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.


Professor Batty said...

...thanks for a delightful post, I really got a sense of place from your writing...

ECS said...

thanks professor! I wrote it so I could remember it too- those moments on the mountainside were pretty special, and it's a fascinating little town.

tsduff said...

I think your new Icelandic career should be one of a professional writer. Your words completely paint the pictures in my mind... a warren of tiny bedroos... how cool is that imagery?

I found Samkaup Strax to be tres expensive!!! I'll stick to Bonus.

I purchased my very own pretty blue lopapeysa on the last trip to Iceland. I'm quite thrilled to have one. Thanks for the virtual trip to Seyðisfjörður. That was one place we didn't make it to along our road trip. Next time.

We brought some of the growing berries home with us, along with some moss and other various growths attached to heavy lava rocks. (My Icelandic sweetie didn't tell me until we got home why his pack was so atrociously heavy... not to mention slipping through customs unaware...) They like it when we pour distilled water on them.

dtw said...

Looks like I'll have to start keeping a memo about places to visit. Yet another inspiring post, thanks for keeping it up!

Ah, to have an own car and no need to stick to the BSÍ timetables. I might have to see if I'm guerrilla enough to go biking around Iceland next summer. Maybe not all the way to Egilsstaðir, but somewhere a little closer...

And as a little note, that really is some magnificent hair. When I was a baby mine used to be nearly that bright red, yet with years it changed to the most boring kind of brown you could possibly imagine. I would've taken the freckles for that.

cK said...

Wonderful stuff. Thanks. (And, yeah: That crane's shade of yellow...especially against that warehouse...is striking.)

carmen said...

Such a fantastic post. Part one left me begging for more and this one completely filled the void. (Though will we get a few passages about the trip home?) There is something about the arduousness of trips around Iceland that make your discoveries of these hidden jems seem especially joyful.

carmen said...

aargh, i meant "gems"
(sorry, i hate typos.)

ECS said...

Terry- thanks for being such a fan! I really love writing about these places because I like to be able to read them over later and remember the special moments. It's an added bonus that other people like to read it too.

DTW- I think the busses can get you pretty far, since the three people staying in that house were all carless. I personally would not enjoy a bike trip here- weather is too crappy, and all the bikers I have seen look like they're gritting their teeth as they bike.

CK- Glad you liked it!

Carmen- as I just posted today, I have SO many things to write about that I think I might have to skip the drive the rest of the way round. I've seen it now enough times that it's becoming part of the routine, strangely enough. Still, my trip last weekend will give you some good views of new scenery. I also liked the "jem" typo.. made me have an 80's flashback to Jem and the Gemstones. Now those were some real rockers!