31 October 2006

destination Grímsvötn (part 2)

First, for those of you who aren't familiar with Icelandic geography, I should mention that this most active of volcanoes I went to is also in the middle of the largest glacier in Europe, that covers 8% of Iceland's terrain. So, in addition to cozying up to my first active volcano, it was a twofer with a glacier thrown in. The drive to the edge of the glacier was still within the realm of the known for me, rather like driving on sand as a child on Cape Cod, only with mountains. We made quick time to the hut on the southwestern edge of Vatnajökull, then came the fun stuff.

Where the ice of a glacier meets the earth, all kinds of interesting things happen. There's tremendous shifting of sediment and ash from off the glacier, in addition to melting and shedding of ice chunks. All this makes for a bit of a thrilling time when attempting to climb up. We sloshed through the half-frozen and secretly fast glacial lagoon/river on the edge, pausing to winch H's Rover out of a tight spot partway over, then it was up to the ice. It turned out to be far steeper than predicted, and with little to no soil or snow to give us purchase on the ice, the vehicles were having a slippery time of it. Late autumn is also a challenging time to climb glaciers, since the summer melting cycle results in many cracks that may now be partly hidden by snow. G's vehicle found one of those (after I mentioned it looked a little dodgy) so then H had to winch us out.

The way didn't seem to be getting much better, so H-the-younger (brother of H) strapped on crampons and his lopapeysa, and armed with a walkie-talkie, walked up a few meters to see if it got better. Prognosis not good, so we turned around and headed down to the bottom again to attempt in a different location. However, in order to GET to the other location, we had to negotiate some sizeable mounds of sediment. I'm not scared of heights or being in remote places but the hairy near-vertical climbs and descents had me wondering what exactly I'd agreed to in coming on this trip.

Still, the combined mountaineering and glacier knowledge of the posse, and general level-headed sense made me feel that they weren't making foolish decisions and knew the capabilities and limitations of both the equipment and themselves. Plus, these cars were equipped- three kinds of communication methods, shovels, snow anchors, winches, fire extinguishers, waders, and who knows what else (plus CD player!).

And ok it was. Next attempt had us up on the blue ice quickly and easily, where I was soon able to marvel at the glowing depth and mysterious colors of the surface rushing beneath me. Ice! Lots of it! We progressed quickly then, following a GPS track from a previous trip, watching as the elevation rose rapidly on the dashboard display. Soon, the ice stopped appearing so blue and began to take on a mottled white as we hit snow. Time to stop to deflate tires- for snow driving, the tires were reduced to single-digit PSI, and eventually when we got higher and into deeper snow, down all the way to a squashy 3. In celebration of arriving on the snow, we all also had a piece or few of hákarl, then back into the cars to press on.

It was mostly silent for a while as we headed further, then over the radio there came a call from H. The box of hákarl had somehow shaken loose and had opened enough to allow its perfume to escape, and the French guys (C & F) were having a bit of a hard time with it. Then another call- "all ok, we're just driving with the windows opened"

The weather grew lower and grayer as we got higher, then soon became proper snow, eliminating the mountains in the distance and making it harder to see the contours of the snow ahead. In an expanse this large, the snow drifts and accumulates rather like sand, in dunes, in washboards, and small dips, so the ride was a little shaky as the visibility became thinner.

Another call on the radio "C & F can't handle it anymore. We've gotta switch". They gratefully piled in with G & me, bringing the fermented shark-scent in with them on their clothes ("good for the lungs", says H-the-younger), and then we continued further into the snow. Eventually even the horizon line was gone, and we were driving in a perfectly white landscape ("gives me vertigo", said C). I could only just barely make out the texture rushing by immediately outside the window, but everything else was as if I were under a clean bedsheet. At times we'd hit strangely deep snow and have to rock the car out a little, and had to take the tires down to 3 PSI at one point where it was too deep, but we made steady progress, and eventually on the left side we could make out a sooty ridge. Grímsvötn at last. We turned off the GPS track there and stopped at the base of a steep slope. Finding a shallower side, we climbed to the top of a knife-edge of marshmallowy reddish-black soil. Digging down a finger's depth into the sediment was almost too hot to touch, so vigorous is the geothermal activity there. Below us spread the wonder of geologic processes at their most active- a progression of explosion points that were at various stages of being once more consumed by the moving ice. Some areas steamed, and further below, shadowy crevices in the snow hinted at ice caves.

The easiest way to get down from there was to slide, so we all zipped down to the bottom and got back into the cars for the final ascent to the mountain huts on the highest ridge (about 1700 meters above sea level). These three hunkered-down buildings are atop another razor-thin edge of the caldera where Grímsvötn lurks, so they're equipped with tremendously toasty geothermal heat and even have electricity. Due to their exposed location, they're also entirely covered in thick ice that's required a complex double-door construction on all the openings- windows and doors. Unfortunately, the group there on Friday night had not unlocked the sauna hut, so we couldn't try out what makes this hut so legendary, but it was still a welcome and cozy place after the thrilling day.

30 October 2006

Hákarl brings people together (part 1)

As those of you who've been inspecting my photo page know, I went on an incredibly memorable trip this past weekend to Europe's most active volcano, Grímsvötn. This was already an unusual enough prospect in itself, but the divergence from previous trips in the highland direction began almost immediately. On the way up to the standard highland starting-point of Hrauneyjar, we took a right turn off the dark road in Þjórsárdalur. After an increasingly skinny progression of roads and a few hairpin turns, we ended up in a silent, slightly protected valley where a rough shed stood, its unlatched door flapping in the breeze. We ducked inside and piled our clothes on the bench inside, then out the opposite side, stepped into a deep, square tub of perfectly warm water. This complex had originally been built for sheep-washing, but now is almost entirely forgotten, save a few savvy bathers. I haven't been to many of these hidden springs, but this was definitely the most developed and the most hidden I've been to. After a frowzy day at work, tempestuous stormy weather in Reykjavík, and the frenzy of getting out of town on a Friday, this was also the perfect way to detach and forget about everything.

We then continued on to the meeting-point of the group I was going with, the end-of-civilization stop at Hrauneyjar. I'd last been there in August on one of the biggest travel weekends of the summer, and the change was noticeable. Last time, the place sprouted with lopapeysa-wearing Icelanders, Italians on motorcycles, Hungarian power trucks, and scads of other foreigners. This time it was only our group (a posse of mountain guides that are G's friends, most of whom I'd never met), the cook of the place, B, a Swedish woman who might or might not have been B's wife, and two French tourists. The French guys had heard Landmannalaugar was The place to visit in Iceland, so they'd arrived and attempted a few kilometers into the highlands before they decided their vehicle was totally unfit for the trip ahead.

Things began ordinarily enough- we ordered food, we coordinated with the other members of the group who were in various locations either further ahead or not quite there, we looked at the maps of the trip plan....

and then came the hákarl. One of the guys in the group (H) had been given an extraspecial chunk of the famous Icelandic putrid shark delicacy, which he'd cut up into proper chunks- none of those "tourist bits", as he called the little morsels you can buy in the airport. I'll confess that I had not yet tasted this stuff, but as the only girl and the only foreigner in this group I was entrusting my life to for the weekend, I knew I had to finally take the plunge. H extended the Toothpick of Challenge across the map spread on the table, and I went for it. It went down surprisingly easily, and then, high on my glee of Finally Eating Shark, I went to offer some to the French guys, and then innkeeper B had to have some too. This resulted in him producing the celebratory bottle of Brennivín, and he poured shots for all, overpouring mine on to the table and floor in his generous enthusiasm.

Somehow everyone- innkeeper and Swedish lady, French guys, and our group ended up at a table together after B brought out the stereo to add atmosphere (I seem to recall it was Irish tunes with Icelandic lyrics....). We explained the relative merits of going-out places in town for the French guys, we discussed the merits of the excellent shark (by then I'd had two more pieces and was well on my way to foreigner-expert status), B and G discussed how they were from the same tiny town on the south coast, and I was busy listening and translating from all directions, as the only one who had a chance of understanding the three primary languages of the table (there was a sprinkling of German too, at times).

Then, up sprang B to offer the next treat that Hrauneyjar was hiding, the hot tub. He dashed outside to fill it, then returned with his arms overflowing with towels for all of us. Eventually we did end up out there, but it was not quite as warm and cozy as the sheep-tub earlier in the night, since the area lacks the body-scorching naturally heated water. Still, we had to stick around in thanks for his tremendous hospitality, especially when he brought out pints of beer for all. To keep the teeth from chattering, we all sang songs, and then when we couldn't stand it anymore, we headed down the little corridor in the back to sleep while the wind whistled round the building.

The next morning I awoke to a 10-minute cycle of techno cell-phone alarm clock music coming from across the hall where the French guys remained resolutely in bed. When it finally ceased, I dozed off, and then the next thing I heard was B calling to them that they'd been invited to join our group and that he was making us all egg and bacon breakfasts. I rolled out of bed, suited up in cozy clothes for the trek ahead and went to the kitchen where hot coffee and two kinds of juice waited. B then came out with massive plates laden with toast, two eggs (he cooks a mean over-easy egg), a tangle of bacon, and a hillside of fries (fries at breakfast?). With the exception of H-the-younger, we were all defeated by the stack of fries, but B was undaunted and offered us more eggs or extra toast, then hangikjöt sandwiches and a carafe of coffee for lunch. Because we were adding two more to the group, the then plied us with food for dinner as well- potatoes, and since he didn't have any lambchops, a massive reindeer steak and several bottles of wine. I'm not sure if it was the strange emptiness of the place in the off-season, the mutual acquaintances, or the hákarl that did it, but we left much richer than we'd arrived, and with two French guys too.

So we climbed into the two Land Rovers and headed northeast, following the dirt roads into the highlands and to the edge of the glacier.

26 October 2006

filling in the gaps

Yesterday I decided to take the long way home, so I went to Hlemmer to walk the length of Laugavegur. Since I was there and it was early enough in the day for shops to be open, I crossed the street to check out the Asian store that opened a few months ago. Joy! A bonanza of Asian goodies awaited within, starting with cheap kitchenware and working its way back to the coconut vinegar and generous stacks of wasabi tubes. The refrigerator section contained all kinds of exciting things too- green peppercorns still in their as-grown clusters, huge chunks of fresh ginger, and a variety of dried mini-fishes that should appeal to the most hard-core harðfiskur-and-hákarl eating Icelander. I loaded up on noodles and seasonings, then threw in a few goodies that took me back to the old Porter Exchange days of college- the Kasugai wasabi peas, and Pocky. Sadly, they didn't have the legendary Men's Pocky, or the favorite snack of my first year in college, tomato salad pretz, but finding these other treats were enough to send me out of the shop skipping with joy.

It seems like every time I resign myself to having to go without some culinary experience that was part of my life in the US, I discover little shop or restaurant to take care of the need. Dejected about Indian? Austurlanda Hraðlestin takes care of you. Lost over the lack of Asian treats? Incoming! And THEN, if it wasn't enough to be able to burn my nostrils with wasabi whenever I want, I discovered a new shop's opened on Laugavegur that has a gaggle of Mexican seasonings. I'm afraid to hope that spicy Italian sausage wagons will join the waffle cart downtown on the weekends. If that happens, I'm applying for citizenship immediately!

25 October 2006

Ansel Adams

Yesterday morning the ride to work was like moving through a monochromatic photograph. The flat black of the mountains was traced in white, and merged frigidly with the low gray velour sky. It's lopapeysa-and-hat weather here already, and the crowds on Laugavegur have disappeared into fur-edged coats and colorful mittens. Winter comes when it likes here, and arrives fiercely, and according to the Icelandic two-season calendar, it's right on schedule. The darkness has also been closing around us like a sleeping bag being zipped up, the crack for air shrinking by almost 7 minutes a day. When it is sunny, the angle of the light reminds me of Decembers in Vermont, and makes me want to listen to pared-down Renaissance music (another peculiar feature of my schooling).

At the pool, a few hardy souls turn out to scuttle like hermit crabs across the frosty pavement and sink gratefully into the toasty water. Yesterday the crowd was particularly slim, since they'd drained the pool for paintwork and were only just refilling it, the water streaming across the empty poolbottom with a merry hotel-lobby fountain sound. I stayed for a good hour, enjoying the sensory experience of lying in the eimbað until I couldn't stand the heat, then sitting outside until frost formed on the edge of my swimsuit, lather, rinse, repeat. I left drowsy and warm, the heat-embers within well rekindled. Cold weather is much more enjoyable when there's a chance to scorch yourself so many different ways, and the hot-pots are MUCH more atmospheric in the velvet dark with the steam spiraling skywards.

Then this morning on the way to work, I got into a discussion with my (very kind and awesome for driving me so much this fall) co-worker about snow here, and apparently Icelandic could teach the world a thing or two about words to describe this weather. There are words for snow that blows during the storm, snow that blows without a storm, and all variations in between. As we pulled into the dark parking lot, he offered one final grand word for the day, hundslappadrífa. It translates literally as dog's-paw-snow, and is used to describe those big fat flakes that look like a dog's foot. I'm going to have fun when the snow starts blowing here!

Ship sighting: Nothing exciting to report in the boat-traffic arena, but the Icelandic Port Association reports that they were at a trade show for cruise ships in Italy, trying to stir up excitement for the ol' RVK harbor and a few others. So more cruise ships to look forward to next year, I guess.

23 October 2006

a different kind of whale watch

As some readers might be aware, Iceland has recently resumed commercial whaling. There's been small amounts of whaling for scientific purposes for years, but this decision has opened up the allowance to hunt whales of other species. In true Icelandic fashion, this has become a spectator event, so yesterday morning I went with friend G and two others out to Hvalfjörður to see the recently caught fin whale. I remember driving through the abandoned whaling station at the side of this fjord over a year ago, choosing to take the slow route where most people decide to save the hour and take the tunnel.

Unlike that ghost-town atmosphere last time, yesterday the whaling station was abuzz with activity and cars. Whole families had turned out to observe the massive creature be turned into steaks. By the time we arrived, the skin had been removed and lay in three-foot wide strips on the ground, and off to one side, the lower jaw bone, curved like the prow of a rowboat. I went to touch it, and the resiliant texture was exactly like rubber, with a membrane that was peeling off in thin layers that felt like the outer coating on a decaying old-fashioned raincoat.

There were men crawling all over the partly dismembered whale with long saws on the end of poles and spiked rubber boots, slicing into the side of what was left, and then after a little more work, someone fired up a winch, and they pulled out a filet that was probably 20 feet long. It slithered silently along the plastic floor covering and disappeared into the nearby processing shed.

There's something so honestly matter-of-fact about seeing this kind of thing. It's food, humans eat other animals, and this is what must happen in order to eat it. No ceremony, no apologies. It was also quite surreal to watch men scaling the blubber-encased carcass with their spiked boots, there on that golden-sunny calm Sunday afternoon in yet another spectacular Icelandic setting.

I've had a lot of discussions about whaling with people here these past few days, and while not everyone is for it, the ones that aren't don't point to the inhumanity as their objections. They mention the dubious economic benefit, or the possible loss to the whale-watching industry that's been growing tremenously in recent years. There's been talk of the hypocricy of those who object then going out to dig into a hamburger that's the product of a factory farm in South America where the animals hardly have a life, or the strange emotional connection people have to these mammals, the possible lack of understanding that there are many different species, and not all are endangered. There also seems to be a certain "we do what we like in our waters" component to it, although I find it odd that the whole whaling operation is run by just one guy. And finally, I wonder if it's just another display of what seems to be part of the national character, to do things that might be unpopular or difficult, just to show that it's possible, whether it's harboring Bobby Fischer or driving on a cracked glacier.

Ship sighting: Hvalur 9 was the ship that brought in the whale, and it was tied at the end of the whaling station dock, steaming silently. This boat and its three companions have been tied together down at the harbor for years, until Hvalur 9 was hauled to the dry dock a few months ago and given a complete makeover. Now we know why.

19 October 2006


I returned to Iceland on Monday morning after a weekend in Boston, and the landscape and my life re-absorbed me quickly. In the week I was away, winter came to Iceland, and the past three days have been freezing cold, with blazingly clear skies and snow on the mountains to the north. It’s energizing weather, with sunrises and sunsets that make my heart ache from all the uncontainable beauty. The nights have been equally stunning- perfect stargazing and the swirling green of the northern lights overhead. I missed that in Vermont- every time the evening was clear, I’d find myself unconsciously gazing to the sky in the north. Those kinds of habits die hard- it’s like growing up as an x-c skier and panicking when I woke to the sound of rain on the roof in January (nooo! The precious snow would be lost!).

The things that make America great are also the things that made it overwhelming after being there a week. The abundance of everything- words, food, shopping choices, are fun for a while, but made me realize why it’s so easy to end up with so many extra things you don’t really want when living there. If a pair of trousers is only $12, it’s easy to just buy them, only to discover that at home you’ve got 10 other pairs just like them. An afternoon at Filene’s Basement in Boston brings on a strange kind of desperation- I must buy these things NOW. The deal is too good, the item too unique. Of course, I did give in to a few things, all brightly colored- gold shoes, magenta corduroys, a flaming turquoise coat. The last one illustrates the difference between Iceland and Boston so very well too. I wore this coat on Newbury Street on Sunday, garnering several compliments from female shopkeepers and a street-length of flirtatious looks. In Iceland, it went virtually unnoticed a day later. Wearing brights is just what you do here to compensate for the approaching dark.

As for words, America is packed with them, and it’s not just because I can understand what’s going on. Signs and advertisements crowd around you in competition for your time and attention- the faded old painted ones on the brick facades in Boston, the billboards that line the highway in Massachusetts, even the traffic signs. Iceland’s got the multi-lingual friendly European signs, all brightly colored and for the most part wordless (STOP seems to have made it internationally though, with the exception of stubborn Francophone Canada). Of course, I did also experience the aural overload I’d been warned about. For example, on Saturday evening I dined with my friend M, a music producer with a finely-tuned set of ears. Still, I was hearing three times the conversational input from the crowded restaurant than he did- the guy three tables away talking about the raisins in his trail mix and his love of white baseball caps, the cozy couple behind us discussing their favorite New England country retreat, and the people on the other side of the room ordering from the waitress. Is it just because I understand it all or is it the volume of the voices?

One abundance I did love tremendously was being in New England at one of the best times for produce. The weather was still warm enough for fresh tomatoes, herbs, salad greens, and other vegetables arriving at the table hours after being in the soil, and late enough that the glorious crop of apples was available. People here in Iceland simply do not know what a proper apple tastes like- crisp, brightly white flesh, and a perfect balance of sweet & snap to the flavor.

Coming back here is home now though, regardless of apple status. The humm of Icelandic across the office is comforting, and my activities here have enveloped me so quickly that my half-unpacked suitcases are still strewn across my room. As we came in on Monday morning, I woke from my uncomfortable plane-doze and feared that this windswept land would have lost its inexplicable intrigue but it’s still there, although no longer as a foreign country though, but just where I live. Home.

Ship sighting: am debating pausing this portion of the blog since the winter brings pretty much the same rotation of boats constantly. The same cargo ships and a little activity on the Icelandic fishing fleet. Of course, the news that Iceland is going to resume commercial whaling might change things slightly. I’ll never stop looking to the harbor- it just may not be so reportable in the next few months.

14 October 2006

travelin' slow

Yesterday was a splendid October day, so I called up my long-time friend J, who taught me to ride when I was 9 years old, and then headed over to her rambling farmhouse/barn complex. She's got four horses, two of whom I've known since I started riding, and they're still as lively and grand as I remember when I was a kid eager to do anything to be around horses. We tacked up Robin and Ruby and mounted up for a ride on the dirt roads I spent so much time on as a child, since she lives right next to my grade school. The roads were much like where I'd been driving a few days ago- smoothly packed dirt surrounded by maple trees, occasional fields, and a few grand old farmhouses.

J and I reminisced about the horses I'd learned to ride with and where they ended up, the other little starry-eyed horse-loving girls that had learned with me, and the many changes since then. After rambling for a while, we shortened up the reins for a trot, the two horses matching pace perfectly for a few steps. They're driven in a carriage together and are half-sisters, so they're used to finding pace together. When we slowed to a walk again, the "good girl" pat on Robin's neck was fuzzy under my palm. Winter's coming, and her furry coat has started to come in already.

Horse speed through a landscape is a completely different experience from driving, walking, or biking. This living creature with their different way of seeing will spot things you didn't notice to shy at, and the rhythm of your journey is generated by the rolling motion of their hips transferred through to yours in the saddle. After trotting, the heat from their bodies seeps through the legs on your jeans, and the scent of horse, hay, and heat rises from their skin. The height is also an unusual perspective- tall, yet out in the open so things you can't notice with other transportation methods become clear- the texture of the water in streams, the view over the roadside stone wall, and of course, the occasional passing tourist grinned with glee at our added touch of rural picturesqueness. Don't get that when you're on a bike!

I rode Robin yesterday, and I thought of all the shared experiences and memories of her that have made this horse like one of my grade-school friends. I know about her fly allergy, and the time J took her and another half-sister to a driving competition, and the summer before was full of long uphill trotting sessions to condition her. I remember the way she always had the front stall in the barn, and when J sat in the chair near the door, Robin would remove her hat and toss it on the floor. She was also my mount on a multi-day riding trip in high school that now is a memory of bright May days, and fields bursting with dandelions. It's hard to believe she's almost 20, but fortunately, her safe and well-loved life has been kind to her, and neither she nor her half-sister Ruby show any signs of serious equine antiquity.

I've got to leave Vermont today, but I'm leaving with a great appreciation for the landscape, the people, and the experiences I grew up with. It wasn't always easy for my parents here, but they stuck to what they believed was important, and I can't say I disagree with their choice. Much like my life in Iceland often feels, I had moments of such disbelief over the past week, as I caught up with former teachers in the town's general store (and a general store it truly is- everything from video rentals to grapefruit spoons and freshly-ground coffee), drove the roads that were my daily commute to school, or harvested pumpkins in my parents' garden. This is an uncommon way to grow up but I wouldn't have wanted it any other way, so many thanks to my parents!

10 October 2006

Growing up

I've been in Vermont these past few days, reliving the experiences and places that made me who I am today. My parents live in a small village in Vermont on the Connecticut River, and the schools I went to from age 4 to 17 are within a five-minute drive of their house. On Saturday, we went up to my grade school, and my brother and I went rambling through the trails where we both learned to ski, descriptively named things like "stonewall trail" and "the ravine trail". Everything seems much smaller than it did then, but we remembered many of the soggy spots to avoid, the places where the trails intersected, and the contours of the places that were most fun to ski.

The next day we went to the high school, a blend of fierce academics, fiercer art, and a busy farm, all concentrated around this classic dairy barn. The annual autumn festival was on, so it was a non-stop conversation the whole day with fellow alums, old teachers, and other people I hadn't seen in years. This school has been around since the 30's and is a steady provider of surprisingly talented alums, ranging from opera singers and well-known actors to academics. Whenever I return for a visit I'm astounded that this used to be my daily view from the parking lot, and that I was allowed to be so immersed in everything- to visit the pig shed during a free period, and then go skiing on the fabled trails that have produced so many Olympic-quality skiers.

After a full day there, I headed north along the most scenic interstates I know, rtes 91 to 89 that wind along the Connecticut River and then west over the spine of the Green Mountains to Burlington. My close friend A, whom I met the second day of college orientation, just bought a house in the Winooski River valley up there, and I had to see her and it. It's a classic old Vermont house, with sloping wood floors, funny corners in the upstairs rooms, and a porch swing out front. I arrived at dusk, in time for homemade pesto on pasta and a welcoming leg-rub from their gray tabbycat.

The next day we were up early (jet-lag is fun coming this direction) to drive a little more than a dozen miles upstream on the Winooski River, where we set up two inflatable kayaks and put in for a day of drifting, paddling, talking, and lunching on the little islands in the center of this shallow, smooth river. The day was clear and the cool burned off quickly for perfect weather. There was an occasional breeze that sent trails of maple leaves from the trees, sprinkling the water with color. Ones that had fallen slightly earlier hung suspended under the water's surface like insects in amber, backed by the clear pebbled bottom of the river. We passed through the occasional rapids that squeezed next to smooth rock outcroppings, drifted below pastures and crops redolent with the scent of cow manure, and everywhere, the frenzy of fall lit up the landscape.

We came ashore finally just below the house, and carried the kayaks along the road home. Our feet were muddy and my shoulders a bit sore from the paddling, but it had been a worthy day. This morning everyone had to go to work, so I took the leisurely way home along a road that passes through village after village, each one a cluster of 18th century houses crowding up against the narrow road. Vermont is laced with these places, tucked among the hills, rows of farmhouses, Victorian municipal buildings, grand old barns, and lots of woodpiles. I forgot how quietly majestic this landscape is, all fuzzy with trees, and hiding the views coyly behind the bends in the road and the stands of maples. It's perfect for slow exploration, and any skinny road on the map is sure to reward with great views. For example, I chose to end my drive home along rte 121, an Iceland-worthy road that looked and sounded important but ended up being an unpopulated dirt road through the sugarbush. Perfect.

05 October 2006


Today I'm leaving Iceland again, and for the first time in over a year, I'm flying west. I don't have to pack my plug adaptors for the computer for once, because I'm going back to the States. I haven't been in an English-speaking country, save a layover in Heathrow, for that whole time. I'm both curious and nervous about what it'll be like- will I realize I miss everything tremendously and want to move back? Or, will it remind me of why Iceland is where my future lies, at least for now?

I've heard from several long-term expats that going back is a bit of sensory overload, since every single conversation is a comprehendible chance to eavesdrop, whether you want to or not. The few English conversations I hear, even if it's two people in a crowded bar of Icelanders, will rise above the rest of the buzz, ripe for picking. Now it's going to be whole stores, streets, towns of people speaking English. Cacophony! I'm sure I'll forget though and try to throw in a "herna" or two when in a shop.

The ol' US of A is going to have to try pretty hard to woo me back though, I thought as I walked home last night. After a convivial evening with A, a friend who'd moved from Iceland in August, and a crowd of other friends, I walked home under the nearly-full moon along the edge of the pond, my ears ringing with the safe-travel wishes from everyone. A light wash of northern lights splashed across the clear sky above the mountains northward, and under my feet I scuffed yellow birch leaves on the lava sidewalk. The air was still and fragrant with the autumnal leaves, the last blooms on the rosebushes, and that smell of Iceland- harbor, moss, sulphur. Wherever else I go, and wherever else I may live in the future, I will always have this little piece of the country tucked away inside me. It may be frustrating sometimes but when the rewards pay out, they pay out huge.

Ship sighting: In a more general harbor-report, yesterday I noticed the first snow atop Esja. Just a thin coverlet of a skin on the highest part, but winter is certainly creeping down from the mountains. This morning is one of those great fall mornings, with the bright clear sun working to banish the overnight frost from the lawns- lovely weather for those guys on the fishing boat I can see twinkling on the horizon to my left (apparently I CAN see ships from where I live now, just not as many).

02 October 2006

in training

One of the things I love about going to new places is putting something I learned in school into context finally. When I was at university, I had a job in the art history library, showing slides for the art lectures. I got to peek in on American architecture history, French impressionists, and Dutch Renaissance painters. The last one was full of paintings of these huge, low landscapes, often more sky than land, showing fields of perfect flatness edged with a few buildings or distant church spires. The class was taught by an archetype of an art history professor- frizzy brown hair streaked with gray, lots of autumnal tweedy clothes, and perpetually late, but when she spoke about these paintings, I wanted to see these landscapes, imagining this curiously pastoral place like none I'd seen before. Growing up in Vermont meant a farm of rolling hills to me, and these were all sky and just a little strip of carefully sectioned land.

So imagine my thrill at finding that the train ride I have to take every time I go work in Holland passes through these very fields that were being painted so many centuries ago. The names- Delft, Haarlem, Utrecht, are all the names I read while preparing the slides, and in spite of the incredible Dutch population density, the views are still there today. After changing to the southbound train at 's-Hertogenbosch, it's farms and tiny villages the rest of the way to my destination, punctuated even with a few windmills. Last week some kind of floral crop was blooming, so we whizzed past patches of flaming orange and chartreuse, and in between, the carpet-smooth pastures were dotted with cows and sheep. Unlike the wild scruffiness of Icelandic sheep, the Dutch ones are lozenge-smooth and almost all white. For some reason the people in that area are also fond of that peculiar breed of useless horse, the mini. Space may be limited there but I still cannot understand the reason to own such a creature. All the labor and expense of a full-sized horse and you can't ride it.

I've tried to explain this particular breed of glee at finally BEING there to people in Iceland and others I've met on the road, and it seems that only fellow Americans can understand it. So much of American education is devoted to Stuff That Happened in Europe, and it's very difficult to really grasp it without an idea of what the landscape feels like, how the cities are, and the character of these countries. There's only so much you can get out of a slide as you sit in a dark New England auditorium thinking about the chicken nuggets you just had for lunch in the dining hall. Still, I have to hand it to these professors who managed to make these landscapes and experiences so interesting that I wanted to see them for myself, and that when I finally did, I remembered so much of those dark hours years ago.

Ship sighting: The train trip also crosses the Rhine, which hums with shipping activity. Just below the train bridge there's even a little On Time III-style ferry that crosses this massive river.