorn moment.

After listening to all the cheery-sounding but completely incomprehensible Dutch conversations, I also found a new kind of solace in hearing Icelandic. There's something soothingly predictable about it to me now- I may be far from fluent in my comprehension but at least I KNOW I will be able to figure out what's going on. I am curious what it will be like when I go somewhere English-speaking after this. What luxury to have all the linguistic tools you need at your disposal without having to plan what you say long in advance!

Ship sighting: I did see a few on the canals on the way here- some very Important-looking equipment being towed, a few flat cargo-bearing boats, and another one that looked like a dredger. Canal boats are such a different design- squat lozenge-y, and genteel.

30 August 2006

daglegt líf

Inspired by Boston blogger Plo with his daily life photo entry, I decided to take a few pictures of what my neighborhood looks like. So, to start with, I walk out this door every morning, and here is the sidewalk construction I mentioned in an earlier post.

A few blocks away we get to my local grocery store where people are always meeting friends and neighbors, and it is almost always rather crowded. Still, I managed to get an uncluttered photo of the well-stocked dairy section, where this evening I picked up some fresh mozzarella. Back out on the sidewalk, I sometimes pass this little sidewalk detail that always makes me smile a bit.

So there you have it folks- daily life in Vesturbær.

Ship sighting: Yesterday evening I saw a cruise ship leaving, which is ironically named the MS Amsterdam. There's also another ship by the same name that's a replica of a slightly older ship. I'm spending this weekend in Amsterdam and I've been thinking of visiting the maritime museum there. Maybe this awesome old boat is there!

29 August 2006

Changes afoot

Well, me readers, me hearties, it's been a bit of a thrilling few weeks, most of which has not percolated through to this page. However, this most recent change will affect it since I'm once again being packed off to Holland, for another peek at the canals, some more of Carmen-the-blog-reader's favorite cafe eats (I loved it enough to want to go again) and a lot of work. Said pattern is anticipated to be repeated a few times in the next few months.

I'll of course be keeping an eye out for boats wherever I can, and I'll have camera and computer with me for updates as I go.

24 August 2006


Summertime in Iceland isn't all hotsprings and hikes. It's also a frantic scramble to finish all the ambitious construction projects in the few months of (relatively) peaceful weather and long daylight hours. Everywhere I spend my time these days is surrounded by the clamor of construction. At work the dumptrucks come and go from various hole-diggings, and an entire new office building keeps the sounds of jackhammers and saws going. Near a friend's house and entire new pool is in its last stages before a (likely to be delayed) September 1 opening date, and where I am staying now, they are building a brand-new sidewalk. Not knowing it was fresh cement, I unwittingly left a sneakerprint in the new curb which I now look at as I pass by every day. Roads are constantly being closed and traffic rerouted for a quick one-day paving job, and entire buildings have been encased in scaffolding and tarps.

The skyline of Reykjavik is already not one of the most scenic, and it is now festooned with highrise cranes. It's a rare windowview that does not yield at least two. In fact, in the absence of my weather-trees, I use the chains on the cranes to determine just how windy it is outside (if the chain flaps in the breeze, you know you're going to be leaning pretty hard into the wind to get anywhere).

I'm already underwhelmed by much of the recent construction here, and I shudder to think that more of it is going up. There are whole neighborhoods, almost towns that are going up here, full of yet more of these comfortable-to-live-in buildings that do nothing to enhance the charm of their dramatic surroundings. This is why I am a downtown girl. I appreciate the ease and comfort of a new shiny building with storage units, modern-living spaces and brand-new fixtures, but what I love most are the old places, the ones that have odd door hinges or original light fixtures and funny corners. It keeps me connected to the layers of time which I so love about the downtown here, about my childhood spent in basements and attics as my dad explained how the beams were cut 200, 300 years ago. I can only hope that I'm not the only one who feels this way here.

Ship sighting: I commuted this morning partly on foot in the still misty morning, and checked out the stern of the cruise ship Astor, tied up at the miðbakki dock. I like that one of its former names was Dostoevskiy. The newspaper a few days ago also reported that one of the somewhat controversial whaling boats that are always tied up (immediately across from where the whalewatch boats depart) has been pulled up into drydock. The photo showed its hull laden with barnacles- I'll have to go down and have a look this week!

23 August 2006

getting cultural

I've been holding off on posting this since I left my camera at a friend's house, but I guess the pictures will just have to wait.

On Saturday I joined friends downtown to see what the deal about Menningarnótt (cultural night... actually more like cultural day) was. It proved to be the biggest crowd/entertainment I've seen, one of the first times here where I felt like there was actually not enough time to do all the exciting and interesting things on offer. Almost every shop and boutique on Laugavegur was offering up some kind of tunes and free samples, and the streets were jammed with strollers (both the walking and wheeled types). The three of us did the necessary Laugavegur cruise and then went to hear some resonant jazz in the Reykjavík Art Museum. This lovely, airy building is right by the sea, with a splendid harbor view from their well-stocked art library. Upstairs, I meandered through the Carnegie Art Award show, where Eggert Pétursson's canvases captivated me for the longest of any other piece there (please don't google image search- you will NOT be amazed. The gorgeous botanical details look like mud unless viewed live).

After a Thai dinner next to some extremely polite (and surprised at how good the food was) English people, I went to see my co-worker performing on the main Landsbankinn stage. As I mentioned before, his group has quite a following here, so I was in the midst of a herd of teenage boys that knew every lyric to every song. It was the first time seeing him live and I have to say I'm a groupie now. Nothing quite as awesomely obscure as Icelandic country/bluegrass, and they are GREAT live.

Up next, another Icelandic group with a decent following, Benni Hemm Hemm. They're the archetypal Icelandic sound- well-rehearsed, full of meandering trumpet sounds, taking traditional Icelandic themes and adding rock-sounds, and with a personality all their own (one guitarist was in full 80's tracksuit and mutton-chop mustache style).

We stayed partway through a third group, Mezzoforte, apparently quite The Thing in the 80's. They played a few classic-sounding tunes before we decided to depart, overdosing on the smooth bachelor-pad vibes. One thing I will say about them and all the other performances I saw- everyone looked like they were having a jolly time playing that evening. It's also the first time I've been to a concert where there were almost more seagulls flying over than attendees.

Fireworks closed the festivities (rather uninteresting when compared to the New Years extravaganza here) followed by the biggest traffic jam I've seen here as the suburb-dwellers returned to their homes. It was actually kind of exciting in its novelty though- people pouring to their eccentrically parked cars after an activity packed day, layers of music still running through their ears.

Ship sighting: On Saturday night there were dozens of sailboats out in the dark harbor, their rigging trimmed with red fairylights. It was a magical sight to see all these gliding triangles of light in the blackness. Another ship, the Turmoil, looking suspiciously like a modified-for-pleasure former fishing boat was tied up in the center dock. It's not big enough to be on the google image radar though, so you'll just have to imagine what it looked like. Very shiny.

18 August 2006

seasonal shopping

Grocery stores here are an entirely different creature in the summer than they are in the winter. The wares this time of year are almost entirely camping-focused, aside from your household staples like harðfiskur and toilet paper. In the fridge section, the shelves bloom with hot-dog selections, from cheese and jalapeno flavored to "French" and "Italian" varieties (note that they are NOT quite a replacement for my beloved hot Italian sausages but they do somewhat approximate the flavor... it'll do in a pinch).

The ends of the aisles are stacked high with single-use barbecue grills, and the banana tree display is accessorized with a box of Mars bars. This initially was an illogical pairing to me but after trying this Icelandic camping delicacy, I have no further questions. Kids, you can do this one at home, and here's how! Take one banana per camper, lay on its side, and slice along the curve (no peeling!)almost through the other side- leave the skin on the bottom intact. Break up chunks of Mars bar, or peppermint-filled chocolate (Pipp works well), or Sírius Konsum bittersweet. Set on the grill, cover, and let sit until the bananas have gone soft and the chocolate is melted. Eat with a spoon. I'm historically not a banana fan but this is TOO good- hot, melty, and almost too sweet. Try it. For extra credit, I'm told a shot of Grand Marnier or other liqueur adds a certain something.

If you stray from the edibles, there's also every kind of portable goody you could imagine. When I went camping a few weeks ago, we had a tent so large we could all stand up together in the vestibule, two tables, chairs for everyone (seven diners plus table fit comfortably), a stove, a heater, a bright gas lamp, air mattresses for all (and a pump that plugged into the car lighter so you didn't go all dizzy trying to inflate their hugeness), quick-light firelogs and plenty of cheerful plastic and tin cups, plates, and wine glasses. One wants for nothing!

Ship sighting: I went for a short inspectional stroll down to the harbor last night to admire an immaculate fishing ship at the main dock, in from the stunning-looking Faroese town of Klaksvík. Next to it, the cruise ship Princess Danae was tied up, her Portugese-speaking crew lounging around the gangplank (the ship is registered in Madeira). Inside I could make out some tables of people finishing up their supper in the restaurant. Why, I ask you, were these people eating on board when the the town's best hotdogs are available a street away? Also, I would love to see a ship that's not all Prince this or Queen that. How about a ship called Janitor Jim? I'd like that.

16 August 2006

Laugavegur before 9

This morning I awoke to yet another sunny, fresh day. Rather than taking the bus, I decided to walk the nicest part of my current commute. There’s a fantastic bakery a few doors down from where I am staying, so I bought a ham and cheese-filled croissant and a skyr from a cheery bakery girl before I set out. Their shelves were piled high, and the back area bustled with employees preparing for the influx of morning business.

The route I chose went down by Tjörnin, past the lovely houses on the west side. There’s a kindergarten there, so I passed a stream of skipping short people, trailing coat-bearing parents. There were some tourists sunning themselves on the park benches at the pond’s edge, map clutched in hand, and I said a cheery “goðan daginn!” to them (confusion ensued). Further towards the center of town, the tourist concentration got thicker- strategically folded maps poking from their various guidebooks, their gore-tex rain jackets swishing as they assembled around tour-busses packing them in for Golden Circle trips.

On Laugavegur, the mix was a little different- still the visitors, but now mixed with people striding to work, singly or in pairs. Ipod headphones prevailed, but others, like me, were just listening to the sounds of the town in the morning- the purring of an occasional idling delivery truck, but mostly so silent I could hear the chirrup of someone’s cellphone in their livingroom somewhere. One of the best things about walking at this time is the smells- a topnote of sea flavor and coffee, the fresh mossy main scent of Iceland itself, and then hints of the unashamed honesty of proper baking- full-cream butter, real whole eggs, flour and sugar. I was reminded of the time a friend and I were in Quebec City and we followed that delectable smell until we found its source on a narrow cobbled street.

But back to Reykjavík mornings- a single shopowner doing window inventory, the painting-in-progress paraphernalia in the vestibule of Rokk og Rósir (closed for renovations today!), the jangle of keys as another opened an office door. The few coffeeshops that are open early had put their tables out on the street, and the sun had drawn several early coffee-drinkers doing a desultory flip through Blaðið. It’s hard to believe that this idyllic Penny Lane is my hometown’s main street.

A few nights ago, K and I did tarot cards, and I pulled one that reminded me to live in the moment, something I find never so easy as when I am walking somewhere like this. Boston, London, Paris or Reykjavík. Walking solo is part of the rhythm and the reminder.

Vehicle spotting: I’m changing it up just for this post, since I saw an oddity today. Staring idly out of the bus window, I saw a car with a New York license plate. It’s something so burned in my memory at first it didn’t register as strange, but then my mind woke up to the out-of-context trigger. I knew it was possible to drive on a US plate here for a limited time, but I’ve never actually seen it. The narrow US font and the bas-relief statue of liberty looks so peculiar next to the blocky letters and simple insignia of Icelandic plates and the summer influx of EU ones (well, except for the Akureyri residents and their wonderfully royal county shield).

14 August 2006

Sunday bath

Today friend C and I decided to go for a hike over near Hveragerði to explore a waterfall we'd heard about yesterday. It was in a ravine with incredibly steep sides and no real path, so we ended up hopping on rocks, wading around canyon walls, and spending time consulting about which was the best route. The short trip was classic Iceland- the dripping moss, the craggy cliffs, and the moss-covered slopes that were peppered in krækiber and blueberries, all at their fattest and juciest. We snacked as we climbed out to the ridge above, then followed a farm road back to the farmyard, pausing for mushroom lessons when C spotted some familiar edible varieties. The farm was quiet and empty save for a chunky cream dog that waved a friendly tail as we walked down the tree-lined gravel road.

Back in the car, we headed back through Hveragerði to hike up into Reykjadalur. This valley is partially in view of rte 1 as it snakes down from Hellisheiði, the steam from the area pluming above the sloping green hills. We started out across the angled bridge, greeting the people who were (happily for us) all heading back to their cars.

The track up the hillside was muddy and grooved with hoofprints, and the resident sheep also seemed to use it as their grass-access highway. We followed a trio of them past this splendid waterfall view and down into the long valley itself. The area was bursting with white fifa in full bloom, signifying a soggy trek ahead. The grass grew thickly in the swampy land, hiding the long black slugs that oozed along the red mud, and hills on both sides hummed and burbled with steam vents, the sulphurous clouds wafting over us occasionally as we walked.

We passed a final pair of people before we arrived at the destination of this genteel but swampy hike- a scorching hot river bubbling from the center of a multicolored stone mixes with a frigid spring-fed river to form the perfect bathwater temperature. The warm river has been dammed off with stones to create a wonderful clear pool with a gravel bottom in the center of the valley.

More mud to be crossed first, then we waded across the mixing point, enjoying the confusion of having two feet in the same stream, one a bit too hot and the other much too cold. We skipped barefoot a few meters up the stream to see one of the source springs, then back for a dip. I almost lost a leg in a surprisingly deep stretch of mud, when something I had expected to not cover the top of my foot almost swallowed my knee. Barefoot in Iceland can be dangerous- mud traps, sheep turds, and the previously mentioned slugs kept us quick on our feet.

We shed our clothes on a gravelly beach and waded in, since the banks near the pool itself were too soggy to leave our clothes. The water was impossibly perfect, and so clear, with interesting lava rocks on the bottom in all sorts of colors- black, gray, green, yellow, and red. C skipped a few over the placid surface of the pool, but mostly we just lay and talked and admired the view- the evening sun on the hills above us, the lush grass on the banks, the shimmering steam on the water surface. It's incredible that magical places like this can be so close to where I live- a 40 minute drive and a short lovely hike and you're there, soaking in warm water while the sounds of waterfalls and sheep bleating to each other fill your ears.

When our fingers had raisined, we reluctantly waded back to our clothes, towelled off, and headed back on the opposite bank, following the swift-moving clouds towards the seacoast. During the drive back, the sun disappeared in thick fog on the mountain pass, severing our golden evening from reality once and for all.

Ship sighting: an unprecedented TWO large boats are occupying the slippur downtown together, in various states of undress. Páll Pállson is looking pretty good, but the companion is in full scrape mode, so I couldn't tell who it was.

11 August 2006

taking the high road

Last weekend was the Icelandic equivalent of Labor Day (a month earlier... should give you an idea of what the weather is like here), Verslunarmannahelgi, so everyone goes mad and leaves town for various country destinations.

I joined a trip of friends going to the interior of Iceland, a vast desert network of "roads" that are only driveable during a few short periods every year, and only if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, preferrably jacked up for ease in crossing rivers. My chariot of choice was a brown diesel Econoline van from the 80's (very stylish), sporting 38-inch tires and a plethora of equipment for all emergencies- a winch on the front, a telephone (cell towers do not exist where we were), fire extinguisher and first-aid kit, a full set of tools, extra gas tanks,and a refrigerator. Truly a pimped ride.

One of the main access points of the highland road network is just past Þjórsárdalur. The edge of civilisation is the "highland service center" of Hrauneyjar, your last chance for fuel and incredibly expensive ramen (ringing in at $1.50 for the kind that runs six packs for a buck in the States). From there, the road heads northeast into the highlands.

The landscape in this terrain is so incredibly different from anything I've seen before, and so huge, that the photos I took came out woefully inadequate. This area is the largest desert in Europe, but unlike most deserts, it does not lack for water. Unbroken vistas of black dunes would suddenly reveal a massive, raging river, edged by a fringe of psychedelic yellow-green moss, and almost always, a piece of one of the several glaciers in the area was always visible. Sometimes the view would be the massive glacier tongues crawling from between peaks, other times only the crest would show behind the mountains.

We had started on the relatively "busy" Sprengisandur ("exploding sands") road that goes all the way to Rte 1 in the north, but turned off to smaller and smaller roads, until we were on a track that was only a road because everyone had more or less agreed to drive in the same place. The track was marked with the usual yellow posts, but at times it was hard to find the next one, and in many places the difference between the "road" and the not-road was indistinguishable. We were driving on lava either way, and the texture did not make for a comfortable ride. Still, we managed to enjoy some excellent hors d'oeuvres prepared by backseat caterer K, ranging from proscuitto-wrapped melon to pepper cheese and grapes on crackers. Travelling in style!

My driving companions were all very well informed, so I learned about the forces forming each new type of mountain, and whether it had been created under a glacier or not, from fast-moving lava or not. They also described all the potential hazards that could befall adventurers here, and why, for example, one must drive quickly over the outwash sands below a glacier. Important stuff to know.

There are a few places that break up the plant-free landscape, like the charming green campsite below the Queen of icelandic mountains, Herðubreið. We stayed a night there, a strangely populated area for somewhere so remote. The site had toilets, running water, and families that had come with the portable version of all the comforts of home (more on Icelandic camping philosophy sometime later...).

We emerged to civilisation in the north to refill briefly about halfway through the trip, frightening a few Mývatn area tourists when the diesel beast pulled up next to their tourbus. The weather report was rumored better in the south, so we headed back into the interior, following a lovely farming river valley to one of the best waterfalls I have seen yet, and then into Sprengisander (someone speculated the name comes from all the tires that must have exploded when vehicular crossings were first attempted), and finally back out to paved roads, shops, and greenery.

We spent our last evening in the campsite at Þjórsárdalur, tucked among the trees and listening to some faraway outdoor concert. The cobalt-navy sky was perfectly clear and at the darkest time we even saw a strip of northern lights hovering over our fire.

Not wanting to go straight back to the busybusy city, we took the long way home, up past the Gullfoss tourist mecca to the powerline access road that stretches below Langjökull. This is the first glacier I ever saw (MFG!) in my life, so it was a thrill to see the view behind the craggy mountains.

Our route returned to pavement at Þingvellir, where, after a hotdog pause, the two vehicles parted ways and we all returned to town, arriving just in time to catch the end of opening hours at Laugardalslaug. Nothing feels so good as hot, abundant Icelandic water after four showerless days!

Ship sighting: I saw the Clipper Adventurer arrive yesterday, back for at least the second time this summer. This is a hard-core "adventure" ship with itineraries in Antarctica and the Falklands scheduled for next winter. You can join if you've got a spare 10K.

10 August 2006

transplanted hipsters

So, before I start on what happened LAST weekend, I guess I should talk about the Belle & Sebastian concert, the big reason for all that driving and exploring of eastern fjords.

On Saturday night, the four of us who were going to the concert put on our best shimmery eye makeup and fabulous outfits, and piled into K's mom's jeep for the ride to a fjord a few north of where we were all staying. Those of us who weren't driving brought bottles of wine and plastic cups, which we poured whenever it wasn't too bumpy on the drive up over the mountain pass. In the valley where Egilsstaðir lies, we drove north along the lake, pausing when K spotted a short-eared owl on a fencepost. We watched as it took off, the wings swooping with silent power parallel to the car before it disappeared towards the lake.

We continued on north to climb another mountain ridge, descending into a valley and then skirting round another mountain before we reached our destination, Borgafjörður Eystri. Unfortunately, we were late enough to have missed Emilíana Torrini altogether (apparently the concert started on time. Who's EVER heard of that, especially here in Iceland?) so we joined the crowds milling outside the concert venue, a herring storage shed next to the water. The dress code was heavy on the lopapeysa, but on the whole it was as fabulous as a weekend in Reykjavík, and the camaraderie was quite the same. Being with three Icelanders meant lots of stopping to talk, lots of "gaman að sjá þig", and plenty of cheek kissing.

When Belle & Sebastian were set up, everyone packed back in the herring shed for the second half of the show. I've been incredibly fortunate that somehow I manage to experience a lot of great bands live for the first time, and this show was no exception to the trend. I'd only heard a few songs before and had no feeling for their music, so it was a great treat to be in this tiny venue with all these excited Icelanders. I inched up close enough that I could see everyone on the stage and only had a few beer-sloshing concertgoers near me, and took a few photos. Unfortunately, my camera is somewhat antique so this is the best I got. Still, the upbeat flavor of the music and the rustic setting was definitely memorable, and from the Belle & Sebastian website I gather that they also had a great time here (check out the photos of them playing soccer with local kids here. The feeling was definitely that we were all part of the same group, instead of the Hallowed Performers and we the lowly audience, which is one of the things that is so great about going to any kind of music or theater or art show here. Someone always has some connection to the group in some way, so it makes them seem like real people who just happen to like making whatever art they are demonstrating. It's a much cozier feeling than going to a concert at the massive Fleet Center in Boston (I think it has some other name now... can't keep it straight!) and makes me love this funny, tiny land even more.

After the concert, everyone poured out into the foggy darkness, milling about and drinking beer. Somehow K and I ended up on the far side of the building, where the rocks dropped away to the ocean, and racks of hakarl hung drying in tidily-hung rows. Where else but in Iceland can you find pieces of shark drying a few meters from where some internationally-loved musicians were just performing?

Ship sighting: I can confirm that the Vistamar did arrive safely, since I spotted the bright yellow stripe around her midsection peeking from between the customs office and the city library earlier this evening.

09 August 2006

blogging backlog

I have been doing so many interesting things lately that I am finding it impossible to write about everything before the next fun thing happens. I did some great things over the weekend which got in the way of the final segment of the Belle & Sebastian pilgrimage, for example.

Not to mention that there have been some splendid days here, and all I want to do is be outside enjoying them. Yesterday evening I went for a walk by the sea in the glorious golden sunshine, and ended up in a new area of town that I'd never explored. The path went along the ocean on the southern side of the Reykjavík peninsula, passing some forgotten fish-drying racks (still containing a few samples, their fish-mouths permanently dried in a gory primal fish-scream), and along to below the domestic airport. There was a youth soccer team practicing there, the orange of the jerseys glowing against the thick green grass.

To the right, before the waves began, the wild angelica bloomed full, mixing wafts of licorice spice with the sea flavors. Further down the path there was a riot of rosebushes, the good kind that smell impossibly delicious.

I passed several others, couples on a leisurely bicycle tour, friends deep in discussion over their evening walk, and sporty rollerbladers. An evening like this is irresistable. Everyone was out, even if just to pull a few weeds in the garden or trim the hedges.

Past the airport is another section of postcode 101, a strange amalgamation of 70's architecture that looks like I'd imagine a California suburb would contain, some lovely classic old houses, and a few modern expressions of architecture that included details like a three-story "stone"-trimmed watchtower, another with seven-foot stained glass human profiles flanking the front door, and several grass-topped houses. Everyone's always saying how tiny this town is but I am still finding all kinds of new unexplored corners. Long may it continue.

Ship sighting: On my way back from the walk I watched the progress of a midsized fishing boat heading in. Today we also have the Vistamar arriving. I'm a little worried about its seafaring abilities after finding this picture of it though.

03 August 2006

Seyðisfjörður ramblings

First, I must mention that I am writing this on a sunny balcony with an ocean view, admiring the emerald-green grass through the latticework railing. I have hot espresso and local pastries at my side, and the most astounding thing is that I am in a knee-length skirt and a tank top. That's right, outside, in Iceland, in the sun and it's warm enough and breeze-free enough to go strappy tops.

But back to the fog of East Iceland... Seyðisfjörður, my new fascination. As I mentioned before, this is where the ferries to Norway and all points between arrive in Iceland, so it's got this Important status, and historically has so as well. This town was big news in the old days, and still retains some of its importance, if one is to judge from the Hollywood-style SEYÐiSFJÖRÐUR sign on the side of the hill as you approach the town. It's rigged with lightbulbs so it must be quite a display in the winter.

We all were staying in the house a friend of one of the group has rented for the summer, and it was all fascinatingly Bohemian. She's an artist, and had acquired a spare pair of New Zealanders who were working at a local cafe for the summer. They were staying in one room downstairs and B (renter of the house) and her son were staying upstairs, in one of a warren of tiny bedrooms. The house was a lovely traditional old Icelandic house with the center gable, the corrugated metal exterior, and typical bright paint choice (what I would refer to as New England barn red). However, nothing inside had been remodeled or updated in the slightest since the 1950s. The floors were covered in linoleum (the best was one room that had a carpet printed on the linoleum), the bathroom had been painted a lime green so bright it actually glowed in the misty darkness when we arrived, the curtains were the kind of indestructible polyester material that was so prolific in the 60s, peeking into closets showed serious water damage in the eaves, and if anyone stomped too vigorously downstairs, the lights would flicker in one of the rooms. There was a similarly ramshackle assortment of furniture- mismatched chairs, cots upstairs, and a few wooden boxes that once held English explosives serving as tables in the living room. Apparently this house is owned by some Famous Icelander in Hollywood, and is on the verge of a major makeover. So far, all that's happened is one room upstairs has been stripped of its wallpaper, exposing the wallboards that are covered with old Icelandic newspapers. Much work to be done.

We spent all of Saturday there before the concert, the kids playing with various other local kids that appeared in the house suddenly and disappeared just as mysteriously. Bikes came and went, fishing expeditions were organized and abandoned, and much fun was had at the fjord's edge until everyone realized that the tide was rising faster than they'd expected.

After enjoying the sunny morning reading, I went to explore the town in the afternoon as the fog rolled in. I went to what I think is the only grocery store in town, marveling at the peculiar selection of incredibly expensive wares. Want a chic glass breadbox, a Scottish venison steak, and a hairdryer on your next one-stop shopping trip? Samkaup Strax in Seyðisfjörður is the place for you.

Next, I went with K to the Indian "hippybúðin" across the street from where we were staying. This little old house contains a surprisingly good Indian store, with lots of cheap silver jewelry, sari material, gorgeously knotted rugs, and then, just when you're about to be really impressed by the interesting foreign goods, a collection of clothing that's from H&M, Coldwater Creek, and Zara. I found some amazing bargains which were rung up by someone that looked familiar, but I figured she just had one of those faces until K later mentioned that she was a fairly famous Icelandic actress. I'd seen one of her films back when I was living in Boston, but to my American self, running across a film actress tending a shop barefoot in a tiny fishing village is too out of context. Still, I'm proud our conversation was entirely in Icelandic, and I can report that that her amazing red hair is definitely real.

After lunch the household dispersed to visit family in the area, to read, or to work, so I took off with my camera to see what else was to be seen in town. I followed the main street down the southern side of the fjord, observing the Saturday afternoon activities of the people who live there, which seemed to mostly involve washing cars. Inevitably, I ended up in the industrial side of town, where old cranes stood next to a tumbledown locksmith shop and some impressively shiny refrigerated warehouses. From there I followed an old road that climbed straight up the side of the mountain. I scared a few sheep on the way up, but otherwise it was just me and some birds that called to each other mournfully from the heath.

The hillside there was covered with the usual blend of mosses, tiny flowers, and krækiber, all in full ripeness. These tiny purple-black berries grow all over the land here, and taste like autumn in New England- not incredibly sweet but very refreshing and there's something wild and elusive about the flavor. They also make you work to enjoy them, as one pencil-eraser sized berry is more than half seeds. Still, as I climbed higher, I kept stopping for another handful to mull over as I watched the landscape unfold.

As I climbed higher, the road became fainter and fainter, until it disappeared altogether and it was just me, the moss, and the occasional stone. After a while I stopped to sit on a rock and just watch the silence. I could still hear the hissing roar of the water in the fjord below, and the wind in the cliffs above me, but I was the only human there, sitting quietly on my stone. The fog had started to roll in with force, hiding parts of the landscape like a dancer revealing and concealing her charms with veils. Sometimes the tops of the immense peaks on the opposite side were perfectly clear, then they disappeared and all I could see was the sea below, then finally the fog erased everything and grew dense enough that water began to bead on the fibers of my lopapeysa. Time to go.

Back in civilization, I found an assortment of people wanting to go to the pool when I returned to the house. We packed up our towels and walked the five minutes to the pool, which unfortunately took some of the gloss off the town. Seyðisfjörður does not have the geothermally heated water, so the pool was entirely indoors. There were nice large windows around it and plenty of toys for the kids, but the nuddpottar were all in this strange neon-illuminated corridor with only one small window for fresh air (forget having a view to contemplate). I felt like I was in a suburban American motel, and after growing accustomed to a snap of fresh air accompanying your soak, this was a sad disappointment. No eimbað either- just a dry sauna that stood with the door ajar when I checked it, its baked heat escaping rapidly.

Still, in spite of the disappointing pool, this town is well worth another visit. Maybe next time I'll go to the technology musem there. It looks like it might be almost comparable to the Museum of Everything in Skógar.

Ship sighting: As I mentioned, I found myself down by the docks and the shipyard, where I took a picture of this wonderful, slightly peeling boat. I can't take enough photos of boats-in-progress.

01 August 2006


Yesterday my current residence visa in my passport expired. I am now technically living illegally in The Land. I called Útlendingastofnun to ask about this peculiar situation and after a conversation that began in English but rambled into Icelandic (yay! I can understand enough of the language to talk to Immigration Ladies!), I discovered that they are absolutely unconcerned that I had yet to receive the letter from them saying I could get my new one at the copshop. That 4000 krónur it now costs to renew your visa doesn't seem to bring expedited service, and immigrants running around without documentation is not a problem, apparently.

So I'm living lawlessly, but with the approval of the immigration office.


I went on a long weekend trip to a concert in the tiny village of Borgafjörður Eystri over the weekend. Since this place is a full day of non-stop driving from Reykjavík, we decided to make it a road trip, and stopped at some of the major attractions along the way. The drive to Vík by now has become a bit of a routine, and for some reason it seems to recently be plagued by impressive rain. The unchartered territory began for me just outside of Vík, when we passed the rock formation of Hjórleifshöfði. From there to our night stopover at Skaftafell is an almost unpunctuated stretch of sand and lava, only interrupted by the tiny town of Kirkubæjarklaustur, the town of the Most Confusing Esso Station Exit. The weather was traditionally south-coast crappy though, so maybe I missed something.

Skaftafell is a national park that's tucked up against the base of one of the tongues of Vatnajökull, Iceland's biggest glacier. It's the base camp for all kinds of ice exploration, as well as less adventuresome hikes. We did the short trip out to Svartifoss, a popular waterfall that cascades over perfectly hexagonal lava tubes (yes, I took photos but they were nothing special, so google-image-search if you want to see what it looked like) There's a parking lot a short walk from the falls that was of course loaded with busses, and the path was crowded with foreigners. It was easy to tell who wasn't from around here as we walked along bare-armed past clusters of people in full foul-weather gear.

Back on the road we continued through the black sands to the next Great Icelandic Sight, Jökulsárlón. This is one of those places that I wish I could see again and again just how I saw it the first time- not knowing when it was going to appear, and knowing nothing about the scale, lulled by the black dunes of glacial sand deposit. It's such an instantly dazzling view, all these ice chunks glowing turquoise from within, drifting on the placid water below the glacier, and then to the other side, the sea raging in its unfettered south-coast persona. Astounding, even though it was crawling with people, and definitely worth the trip to both lagoon side and ocean side. I could have stood for hours on the beach, listening to the crackling of the ice as the surf crashed against it, crawling between the chunks, striped with glacial sand in some places and carved into surreal sculpture-forms, their surfaces breathing cool glacier-air, their edges dripping fresh water into the sea foam.

We had to continue further though, and an accident on the beach had forced an unexpected layover in the next town of Höfn í Hornafirði (note to the wise: going barefoot on an ice-strewn beach might lead to unexpected foot injuries). The day was achingly lovely though, so those of us who were not getting foot stitches at the local health clinic enjoyed the incredibly tiny pool there. It's pretty workaday, and laps are probably out of the question with all the kids enjoying the pool paraphernalia, but the beach-ball chairs were very comfortable and the variety of jacuzzi temperatures was pleasant.

Back on the road, we continued through the beginning of the really majestic East Fjords scenery. This is some hot stuff folks- a bigger scale than the West Fjords, and in the July evening sun the hillsides glowed below the glowering mountaintop clouds. Quite possibly my new favorite landscape here, with the continued accents of tremendous waterfalls, sheep-covered hillsides, little ponds surrounded by fifa, and a fjord named after, and containing, hundreds of swans.

After a thrilling dirt-road mountain pass crossing in the fog, we descended into the valley where Egilsstaðir sprawls, the capitol of East Iceland. Sadly, this was quite a let-down as the first Big Civilization of the day. It's a peculiarly red-neck town (lots of noisy cars, burly guys, and rat-tail hairdos spotted at the Esso station) with an astounding lack of zoning and planning. We dined at a pizza place that was almost unfindable, located on the second floor of an office building, next to what was either a junkyard, a paint shop, or a tire lot. Pick one, and you get the idea of how charm-free the location was, in spite of the lovely sunset sky that arced overhead.

Fortunately, our final destination for the evening was NOT here, so we once again got on the road and headed over one final mountain pass, where I learned about the legendary East Iceland fog. It hung in the valley and made it almost impossible to see the town of Seyðisfjörður, home to a lot of great old houses and about 700 people. More on that in next post!

Ship sighting: Seyðisfjörður is the Icelandic port of the Smyril Line, the company that runs the car ferry that goes from Iceland to the Faroes, and then to the Shetland Islands and Norway. There's almost no evidence in this town that it's receiving all these Dutch and German cars on a regular basis, except that the concentration of foreign license plates seemed to get higher the further east we went (yes, there are people from other countries but the most noticeable volume comes from those two lands). The ferry dock was deserted on a Saturday afternoon, and the only foreign ship influence was a small Swedish sailboat with two bicycles parked on the dock nearby (you can see its mast in the lower right-hand corner of this photo, near the fishing boat). Nothing like the Steamship Authority docks on a summer Saturday!