27 December 2007

a nice sort of holiday

Shopping in Nice is an adventure if it's done properly, which has to include the Saleya street market. It's the kind of place where a smile will bring a special discount on your onions, where the barrel-chested North Africans selling celery sing songs as they stack their wares, where the bread ladies kiss half their clients in holiday greeting. It's where going to the furthest end of the market yields the best discounts, a whole aluminum pail of sweet, bright carrots for one euro fifty.

Stacks of radishes fan out like a modern art sculpture, and stalls selling nothing but dried fruits are a bonanza of slicked colors. Pass the spice stall and pause to allow the harissa, the coriander, and the dozens of different pepper varieties soak through your nostrils. It's like all the markets I love so much in Paris, but here the people speak with the similarly squashed a's of French Canadians. They're happy to offer advice on how to cook the locally produced handmade ravioli, which kind of stinky cheese is the best, and pass your bag of baby spinach to you with a flourish.

The wine shop is another adventure altogether, with a whole wall lined in vats. Bring your own bottle and they'll fill it from the spout with local wine for less than three euros. Sounds like a recipe for a headache but it goes down smooth and leaves just enough mellowness to really feel like you're on holiday.

My family's been staying in a flat in an ancient building in the center of the oldest part of town for the past week. It's got massively high ceilings and is in transition out of a series of unfortunate modifications, one of which involved fuzzy hallway wallpaper. Our flat is cozy and loft-y, making it difficult at times to decide whether the delights are greater inside or outside.

Outside the door though, is a whole medieval neighborhood full of wind-y streets, frigid and beautiful churches, and the sweeping Baie Des Anges (bay of angels) a few blocks over, so appropriately named. I climbed to the top of the bluff near the sea yesterday, marveling at how exactly right everything there looked- the scrubby pine trees arcing gracefully towards the water, the hillsides encrusted with sorbet-colored buildings, the impossible blue of the Mediterranean stretching south towards Africa. Even the light here is how it should be, saturated with gold and as warm as a wood stove. It's a pleasant change from the darkness of Iceland.

19 December 2007

in the fifth

writing today from Paris, where I met my younger brother in the airport this morning. This is the city of my first experience abroad, when I called my parents from a phone booth opposite the Eiffel tower, a college girl giddy on her first real "I did it myself" experience.

It's now my fourth visit here, and I'm finding that after a few hours, my ear for Parisian French has returned, and with the help of my faithful map book, my brother and I have been busy exploring the streets now so familiar to me. The map book I still carry, Paris Par Arrondissements, had been my oldest brother's guide when he'd been working here years ago. On the eve of my departure for my second trip to Paris for studying literature, he gave it to me, filled with his maps and notes. I used the book the whole time, and it gave me that special exploratory confidence that there was No Corner of the city that I would not be able to find my way out of with this little red book.

When a friend went for a study abroad session in France, I lent it to her so she could experience the same magical freedom-powers, and she sent the book back months later from Spain, a note slipped inside that described her adventures with the book.

Today when I was flying over from Iceland, I took it out again and went through the pages of stories- the note from her now taped to the inside cover, the RER and métro maps added by my brother, the sticky notes of restaurants I added, the markings of the hotels, the métro stop where my aunt used to live. Walking these streets again and showing everything here to my brother is like going over those last 8 years of my life, from when I first was discovering foreign lands. I remembered the first time I saw the top of the Eiffel Tower, another winter day when I watched the pinkness of sunset fade from the facade of Notre Dame just like we did today, the discovery of the magical croque-sandwich creations in the cafes, the delirium of crooked streets, cobbled corners, the Seine and all the humped bridges, fanciful roof-tops and skaters in front of the Hotel de Ville.

Paris may be over-hyped in some ways but the marvel of it is that beyond those centerpieces featured in every film are so many more cool things- the street full of comic book shops that lured my brother into each and every one, jumbled angles to the buildings all pressed together around a tiny public garden, the hidden restaurant we happened upon that contained all the right elements for the first vacation-day dinner. The décor was all warm honey tones, one corner devoted to a big wine cave, the owner touring the tables and greeting everyone, and the menu laced with warm cheese dollops, rum-soaked cakes, escargot, lapin, and plenty of butter and garlic. Just right for a year's worth of proper catching-up to do with family.

11 December 2007

comfort food

On a blustery, rain-swept Tuesday, nothing's better for lunch than plokkfiskur, the Icelandic twin of my mom's homemade macaroni and cheese. Cubed potatoes mixed with white fish and plenty of sauce are topped with cheese and baked until toasty. It goes down easy with cracked pepper sprinkled on top and dense slices of dark brown bread spread with butter on the side.

I just discovered that the Boston Globe thought it worthy enough to include in an article about Icelandic food last month. Not sure about the clam juice in the recipe but if anyone's wanting to know the feeling of wintertime Iceland, it's a good place to start.

10 December 2007

In a dim light: neither daylight

December darkness is something that I once feared and that may seem like a terrifying thing to people from brighter places. Most Icelanders I've talked with find it to be something that one simply deals with, or in some cases, embraces.

On still days and nights when not a single branch twitches nor dead leaf rustles, it's a time full of witching hours, these hours that stretch from black to sunup- the blueness of the pre-dawn that makes white blankets look aquatic, the white simplicity of light on cloudy winter days, the rich and magical navy of dusk, the purest black of nighttime. Even a clear full-day sky is deep glacial cobalt, and then the snowed mountains across the bay emanate the most perfect kind of frigidity I can imagine. Whenever I want to think of the coldest temperature imaginable, I am sure my mind will go to the black mountains to the north, etched with glowing snow and edged by Arctic sea waters.

Offsetting this chill is the delirium of lights that cover the city- every tree that can hold a bulb is draped, stores staple entire illuminated evergreens over the doors, and windows are festooned with candles. A Saturday stroll becomes a festivity of greetings, street caroling, pepper cookies and cocoa. It's a tiny glowing oasis in the midst of the miles of darkness beyond, where one single car light over on Kjalarnes can be followed on its entire outbound journey around Esja, a dot of bright in deepest black.

05 December 2007

putting it all together

This week's been the last few rehearsals before our Big Concert on Thursday. We're singing "L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato" by Handel, a solid few hours of music with a little bit of everything- grandeur, speed, solemnity, frivolity, every pairing of vocal range, large and small ensembles, and a passel of Baroque instruments. It's so very much like all those times in high school when we finally put everything together- wriggling teenagers, and musicians that the director had somehow managed to pull from the fields and forests of southern Vermont to create a proper orchestra. So thrilling, the chorus risers, the clutter of music stands, the bows of the violins rising and falling together, the un noticed staffs and measures on our music books below the choral lines so very alive and vibrating through the long room. Here in Iceland it's all very much the same- the people may come from the lava rather than the forests, but there seems to be a sort of Universal Baroque Musician look- the hair, the fleece, the sensible shoes, the emphatic eyebrows on the male version. It's a comforting thing to see.

These rehearsals with the instruments are sometimes better than the performance itself- hearing how the phrases are fine-tuned during practice after practice, the rush of that first time when what had been one person playing piano becomes a twenty-piece orchestra, the director's commands shouted over the music to different sections. It'll all be over too quickly but until that time I'm enjoying every minute of it, and I'm so glad to be here this year instead of abroad like I was for last year's concert.

*and if you rvk dwellers have nothing else to do on Thursday, come on over. It'll be swell

23 November 2007

our green footprint

Alternative energy sources and carbon footprints are the big hot discussion worldwide these days, and I often see footage and articles in which Iceland is held up to be a grand example of greenitude. I will not deny that the geothermal heat infrastructure is amazing- the heating here is the most efficient, silent, and comfortable I have experienced anywhere, and I love thinking of it coming straight from within the roaring insides of the Earth. The locations where the boreholes are drilled are accessible and impressive- huge chimneys exhaling the very breath of the earth, and massive pipes running kilometers across the open lava.

However, when I pass yet another shower left running in the pool, or watch the fountain spraying gallons of unused water across the pavement at Laugardalslaug, I think of my friend A, living in one of the drought stricken parts of the US southeast. As I wrote about before, the concept of saving water has not made it here.

Plus, in terms of the ease of being without a car, Iceland is definitely not in the Europe classification. The sprawl of Reykjavik makes carlessness challenging, and the public transit system only thought acceptable for immigrants, students, old people, and those who lost their license in Iceland's incredibly strict drunk driving and speeding laws. If you live right off certain specific lines, it's easy enough, but step beyond those reaches and you'll be walking 3/4 of a kilometer across barren windswept lava to get to your destination.

There is one category where Iceland definitely comes in ahead of the US though, and that's in the junk catalogue category. When I first moved into my apartment in Boston, I made the mistake of ordering one $20 dress from Victoria's Secret, and by the time I moved out two years later I was getting 5 catalogs a day. Plus, 2 active credit cards and the "right" address and education meant I got junk credit card offers just as often.

Now I get almost no mail I don't want, and the building where I live receives only the newspapers, the TV guide, and an occasional other magazine. A few days ago I realized I kind of missed the idle flip-through, so I grabbed Hagkaup's "gjafa handbókin 2007" with its "þúsundir hugmynda að frábærum jólagjöfum" (thousands of ideas for great Christmas presents) and scanned the pages to look at the hundreds of things I don't really want and definitely don't need. Hagkaup's a weird store- a cross between Whole Foods level groceries, Sears quality everything else, and makeup counters like Macys. Exactly the kind of catalog I got plenty of before and now don't really miss that much after all.

20 November 2007

super sundays

I've written plenty about the crappy, miserable, sorry, soggy weeks we've been having here lately, but what I haven't mentioned is those few Sundays of glorious respite there have been interspersed. I took photos a few weeks ago of one of those days, and last Sunday was another. Just at freezing, perfectly still, and crisply sunny, the perfect day for the 45 minute walk to Laugardalslaug from my house. Although I have sunglasses, I wanted to let the brightness burn my eyes. Must save up the glory of light for the dark times later!

I started off along Snorrabraut where the berries on the trees (anyone know what those trees are?) had mixed with the moss along the wall-tops, and then continued straight out to the wide-open bay. When I was in Boston, I got a cashmere sweater as a Christmas gift, and the teal-blue color was called "Arctic ocean". At the time I thought it was pretty cheesy a name, but it really is the color of the sea on a bright winter day.

This walk is one of the great features of Reykjavík, allowing a nice stretch of time to appreciate the majesty of Esja all covered in snow at this time of year, and in the summer, it's the path where I rollerbladed. Going to the pool, I turned in at the bus yard, where this listing baby blue car awaits something around the corner from all the slumbering busses. Further down the street is a cluster of oddly vintage businesses- a shoe fix-it place, a shop with every shape of mirrors you'd ever want.

Then to the pool. Sunday swimming in this kind of weather is quite possibly one of the best things to do on a lazy weekend afternoon. The water seems clearer, each intake of breath is fresh and bright, the water smooth against my limbs. Afterwards, tired from laps and lying in the heated salt-water pool, I watch the rhythmic rotation of arms across the pool lanes, listening to the slightly distant echoes of the kids splashing in their pool, and the murmur of old-man gossip in the next hot tub.

Last time I left while the sun was still fully up, at the same time as the Royal Arctic Line steamed out of the harbor. Three weeks at approximately the same time, it was the just-post-sunset witching hour, when Esja looks its most imposing and frigid, and the pink after-glow of sunset fades into deepening blue skies.

Along with the sun's disappearance, the last moments of warmth in the day left as well, so by the time I got home, I was fully frigid. It took some spicy Indian food and the magic of an Icelandic wool blanket to warm up again, but it was worth it for the views and the sense of peace that always comes from the Sunday pool trip.

12 November 2007


went to buy milk today and it's time for the ol' Gleðileg mJÓLk already. This is the good times that can be had with the word for milk (mjólk) and the phrase for "merry christsmas" (Gleðileg Jól), and the resulting oh-so-festive packaging that comes along with.

Most readers here seem to already be Icelandophiles and therefore probably know about the bizarre and definitely original tales of the Icelandic "yule lads". There's 13 of them and a pair of creepy parents, and each one of them has a name and associated impish behavior. Featured on my milk carton are the ones that peek in windows, steal sausages, and lick the last tasty bits out of the bottom of bowls. So check it out for yourself here, here, and here. Note also the box design that I complained about months ago! I had another run-in with it just last box when I unstuck the wrong side of the package. When I ripped the correct side and tried to pour, the whole top unfolded itself and spurted milk all the way down the stove side. Still haven't got the hang of it after 2+ years of weekly practice.

But anyway, I started taking photos of the once-a-year packaging last year, so here are a few others- maltextract (not to be confused with the also season-specific Jólaöl), and something called engjaþykkni, a yogurty type thing that comes with crispy rice or chocolate sprinkles to mix in. I need to buy butter soon, but I'm waiting until the special Christmas edition of that comes out, and then it's phototime of that too!

Since there are no major holidays to stem the tide of holinsanity, like Halloween or Thanksgiving, I actually spotted the first seasonal packaging at the very end of October when the kókómjólk switched over. It's not when the milk goes that it's really begun, and I spotted the laufabrauð and cookies have started to come on line as well. I intend to buy and/or photo as many of these as possible. The volume of special designs cannot be described any other way.

11 November 2007

Belgian Bonanza

Beyond Brussels were so many worthwhile things to see, so many that it is nearly impossible to decide what I liked best. All of it was the perfect, classic European vacation, with plenty of café time, ye olden alleyways, a couplea excellent bridges, and not one but TWO supercool and authentic castles. Thanks to L's bilingual superbness, we got an earful from an ancient Flemish-speaking lady with fast fingers in Bruges about how she makes her lace doilies. L's family members who were well sprinkled across the country also made for the best kind of trip. I learned what a "brown bar" is in Bruges where I met her cousin (for you Bostonians, this is the kind of bar that John Harvard's Brewhouse is trying to create, all smoke-infused beams, high ceilings, wavy ancient glass, creaky floors and six hundred beer varieties), I learned how to crack freshly harvested walnuts at her parents house further south, and our travels were peppered with stories of ancestors who'd lived in various chateaus and ancient houses all over the country.

L also made sure I had all the proper and most local traditional cuisine- the chocolate, the fries from the little stand below the church in her neighborhood, the meatballs with the tomato-pickle sauce (don't wrinkle your nose until you've tried it, folks!). I saw and explored and tasted so many things it's hard to believe it was so short a trip. The other remarkable thing was that this sojourn was planned after L and I had met each other only 3 short times previously, so spending 4 1/2 days in close company was something of a risk. Somehow though, we ended up having happily similar tastes, and everything she suggested turned out to be an absolute delight.

I know I'm prone to falling in love with countries easily, but one of the things I enjoyed most about this trip was the total new-discovery element. I knew almost nothing about Belgium- the terrain, the total language division, the cities beyond Brussels, and L was such an excellent tour guide that I have returned raving about everything I saw and did there.

At the end of the Belgian Bonanza, I took a sleek double-decker train 3 hours south, over the Ardennes to Luxembourg, where my German friend C zipped up from Stuttgart for a day of wandering and avoiding getting completely soggy in the sporadic rain showers. It's a pretty tiny place but the location is quite cool, a little natural fortress of butter-and rosewater colored buildings on a rock surrounded by a river in a gorge. Can't say much about the tin-box airport but it didn't matter too much in light of the bonus visit from C. I've probably lamented how so many friends from Iceland have moved away but what it means in the end is that I can have these nice meet-ups in odd places where we have intense catch-up sessions, or spend days completely immersed in a new place and come away with a crash-course in the coolness of the spot.

I took far more pictures than I linked to above, so for the rest of them, check here

02 November 2007

on the move again

Writing this evening from a mist-shrouded Brussels, where I am visiting my friend L for a bit of cultural escape. Yesterday I flew to Amsterdam on an orchestral plane, full of a Russian symphony and all their double basses. Ten minutes after collecting my suitcase I was on a vintage Dutch train zipping through the farmland outside Amsterdam.

2some hours later I was in Brussels, where L collected me and whisked me to her book-encased apartment in a neighborhood of the city that's so cool the New York Times just wrote an article about it. She's proven an astounding guide so far, with a first meal of delectable crepes, side trips down medieval alleys, and today, a browse through a fantastical fantasy-palace\atelier exhibiting textiles, tiles, ironwork, lamps and ceramics in a mysteriously decayed once-grand villa in the center of town. We stopped at the lace museum, strolled through a peculiar flea market near her house, inspectioned of 1930s shoes in a vintage shop and peeked inside another one containing a full carousel, and enjoyed the most delectable hot chocolate ever known to humankind. It was the kind of chocolate that made me unable to focus on conversation, so flavorsome and subtle it was.

Then off to view the neighborhood crammed with the best of Belgian Art Noveau architecture. After all those years looking at it in hundreds of art history slides and books, I got to stand across from the house itself. We wandered the streets, spotting other curlicued balconies and painted walls, scrollwork on coal grates, and then stumbled upon a street that must have been used recently for a movie, the remains of the fake snow still clinging to the trees and whitening the cracks in the brick sidewalk.

We wandered home through a garden still ablaze with autumn, and as the mist thickened and added sheen to the cobbled streets, we bought waffles (the Liege type, all crusty with sugar glaze on the outside, eaten plain in a square of paper). Home in the dark, it's time for dinner on this rich and incredibly full day.

I was enchanted by Amsterdam the first time I saw it, but it's taken this second trip with a proper and enthusiastic guide, but now I am making space in the rankings of cities to love for Brussels.

27 October 2007

the favorite trip

I just got a whizz-bang new phone that has a camera, so I can finally show off the rollerblading trip I do that renews my faith and love for this odd land. It starts along Snorrabraut, then towards the airport and down past the fake beach at Nauthólsvík. Then I wrap around the airport and make towards Vesturbær, where I pass the little fish embedded in the pavement and the fishing sheds left over from a previous incarnation of this part of Reykjavík.

Then it's a sneak through the path that ends near the KR football stadium, and out onto the path facing Esja, looking fabulous and snowy today. This bit's usually a battle with the wind that's sweeping in from the open sea beyond the mouth of the bay, and when it's low tide there's a good fresh smell of seaweed and other things. Today there was a trio of oystercatchers doing their goofy parade around in the water, and as always, plenty of gulls.

Further along is this shed which must be used for drying things because on peaceful afternoons it's a pretty stinky section of pavement. Carry on though, because just beyond it is Grótta, the lovely lighthouse that marks the tip of Seltjarnarnes. Today I came upon a photo shoot in the grass there, so I took a surreptitious photo of the action, and then turned towards the open expanse ahead. Further along this path, before turning at the golf course, the dunes get high so all that's visible of the sea is little snatches of blue between the grass.

On the other side of the road, heading back along the lower part of the peninsula, I look back towards the mountains, that today got engulfed in clouds, then inspect the bird life on the pond there. Three swans today and a lot of threatening clouds.

From here it's a sail through the yellowing grass along a more gentle shore, although today there was still quite a lot of kelp and loose sand on the path. I stopped for a drink of water at one of the conveniently placed water fountains. A little further on and I'm in the middle of Seltjarnarnes center, where the swimming pool is under major renovations. Turn right down a little skinny walking path and then its neighborhood streets for a while, where today the Saturday duvet-airing tradition was in full swing.

I come out again along the sea in Vesturbær, and retrace my tracks towards the airport, pass the soccer fields, past this sea wall that blooms with mustard-colored lichen. At Nauthólsvík again I have a moment of truth, whether to go down along Fossvogur a little further, and then knock myself out climbing up the full height of Öskjuhlíð, or to turn back to Hotel Loftleiðir. I took the second option today, and passed a wonderfully dilapidated suitcase that someone had ejected at the side of the path.

From there it's a short homestretch, and if the weather's not looking so scary like it was today, I sometimes continue to the other side again, where I cruise to the Sólfar sculpture and see what tourists are there inspecting it. If I could, I would do this trip every single day- the landscape is lovely, the air delicious, and the seasonal changes make the view different every time.

26 October 2007

On the fringes of Airwaves

I did not go to any of the acts here over the weekend as part of the well-publicized Airwaves festival, but I did go to a few of the many hanger-on events that were scheduled for the same weekend, hoping to capitalize on the higher concentration of hipper-than-thou folk in town.

On Friday I went to the opening reception of the home and design show. Held in Laugardalshöllin, it was supposed to showcase the best and brightest of Icelandic design. In some respects it succeeded wonderfully, with a corner crammed with small objects- textiles, sculpture, tableware, and lights. The rest of the show was a little jumbled though, with exhibits ranging from hot tubs for the summerhouse, to Kaupþing (the bank), various big n splashy TV displays, an exhibit on new materials and construction techniques, and a toy shop for kids. As always with trade shows like this, there was plenty of champagne, chocolate, cookies, and sandwich-y nibbles, just like the fishing tech showcase, and the high tech expo I went to before. No fishing nets at this one though.

On Saturday it was all about architecture for the presentation of the first Icelandic building award. It was held in the Reykjavik Art Museum's Kjarvalsstaðir branch, an apt locale for the audience whose overall wardrobe vibe was blacker than Iceland in December. After a lot of rambling presentation-talk, the Prime Minister handed over the award to the people who built the Blue Lagoon's skin therapy spa, and the thing was over after some slightly thin applause. Since it was the first time for the event, it seemed a bit tentative on the whole, in spite of the champagne, but I could not disagree with the splendid venue, the great style-watching, and the licorice-topped chocolate squares.

Then off to swank lounge b5 where the whole place had been graffittoed out for the official launch party of the hot book of the season, Icepick. The author's a friend of a friend, and is one of those people who is way cooler than you will ever be, but is super nice about it. Her clothing store just down the street, Ósoma, has the kind of design that makes for a worthwhile souvenir- truly Icelandic, obscure yet not too much, and supporting the local folks.

The event had been very publicized to the Airwaves Press Pass crowd, who all showed up for the free lady-cocktails (pink or purple, an odd choice for the launch of so fierce a book) and the porcupine styled fruit kebab trays that were ringed with prosciutto-wrapped figs and various other not-from-these-parts delicacies. As with every event that weekend, there were plenty of people I knew there, but the high percentage of camerafolks made it seem like we were at something Really Huge.

I'm not sure now if it was Airwaves that made for the art-laden weekend or if it's just that fall is when it Happens Here. After the summertime of long and empty weekends stretching ahead, it's back-to-back Things To Do, and I don't want to miss any of it. This is why blogging has been a bit of a back seat of late. That and this ennnnndless rain that's making me gloomy in spite of myself. Hopefully no more will need to be said on that subject!

12 October 2007

high times

One of the staples of any Iceland resident's social calendar is árshátíð, the annual company party. This is not an awkward Office-style gig where you buy a couplea cheap paper tablecloths, a jug of booze (if your company even deems it appropriate to have alcohol), and some deviled eggs, but rather an all-out extravaganza of those guys you only see in jeans and socks-n-tevas wearing ties and suits, and the ladies shake out the ball gowns, shimmery eye shadow, and impractical shoes.

Apparently the usual season for árshátíð ("year's-high-time" if translated literally) is in the spring but my company has always been dangerous and different and gone for the September celebration. The first year I was in Iceland the gala happened 4 days into my new job and was held in Poland. As a way to arrive in your new job, a free trip to Warsaw is not too bad, but it set a pretty high standard for future events.

This year, like last year, it was a more local event in a function hall big enough to hold the some-200 people that make up the Icelandic portion of the company. Just like events in college, the pre-party was an essential part, where everyone stood about, felt a little awkward in their fancydress clothes and tried not to talk about work. Then off to cocktail hour where they lubed us up with glasses of champagne so everyone was feeling festive as they were ushered into the main hall. Pre-dinner everyone got a number for door prizes, which, since I work in high-tech, was all printers and other gadgets.

The dinner itself was hosted by a Personality, some actor who gets a little extra coin for coming up and being amusing between courses at grand dinners. Since we are talking Iceland here, there was also a participatory singing portion of the evening. As I am sure I have mentioned before, Icelanders+alcohol+time=singing. After dinner it was dancing, drinks, and proper mingling. I discovered that a French guy I met at a party last year is the husband of someone I work with, I met lots of wives of the guys I work with, I got to see face-to-face all these people from the northern office who are almost exclusively MSN/Skype relationships.

The first time I heard that it was a Big Fun Deal to party down with your boss I was a little skeptical, since at my last job I almost never socialized with the people I worked with, but it's a different story here. Maybe it's because people here are so often kind of buttoned-up that it's fun to see what happens when they start to become chatty, or because it's a close community and the lines between work and play are a little more blurred as a result.

Part of why these things are so extravagant is that a portion of the money that pays for them actually comes from the staff, in the form of a small monthly deduction from your paycheck. It's used for árshátíð, the equally essential and Icelandic óvissuferð (secret trip), and the third element of the work socializing Triple Crown, the jólahlaðborð, or Christmas Buffet. It might seem odd that your own money goes to this kind of thing but it does make for a closer work environment, which for the most part is a great thing. I am not sure if it is allowed or even possible to opt out of this bit of money being taken out anyway, so might as well enjoy it!

07 October 2007

a question for the local readers

These past few evenings, when I look out my kitchen window, in a location to the north about mid-Esja, there's an alarmingly bright spotlight shining directly at the sky, a la USA grand stadium. Is this the call for Batman? A sign to planets beyond that the intelligent life is really to be found here on this tiny island, so don't waste your time with Paris, New York, or London? Iceland's way to bump up our contribution to the global light pollution map? I keep thinking it's norðurljós only to remember "oh yeah, the Spotlight oOf Mystery!"

so please, readers, end the mystery, because all I know of in that direction is chicken farms and I hardly think this would be the big plot the chickens have been working on all these months and years.

05 October 2007

forgotten fall

September and October are my favorite months usually- crisp air, bright leaves, a chance for scarves, coats, and wool. This year though, it seems like it has almost never happened, with the nearly endless rainstorms, and the high winds of last week that ripped off most of the leaves before they had a chance to go colorful. Last year it was a proper fall here, and the trip to Vermont would take care of anyone's yen for foliage.

This year it's been Norway where I have watched the season unfold properly, over the course of four trips there since mid-August. It starts with the train ride into Oslo from the airport that displays all the right markers- alarmingly bright orange punctuating misty hills, stands of trees clustering against deep red-painted barns. In the town outside Oslo where I go for work, it's the smell of fall rain hastening the leaf decay, the fog-hazed fields all trimmed of their August hay crop and lying golden and stubbled. Days that start with finger-chill and mist in the river valley, then warm up to almost short-sleeve temperature, and then close around you cool enough to cause the puff of white in your exhale and make the stars twinkle crisply.

If only it were like that sometimes, just sometimes, here in Iceland this year. Like others, I've been remembering the views of other autumns, when there were chances to appreciate the size of the landscape here and how marvelous the light is when it chooses to be. I know that weather will come again someday, but after what feels like two months of non-stop rain, I'm starting to plan delicious non-Iceland escapes to visit foreign friends with glee. It's a tough love sometimes, this Iceland.

21 September 2007


This week I've been thinking of things that now fill my brain that I wasted not a care on before, and realized that it has replaced some stuff that was front-and-center in my head in the old days. I started making a mental list of the remembering/forgetting items, and in the interest of freeing up that brainspace, it's going down on this site.

Things I don't have to think about anymore now that I live in Iceland:
  • Clothes dryers. I'm air-dry all the time, baby. Only problem is when I am finishing my chenille scarves I need to borrow a dryer, and I know a total of two people who actually have them.
  • Furnaces, and therefore waiting for the heat to be turned on in the fall. Makes the basements of apartment buildings look really weird and empty without the Great Beast lurking down there. Also, I've never been to someone's house that is just not quite warm enough, unlike the time when I visited my aunt in Paris in her lovely-yet-frigid Beaux Arts-era apartment building.
  • Hot water heaters. Consistent shower temperatures all the time, and no need to get up super early to beat out the guy downstairs for the hot water!
  • Antiperspirant/air conditioners. It's never warm enough to need either.
  • How to get OUT of the city. Unlike 5 hours of traffic to get to a bit of empty on a popular weekend, it's 20 minutes.
  • Will the tap water be drinkable at a restaurant or hotel? Whenever I am not in Iceland, I am very preoccupied with water quality and end up drinking far less water than when home.
  • Ants, cockroaches, mosquitoes and other creepy-crawlies. Yes, we have some up here (like silverfish) but for the most part it's but a memory. Means you can forget to wash a plate for a lot longer here. Nice!
  • Restrictive work hours/sick time. I have to be present for meetings and get my work done, but how and where that happens is my business. This was a big stress factor in the US that is totally gone.
things I do think about a lot now that I don't live in Boston/USA:
  • Sleeping with the window open, whatever the temperature or wind conditions may be outside
  • My passport. I have to carry it much more often now, and thanks to all the visas and stamps, have to get extra pages now.
  • How true or incorrect stereotypes about people from different countries are, since I meet so many people from so many places now.
  • Laundry planning. Euro machines seem to heat their own water and take their own sweet time washing your clothes ever so gently. A load can take up to 2 hours to complete, so it's a big planning session to make it happen. Add in the drying negotiations (see "no clothes dryers" above) which involve either picking a non-rainy day and hanging in the morning for sun exposure, or beating the other building residents to the inside lines, and laundry day gets exciting.
  • Bathing suits. I have about 8 of them and it's just never enough with all the pool and hot tub opportunities here. Must have variety.
  • Suitcases. Somewhere on some life-abroad list I read a comment that said being an expat means learning how to pack a suitcase really well and get all kinds of odd things packed together in a tiny space without breaking anything. I still hate packing to go on trips though, in spite of all my recent experience with it.
  • Food spoilage. Everything has a much shorter shelf life here. Bread & milk are only good for a couple of days before they get fuzzy or funny smelling. Therefore, I think more about my grocery shopping plans. I've gone all old-lady and bought a fold-up grocery trolley (like this only a more stylin stripes and mod flowers pattern), which is fun when trundling eggs home over the cobbled sidewalks.
  • Raincoats that don't look foreign-tourist or straight-from-the-mountain for all-the-time wear. Umbrellas just don't cut it, and the weather the past month has called for almost constant raincoat use.
  • Boots with low/no heels, for staying stylishly warm and being walkable on cobblestones and icy sidewalks. I realized just how much of a new thing this is when I tried to find footwear in Boston and found that only the Super Sensible (=really not fun to wear and rather ugly) boots had flat/low heels.
  • Apartments and housing. It's over 3 months until I have to move out but I am already planning where I will live in January. Gotta work the inside route if possible.
  • How to escape the darkness of December/January here for a bit of light somewhere else.
  • Running into people who are all "HEY!! How've you BEEN?? SO GREAT TO SEE YOU!!!" that I don't remember at all. This happened to me at a party a few weekends ago with a very bubbly Spanish lady that I thought was someone else. Turns out I met her two years ago at my first-weekend-in-Iceland party and have basically not seen her since. She has a new job with some people I sort of know and ended up at the party, where she recognized me and I didn't. That's how it goes in Iceland.

18 September 2007

the restless natives

A few months ago a friend and reader, partly in jest (I think) commented that I never say much in a positive light about the people who inhabit this island, just the landscape and the scenery. Since then I've been thinking about why exactly this is. First of all I am still interested in preserving some level of anonymity (not sure how effective this is for the Icelandic readership) so getting super specific about people I know would likely make that impossible. Second of all, the time I am most likely to think about things to write is when I am alone, contemplating some lonely expanse of landscape and making mental notes as to where this experience differs or compares to the years Before Iceland.
And finally, I am reluctant to go all sweeping generalization on the people I've met and gotten to know in the past two years. Still, it's thanks to all these people that I am still here, living the foreign land life that is not fun or perhaps even possible without the people that have helped me navigate through all the complexities.
There's the endless funnel of advice I've gotten on all the little things that make up the infrastructure of life- translating the Icelandic tax-form terminology, knowing what kind of salary range to ask for, understanding the health care system, the housing, the leasing, the visa process, cooking a Christmas ham properly, even the instructions on the all-Icelandic washing machine at the last apartment. It's a lot of life-bits to have to learn all over again, and these guides have been the difference between thinking giving up was the easiest answer and soldiering on in the face of words that are 20 letters long.
There are the rides I've gotten on so many mornings, so many frigid afternoons or late evenings that have made it possible to avoid the miserably inefficient bus system, and the trips I've been invited on as the spare rider. It's the chance to borrow a car when a friend comes to visit, a detail that made the difference between a pleasant visit and an amazing, memorable trip.
It's the people who have opened their houses to me and to my family and friends, the ones with the advice about places to visit, secret hot springs, and how it just might be possible to get an extra portion of the alcohol allotment past the guys in the airport. Some people say that people here are rather rude because they're not all napkins snapped into the lap, doors opened for the ladies, and holding coats. I say that after a shared cab ride from the edge of the world through Kópavogur and finally to Reykjavík, when you're the last out of the cab and find that the guy that got out just before you paid so much he covered your share and left you with 500 krónur extra, that's real chivalry.
There are quite a few foreigners who live here for the sake of the landscape, the air & water, the social benefits, and really don't care much for the locals, but I have to say I'm not one of them. Sure, some of the features of Icelandic society are still befuddling or a bit unappealing to my more straitlaced New England mentality, but for the most part I am overwhelmingly grateful to all the people who have made my life here so varied, so interesting, and so much easier than it would have otherwise been.

one common language

This evening I was taking a cab, and when trying to deal with directions and then again with payment, I realized from the few phrases we exchanged that the driver was not Icelandic. Last week at the bakery, I was served by a woman who was also newly arrived to Iceland, and a few days ago at the Asian grocery store I completed my transaction to the singsong sounds of a Thai-flavored "takk fyrir".

Some people might think that Icelandic is dying, since so small a country speaks the language, but the past week is only a sample of what seems to be happening with increasing frequency here. Reykjavik is turning Manhattan, all Yugoslavian taxi drivers and Philippine shopkeepers. There are Polish people cleaning the office, Thai groceries and restaurants all over town, and tiny populations of other cultures everywhere between. Most seem to be making at least some efforts to speak Icelandic, even if it's the most rudimentary Krua Thai versions of calling out order numbers (no "sixty five" for one person working there, but just "six five").

It's a weird feeling to have two people with our only common language being this obscure tongue, but somehow in the midst of all our other native accents, we're able to find enough common ground to get things done, to pay for the cab, find our way home, ask for a shopping bag, or where the wasabi peas are. Doesn't sound like a dying language to me.

14 September 2007

in which I discuss girly things

This post is one that the gents may want to tune out, as it discusses the topic of moisturizers.

Now that you've been warned, I have to mention a particular product that I noticed had become the scent of pool locker rooms to me, Elizabeth Arden's Green Tea Honey Drops lotion. The spicy sweet smell has been detected in every major locker room of the Reykjavík Capital Area, is probably hot up in Akureyri, and all the country pools between too. It's so common that the flavors are now inextricably mixed with that of sulphur, toasted hair from the hairdryers, and a hint of chlorine. Someone's always around the corner slathering the stuff on post-swim. It's so popular that I've seen women in the duty-free at KEF with an entire shopping basket full of tubs. Icelandic women are ADDICTED to this product, so much so that they came out with a special supersize duty-free package of it, available only in the airport. Women were going all rabid-dogs on those too.

So last time I went through on my way back from Norway, I picked up the small size tub to see what the big excitement was all about, and joined the crowd o' honey-scented sheep and scooped it on last time I was at Laugardalslaug.

I get it now. THIS is the secret to not being all miserably dry-n-itchy in the winter when swimming regularly. This moisturizer goes with Icelandic pool habits like cinnamon and cider (another one of those things that I am missing as fall closes in). Icelanders are pretty trend-susceptible though, so I am curious to see how long the product love lasts before some new potion's on the market and out in every single pool locker room.

12 September 2007


This morning I woke to the clatter of rain on the window, and gusts pulsating through the open window that made the shade squeak and the door bang fiercely. Snug in feathers I enjoyed this special breed of Icelandic storm, noisy and insistent. It drowns out all sounds of modernity, so for that moment it could be 100 years ago, even if you are in the middle of a city.

Those warm-up exercises I mentioned a week ago must have been effective, since I returned from Norway to find that the door on the landing had apparently been ripped off its hinges by another enthusiastic storm last week, leaving a spray of splinters across the carpet, and bending the curtain rod into uselessness. The door's now boarded into place with sturdy blocks of wood, and seems to be impervious to these newer blasts today.

Although it is hard to walk in sometimes, wind and storms like this are invigorating to me. High at my sixth floor desk, I watch the sheets of rain swirl across the nearly empty parking lot, listen to the whistling through the slight crack in the window, and observe the smoky clouds in their majestic course out to sea. I'm sure that, like most Icelandic storms, this one too will be a memory by afternoon, but for now I am relishing the insanity of it, and the odd calm that comes from everyone scurrying about so quickly to stay inside, tucked away from the fury of the sea's weather systems.

10 September 2007

swampy times

It's no coincidence that the word for mushroom in Icelandic, sveppir, resembles the word "swamp". They know a thing or two about wet weather and the fungi who love it! The past two weeks of almost non-stop rain has created the perfect breeding ground for the most luxurious mushrooms I've seen in quite a while. Their variety looks like the kind of thing that a mushroom gourmand would get all rhapsodical about- long cylinder ones, tiny sprinklings of black ones, fairy parasols, seats for the toads that don't live in Iceland, and everything. They're creeping across the lawn of my house, inching towards the door, they're in the swath of land on the far side of Tjörnin, they're cropping up in the shrubbery around laugardalslaug. A few weeks ago in Heiðmörk, the woods were rustley with people collecting them. I'm no shroom expert so I quake at picking the wrong kind, so I celebrated in my own way on Saturday with a homemade mushroom soup, using store varieties, of course. It's just the kind of weather for it what with all the rain, after all.

07 September 2007

all the tortoises in Athens

My oldest brother lived in Athens for some time, and he once wrote me a postcard telling me that there are lots of tortoises living there. This was to be my Fun Factoid Insider Information about the place for future cocktail party conversation. That's how I feel about all these random things I've learned so far about Norway. I've sampled from both rival sushi restaurants here, and my personal jury is still undecided as to whether Nippon Art or Alex Sushi comes away with the Best Ever prize for this city. I've learned that Norwegian floor drains are more thriftily designed than the Icelandic counterparts (why have two floor drains when you can have just one?) which sometimes causes inconvenience. In the first hotel I stayed at, the shower water flowed through a hole in the side of the shower stall, streamed halfway across the bathroom and through the only drain in the floor. Don't leave your socks on that floor!

I've learned about why shrimp from different shrimp boats can taste so different, what makes Telemark notable (other than the skiing technique) and where the Norwegian summer went this year. This information is stashed in some corner of my brain with Useless Things I Know, along with the location of the go-go club and related colorful characters down the street from where I last stayed, in the middle of downtown Oslo.

I've been there four times now and for some reason I just don't have a ton to say about it. Maybe it's the nature of work travel that limits your knowledge of a place to the flag that snaps outside the window being a different color. Maybe it's the odd mixture in the areas where I have been, the drug addicts mixed with the enchanting sorbet-colored 17th century buildings, the people walking the streets that resemble stretched-out versions of Icelanders (facial features are similar but everyone seems taller here) speaking Another Language, the "late night commercial activity" going on along these immaculate streets, the enchanting looking villages I've whizzed by so many times on the trains.

I just came back yesterday from yet another trip, again having seen almost nothing of the place. Maybe next time I'll make it north to visit my friend, but until then my experience will probably be more about the people I travel with and the work I do, rather than rambling through those temptingly rolling fields that spread below as I fly in and out.

02 September 2007

sea change

this past week autumn has arrived emphatically, with rain for a solid five days, the wind playing do-mi-so-do-so-mi-do warmup exercises for winter in my bathroom vent, yellow leaves already strewn on the black concrete sidewalk. Along with that comes the earnest recommencement of all the Real Activities. Projects at work are back in action, the choir's started up, and friendships renewed after weeks spent in foreign lands soaking up sun and idleness. It's a nice consolation prize in exchange for the summer being over, for the nights closing in.

This wet weather and the looming darkness means that I've already finished my 50-pack of tea lights, and the cooking has fired up again- spiced carrot soups with toasted pumpkin seeds and a dollop of skyr atop, the all-American Toll House chocolate chip cookies, which have gone over tremendously well with everyone. I'm not sure if they taste better here because I had to make them entirely by hand (beating brick-hard brown sugar with butter is no mean feat) or if it's the meltingly delicious Icelandic butter, but they have disappeared quickly, these brown saucers of American patriotism. I know these cookies are one of those things that American expats often moan about not being able to make properly in their foreign lands, but I am happy to say that Iceland comes out top in this category. Excellent chocolate, rich brown sugar, and some of the best butter in the world combines to make the American super-cookie up here. These will not last long.

Now that I've given into fall and stopped bemoaning the loss of endless summer light, I'm remembering the delights in store ahead. I'm already busy making autumn berry bouquets in the bowls at home, flaming red bits of fall sitting on my living room table. I'm pulling out the woolies, buying Sangiovese instead of Chablis, cozying up to the feather duvet in my windswept bedroom (it's best to just leave the window open, no matter what the season). It's time to unearth my fantastic collection of tall boots, shake out the coats, air out the scarves, and prepare the bathing suits in earnest. Cold weather's also the best time for enjoying the steam room, the hot tub, and the sensory thrill of swimming in warm water while the winter swirls above. Yes, the darkness and the frigid weather are coming but the wind carries hidden thrills, the treats in store for those of us who are willing to wait until after the sun sets on summer.

31 August 2007

daily bread

This morning I was in the bakery near work, and got to thinking of how endearing these places are. There's the crowd of old guys in the corner that obviously meet every morning for a long gas over coffee, watching the traffic of people arriving and departing. There's the little box of toys in the corner for the kids (as with almost every shop and restaurant), the steady stream of construction guys with their paint-dabbed steel toe boots.

Bakeries here are fortunately more in the European facet of Iceland, not the American one, so they are plentiful and very much a part of the routine. They sell all kinds of breads, from the light and fluffy to the most weighty seed-loaded varieties (I love the type with flax seeds!) plus the more interesting sweet and gooey stuff, like the vínarbrauð, a complicated confection of pastry, with almond paste, frosting, and a sprinkling of nuts. I prefer the pecan variety which just focuses on pecans without all the frosting and chocolate and so forth.

Then we have snúður, the old standby, a yeasty swirl of dough, glazed and drooled with a choice of frostings. I prefer the caramel one, but they come in chocolate or a mysterious pink one. These can be consumed all by yourself but I prefer when they're shared. These are nearly as big as my head so a quarter is plenty for me!

One thing you will not see is muffins though. Muffins have not established much of a beachhead here in this country, so it's going to have to be scones, crumpets, or something else borrowed from another land to the east of us. Sure, Iceland does have its unborrowed baked goods traditions, but they tend to be pretty simple, such as the soðbrauð, basically a fried bread studded with caraway seeds, or the holiday-essential laufabrauð. This one's kind of a fatty cracker made with fancy cutwork patterns. It's pretty evident that centuries of shortages didn't make for much ability for super creative pastry inventions. Still, I'm quite pleased that Icelanders were so willing to borrow the best of other lands and make them so freely here.

The only caveat is that the morning service can be astoundingly slow. Perhaps it's the early hour, maybe it's just the way bakeries work, but this morning I watched one woman buy half the store, including stacks of sandwich toppings (these boxes of "shrimp salad" and and "potato salad" almost require a post themselves), about a dozen loaves of bread (all having to be sliced, of course), five liter-boxes of juice, and when I left she was still adding on cakes and pastries. The other guy in front of me had a good 10 minutes to ponder his order thanks to miss buying-for-half-the-Icelandic-population but when he got to the counter he was all "bara... bara.... sko... bara..hérna" (just.. just... so...just..here). I have to confess that my American give-me-fast-service! kicked in and I was left shifting about impatiently while he decided that what he really needed was two croissants. Yep, borrowing from France too.

22 August 2007

airport whiplash

Back in KEF again, en route to Oslo. As far as airports go though, it's a pretty nice one to hang out at, thanks to the free wifi and clean n' shiny just-updated looks. With a sandwich from Kaffitár in hand and a Víking at my side, all's right in the world. It may seem like a rather tiresome life what with all this airporting, but I'm the sort of person who loves taking off, seeing places from above (always the window seat for me), having a chat with someone I'd never be next to otherwise (like the 12 year old girl next to me en route to Boston. G'ahead, ask me about what's the most for middle schoolers in Rhode Island), and always, the vivacity of a new city. I keep wondering if it's going to wear off and I'm going to be all "not again!" when I am packed off for the umpteenth time. I think if it were Cleveland I was going to all the time instead of a new country it might not be so interesting, and if the airport wasn't so shiny and scandi-mod it might be a different story.

I also had a nice long chat with my taxi driver on the 45 minute drive here. I love talking to cab drivers- they're almost always of a certain age that brings slower enunciation and lots of jájá-ing. Perfect for polishing the Icelandic, and since the conversations almost always start out the same ("hvaðan ertu?"), I sound way better at the language than I should.

It's kind of a requirement to talk to the cab drivers here, since the norm is to sit in the front if it's just you. The cab I took this time was so certain of this seating arrangement that both front seats had been pushed back as far as possible, leaving only a briefcase-wide space as "legroom".

Cabs are often Mercedes if you get the small ones, shiny on the outside and polished clean inside, never smelling of a strawberry tree-shaped air fresheners. It sort of feels like your granddad is driving you, what with the polite chit-chat with a grandpappy-aged man, the sitting in the front, the nicely tended car, and the minimal extras to indicate it's a cab (just that Euro-look tiny "Taxi" sign on the roof and a small fare meter). I'm hoping grandpa wouldn't charge you a hundred bucks to go to the airport like they do here though, but at least there's no tip to negotiate.

20 August 2007

continental divide

Back at work again, on too little sleep and with suitcases still standing stuffed in the hallway. I landed last night in a crisply clear light, dark enough for stars yet with enough peachy horizon glow to silhouette Snæfellsjökull. Welcome back indeed.

The coming back this time was harder than last trip to the States, and it's taken until lunchtime to feel like I am here again, even without the jetlag factor. It's been a week of familiar in a way that Iceland will never be, mixed with the newness of rapidly growing nephews.

I spent the week on Martha's Vineyard, where my family has been going every year for over twenty years. The house there is one of my earliest memories, built on a scale and fancifulness that that suits children perfectly- windows low to the ground, gingerbread trim, and a little bedroom painted in an unsensible shade of bright yellow. It's set in a specially American summer place, a neighborhood of 300+ original Victorian summerhouses, trimmed in wooden lace in bright colors and skirted by porches, standing elbow-to-elbow on barely drivable roads amid a swath of ancient oak trees. In August there are all sorts of activities- agricultural fairs, fireworks displays over the wide oceanside park, lots of oom-pah band concerts, plenty of ice cream and sand in your hair, sunburned shoulders, parties on the porch, and an evening where all the little houses are decorated in Japanese lanterns and parasols.

Combine this with lovely New England seaside weather and it's not hard to see why it was hard to leave. In my many hours of transit though, I kept thinking of what my friend C said when we caught up at the Boston classic Oak Bar last week. She's back in Boston after a year in Paris, and my exclamations over prices and the ease of communicating in your native language were both familiar to her. However, after two weeks, the price delight wore off, and she started tuning into Portuguese radio stations as a way to recapture that perennial out-of-the-loop feeling that comes from being adrift in a new language. I remember doing this myself, back before I heard handfuls of languages as a regular tune to my life and travels.

Writing so often about living here has made me hyper aware of the feelings of familiarity and belonging, or the alien and new- which are comforting, when it's stifling, how much is enough of one or the other. Maybe it's also the lowness of a gray Icelandic day, the sudden solitude of my apartment after days in a small house with lots of people, or how it feels when the flight attendant says "velkomin heim" at touchdown in Keflavík. Is there ever a perfect balance?

09 August 2007

eggs before leaving

I have realized that it's become a bit of a tradition for me to have scrambled eggs for lunch on the days I have afternoon flights. It's the perfect air travel meal, since it sticks with you for a good long time, and better yet, is a great excuse for using up that last rind of cheese, the one forlorn tomato, the remains of the spinach leaves. It's becoming the flavor of anticipation, these pre-boarding eggs.

And now, so that nobody misses Iceland too much, a few views of Classic Iceland, including peculiar water colors, lonely mountain-ringed churches, rock-stack cities in the middle of nowhere, and statues that watch over travelers.

08 August 2007

the great Assembly

Last year I missed the family assemblage while in Holland, and I swore it wasn't gonna happen to me again this year, so to Massachusetts go I. As is usual with the expat life, visits to The Homeland involve lots of scheduling, much conferencing beforehand, a lot of "what's your plan for _insert date_". It's also the Time for Stocking Up, so thank you USD for being in a particularly fortunate position for Those from Iceland (all twelve of us). Of course, others here have put in requests for cheap stuff so I will return with an assortment of products that people here are wanting (crocs for the boss's kids anyone?).

And going the other way, my parents have managed to become great enough fans of Iceland that my mom has not once, but twice requested baggies of that dried fish-jerky specialty, harðfiskur. The rest of the space will be jammed with wooly things, chocolatey things, and licouricey things. Fun times ahead as I descend on the customs dudes at Logan with a bag smelling suspiciously of a stale tidal pool.

02 August 2007

Summertime slowdown

Well, just as promised, summer in Iceland has brought about an almost complete change in the office atmosphere. Unlike the US, this time of year is holy and for Not Working, so although there are people in the office, the most busy looking thing is the table fan oscillating gently, ruffling the paper stacks on the empty desks. People will take 3-4 weeks off, traveling a little, and often just hanging out at home. The REAL vacation feeling doesn't properly begin until the second week of being away from the office anyway, everyone says here. There are plenty of package trips to sunny places in Spain, Portugal, and the Canary Islands, but many people will do that and then spend a week of fixing the summer house and hanging out at home on one end.

Outside the office, the mania generated by the summery weather continues. I had visitors in my house most of July, and the weekends and the non-work hours have been full of excursions, trips to the pool, or just sitting around outside, anywhere that's not in the shade. The country is sun-drunk, lying in all sorts of odd places just to catch a ray or three to store up for the long winter ahead. I've seen people sprawled against the warm stones of a building foundation, lying on the unused steps of the old Landspítali building, their lab coats hanging from the door handles. Any chance to toast your shins to a crisp.

On the days when rain clouds sweep across the city, I stay inside and weave, watching the tourists traipse up the hill below the window, shrouded in slickers and hoods. The bouclé I'm working with slides off the shuttle too quickly, the rattling of the bobbin mirroring the clatter of rain on the window, but soon enough the tangles are smoothed out and the project comes off the loom. I put another warp on to weave some more, measuring out the rainy afternoons in weft picks.

20 July 2007

eating locally

One of the things I get asked about oftenish is the quality of the food here. Yes, it is expensive, and choices are limited, but that doesn't mean you can't eat well and still stay close to the land. This is something A has thought about quite a bit, so while she was around, we got to talking about it, and thinking about the localness of the meals we were cooking. It's hard to go 100%, but it's actually quite easy to have a pretty good time with mostly locally produced food.

One dinner we made was so good we spent the evening congratulating ourselves on our better-than-restaurant flavors, and then had to have it again a few days later. The menu was:

Main course:
  • Icelandic lobster (Vestmannaeyjar)
  • with butter (Selfoss)
  • and garlic (not local)
we saved the shells from the lobster and made a lobster stock, adding more Icelandic butter and some local carrots for a delectable summer soup.

  • tomatoes (Hveragerði)
  • cucumber (Laugarás)
  • red pepper (somewhere over the hill as well)
  • spiced feta (Búðardalur, although the oil & seasoning was not from Iceland)
  • lemon (also not local)
Garlic bread:
  • Bread baked in Reykjavík from flour ground about a mile away (imported wheat)
  • Italian cheese (some things aren't the same unless they're the Real Deal)
  • Butter (again, Selfoss)
  • Garlic (again, from Far Away)
  • Basil (from my own windowsill)
It can be frustrating that still so many of the things we buy and eat here come from overseas, but at least when you're eating Icelandic produce, it is a very local experience. I can see the chicken farms where my eggs come from practically from my kitchen window, I have probably passed a cow or three in my time here that has produced the dairy I consume, and I have been through most of the towns producing the vegetables I eat from here. The ships that catch the fish and lobster are a part of the daily landscape of life here, and the processes they go through are very close to the surface. I know some of the farmers, the fishermen, and the millers that are all contributing.

However, there are still some things that are just Not The Same when compared to where I am from. It's impossible to get a decent apple here, not to mention strawberries that haven't come in from Holland on their little bubble-pack mattress, and sweet corn! How I miss the sweet corn of a late New England summer. On the positive side though, I had the first of the season's local blueberries last night, picked straight from a bush in Hvalfjörður, and mixed with that wild-hillside flavor of krækiber.

16 July 2007

all over again

My friend A from the US has been visiting this past week, and on her first weekend, we went up to Snæfellsnes and stayed in Hellnar at the fantastically situated hotel there. It's not big, and is obviously more popular with the locals (I'd say I heard about 90% Icelandic in the mornings), but when you're eating breakfast with the view of the whole peninsula spread out in front of you, you can understand why.

We borrowed a car (thanks K & S!) and toured the area at the most leisurely pace I've ever explored, watching birds on the cliffs, stacking pebbles at Djúpalónssandur, surprising sheep at the tippy-tip of the peninsula, visiting horses and wandering along the lava cliff pathway between Hellnar and Arnarstapi.

I rediscovered the secret hot spring I'd been to years ago, and we watched the midnight sun splash across the mountains while tucked in the bathwater-perfect pool. The next day we spent half the day lazing on the yellow sand beach, watching the volcano gathering clouds to its peak at regular intervals. That beach is so marvelous- it's in a lovely location, with the soft sand clustered between the lava cliffs, but so still and unpopulated that I could hear the busy flight of every individual fly as it hurried over my head between grass tufts.

We also hiked across the lava at Búðir, to the caves there, inspecting the hundreds of tiny plants that give such life to these lava expanses- forget-me-nots, wild purple geraniums, herds of buttercups, columbines, poppies, and arctic birch.

A is really into birds, so I learned all about the types that live and nest here. It's baby bird season now, so the seas were full of little bobbing fluff-bits, baby eider ducks feeding on the reedy seaweed at the shore edge. The arctic terns are also in full swirl, so driving on the northern end of Snæfellsnes was full of terns in the turns ("those are the bachelors", said S).

Since the first weekend, the weather has continued the freakishly unicelandic streak, and the only disagreeable thing about it is that it brings the flies. We were at Þingvellir a few nights ago in a haze of midges (thanks H for the evening tour!). Still, the lake was lovely as always, and the flowers are obviously enjoying all the heat. We finished the ring around the lake as the sun dropped behind the mountains, and returned to Reykjavík among the swirls of fog that had developed in the low-lying areas.

Having her around has made me do some of the things I have always meant to do, like visit the Landsbókasafn on Hverfisgata where some of the oldest books in Iceland are on display in a lovely turn-of-the-century building that's all marble floors and droll door handles. We also spent an afternoon walking in the botanical gardens, and sipping coffee in the little café there. It's cottonwood season now, so the white seed parts have covered whole sections of lawn and built up in piles that look like fairy snow- slow drifting, and even packable like a snowball that oozes moisture when squeezed hard. When we were in the gardens, the plants were almost all in bloom and had also captured the cottonwood fluff, frosting branches and blossoms in a thin halo of white filaments.

This is my second July here, and I'm amazed at everything I have managed to miss the first time around. Perhaps it's the weather this year being consistently, suspiciously sunny, perhaps it was something else. At any rate, it's continuing to be one of the best places to spend a summer.

02 July 2007

a chacun son paradis

Saturday continued the glorious weather theme from last week, so I headed out to Snæfellsnes with K, the Danish vistors M and J & L, the Italian nephew. Unlike when I went in January, the hillsides now were bursting with green, the fields spotted with baby horses & sheep. It was a great day for mowing, so tractors spiraled alongside the road, and the scent of grass rose from the neat strips of drying hay as we drove out.

First stop, the yellow beach at Búðir. After nearly 2 years in Iceland, I've gotten used to beaches being black. It's how the world works here, so this one looking so much like the New England quartz sand shores seemed out of place. When I got a closer look though, things were back to Iceland-usual. The shimmering shiny "sand" was actually tiny particles of cream shells, crushed so fine they resembled sand, and mixed with just a peppery touch of lava black.

I could not imagine a more spectacular setting for a beach, tucked between black lava turrets, below mountains still spotted with snow, sprinkled with tiny flowers, and surrounded by the crystal-clear rich teal water. Happily, the area was also quite unspoiled by interfering constructions, so the only visible architecture was the scenically placed little church.

We still had more things to see though, so we headed back to the car, through the fluffy horsetail, the cool grass speckled with buttercups, the waving lupines. On the road for a little longer, K dropped all the visitors off with me as the guide, to walk from Árnarstapi to Hellnar along the hillock-y cliffs. The path hugs the coastline for the first part, offering views to the lava-sculpture western edge of the island, and to the right, glimpses of Snæfellsjökull, hugging clouds to its upper crest. A little further, the lava closes off the sea, and it's just you and all the miniature Arctic flowers growing in the stone cracks. On Saturday they were at their most splendid, a mix of buttercups and columbines, and dozens of other small-scale plants, including wild thyme. The scent of the last one mixed with all the sea flavors coming from over the cliff, a rich combination I gulped deeply in hopes of storing it for wintertime memories.

When we came to the rocky Hellnar shore, we walked through a wedding celebration in full swing- kids romping in the grass, adults dozing on the hillsides, and two grills busily prepping lamb. After a Kaldi and cake stop in the delectable café there, we continued on to Djúpalónssandur. Although I've been to these beaches at the end of Snæfellsnes many times by now, I still ended up leaving with pockets full of the smooth pebbles, looking more like candies than something washed up and tumbled by the surf.

By then, it was getting to suppertime, so we clambered back in the car and rounded the end of the peninsula, destination Grundarfjörður. Here, down by the sea, is an unassuming restaurant, still wearing stained-glass Christmas wreath decor in the window. The inside is jammed with what looks like everyone's leftover house decorations, homegrown paintings, and a dizzying variety of lighting from a multicolored glass chandelier to vintage wall sconces. The tables were covered in white crochet tablecloths, and in the ladies room, someone had handpainted two Italian cherubs on the wall next to the sink. Truly a homemade restaurant. The food was a simple, plentiful, and insanely inexpensive all-you-can-eat buffet- the traditional kjötsúpa, lamb, two kinds of fish, sauces, fries, potatoes, and salad.

The proprietor is a former policeman, an endearing older gentleman who told us all to be "dugleg að borða" (diligent eaters), and with food this good, it was not a problem. The kjötsúpa was the best I'd tasted anywhere in the country, and after a day at the beach, the buffet style was appreciated by all. After we'd all enjoyed several helpings, we were offered schnapps ("to wash down the flavor of all this terrible food"), coffee, and exhortations to sign the guestbook. K was sent with greetings for her whole family back in Reykjavík (her ancestors are from the area), and an offer for a bottle of cognac, "just for the back seat to sip on during the ride back".

We left the restaurant in approaching gloom, with the sun hiding behind the imposing shape of Kirkjufell, and the clouds rolling in overhead. After such a glorious day, a slightly more subdued lighting was the right kind atmosphere for the trip back, and when we finally reached Borgarnes, there was one last flash of orange before we all turned our eyes Reykjavíkwards, roadsore from all the driving but full of fish and glorious memories.

30 June 2007

no other place

Yesterday was a new kind of Iceland I've hardly seen, the Hot Weather Iceland. I left work a bit early to pick up my branspankin new visa, and on my way home my jeans actually started to feel uncomfortably hot, a rare experience here. So I changed into a short sleeved dress to head down for groceries, although all the reports of the temperature said it was just around 60f.

This Friday afternoon Laugavegur brought to mind Newbury Street in Boston on any sunny weekend. Everyone had pulled out their best Hot Weather gear, since who knows if this is your last chance for the year. Cafe patios were all jammed to full capacity and beyond, and every patch of grass and garden was cluttered with chairs and squirt-gun toting kids.

Tourist influx has hit hard, and also served to remind me that it wasn't really that hot, since there were plenty of windbreakers, mackintoshes, and fleeces. This is summer as it should be though- never hot enough that shorts are the obvious choice, always a smidgen (or more) of crisp breeze, and the endless light that makes it seem that you've got all the time in the world.

Everyone living here scrambles madly to take advantage of these short months of spectacular awesomeness, and the weekends are crowded with barbecues, road trips, rafting expeditions, camping, hiking, and plenty of time at the pool. It's pretty easy to find all kinds great things to do here with this much amazing landscape so close.

Even just in Reykjavík it's easy to love the land. Yesterday evening I went for a rollerblade down round the airport and by the geothermal beach at Nauthólsvík. The air was blooming with the scent of wild roses, and on the imported-from-somewhere yellow sand, people played volleyball and did all the usual things one does at the beach. Odd looking here.

Returning from the airport circuit, I continued along the edge of Fossvogur, skirting the bottom of Öskuhlíð. Here the lupines have taken hold fiercely, and although they are an invasive species, it's hard not to feel a surge of glee when sailing through a craze of purple all spotted in yellow buttercups, a sea breeze tickling your back. In summer there is really no other place quite like Iceland, especially after having seen it through the winter months. It's been hard for me to sleep, so much do I not want to miss all the amazing light, the stupendous midnight skies, the scents of sea, growing things, and lava.

26 June 2007

urban renewal

Laugavegur is a street of constant change. There's a whole building halfway down that's in the process of disappearing. Chunk after chunk is being carted away to who-knows-where, making way for something that's probably the usual barren New Building they do so well here, with the same generic doorhandles, and same generic metal balconies.

Things in other parts are better off though, with all kinds of new and interesting shops constantly opening in the cute old buildings along the street, leaving an empty space repopulated almost instantly. Iceland's gone so spiffy that Reykjavík was even featured on a page the New York Times magazine. We've assembled enough Designers with Long Foreign Names to make note with the style crowd, apparently. We've even got stores where you can buy very very expensive soaps in whimsical boxes. Movin' on up, we are.

With only a small shopping/café area, Reykjavík is a town that keeps pretty busy. Shops will close, only to be replaced weeks or even days later by a new place. Some expand to the next storefront, others will move across the street and have their old location snapped up and immediately transformed. Weekly evaluations are required to keep track of what changes are brewing on Laugavegur, and any little modification anywhere is the stuff of note.

In the midst of all this riotous change though, there is one place that remains comfortingly, mysteriously the same. Just past where Skólavörðustígur breaks off and marches up the hill, there's a little storefront on Laugavegur. Two or three steps rise to a door opening into a shop that's only slightly wider than it, adorned with a red sign. The Reykjavik Bagel House. It's been shuttered and dusty since I arrived, seemingly impervious to the flurry that goes on at all sides around it.

Is it just because Iceland has not taken to bagels? What has caused this one storefront to be so forgotten by the maelstrom of urban renewal? They tried bagels down the street a few blocks, which closed for a bit and then refashioned itself as a pizza place, one food Icelanders never seem to tire of. Whatever the reason, I now watch this lonely bagel place every time I pass, wondering when it too will cave in and become something new and trendy. I'm still hoping for bagels again, because now after all this bageltalk, I'm really yearning for one, all properly done up with the tomato slices, the sprouts, the salmon. Make it a garlic one please!

24 June 2007

Ísland, ég elska þig

I returned home on Friday after a week in Norway. As we flew over the eastern coastline, I caught a glimpse of Jökulsárlón, the magical sea-glacier-lagoon-ocean place to the east, then the landscape below opened across the glaciers and rivers and the emptiness of this vast land. Not bad. I got home to find all kinds of delicious post had arrived, and the wonderfully thoughtful package delivery technique they've got going here. Rather than trying to drop the boxes off during the day, the post truck comes round in the evenings when people are home, so you actually have a chance of receiving it. Clever stuff, that.
And then on Saturday, I'm walking to the pool when the Baggalútur song I talked about a few months ago came up on the shuffle, and I thought, "yes, indeed, Ísland, ég elska þig". These days it feels like there ought be no other place than this, with the columbines and buttercups twining round the front steps, the lilac-looking flower things (so poetic, no?) bursting over walls and crowding the sidewalk. Iceland is truly, fully idyllic now, all jammed with touristpeople staring skywards at sunset, lined up Easter-Island style along the bay.
I mowed the lawn today, and as spiraled in, inhaling the scent of trimmed grass and the little herbs growing between the blades, I felt all penny-lane in the little yard, ducking under the clothes lines where I dry my sheets. I'm sure some of my joy is that I got my visa renewal acceptance letter in the post on Friday, and I'm legal for more than another year. It's not unexpected but somehow the little "hey, stick around" gives me that extra boost that makes even mowing the lawn seem superfun.
By now this going-away-makes-Iceland-love-bloom is a bit of a tired theme, but it is really remarkable how thoroughly the enchantment returns every time. I like Norway- I love the trains with the ski racks in them, the sneakpeek at warm weather and the chance at bare legs. I love the new diversity of people on the street, and the lushness of a poperly forested countryside. It's great to feast on culinary diversity for a week, but Iceland right now is at its most lovely and I don't want to miss any of it!

Oh, and before I forget, for you Baggalútur fans, they've got another unpublished song available for a listen on their website.

15 June 2007

get to work!

Well, it's summer in Iceland again, which means that we've got a few months where things actually bloom, grass grows for real, and utilities that huddled through the soggy, windy winter needs to be tidied up. Reykjavík's got a handy solution for this, involving all those high school kids for whom the emptiness of summertime stretches long. They're grouped into work teams, and are out planting flowers at the roundabouts, trimming grass, weeding gardens, wheelbarrowing sod hither and thither, and a few days ago there was a line of them painting telephone poles along the highway. It's a pretty sweet arrangement- the parents have something to keep the kids busy, the kids learn The Value of Money and make some friends, and the city gets landscaping.

12 June 2007

party of one

Yesterday I had to call my Icelandic credit card company to sort out an incorrect charge, only to find that the person who deals with this type of issue was not there. I started the make-a-mental-note process so I'd remember to call the next day when the lady on the other end of the line said, "I'll just tell her to give you a call when she gets in, shall I? Your number is xxx-xxxx, right?"

This morning, just as promised, the woman I needed gave me a ring, so early that I was still asleep. She apologised and said she'd just call me later, not to worry. After my experiences in the US with these kinds of things requiring endless hours of crappy on-hold music, "oh, you're talking to the wrong department, let me transfer you" meanderings, and more recorded voices and press-a-button menus that never have the option you want, it's almost fun to call a bank here, even when involving a matter that will result in the company losing money. Yesterday it was no voicemail jail, just a cheery morning call from just the person I need to talk to. The small size of this place does have its advantages!

08 June 2007


Part one is here
We held our concert on Saturday evening, and as I stood singing in the middle of the steps, I realized that this church is one of the few I have ever been in that have proper views-to-the-outside windows, rather than stained glass that preserves this separation in the Holy Building. As we sang, I watched the water, the mountains, and the ships leaving the harbor from the trio of pointed windows opposite.

When we were done, the Húsavík choir came up and performed, its whole soprano and alto section sporting the exact same sensible-lady-of-a-certain-age haircut. Is there only one hairdresser in town, and is she only trained in one haircut? When the singing was done, we all shared a solemn shot of whiskey, priest included, and then we were free of obligation until the next day.

After dinner, some of us tried to go to the one bar in town, only to discover it was locked up tight, to the contrary of its posted hours. Turns out it was closed for the Big Event that night, the sveitaball in the sports house. These events are apparently quite common in smaller villages all over Iceland, translated roughly as "country ball", an all-ages party with live music. In this case, it was the superspecial one in honor of the holiday in celebration of sailors. Sjómannadagur is huge here, given the seafaring history of the land, and it was evident at this ball. The sports hall had been fully tricked out in woolen mittens, netting, net floats, boat parts, and mannequins dressed in foul-weather gear. Nothing says "celebrate" quite like a sou'wester on a plastic figure.

However, literally EVERYONE had turned out for the event- the priest, the leathery 80 year-old sailors with their faded tattoos, the young crop of sailors, farmers from all over. The clothes reflected all levels of enthusiasm too, from jeans all the way up to one woman sporting a fuchsia ball gown and tiara. The vibe was kind of like a wedding without the bride and groom- everyone dancing as they pleased, and clusters talking animatedly along long white tables. In the bathrooms (the sports locker rooms) women gossiped, fixed their makeup, and in the hallways, the guys who'd reached trúnó stage of inebriation slapped each other on the backs and expressed their love and respect for each other. I had some strange and random conversations with people, such as the one with a kid who offered ...amorous attentions and then when I refused, he offered me a job in a slaughterhouse in Húsavík ("but it's a great job!"). Hard to resist such local charm.

The band playing was Greifarnir, a group that'd hit it big here in the 80s and was originally from Húsavík. The songs were all the kind that everyone knows and can sing along to here, a catchy sound that kept people dancing late into the sunny night. I finally packed it in at about 2:30, and walked home in the silence of a town that's all busy dancing somewhere else.

The next morning I woke up in time to go to the pool in the crystal-perfect day. It was a workable country pool with two huge hot tubs, but a sadly crowded lap area. Still, I packed in a few laps and then lounged, reading the ads on the wall ("hot dogs! Best straight from the hot tub") and watching the kids on the slide. The weather was once again the kind that made it hard to believe I was in Iceland with all the sun, the green, the warmth, the bright dandelions crowding the hillsides.

On the way back from the pool, I went to a little craft shop downtown, housed in the oldest building in Húsavík. The small, huddled building was stuffed with felted things, knitted things, painted things, all created by people in the area. These shops are all over the place in this country and they're always worth a visit. Duty called though, so I headed back to the guesthouse to change for the service. So the choir assembled and we went back to the church where we all sang up in the loft, crowded around the organ that breathed and gasped like a living being next to me.

And finally, time for coffee, since this was not only Sjómannadagur but also the church's anniversary celebrations. So off we all went to the one hotel in town that had a sizable ballroom, stuffed with as many tables as it could hold for the afternoon, all set with coffee cups and paper napkins monogrammed with a little picture of the church. On both ends of the room were enormous buffets drowning in goodies, and with the exception of the marzipan-covered cakes, entirely homemade. The whole community must have been baking for a week to pull that off- all the food I'd seen at the birthday party a few months ago, but entirely homemade. Cookies that melted with deliciousness, kleinur that had been freshly fried and were delectably crispy. We all ate ourselves delirious before we had to pack up and stuff ourselves back in the vehicles and hit the road again.

The clouds closed around us once more as we returned to Reykjavík, and I learned that we had happily escaped what had been a stormy and soggy weekend in the south. Just like the first time I was in Vík (a famously wet place), I learned that we had gotten lucky with this northern trip, and that Húsavík had put on all its charms to ensure that it got special billing as one of my new favorite places in Iceland.

05 June 2007

.... og langt til Húsavíkur

Over the weekend I was up in the north in the mid-sized (for Iceland) village of Húsavík, where my choir went to help with the 100th anniversary celebrations of the adorable church there. We drove up in various cars on Friday, enjoying the gradual improvement in the weather as we headed north, from gale-force winds and rain in Reykjavík, to the mild and summery beauty of Akureyri. The lambs and foals are all out now, so the greening fields were sprinkled with lambs doing their knock-kneed leaping as we drove by.

After stopping at the usual suspects (Borgarnes, where everyone ran into someone they knew, Blönduós, Akureyri for the Vínbúð), we arrived in Húsavík by about 7:30, and set up shop in the guesthouse the choir had taken over. The photos in the breakfast room showed it had once been the Hotel Húsavík when it was built in 1903, and the third-floor room I stayed in had a sweeping view of the town's location on the bay and the mountains opposite. The weather was so astoundingly good that I shed my jeans for a skirt, and wearing sandals, I meandered along the stream nearby that surged down towards the sea. It was lined with old houses, trees in full leaf, and in one spot, a dam had created a peaceful pond where ducks bobbed. Hard to believe this golden and idyllic spot was Iceland.

Afterwards, I joined the rest of the choir for rehearsal, and then when everyone else went back to sit on the porch and drink beer, a small group said "we´re going to the cheese tub!". Not really knowing whta I was up for, I joined the cheese-tub people. Apparently they didn't know what we were in for either, since we had to stop to ask for directions. The destination turned out to be up over the hill that shelters Húsavík from direct sea contact, where the buildings of town simply stop (as they do in so many of the villages here), and the open moor stretches to the water.

We pulled up at the only construction in the area, a shipping container situated next to an enormous galvanized tub, formerly used as part of the cheese-making process. Three other people, locals, were there too, so we changed and climbed in with our Coronas to enjoy the glorious view. We had arrived at sunset-time, and the sky was ablaze with the full force of summer sunset. Our only other company was the kría that flew overhead, their piercing calls the only sounds up there. This is Iceland at its best- beautiful clear weather of endless sun, remote locations, stunning views, almost nobody else around, and a cobbled-together hot tub from which to enjoy it all.

The next day was bus-tour time, so we all got aboard and went further along the northern coast and then inland to Europe's most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss. As waterfalls go, it was cool but not HOLY CRAP, although it is quite a lot of water. I think the reason I was less impressed is because it was so straightforward. Unlike many of the waterfalls here, there were no interesting stones in the middle that the water had to navigate around, no peculiar water color, no multiple levels or turns in the stream, just a LOT of water. Of course, waterfalls are waterfalls, and they're always impressive and cool. It's just not my absolute favorite (am I now a waterfall snob?).

On the return trip, we headed into Ásbyrgi, a massive horseshoe-shaped carving in the land that was created by a torrent of glacial water. The more mythical story is that Oðin's 8-hoofed flying horse left one hoofprint in the land there. Anyway, it's also odd because the toe of this canyon is an almost for-real forest, by Icelandic standards, with a flurry of 10-foot birch, rowan, and pine trees, currently in their early-spring fresh garb.

While the rest of the group headed to the pond at the very toe of the hoofprint, I took a detour into the trees, delighting in the birds, the tiny plants emerging in the undergrowth, the juniper smells, and the sound of the wind in the trees. Then I heard something else- the rest of the choir somewhere else in the canyon had started to sing, a lovely song that praises the landscape and majesty of Iceland- kind of the "America the beautiful" of this country. The acoustics were superb, and the way it filtered through the trees was almost movie soundtrack-like.

I scurried down to join them on the viewing platform in the pond, and as we finished up our impromptu concert, a busload of Dutch tourists emerged from the trees, applauding. They'd arrived about halfway in, and had been listening from the stairs. They sang their anthem, we all had a jolly laugh, and then we climbed back on the bus to go to the next stop, a beach laden with fossil shells.

This is an unusual situation for Iceland, since the landscape is almost entirely formed by volcanic activity, and the soil and cliffs are almost always lava-based. However, this location on the northern edge of Iceland is all brown dust, a sedimentary deposit that is loaded with layers of shells. They're fused in rocks sprinkled on the beach, and the cliffs above show horizontal seams of white. Some of the shells have even become houses for crystal, which have grown inside the shell and created quartz shell-shapes.

One group photo later, we were back on the bus and back to Húsavík in time to prep for the evening concert.