26 September 2006

on tour

These past few weeks have brought an influx of blog readers to verify the accuracy of my reportings here, and bring me Things From The States. It's been somewhat stressful, since I always hope that Iceland will show off its best, but in true Iceland fashion, it does what it pleases. Two weekends ago, we did manage to see a smidgen of norðurljós in spite of the cloudy day, but last week it was like I controlled the earth, the sea, and the elements, providing two days of perfect weather for my next tour group. On Thursday, I met with four guys who were on their way back from a European tour-of-male-bonding, and together with K we went for a lobster dinner in Stokkseyri. This restaurant is exactly the kind of restaurant you'd want to eat lobster at- the menu consists basically of lobster in three sizes, lobster soup, and wine that goes with it. They know what they do best and they stick to it.

The restaurant is right on the edge of the sea by the south coast, and we arrived just as the last tinges of evening peach were fading from the sky. Good northern lights sighting ahead. After a truly decadent dinner involving wine and their famous meringue cake, we piled back into the cars and drove back along the coast. K pulled off at a beach entry in the darkest part of the road, and we all stumbled down to the dark beach (black sand plus a moonless night makes for challenging walking).

Even though I have lived here for a year, I cannot fail to be absolutely speechless when in a moment like that. On a black sand beach with the Arctic surf crashing below us, and above, the millions of stars glowed clear, washed in undulating green to the north. No cars, no other people, no sounds beyond the waves, and a crisply frigid wind to remind you that you are on the edge of the Arctic Circle, and all this only 45 minutes from home. I live here for those reasons.

The next day I played hooky from work and did the usual tourist trip of Þingvellir, Geysir, Gullfoss. I've done this now in sun and fog, snow and summer, and it is still exhilarating to see. In spite of its touristy nature there really is something to be said for these sights, and I love being there when people see it for the first time. As with the day before, the weather was absolutely perfect, and I am sure that memories of the gorgeous weather will sustain me through the winter. Having visitors come to explore with again reminds me of what is great about this place, and I always end renewed, refreshed, and loving Iceland again.

Ship sighting: Speaking of being on tour, I am typing this in the airport, as I am once again going to Holland. I will be missing a tanker-intensive day, as this one and another arrive today. I'll probably be taking the train through Rotterdam today, but the trains don't go anywhere near the legendary harbor. Better luck some other trip.

19 September 2006

on Campus

These past few weeks I've sort of felt like I'm back in college. Something about the scale of life here, and the variety and mixing of activities in my life has set me back five years to dining halls and student centers. I realized this last week as I was walking from rehearsal to beers with friends downtown, the Bach trills still ringing in my ears. We met at the Alþjóðahús, the international house, where laptops sprouted from half-a-dozen tables, and across the corridor a tango class gyrated silently behind the large glass window. Even though people of all ages meet here, the international scene, the frequently discounted beers, and the cultural-sharing vibe makes it feel student center-y, especially on a blustery damp evening.

The autumn leaves are falling fast here, and piling up in scuff-able corner heaps. The air is crisp, backpack-bearing teenagers crawl the sidewalks in my university neighborhood, and kids on bikes whizz by in the mornings, scarves a-flying.

When I was in college, I also used to give tours to prospective parents and students, and the tour-guiding has continued here in similar vein. The tours are always part history, part things I like best, part daily life, and leaves me with a new appreciation for the place I am showing off. Plus, on an almost daily basis now, I run into some visitor or other, and I glow with secret glee at being on The Other Side. Those hippy-backpackers buying bread in the bakery this morning had no idea that I was also from their country, with my stealth-cloak of Icelandic scone-buying skills.

The scones also make me think of university. My friend A had a thing for the cinnamon scones from Au Bon Pain near my school, and I remember many a pharmacy run that resulted in a detour to fulfill her scone needs. It's now my favorite thing to buy at my local bakery- fluffy and richly speckled with cinnamon deposits (A, you have NO idea what a scone can taste like until you've had one of these).

Downtown even has this feeling of being a university town, with all the cafes and shops, the funny old buildings, and the pond in the center, and going the few short blocks to the pool even feels like a campus sports center. Even the variety of people I hang out with perpetuate this feeling. My first year in college I lived on a hallway with people from all over the world, so having friends from Guatemala, Norway, Holland, Germany, and Iceland living so close by in this little town fits perfectly. I even have lunch in a dining hall every day, and since I live with a friend now, the occasional evening discussions, the help with hairdos, and nail-painting procrastination even feels like the fun parts of dorm living.

So many people talk wistfully about the college days as being the best time in their life, but I've discovered that you can have the best parts of that life in other places, and that it's actually more fun the second time around.

Ship sighting: I spent all weekend in town so I took a few pictures down at the water, like this Portugese fishing boat (again, verry friendly crew) and the peaceful sunset on Saturday evening.

*Note that I have discovered the mapping component of Flickr- many photos now have location data!

14 September 2006

Boots, bluster, Beethoven

Autumn has definitely arrived in Iceland since I returned from Holland, which means pulling on the boots, bracing into the wind, and restarting the extracurricular activities after summer vacation. This time of year always makes me want to listen to classical music, perhaps as a nod to those early days back at school when we got all the new music we’d sing in chorus at the end-of-semester concert. I’ve channeled that now with an iTunes playlist of Beethoven piano sonatas, their pared-down simplicity a fitting soundtrack for the low clouds and swirling leaves outside my kitchen window.

Choir has started too, and with it more classical music. We’re singing a Bach cantata now, full of those signature eighth-note runs that seem impossibly complicated the first time you see them. After a few run-throughs though, the momentum of them and the vocal memory takes over and they roll like rustling leaves from my lips. They remind me of living here in so many ways, the effort and preparation when you turn the page to see this six-measure phrase, the thrill that ensues after nailing all the dotted quarter notes and all the tones perfectly, the inability to gloat in your success as the next onslaught of notes arrives. I’m always scrambling slightly to keep up musically, culturally, and linguistically here, but it is all so engrossing that I easily forget all the bad stuff when all the moving parts synthesize in a perfectly crafted moment. It’s not specifically about living here though, but just about trying to build a life that keeps you happy and interested. It sometimes does seem easier to find those minutes when you’re sitting on the edge of a massive, unpopulated, and silent fjord though.

Ever since I got back, the wind has also been blustery in what I am told is signature autumnal weather. It hasn’t been cold though, so this wind is rather invigorating when outside, and makes me happy be in a cozy warm bed as it roars against the windowpanes at night. I’ve discovered the Ultimate Icelandic dresscode for this weather too, involving some sturdy-yet-stylish fleece-lined boots and a generously-sized scarf (assemble the rest between, whether it is a skirt or jeans rolled up to show off the sassy buckles at the top of the boots). All this time I thought everyone was swooping artistically with the scarves when it really is about practicality. A scarf like this can protect from the quick spurt of drizzle, gives you something to bury your nose in when it’s really cold, and when inside it can cut the slightest of chills admirably. Plus, it’s fun to wear when the wind throws the fringe around when you walk down the street.

Ship sighting: Today is a massive influx-exodus of all kinds of curiously-named cargo ships. They are not all for containers though, like this Irish-registered dry-cargo ship, the Arklow Wind. More photos of its controls and such are here too.

13 September 2006

being American

This morning I went for an early swim, and as I turned my face to the sub-arctic early-morning sun on alternating breaths, I thought about yesterday and all the international press about September 11th. I'm still an American, although having been away for more than a year, it's become both a more abstract identity but at the same time all the more clear that it is definitely who I am.

I followed the stripe along the bottom of the pool and thought about my weekend, and several discussions I had about nationalities. For example, I had lunch with a Norwegian friend on Saturday, who said that she'd felt my American-ness from when we first met a year ago. I'd invited her and a few others (also Norwegian) to a party at my house, and while they accepted gladly, they were also bemused by this quick invitation. Apparently this kind of timeline is unheard-of where she is from. We also talked about what you do when sitting next to someone on a plane. Unless they are a frighteningly large Polish guy that has no sense of personal space and speaks no English (this is not a fabricated seatmate, unfortunately) I will usually make an attempt at conversation. Makes the flight go by quicker and does sometimes result in a new friend (I met my friend H that way a few months ago). Apparently this is Not Done in Norway unless under very unusual circumstances. This opinion was corroborated by an Icelander as well. Am I really that American and open or is something else at work here?

I do attribute my outgoing attitude somewhat to being in a new place and having to build a new community from the ground up. You gotta get outside yourself in general in order to make headway, especially here in the north. It's funny though, since I am the only American many people here know personally, I also find myself explaining the regional differences in the definition of barbecue, the virtues of salty movie popcorn, and the linguistic brilliance of "all y'all". I'm so accustomed to the Icelandic accent in English that whenever an Icelander does their best impression of my accent, it's kind of shocking to hear the fat-sounding a's, the prickly t's that I realize I myself say.

So by now I have concluded I am undeniably American and probably always will be, and it's likely to not matter how long I live away or how many other languages I acquire. When I started travelling abroad in college, I did my best to conceal it, secretly gleeful when someone mistook me for Dutch or German. It's obviously easier when not speaking English, but now I relish the reveal moment when someone who thought all Americans were monolingual redneck Bush lovers has to reconsider. Perhaps I have just been fortunate to have not experienced any blatant anti-American sentiment, and my optimism can be preserved.

I am planning a trip back in October and I am very curious to see how my acceptance of being American changes when I am faced with the gritty reality of the massive country and its less-than-welcoming passport control agents in Boston. I suspect that American-ness is best experienced from a slight distance.

Ship sighting: A full harbor this evening, with many of the ships I have seen in dry dock over the past few months in the quiet harbor. The whaling ship is tied up again with its brother ships (I imagine these boats to be male, not female somehow) and Eldborg and Atlas, and an unfamiliar dredger at a side dock.

07 September 2006

visual explanations

Back in Iceland now, which means photos. Now you can see the things I talked about in my post about Amsterdam. Here's the favorite reader-suggested cafe, a glimpse of some classic 17th century Dutch architecture, a more modern view of the neighborhood I explored on Sunday, and a peaceful courtyard that captured my fancy as well.

of course, there's also the promised picture of the handknit paniers, and for extra measure, a peek down a street in the town I visit for work.

05 September 2006

A little Dutch lesson on modesty

Yesterday I went to the pool/spa next door to the hotel in celebration of my extremely productive day at work. As I was being escorted into the locker room, the attendant told me that the swimming pool was strictly no-swimsuits-allowed (and mixed gender) this time of day. I'd heard rumors of this naked spa-going from one of my Dutch co-workers but other Icelandic colleagues had never mentioned this. Apparently there is an unwritten rule in the company that each new Icelandic visitor to the Dutch office must discover it for themself.

Not to be daunted, I headed into the pool area, feeling slightly like I was in the wrong place since all I could see was men. The pool was very short (maybe 12 meters)- perfect for practicing flip turns, which was on my agenda for the day. I had a good rhythm going when I was joined by some lazily swimming men and one woman. Lemme tell you- nothing breaks up the flow like being behind a naked man on the out-kick of a breaststroke. Good anatomy lesson.

After a rousing (and educational) swim, I headed to the other delights of this subterranean sauna. There was a jacuzzi with some jets placed to fizz upward from the seats (not going to contemplate this construction choice too much right now...), two temperatures of dry sauna, an infrared muscle sauna, two deep cool-water plunge pools, a Turkish steam sauna, and a variety of shower/deluge techniques for cooling down after all that heat. There was even a bar area where you could throw back a beer or two in your towel.

In keeping with my Icelandic-created tradition, I went directly to the steamroom, which was a genteel little cousin of the Icelandic steam-blasting rooms. The steam here issued gently from a single square hole like a Voice From the Deep every few minutes and billowed to fill the room, just after a set of nozzles on the upper wall rinsed the walls and seats with cool water (to get off all that naked body-sweat, I guess).

After the steam I tried the cooling area- the wooden bucket with a rope to send a massive splash down your shoulders, the supercharged cold shower, and my favorite (but sadly not working), a sort of rainforest experience where the water dripped from an installation of fake plants and blooms on the ceiling. Another trip to the dry sauna, and back to the cold showers, a sampling of the jacuzzi, and I was done.

Overall I'm glad I had the introduction to semi-public nudity in Iceland, becasue this everyone's-nekkid thing IS a little peculiar at first, and when I acquired an overenthusiastic "tour guide" who wanted to show me around the sauna and buy me a drink, then get my phone number and my room number (and when I claimed to have forgotten them all, wanted to go UP to my room to get them), I did wonder if the nakedness creates a false sense of intimacy with your fellow sauna-goers.

Still, the facilities were superb, if a little gloomy in their window-free basement location, and I think I would probably go back again next time I am here. Still gonna wear the goggles though, no matter what the must-be-naked rules say.

Ship sighting: I am always thinking about boats in spite of all this bare flesh... I saw a canal boat yesterday that is actually a working art supply store. Awesome. This country is definitely a worthy second home of the Harbor Watch.

04 September 2006

transit typing

I am sitting on the train going south from Amsterdam, after a weekend in the city. I still love it as much as before, even though the weather is just the kind that reminds me of why I like living in Iceland- a day that SEEMs cool and fresh because of the wind, but the humidity in the causes everyone to go limp and soggy. Still, the cafe living and the texture of the city is enough to make me overlook that, just for the weekend.

Yesterday I went back to Cahmen's favorite cafe, just for old time's sake. I chose a seat at a wicker chair with a thin-legged metal table under the yellow striped awning in the uncertain sunshine, watching the waiters cross the street with their full trays to the bridge seating. Another cafe on the opposite corner had pigeons plaguing the guests and tables, so the waiters there would come out with a supercharged water gun to chase them away every few rounds.

I ordered gazpacho to start, my second of the weekend. The one I'd had the night before contained apples and shrimp, but this one was just honest tomato-vegetable goodness, topped with crispy, flavorful homemade croutons. Accompanied by a citron pressé mixed just as I like, the combination made the most of the summery weekend and the relaxed afternoon there.

As I sat, bicycles, horse carriages, and delivery wagons passed occasionally- just enough activity to give a lone diner plenty to watch, but not so much that I couldn't appreciate each individual ping of a bell, clatter of horse hooves, and hum of Dutch from across the street. Tourist packs wandered by occasionally and moved on- all flavors of visitors, from the Sensibly Shod American types to some fierce Italian guys sporting waistpacks like it was the next Hot Trend (is it? They were the kind of Italian man that can wear whatever and make it look like the latest thing).

Sometimes I feel like this brand of tourism is not the most productive, since I have now been to Amsterdam twice and not been to the Rijksmuseum (in my defense, the line was discouraginly long when I went by yesterday and today, and there is a notice informing visitors of the construction that closes part of the museum). Still, whenever I'm sitting and having these lazy lunches or walks in the neighborhood, I am always fizzing with internal glee that I am HERE, in whatever legendary city it may be.

I found myself in a similar position this morning when I took a detour from my hotel on the way downtown. I ended up in what I will dub the South End of Amsterdam. Anyone who has been to the posh parts of the South End of Boston where all the gay couples are buying brownstones will know the vibe I am talking about. Astounding late Victorian to early Edwardian buildings with a few on the early side of Deco, the tree-lined streets were silent and rain-washed this morning. The wealthy, well-maintained feeling still exuded from the silent facades, and glimpses to the inside revealed sleek, book-lined interiors stocked with beautiful art.

After about twenty minutes of wandering I ended up on the edge of Vondel Park, a construction I think Olmsted would have approved of- networks of bike and walking paths, willow trees drooping into the ponds and meandering brooks, and wrought-iron humped bridges that crossed in convenient spots into willow-draped glens. In spite of the blustery weather that hinted at the changing season, people were out jogging and strolling, and I followed a mother and her two young children on puddle patrol around half a pond (this means going to the puddles and stomping in them a lot, to decide which is the "best" puddle. Important to wear rubber boots for this one).

I could wander all day just looking at buildings there. The architectural periods are among my favorites, and the detailing goes all the way to the font on the mail slots. I love spotting things like that. The activities in the neighborhoods are also much more interesting to witness- parents teaching children to ride bicycles, people coming home with their grocery shopping, peeks at people reading books curled up on their couches inside, and I even came upon the arrival of a bride in a vintage white VW convertible Beetle (top up due to the rain). I want to know how everyone lives here, not what I am directed to see by the sign posts, the stripe on the sidewalk, or the guidebook paraphernalia at the hotel desk. Sure, I miss a few things, but so do all the people who come just to stand in front of the Night Watch. Maybe next time for that. In the meantime, I'll remember the hand-knitted bike paniers and the guy with the two dozen green and purple balloons walking down the street.

Ship sighting: On the way out of town on the train, I passed the Amstel Botel, which looks like a joy of tackiness to stay at. The rooms are shipshape, and it even has a pool table. Neat!