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.