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.