31 May 2007

finals week

So it's been a light posting period on the Harbor Watch, and here's part of why:

Back last fall I wrote about how living in Reykjavík feels like being on campus, and this has recently come up again, as the pace of work has frothed up to a finals-week style frenzy. Unlike the US working world that pretty much cranks out year-round, Iceland and our more eastern neighbors really chills out in the summer.

Which means that the last few weeks before the looming Summer Vacations begin is a crazed push to finish everything so it doesn't sit around for three months while that key guy you need takes his month-long holiday to the summerhouse over near Selfoss. It's also about the customer side, since the guys you'll need to talk to in Holland, Germany, or wherever, also happen to be gone, lazing in the Portuguese sun or whathaveyou.

I'm even writing reports that have the feeling of final papers, taking classes and summarizing them, and in one homage to college I even decided to finish one off in the middle of the night. It's not hard to do here when night doesn't really look like night, when the sun never sets and my whole apartment is still bright enough that extra lights aren't necessary.

Of course, just like those last few days of the semester always were at my east-coast school, the weather has been heart-breakingly glorious here recently, and ridiculously warm for Iceland. Makes you want to play hooky and "study" out on the lawn just like school time. It's kind of hard to do when I don't have any bio textbooks I can review, so instead I'm inside, admiring Snæfellsnes shimmering across the bay and thinking about that "final" I have in two weeks. Back to the books for me.

21 May 2007


In the last two weeks, the darkness at night has disappeared like a puddle of water on hot asphalt. Today is the first day totally without civil twilight, so the "night" hours are spent in a sunset glow of mystery. The below-the-horizon portion of the sun's circle is completed behind the mountains to the north of Reykjavík, making for heartbreakingly beautiful light in the wee hours.

This excess of light makes sleeping suddenly seem like it should be more optional. I don't want to miss one minute of this peachy lavender sky, the navy silhouette of Esja, the witching-hour spook that settles over the city. Of course, the usual indicators of hour that I grew up with are so hard-wired that the fact that it's still light out means I feel like it's not bedtime yet, and then I suddenly look at the clock and realize it's past midnight. In the mornings, I get a similar effect, waking up with a start of "I'm late" guilt after noting the blazing yellow glow in the room. A peek at the clock shows that it's 6am, not noon.

I would love to know the average amount of sleep the Icelandic nation gets in the summer versus the winter. Just like it's easy to sleep until 11 every weekend morning in December, in May and June, 6 seems like a sensible hour to wake up. Mornings actually spent sleeping in have the feeling of an afternoon nap, since by 10 the sun is already noon-high.

However, in spite of the light indicating all systems go for Summer in Iceland, the weather has its own plans. We spent the morning in a haze of blizzard-level snow squalls passing over us. As I think I mentioned before, the seasons in Iceland are reliably only light and dark. Don't expect the weather to comply with those crazy notions about summer being warmer and snow free here! The silly thing is that people still dress as if it's summer, working open-toed sandals on a weekend night out, leaving the big winter coats at home, forgetting the hats. I thought about this yesterday as I walked home in a spirited snowstorm, hatless, wearing my thin sneakers and cotton blazer. I'm as bad as the rest of them now, but somehow, the light does make you feel warmer, as does the sure-to-be-proven expectation that the storm will surely pass us over as quickly as it arrived.

20 May 2007

the creepy chat-up

I'm reporting live from swank downtown café that has a tendency to be frequented by Locally Famous Shiny People, that also happens to have a great internet connection. Perfect for polishing off that work report along with a dish of excellent lobster pasta and a glass of white. Makes the work go down easier.

However, I am finding myself far too distracted by the tableau to my right. Two blonde girls, the kind that create the famous reputation of Icelandic women- platinum blonde and not dressed like Americans. They're so perfectly groomed it's hard to tell if they're pretty or just glossy- intentional eyebrows, perfect matching smooth bobs, thin stiletto boots. This guy sitting with them is probably 30 years older, with shaggy artiste hair, calculated nerd-glasses, and oo, my favorite- jewelry! He's sporting an earring and a loong silver chain over his purple shirt and casual-man blazer.

They're speaking English- he's got some Brit-posh-foreignman accent and he's telling them how he's a producer and they should be doing a talk show together with their shiny matching hairdos. He's full of earnest stories of relationships, his sensitivity, and his amazing travels. He's taken a photo of them all squeezed together, and next I'm waiting for the business-card handout. I can't believe I'm seeing the producer-pickup at work. I didn't think it actually happened anymore, that people fell for it!

Maybe it's because I'm a foreigner, or maybe it's due to all the people that seem to be passing through this town, but I often find myself on the opposite end of this kind of conversation- the earnest somebody or other who's trying to impress with travels, titles, and touching feelings. Some are depressingly unshakeable, like the American guy who was so proud of living in Japan and how unique he was, some turn out to be interesting, most are just part of the texture of living in this little town with its island mentality, its fascination with people who are Not From Here.

*half-hour-later update* Turns out they are both hairdressers, and now he's pulled out the psychology testing about wandering in a field and finding strawberries. Somebody's read The Game!

14 May 2007

busy city

Now that the daylight has gone into overdrive, Reykjavík blooms with activities, people, and energy. I returned to Iceland just in time to experience the thrill of enormous French puppets traipsing through the streets of the city in a multi-day extravaganza that sprinkled itself all over the city. There are still pieces remaining, in the form of a city bus sliced half open with a knife, a car with a tree through it up near Hallgrímskirkja, another car impaled by a huge fork down by the sea, and various other cars that sustained peculiar damage from very large objects.

On Friday night, one puppet slept down by the harbor in an enormous bed. On my way to rehearsal on Saturday, I came across the other puppet asleep near the national museum, its chest heaving gently as it slept, fingers undulating slightly. On the way back from rehearsal, I joined the procession after it woke up, winding through the streets back to the harbor. These things were a marvel of engineering and human power- breathing, blinking, and walking, thanks to the airborne exertions of the dozens of puppeteers.

The troupe staging this performance, Royal de Luxe, has been putting on these large-scale theatrics for almost 30 years, but rarely abroad (says their French Wiki page), so we were particularly fortunate to witness it here. Reykjavík is a good scale for this kind of thing, since all the other elements were within easy walking distance. I hope they travel further to the west so the US can experience it, because it was one of the coolest public art performances I have seen. I loved the unexpected previews of all the mutilated cars, the enormous silverware, and the thoroughness of the younger puppet's movements (she showered! She licked lollipops!).

The weather has been agreeable of late as well. Perhaps not the warmest temperatures, but clear and golden. The cafes are at full hum, and the bike paths that interlace the city are clustered with people. This is Reykjavík at its most glorious, the time we all suffer through the gray days of January to be able to enjoy. And on that note, I'm heading out for yet another rollerblade along the topaz sea.

Norwegian exploration

I've been fortunate to have an almost native guide on this trip, in the form of co-worker M, a multilingual tourguiding phenomenon who quietly suggested various post-work activities that have resulted in sushi dinners with the trend-mongers of Oslo, a near-midnight "jog" past shady characters along the river, sneaking into a guests-only hotel bar with an incredible view, and on the last day, the tour de force, the creme de la creme, the piece de resistance, a bit of a car tour into the outskirts of town.

The afternoon was draped in gold that highlighted the electric blue of Oslofjord and the astounding sky, and made the new leaves and grass buzz with brightness. After taking a creative route that involved going past the royal cow herd, many rings through some charming neighborhoods, and a detour down someone's driveway, we followed a path down to a strip of beach that overlooked the final ship approach to Oslo. There's a little park/beach area there, with a separate section if you're inclined to take a swim clothing-free.

As with many of my recent trips, I hadn't done any reading beforehand to learn about the area, so it was a wonderful surprise to see the scale of the fjord with the woods clustered around, scented so much like the ones in Vermont- full of wood mint, dandelions, and violets. The fjord was speckled with sailboats, and the park was just full enough to be able to enjoy the peace but not be lonesomely staring out at the water by yourself. A crowd of bleached-blond boys all under 10 were racing around with flags and sticks along one side, and below the rocks, near the "OSLO" harbor sign, two women chatted while their dogs wrestled in the sand.

Next, we headed up the spiraling hill to Holmenkollen, the ski jump that's visible from all over Oslo, where M oriented me to the landmarks and locations of the area. After growing up in a skiing region in the States, this was an amazing paradise- an enormous sculpture of a former king skiing, the sounds of people practicing the shooting portion of biathalon, and special bridges over the road, just for skiers. As children, we'd heard that there was such a land where everybody skied, and now I have seen it.

We dined in the falling dusk at the top of the hill in an institution of a restaurant that's been around for about a hundred years. It even came complete with a maitre d'/waiter that would be on the short list if you were to cast one for a play with his round face, his perfectly crisp black-and-white outfit, and indeterminate age. In spite of the incredibly noisy Canadian sailor yapping on about his world adventures at the next table, we managed to enjoy the reindeer with red currant, the apple cake, and the mediocre coffee with the excellent presentation with the monogrammed silver coffee set. I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff, especially when served at 1400 feet above sea level, with a spectacular view. The stuffed squirrels on the mantel in the main dining room may have been a bit spooky, but it was easy to look the other way at the twin arms of the fjord.

Afterwards, we spiraled down the mountain and headed for the only microbrewery in Oslo, a short walk from the hotel. Even on a Wednesday, the place was crowded, and the beer went down smooth, although it did make me feel slightly disoriented- all the flavor of a Boston brewery, down to the vintage beer ads from American magazines, surrounded by the looping sounds of Norwegian.

My experience of Oslo was formed in the nicest possible way, with all the inside information, and yet with the twist of outsider, so we could share a look when one Norwegian said that we were all just speaking old Norwegian in Iceland and that he'd already learned the language in school. In general though, although it is an incredibly beautiful and orderly place, I found myself missing the slightly crazy temperament of Icelanders. There was something so unshakeable about the city, the people, the weather that was exactly the same from morning to evening that made me want a bit of howling in the ventilation and the general oddness that is the landscape here. Norway in some ways also felt like going back to Vermont- the rolling shape of the landscape just outside the airport, all laced with green fields and crops, the deep red of the barns, even some of the architecture and clapboard exteriors, plus the scent of springtime- lilacs, fresh grass, and herbs underfoot. It's a landscape that is very deeply rooted in me, so it was a comfort to see these things again in a new context.

07 May 2007

Touchdown Oslo

Am writing from the fair capitol of Norway where I will be for the next few days. I am not sure where the apostrophe is on the keyboard but everything else I have encountered is remarkably well organized. The airport is the tidiest I have seen (such beautifully parked planes and nary a spare luggage cart left lying out of kilter), and the train into the city center is the only one I have been on with its own in-trip magazines, safety cards, and TV monitor broadcasting the latest BBC headlines.
I arrived in the dark so I have not seen much yet but the abundance of wood has been immediately evident. The enormous arcing beams in the airport, the seats in the train, the lovely train platform supports we passed on the way in are all of palest wood. A nice change from stone-land where I live. Spring has also arrived here so on the walk from the train to hotel, the air was redolent with the scent of hyacinths and the dozens of frilly white tulips planted along the edge of the palace gardens, and the leaves above dripped with the drizzle that made the pavements gleam. This will be an interesting week!

02 May 2007


On Monday evening I went for a rollerblade by the sea, one of my favoritest things to do. I've been doing it since those summers in college out on Martha's Vineyard but it's a rare day here when the weather looks like it'll hold long enough to let me take a round-trip. Although it was cloudyish on Monday, it was the "right" kind of cloudy that didn't look too soggy, so I headed out at about 9:15 to the sea path that runs along the southern side of the bay here. The water had that magical springtime silverblue sheen, and the mountains hulked behind a veil of moisture opposite as I headed along the curve towards the outskirts of town.

I'd bladed a few times on the Seltjarnarnes side of things, but that's a different story with its direct ocean exposure. The full force of the sea and ripping Atlantic winds often sends the waves leaping meters over the sea wall where they happily take sections of pavement away and leave gravel and necklaces of kelp behind. On the bay side, the only evidence of sea-fury is the polished stones on one inlet, but everywhere else the path was perfect- smooth, kelp-free, and uncrowded.

Past Höfði, past the Strætó breeding grounds (the bus yard), past the weird seaward cluster of houses at Laugarnes, I found a new piece of Reykjavík. First I went the familiar route up past the Why-Kings graffiti wall, and when it became video-store gas-station land, I turned around, and followed the other fork in the path that went snaking through the lava.

I scared a gaggle of geese there who'd left behind a turd-slalom, and sailed down the dipping path and round the corner. This little area was silent enough to hear the tiny lapping waves and instead of city I was surrounded by the stuff of the wilds here- lava, moss, and sea, with all the islands of the harbor lying under their greening mist of spring. The stretch was short though, and I soon came out in the midst of Industrial Quarter Reykjavík, where the shipping companies have their offices, and stacks of building materials compete with parking lots.

Still, there's another dock down there that even has a tiny yellow sand beach next to it (this is rare and interesting here in this place of black lava sand) sheltered by an impressively craggy rock. I think this is where many of the larger cruise ships end up depositing their merry-makers, and in spite of the lovely view of Viðey opposite, I bet they're a bit disappointed when they step off into office-park superland, edged by parking lots and construction fences.

At that time of evening the parking lot was barren, so I sailed around it, doing double-pole stretches and sinuous swirls in the huge open space, and then headed home, back towards Hallgrímskirkja that dominates the short skyline here. The experience was enchanting enough that I went again yesterday in spite of the sure-to-dump-rain clouds. The wind had picked up since the day before, but I thanked my previous Atlantic seashore training and considered it an added cardio boost as I inhaled the leafy smells of springtime it brought. Thankfully, the wind was to my back as I went homewards, so the final stretch in the smattered rain was quick and I was soon home, tired, exhilarated, and loving the landscape here.

*Experiments in International Rollerblading