29 November 2006

lingonberries and painted horses

I'm posting to you from Stockholm, on my way to Amsterdam. The short notice of the flight meant a circuitous route, and rather than my un-favorite Heathrow, I ended up here for a few hours. I'm part of what seems to be a large migrant horde of business people, most of them besuited men.

There's not enough time to really learn much about here other than my quick lunch and interactions with the airline personnel, all of whom were very friendly if not always very helpful. Still, I'm curious enough to want to come back and see more than the inside of this vaguely 70's style airport.

25 November 2006

frozen tide

When I was a kid on the beach in the summer, I used to always wonder what it would look like there during the winter. How does snow look on a beach? Would there be ice on the ocean anywhere? Since those days, I've had plenty of chances to see snow on the sea while living here, but I've never really gotten up close and personal, so this afternoon I went down to where I'd gone back in August to see what the shoreline looked like frozen.

The snow along the shore was almost untouched by tracks as I waded through the ankle-deep snow and down to the black sand beach. It was low tide so the frozen sand expanse reached far out to sea below the grass and rocks, exposing kelp and tiny tide pools. The kelp had been completely encased in a prickly layer of frost, and the rocks along the edge of the shore were similarly frosted. Out to sea, the black silhouette of a single seabird bobbed in the calm water, and overhead a myriad of tiny planes were angling in to land.

On the shore, the rocks that edged the beach curving to the south were completely enfolded in ice, shiny like glazed German Christmas cookies, and across the bay, Bessastaðir´s tiny assemblage of buildings hunkered beneath the ghostly pastel formations of the mountains. I stood there on the shore for twenty minutes, watching the sun-glow fade from the houses on the coast, and listening to the swans call to each other as they flew overhead. The landscape was so static at that witching-hour, the tide pools still and frozen, the sea empty of ship traffic, and the seapath behind me quiet save a few hardy walkers with a squirmy flock of King Charles spaniels.

Since that quiet moment hours ago, the wind has started to whistle again, the clouds drifted in, and the darkness has closed around us. Just like so many experiences here, the moment was fleeting yet incredibly memorable.

*Sunday Addendum: I went back down there at a slightly earlier time with K, and we enjoyed the similar weather conditions along with dozens of other people out walking. I once again experienced the usual sensory overload of winter ocean sunsets and took lots more pictures.

24 November 2006

November new year

On Wednesday evening, after a full day of work, singing, and work again, I heeded a plea from a co-worker and headed downtown dressed in gala party attire. As I mentioned earlier this year, I work with a guy in a well-known Icelandic group, and last night they were shooting a video for a new years song. Everyone in the group had called their friends with the same request- wear sparkly clothes and come have some free beer.

So we all trailed into the plush Deco-style bar in the basement of the National Theater, where the band had already been at work rehearsing and taking holiday-themed photos. A makeup artist (I'm told she works with Bjork as well) was adding eyeshadow to various party guests, and my friend K did updos for several (including me). Tinsel-trimmed party hats appeared from somewhere, horns and those curly blow-things (what ARE these called? I don't even know how to find a picture of what I'm talking about) that I remember from parties as a kid.

After about 45 minutes of sitting around watching hairdos and eye makeup in process, we were all ushered into the "set" room where the band had been practicing their mime-singing after the photo shoot. Everyone was sprinkled liberally with confetti and streamers, and then the director stood on a chair to instruct in rapid Icelandic (I was the only non-Icelander in the whole room). The scene: 25 seconds to the new year at the best party ever and we love the band.

And indeed I did. They've got great presence even when not actually singing (we were hearing a pre-recorded performance), and it was rather fun and silly to be dancing around among balloons and confetti and streamers with horns and party hats on a Wednesday evening. We rang in the new year about six times in various takes with slightly different instructions, then it was a wrap. Everyone brushed off the confetti and then it was time to finish the beer and hang out.

I love the unexpected randomness of life here. I can spend the day working intensely, then go sing Bach, and then be a dancing extra in a music video. As I said before, part of it is the small-pond syndrome, and since Iceland's got everything a country has on this small scale, it's much easier to have your nose in a hundred different activities. I can't wait to see how the result comes out!

22 November 2006

night café

Last night I met friend B downtown at one of those semi-subterranean cafes that are sprinkled at the feet of this town. The clientele of these little grottos tend to be more student-oriented, and usually decorated with a jumble of Fascinating Objects. Behind my seat was a vintage coffee grinder, and the front windowsill and ceiling-level shelves were littered with other grandma's attic finds- a vintage typewriter, miniature painted horse, toy car, wooden skis, and small still-life paintings. In one corner, a neon-illuminated cake display went through a stuttered and squeaking rotation, displaying a thickly frosted chocolate cake.

As with most cafés at this time of year, the illumination was heavy on the candlelight- each table with its own tealight, glass-sided lanterns along the waist-high ledge, and wall sconces of a similar low wattage adding glow. The tables were slightly scuffed wood with chairs to match, and although the place was a fairly no-nonense spot, the table we sat at was still covered by a pressed, freshly laundered red-checked cloth. It's always the little details at places here in Iceland that get to me. Here we were at a place where 19-year-olds were hanging out to do their homework and there are fresh linens on the tables.

B and I opted for the seasonally-appropriate jólabjór (Christmas beer), talking to the accompaniment of the easy-listening Icelandic tunes that fit perfectly for the unpretentious ordinaryness of the evening. Among other things, we discussed the speed of change in the society here, and the fast infiltration of international cultures that is changing the landscape of the city here. Last night was just the kind of moment that may succumb to these changes, with all those little factors that combine to make the evening what it was. Part of the reason I write so much on my blog is because I want to capture how it is here so I can remember this Iceland, this Reykjavík, as it feels now.

After hours of talking, our candle guttered with a puff of smoke and it was time to go. Outside, the cars swished on the wet road and the eaves everywhere dripped noisily. All the squeaky-cold still weather from the day before was gone, replaced by a blustery spring-like warmth that brought out the tangy scent of the black cottonwood bark. The snow on the ground had gone soft, its formerly crisp whiteness turned translucent from melting, and the black sidewalks glistened. Iceland is an ever-changing place, and I'm just glad to be here witnessing it.

21 November 2006

silent city

Last night I walked home late in the evening, after the traffic had stopped, in a Reykjavík I'd never quite experienced before. Under a clear, still sky, the city was almost as silent as the glacier had been, interrupted only by a single car on the opposite side of Tjörnin. Orion blazed above Þingholt, and although I spent most of the walk scanning overhead, not a smidgen of northern-lights green disturbed the velvet night.

Underfoot the still-fresh snow squeaked gently, and my breath puffed white like steam swirling from a hotspring in the cold. This is my kind of winter weather- just chilly enough that you appreciate mittens but still and crisply clear. The streets were so silent and undisturbed, I noticed things I'd never observed before- the pipe stubs at the corner of the cemetery wall that issued forth gentle steam through the prickly bare rosebushes, the sound of water surging beneath manhole covers in the street.

Hringbraut at that hour was completely barrren, making it hard to believe it could ever be bumper-to-bumper with cars. I'm always surprised at how definitely this city Goes To Bed. Even in Boston, a town known for the Puritain values, there still seemed to be some kind of motion or just the feeling that somewhere else, someone else might be walking or driving. Here I could stand in the center of this busiest of roads in the places where the nail-tires had created dips in the road without any contest.

For some people, being carless and having to walk all the time might seem like a drag. Sometimes it is a little bit, when it's bitingly cold and windy and you are carrying lots of things, but it also means I have the chance at these moments, alone with the city sparkling silently, frigidly around me. I also know that for some people this kind of quiet can either feel frightening or boring, but it never seems that way to me. There's something in the combination of the vast sky arcing overhead, the short scale of the buildings here, and the snowmen still standing proud in the yards and on the pond that gives me a comforting feeling that things are as they should be.

20 November 2006


Last night as I got home from the James Bond movie, the clouds that had been hovering on the horizon finally swept over and the snow started to fly. The wind kicked up too, and soon the view outside the window was completely white. I snuggled beneath my duvet and listened to the wind and the prickling of the flakes on the panes, safe in my feather nest for a cozy sleep.

The next morning I woke as the day was just getting bright, to the clear voices of children and the scrape of a shovel. The snow had stopped but the wind still pulled snow-tornadoes from the lawn outside, and the sky was low and murky. A few hours later I laced up my hiking boots and waded out the door too meet a friend downtown. As I've probably mentioned before, they're not much for shoveling and plowing here, so I was trekking through shin-deep snow on the sidewalk, occasionally stepping out to the road where the drifts got high.

Along the way, I detoured through the cemetery to take photos of the magically transformed landscape. In spite of the wind, the pine trees were still snow-laden, and the metalwork railings had been traced with blown snow. Everywhere was confectionary sugar, cakes of snow perched atop fenceposts, and a few single tracks of footprints. On the other side of the cemetery, people were digging out cars and frolicking on the wide, frozen expanse of Tjornin, making enormous snowballs and snow angels. I may no longer be a kid but I still get giddy feelings about a fresh snowstorm like this and the fresh dampness of the air afterwards.

Further in town, the cafes were quiet but the hill at Arnarholl was sprinkled with sledding kids. I love that downtown is sledding ground here. After lunching, I headed seawards, where the gulls in the water were being flung around by the enthusiastic sea, and the wind made for a treadmill-like flying condition, as they flapped and flapped with no forward progress. The clouds to the north were moody and low, but the weather remained storm-free and strangely warm after the days of frigidness.

After an inspection of the harbor and the ships in town, a scratch behind the ears of a self-important short white dog, I made my way home through the blue light of dusk, admiring the light-effects on the tidy houses and the snappy use of color that makes Reykjavik what it is. A good Sunday.

16 November 2006

we are tougher than you

In the past three days, the balmy weather of Sunday has descended into a special kind of frigid, with temps hovering around -7c for the most part. That in itself is quite tolerable to my New England raised self, but what makes it spectacular is the steady wind that's currently clocking in at 20mph, with gusts at almost 50. After the warm day on Sunday, the snow all disappeared, so the landscape has that peculiar frozen-looking deadness that's enhanced by the ever-sinking sun.

Everyone here keeps going on proudly about how this must be THE COLDEST I have felt EVER, but to be honest, it's about like my high-school years on an exposed hilltop in Vermont. There were even times in Boston that were that cold, so I'm used to it, people. I've got three cashmere sweaters that are in heavy rotation right now, a jaunty hat, a sweeping scarf, and mittens, all serving me nicely. As I was walking downtown last night, I kept checking... cold? Nope, still toasty. It's all about layers, and befriending people who will knit you things.

Wind like this IS rather preposterous to walk in though, and reminded me of a story my mom heard before I moved here. My mom's got a friend who's been in the international diplomatic circle her whole life, and when her friend heard I was moving to Iceland, she said that the only thing she knew about the country was from someone who had been stationed here some time ago. She'd been told that it was necessary to tie the kids together so they didn't blow away in the fierce weather here. At the time, I dismissed the story as anecdotal and rather goofy, but now I'm not so sure. I've had enough plokkfiskur to make me a little more earthbound than a grade-schooler in the wind, but last night I found myself laughing as I sailed sideways across Lækjargata, the wind ripping my cold-stiffened iPod wire from my ear and untwirling my scarf from my neck.

I'll admit that I wouldn't want to have to deal with weather like this all the time, but as I've said before, the weather here's bound to change in a few days. Until then, I put on my best New England face and lean into the wind, and do my best to find the interesting features of weather like this. For example, I discovered cool ice-effects in the waterfall-wall outside the city hall. It's gonna be a long winter if you can't find something worth admiring.

12 November 2006

twisted tongues

Yesterday I went to a party at a house where four women of different nationalities live. Naturally the crowd matched their diversity, with a count of at least 9 different countries represented. There was almost no overlap in the primary languages, except for one Swiss guy who found himself with Germans as well as a Frenchman to talk to.

Growing up in the US, it was of course part of the education to learn another language, but it was rather like a hat to wear at Ascot. Not very practical, but you pull it out every now and then, impress everyone, have a good laugh, and then put it away in favor of something more useful. I learned French in school, and enjoyed it tremendously but I didn't have a chance to actually use it on real French people until age 20. This is the common story. You can travel six hours on a plane and still be in the United States where everyone still speaks English, and there's all the diversity of landscape and climate and population density in one country that you could ever want, both for business and pleasure. So, knowing another language is a nice thing but hardly necessary.

Then I come here, and an idle mention that I speak French blossoms into having to edit proposals in French, and then I keep finding places and pockets where it's the most useful language to communicate. Evenings out or in usually bring me into contact with half a dozen other nationalities, so any other language knowledge is bound to come out and put through its paces. Even my three sentences in Russian and the other three in Portuguese have been enough to surprise and create a connection where there wasn't before.

The lack of shared words doesn't seem to stop people from communicating anyway though. For example, last night at the party I came upon three goldsmiths having a riotous conversation, but none of them spoke the same language with the same abilities, so they'd resorted to a blend of Pictionary, good guesses, and gestures. Other conversations would begin in one language, switch to another midway through, then back to a third for the benefit of a newcomer. Here, nobody is impressed if you can speak another language, at least unless you're from the US. Then everyone falls over themselves with amazement that I learned it there and don't sound like a mangled goat when I talk. It happens, people, and there are a lot more of us out there that can do it.

I still feel woefully inadequate when most people are fluent in at least two languages and have picked up two or three others while studying, working, or just for fun and thrills. If I stick with this lifestyle maybe it'll happen to me too, but for now I'll just have to be content with understanding the Danish cooking instructions on the back of the frozen veggies, or the sign about gastronomical diseases in Norwegian that's been put up in the bathroom at my work.

Ship sighting: This afternoon as I was heading to the pool, there was a little fishingboat in a driveway I pass often. It was wonderfully out of context there in the midst of the usual Reykjavik neighborhoodness- house, driveway, house, yard, trampoline, minivan, boat. When I passed by later, a tarp had been rigged up over the stern and I could hear conversation underneath. I guess they've got a DIY preparation for the next fishing season going on under there.

11 November 2006

renewed vision

I just walked home in the fresh darkness of an animation-perfect snowstorm, the kind that confidently layers itself on your coat and hat in a no-nonsense way and swirls beautifully in the lights. Iceland's definitely figured out how to do outdoor illumination thanks to the almost constant use in the winter, so the familiar places looked strange and different under this snow-glow and mysterious lighting. I took pictures along the way, enjoying the stuttered look of the snow that my camera captured, the vertical columns of snow in the recessed ground lights near Tjörnin, the striped effect where the underground hot water pipes had warmed the sidewalk enough to melt the coating in places, and the way this short city can manage to appear imposingly majestic as it hangs on to this windswept rock in spite of the weather that roars around it constantly.

It sometimes takes a while to fall back in the rhythm of appreciating winter but I'm finding my pace. I grew up with snowstorms but I still fall in love with them all over again whenever I see it for the first time each season. I know it's not always going to be postcard-elegant snow that falls mostly vertically (since precipitation is rarely vertical here) but right now, right here, I'm loving it.

09 November 2006

agnus dei

It's that time of year, when things start to get Very Dark and in choir we've reached the Agnus Dei movement of the chorale we're learning. These things seem to always go together, bringing back memories of high school when the pre-season ski training started and we were in the final preparations for the end-of-semester concert. We'd come in to evening chorus from the dark blustery weather, breathless and pink-cheeked, squirming puppy-like with the extra energy of country teenagers and filled with the wind blowing atop the Vermont hills we trained on. After warm-up, we'd sing, running through the beginning parts we knew well by then, and finally, agnus dei, the always coming near the end of the standard Latin mass or chorale. Promises of resurrection amidst the sorrow, often sung quite high, usually less complex than the other parts before, but so very beautiful. Even at 15, this was moving to sing.

Many of these masses and chorales seem to use the higher registers of the soprano voices, so they're hard to sing early in practice, but there's always that moment when my voice releases and I can find the high notes again. It all blends together then- time past and time present, Iceland and Vermont, the cycles of seasons and large pieces of music, and the combined effort of many voices in four-part harmony. It's not always perfect but it's so worth it for those times when everyone finally starts to feel their part and the way the voices weave together.

I'm comfortable in this familiar experience singing masses, but the longer I'm here, the more universal the whole experience starts to feel, especially in the cold and dark now when the fragrance of the moss is muted. When I walk at night, the staccato of a one-way cellphone conversation from a passerby will snap me from my reverie and internal singing but I disappear back into the sensory experience around me quickly- the prickle of cold on the inside of my wrist where my glove is rumpled, the automatic shift in the way I walk when I hit a patch of ice, the constant scanning of the northern sky for any sign of green (none last night). Cold and windy dark fit together with the music of redemption, like jam and lamb fit, like apples and cheddar.

08 November 2006


More than 450 years ago, the last Roman Catholic bishop of Iceland, Jón Árason, was killed. In recent years, interest has returned in his life and poetry, and last night was the anniversary of the beheading, so there was a presentation of a newly published book about him last night at the national museum. I went with H to listen to a reading from it by an actor, hear some songs from the period, and witness the presentation of the first copy to the Minister of Education from the Alþing. Although I still don't have perfect Icelandic comprehension, verses like the ones last night are perfect for me- a very set structure full of rhyming, and since he was a bishop, it was mostly religious vocabulary, something I've got a decent grasp on. Regardless of whether I understood or not, the setting was appealing, with the sun fading from the stained-glass windows in the stair hall there, and the resonant voice pouring Icelandic over the crowd. Many people think Icelandic is not a particularly beautiful language, but I disagree. With the right voice it's a buttery thick experience, full of richly rolled r's and strong rhythms.

After the presentation of the book to the Minister of Education, we headed downstairs to the photo gallery for wine and schmoozing. I got lost in the photo exhibit there, a series of pictures entitled "unknown perspectives". The pictures were for the most part quite ordinary- early to mid-century views someone floating on an inflatable raft, people washing fleece, a backyard strung with laundry, or people pumping gas. The idea of the exhibit was exploring the reason why someone had decided that moment was important enough to document it, and maybe learn more about these scraps of the past. In a country as close-knit as Iceland, chances are someone who passes through the gallery will know something about one of the images. There were papers available to fill out if you recognized someone or had location information, or had some possible interpretation why it was a documentable moment. I love stuff like this- the most ordinary of scenes from lives long ago given a space where you're allowed to spend 10 minutes staring at it while constructing your own story about why someone cared about the events portrayed.

While I wandered through Iceland's past, H had been busy hobnobbing with the Minister of Education, so she introduced me, and we had a short conversation in my best Icelandic before heading out to do one of our semi-regular evenings of tasty food and economics editing. I've now become quite well-versed in the ins and outs of foreign direct investment in Iceland, the knowledge-capital model, and the Edgeworth box. I never know when this might come in useful.

Before going home, we decided to check in on the US election event I'd heard about, so we went to the university student hang-out that had been madly draped with American flags. I had been expecting a few lonely souls there, but the place was already jammed with earnest Icelandic students, a small posse from the US Embassy, and one professor from BU who's teaching a class here this semester. They had a projector showing CNN, and soon after we arrived, the prof and one embassy guy went up to explain the US election process with an Icelandic woman (I didn't catch what her connection to the crowd was). It's odd to hear a 10-minute presentation on this process you've known about forever, especially when you're pointed out individually in the crowded room as the person who's from the state with all the Independent party representation (Yay Vermont!). During the question period, the crowd showed its stuff by asking all manner of thoughtful questions on the topic. It almost made me proud to be from this interestingly complex country, even if I don't want to live there right now.

07 November 2006

wakeup call

Every day on the way to work, I pass a tiny tree outside the National Library near where I live. It's only about a meter taller than I am, squashed between a parking lot and the mini-plaza outside the library entrance, but for some reason, it's The Place To Be if you are a bird in Reykjaví­k. These past two mornings as I went by in the frigid darkness, it's been blooming with fat birds, tucked among the red-berry laden branches. They're all busy chattering, singing and chirping to each other, and although there aren't many spots on the branches, they all seem to be quite democratic about everyone having a turn so the traffic flow is constant. It's like the Dunkin' Donuts of the local bird community, where everyone's got to swing by for a gossip before they go off to their bird-deskjobs, whatever that entails here in Iceland.

I'm usually rather in my head when I leave the house, nose buried in my scarf, iPod at the ready, but the cacophony of this little tree is enough to snap me out and remind me to look around myself, and feel the strange crunchy spring to the partly frozen earth in the grassy spots, then look upward and observe the odd way the high clouds are illuminated by the sun that still hides below the horizon, and breathe the freshly frigid air that never fails to clear head-cobwebs. Even in the dark, there are still things worth paying attention to.

06 November 2006

All hail

Last weekend was the perfect weekend to do Not Much with proper style. We had a lovely storm on Saturday night, which I spent as it should be spent- candlelit dinner with friends followed by lying on a windowseat with a wooly blanket, 80's movies and a purry tabby cat, while the wind blustered and the rain and hail clattered outside.

Of course, one must not stay inside all weekend, and the grand thing about Iceland is that the pools are always open, even when hail threatens. So, K and I went to Árbær, where I remembered again how much I love swimming. It's odd how many things have become part of my life in the past year that I can now not imagine being without. Crunchy onions on my hot dog, red currants, quick access to the freshest of air, and swimming. I love the smooth feeling of the water, the way a slight change to the angle of your head or hips creates a totally new streamlined effect, that rewarding zoom when you kick up the pressure against the pool. Then there's the frisson of movement at the end of the pool that results in a quick change of direction, the constant evaluation and reassessment of the timing so that the breathing and strokes come out just right at the end of the lane. I love the rhythm of the breathing, and how I can feel the difference in my singing control when I've just been swimming before. Yesterday, there were leaves on the bottom of the pool, so every sweep of my arm sent them swirling in a subaquatic tornado across the blue tiles, and the snatches of view when I turned my head above the surface were tree-filled and swiftly moving.

But I digress. I had that can-swim-all-day feeling yesterday, but as my arms just started to go leaden, the mushroom-gray clouds that had swept in started to shed prickly hail. I ducked under the water and rolled on my back so I could watch it fall on the surface. If I was close enough, I could feel the moments of cold as each ice-pebble dissolved on the warm water. When I nudged under the lane dividers and made my way to the nuddpottur, the kids were all ecstatically scooping up handfuls of hail from a corner where it had collected, and watching it melt in the hot water, delighting in the frigid/hot contrasts.

Weather here is certainly a participator sport when you know you can be almost naked out in almost every variation there is to offer. A bit different from the pool of my youth, where a sniff of rain was enough for the lifeguards to sound the everybody-out for fear of lightning. It's rather a non-issue here, so you're welcome to swim at any time- high winds, snow, rain, or hail. I already liked to be aware of the cycles of nature around me, and my childhood lesson on how to survive winter (do stuff outside regularly) still applies here.

As I type this now, the wind has kicked in once again after a relatively calm day, and I can see that snow has begun to spiral and hover in the streetlights. Perfect weather for a swim!

03 November 2006

burning questions

I've kinda fizzled out on the WOW posts after this week's writing, so I'm not going to try. However, I have two questions for the multitudes, both here and abroad:
  • why are there multicolored pennants stretched across Laugavegur, each painted with a nicely-detailed silhouette of the female reproductive system, fallopian tubes and all?
  • why, after not worrying about them for almost two years, am I currently obsessed with the unavailability of Reeses Pieces and peanut butter cups here in Iceland? I've started scanning shelves idly for peanutbuttery goodness and it's a no-go here. All licorice and English stuff. I might have to request an emergency ration from the US at this rate.

and in other news, Christmas is apparently hot stuff right now. Yesterday afternoon I witnessed a Christmas fashion show for kids at the mall, complete with inappropriate club tunes, 3 year-old models strutting the runway, and foam snow. They're stringing up the lights on the lamp-posts and hanging garlands everywhere, and on Tuesday I went past a function hall that was crammed with whole tables of mini-Santas wrapped in plastic. As I said last year, with no holidays to stem the Christmas-tide from encroaching well into autumn, they get their holiday on pretty early here.

Ship sighting: I went down to the harbor a few days ago for some photo time and found all kinds of lovely ship and fishing detritus sprinkled around the dock. I happened upon a news crew doing some whale-hunt reporting, so I think my lopapeysa was seen on the news that evening.

02 November 2006

driving through rainbows (part 4)

(note: all links here are photos I took on the trip)
The next morning everyone slept late in the dark hut, and when I awoke, I was again alerted to potential beauty by the tiny square of bright color in the hut's glass door pane. Outside, I was just in time to see the sun cresting to the left of Iceland’s highest mountain peak, Hvannadalshnúkur and turning everything it touched pink and peach. We’d missed the view when we came the night before, since the snow had closed itself around us, so this moment of reveal was astonishing- the crisp deepness of the blue shadows accenting the tiny and large contours in the snow, the sparkling frigidity of the sun winking through the textured snow and the massive blue arc of sky above. On a micro-scale, the surface here is not like the surface of a usual field of snow. It’s prickly from wind and frost, in tiny ice-crystal mountains that crunch and squeak underfoot.

We cleaned up the hut and secured the door from the winds, then set the GPS for a northwesterly direction. The weather’s complete clarity promised good views to the northwest from another peak beneath the glacier, Bárðarbunga. We first stopped at a hot area near the hut where the glacier had melted and the land steamed beneath in crusty hot patches. The temperature of the air there was so instantly cold that filaments of steam had frozen in delicate ice-straws on the ground. Even the slightest vibration from my foot was enough to collapse a 2-foot section of these fragile formations.

Back in the car, we continued across the open landscape, able now to see all the dunes and undulations in the snow in the sparkling day, unlike the day before. On the horizon, mirages appeared over features of the landscape, making mountain contours hover darkly, then shrink and disappear like water on a hot pavement, or whole sections of the glacier ahead heaved in time with the jouncing car. We stopped for coffee near a snow gauge sprouting from the glacier, where N reported that the temperature was –17c. It was hard to believe though, since I was cozy in just three layers- a tank top, a lopapeysa, and a wind shell. I’m starting to think that the major key to Icelanders surviving here so long is the magic of Icelandic wool, and thanks to my cold-weather youth training, I’m comfy having it directly next to my skin.

As with all stops, I wandered away from the vehicles slightly to inspect the snow and the view. It was in wind-packed chunks there, and I worked one loose with the toe of my hiking boot. Underneath, the snow glowed dimly blue, the life-force of the glacier humming beneath the surface. Two days in a white landscape opens your eyes to all the colors that are actually present- blue, gray, yellow, and later I even saw red, green, and orange. Paring away the usual landscape noise that people introduce brings a special kind of visual freedom with it.

We drove on to the Bárðarbunga peak, another ecstatic reveal moment of the trip. None of the members of the group had been there on so clear a day, so everyone exploded in superlative words when the ridge curved away to reveal the vast landscape spread out below. Photographs simply didn’t do it justice, although we all did our best. From this peak on one glacier, we could see three others, the furthest in the distance the always-beloved MFG (my first glacier), Langjökull, and then chains of enfolded mountains dusted with snow in all directions.

On the way down from the peak and on the way to the edge again, G offered me the driver’s seat of the Rover so I could try the feeling of snow-driving. I learned to keep my hands outside the steering wheel in readiness for unseen surface irregularities, how to navigate the curious texture of the landscape, and where to pay attention for cracks. When we got to the steeper part, I relinquished it again, to the ovation of C&F in the back seat. I’m not much for driving but this was rather fun and I wouldn’t mind doing it again.

Our glacial dismount was much smoother than going up, and soon we were climbing the moraine at the base. We paused to inflate tires (built-in air compressors on these vehicles) and that’s when I noticed the multicolored sparkles in the snow. Rather than the usual clear twinkle, I could make out all the colors of the rainbow. When I pointed it out to everyone else, I got gentle questions about the state of my eyes or the quality of whatever I’d been smoking. I kept seeing it though, as we drove through the snowy landscape and across rivers, and after insisting a while longer, finally everyone else in the car saw it. Rainbows in the snow, but only when we were angled a particular way relative to the dropping sun and the crystal snow-surface. They followed us for the next hour, sometimes appearing in three directions and leading straight to the horizon.

It’s always a little heart-wrenching to come down from a remote and spectacular place and see civilization approach bit by bit. First road signs, then road features like bridges, banked corners and the yellow road-edge posts, then pavement beneath the tires, then powerlines and guardrails. We pulled into Hrauneyjar as the light was fading from the sky to find B waiting in the kitchen door, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. We unpacked C & F from the Rovers, had some coffee and cake, then took a final photo of the posse before everyone parted ways and headed back to lights, traffic circles, and crowds.

The next day I woke early in the darkness and pulled on a sweater that had been with me on the glacier. Although I hadn't worn it, its mere presence there was enough to become infused with a faint fragrance of hákarl. It's not a generally friendly smell, but that morning it was a comforting reminder that I'd been to this great place. My lens solution bottle had also become compressed from altitude like I'd been on an airplane. Four days later, the smell of shark has faded from my clothes and the bottle is back to normal, but I'm still thinking of being up there, out in the silence and open space. I actually brought a tiny pouch of sand with me from a beach on Martha's Vineyard, and on Sunday morning I sprinkled it over the snow near the huts, the wind snatching it and distributing it invisibly among the snow crystals. It's still up there, gradually working its way through the layers of snow, and eventually, maybe, someday it will once again return to the Atlantic ocean in a few millenia. I like that thought.

01 November 2006

Glacially cozy (part 3)

The huts at Grímsvötn were built to house volcano researchers, and are remarkably equipped given their location. A large cloakroom is naturally a necessity, with lots of space for soggy hiking boots and puffy coats, then inside, a functional kitchen complete with all kinds of spices, a gas stove, and special snow-melting contraptions for water. There was a collection of books in several languages (Icelandic Little Prince anyone?), literature on the volcano, and maps and atlases, then a long table and benches near a window that was totally obscured by the massive layer of accumulated snow and ice outside.

The rest of the hut was taken over by a bunk bed area that probably could sleep 16 comfortably, with another table in the center. On one side, tucked under the sloping roof, was a nook with a skinny mattress and a few spare benches. I was informed that this was the nooky-nook, the only chance at privacy in this open hut. The construction of the interior was all pale wood, the bed-frames detailed with carved accents, and strewn with dark-green throw pillows (stylish!)

Soon after we arrived, the other two from the group that had been down helping to fix a broken-down vehicle further down the glacier appeared, and we were complete for the night. Then came dinner. As I mentioned earlier, B at Hrauneyjar had piled us with provisions, but we also had already come with two legs of lamb and salad fixings. Someone fired up the grill outside and put the lamb and reindeer to cook, and then N (one of the late-arrivers) went to town in the kitchen making a sauce while H-the-younger did the traditional Icelandic caramelized potatoes. G pulled out a white damask tablecloth from the back of his Rover; we scrounged candleholders, opened wine, and prepared salad. It may have been a group of mountaineers and able to rough it very successfully, but this night it was pure elegance.

When everything was cooked to perfection, K (late arriver #2) carved the lamb and the deer and we gathered round the table near the bunks (very Roman). The food was incredible- the best sauce I’ve ever had, impeccable lamb, and the first time I’d had reindeer steak. We ate ourselves silly, the conversations still rolling in three languages- staccato Icelandic, bubbling French, and occasional English. We finished up with chocolate, but nobody had much space for dessert after such a meal. We slept early that night, although I was without clock or phone the whole weekend so I have no idea how late it was.

Later that night, I shimmied out of my sleeping bag and into my lopapeysa to head outside to go pee. Since there were no usable windows in the place (all were covered in ice), the only light came from the door, and even from the back of the dark hut, I could see the green cast to the square window. Outside, the snowstorm had cleared away, leaving the full expanse of open sky above, all of which was blazing with northern lights. I’d always thought that they only appeared to the north, but there, that night, they surrounded me in leaping, scrolling illumination. I stood on that ridge for probably 20 minutes, the gently persistent glacier-air nudging my back as I stared above. I think I’ve tried to explain the eerie effect of the lights before, but it’s never quite good enough. At its most genteel, they are the nighttime equivalent of a rainbow, a pale swash of green arcing in the sky. The most vigorous swirls in horizontal tornadoes, then straightens out and flickers, waves like banners in a breeze, and on special nights there's a curious tumbling-dominos effect. There on the glacier I got it all, plus static light-tassels that hung from nearly directly overhead, all in a scorching alien-green so bright it turned everything below it green too.

When I managed to tear my gaze away from the sky and look lower, the silent snow spread in all directions, without a single light or sign of another human. This experience was so far removed from anything I thought I’d be doing in my life, and such an amazing synthesis of serendipity- the massive natural forces at work around me: volcanoes, ice, perfectly clear, still weather, and astounding northern lights. I almost felt like an intruder on this stoic and deceptively peaceful expanse of snow. I know that glaciers are furious and inexorable things on a grand scale, and if the weather is disagreeable, it’s far from a friendly place, but that night it was exactly where I wanted to be.