29 May 2008

yeah, I felt it

Apparently both the BBC and CNN thought our lil afternoon delight was newsworthy enough to report worldwide, so I figured I'd just mention to all my worried email-writers that yep, we felt it plenty well here in my office building, and a thing or two fell over, but otherwise nobody did a thing, and it's business as usual here in the capital area.

Reports from further east are still arriving so I still don't know the extent of what happened there, but the only picture Morgunblaðið has posted yet doesn't show much damage. Hopefully this is a properly representative photo and nothing horrible has happened.

This was not the first earthquake I've experienced here, but the one two years ago was only a 4.2, and the latest reports from the USGS have upgraded the one today to a 6.2.

23 May 2008

look, don't touch

This morning was so fragrant and gently sunny that I really had no choice but to do a morning swim. It was predictably good, full of honey-colored sunrays filtering through my outstretched fingers. On one side-breath to the left though, I noticed a cluster of people in the stands above the pool, their clothes marking them as a crowd of not-from-these-parts. They dutifully gathered around a tour guide who seemed to be explaining the magic of the Icelandic pool.

They stood there for probably about 20 minutes, during which I finished my laps and headed to the steam room. When I came out they were gone but another group was corralled in the roped-off corner near the former entrance to the pool. I heard that the first cruise ship of the season arrived yesterday, so I'm wondering if this is one of the new activities they're offering to ship visitors. Go, look at Icelandic People in their NATIVE HABITAT! Take photos of flowered bathing caps and early morning calisthenics!

I just don't understand why someone would want to just have a look at such a pool when for a few hundred krónur you could be sitting IN the pool. I hope this is not a summer trend, because no matter how comfortable one is in one's skin and bathing suit, it's a bit creepy to be stared at by a bunch of puffy-coat tourists with cameras.

22 May 2008

proof of presence

One thing that Icelanders absolutely love that has taken a bit of getting used to for me is the Signing of the Guestbook. Sure, there are guestbooks in the US, at weddings, at art openings, at other kinds of important receptions, but here they are at spots both large and small. In order to commemorate your presence there, it is essential to leave your name in the book, with or without comment. This happens in tiny summerhouses, this happens in mountain huts, this happens at the top of Esja.

It's not just an Icelandic thing though, it seems to be a habit of the northern countries. When I was in the wilderness of Norway I signed the guestbook at the top of the mountain when I skied, and when we were in Finland, we got the special permission to sign the Awesome guestbook at the home of the famous Finnish composer, Sibelius. The names of our Icelandic choir members were on the same pages as foreign dignitaries of all stripes, preserved for the next decades.

Is it because the populations are so small up here that people want to know where others have been, that the stamp of human presence is significant wherever you are? Is it in hopes that you will one day return to that same place and be able to find that record of years ago when you were at the same location once before, and remember all the time that spans between? Whatever the reason, I hope to sometime find my name again years from now in one of these books, sprinkled across the landscape.

21 May 2008

so, Helsinki

We returned from the days in Tallinn to the mayday celebrations in Helsinki, a town that had not impressed at first view but grew on me quickly in the subsequent days. It's a bit like if you exploded lower Manhattan into a whole city, and sprinkled it with many more parks and better sea access. The buildings are heavy on the teens to Deco, and the bricks haven't gotten the coal-infused hue of London, so the overall impression was a gently colorful one. The clothing aesthetic, made somewhat notorious by a longtime favorite website, hel-looks, reminds me of my artist-nerdy high school taken on citywide. In general, there's this impression that everyone's very busy FEELING lots of intense feelings, but since Finns are notoriously stoic, they can't talk about them. Instead, they invest all this intensity into assembling interesting outfits and designing things, and more things, and a few more things.

Once again, we stumbled upon the most glorious of weather, so our trips outside the city were alight with arcing blue skies and the neon green of freshly unfolded birch leaves. We went to the home of Sibelius, Finlands most famous composer. The wood frame house was set among a stand of birches, and all around the lawn had grown velvety and rich, a tempting place to take a sunbath. The visit was followed by a private concert of some of the composer's pieces, then a delectable lunch at a nearby restaurant. We returned drunk from sun and brightness, full of music.

But the best experience from the trip was actually nothing to do with the choir group, but rather my friend DTW, a Finn who'd come to Iceland as an exchange student, and started reading my blog before he came to get a taste of life here before he came. He came to the concert we had in the rock church in Helsinki, and then on Saturday evening, another day drenched in sun, he assembled all the proper goods for a picnic and we headed towards a park on the sea. The route we walked took us through prosperous and well-groomed neighborhoods of Deco homes, all painted in Klimt colors of sage green, aged rose, and palest coffee. At the park we settled in a glade that offered a glimpse of the sea, boats, and the people strolling slowly along the esplanade, and DTW unpacked the treats. He'd bought all sorts of his favorite cheeses, the squeaky kind, the spready kind, and bread and fruit to go with. I'd also found some early-season strawberries at a street stand, and with a bottle of organic white wine, we had all we needed for a proper talknhangout.

It was that time of year that is impossibly magical, when the green on the trees and lawns is so fresh it almost aches, so optimistic and eye-searingly bright, a color forgotten in the long months of winter. This park was exactly where I wanted to be that night, and it seemed as if everything conspired to make it just so- the just-busy-enough vibe, the scads of people sprinkled about drinking in the sun, even the peach-colored hot air balloons that materialized further along the shore and drifted over the city.

Of course, we're still talking about northern lands in spring, so when the sun dropped behind the Baltic, chill set in and was time to move on. We took the coastline route home, watching as the sky became lavender and then navy. A perfect evening.

16 May 2008

apparently it's hard-coded

Today I did my swim in the morning, and afterwards joined the crew in the steam room. If you're after 8:30 but not quite to noon, the crowd is notably vintage, so I was the only person under 80 in the whole place. So I'm sittin there enjoying the heat when the entire steam room population of about 12 people suddenly erupts into song. The voices were a bit quavery and only one dude ventured into the harmony line, but the zest and enjoyment was undeniable. I'd have joined in if I knew the songs, but they were some kind of traipsing-in-the-mountains tunes that I'd never heard before.

Their enthusiasm waned when they realized they didn't know very many verses, but it was obviously entertaining enough that later when I was in the salt pot, some others that hadn't been there wanted the full rundown of the day's steam-room singing program. Later on in the locker room I heard yet more talk of who'd been there and what they'd sung. I guess it's a regular thing!

The group singing phenomenon seems to be unique to only a few of these northern countries- I'm told it happens in the Faeroe Islands, and I've witnessed drunken Danes in Reykjavík going at it, but the Finns and the Norwegians barely speak above a whisper so singing seems to be out. What is it about these places that make people feel the need to sing when in a large enough group, even when no booze is involved? It's actually part of what made the choir trip so wonderfully (and I'll admit nerdily) fun. I've always loved singing, and when you're in a group that also loves to do it and can do it in several parts, what better way to say you're happy with the trip and happy with your companions than to stop and sing a song on the street? We sang overlooking Tallinn, we sang in a restaurant, we sang on the street, we sang on the ship as we sailed. It's just one of those things that everyone really ought to try sometime.

(apologies to those waiting to hear about Finland.. I couldn't resist writing about this!)

15 May 2008

final rewards

I've mentioned that in the deepest winter there's that time that happens here in the summer that makes it all worth it, and yesterday was one of those days. Since I returned from Oslo, the days were solidly and nearly unrelentingly all about the cloud, so yesterday when it was warm enough for t-shirts and with only the slightest of breeze, the entire Icelandic nation went outside. I arrived at choir practice early and spent the 15 minutes I had lying in the fresh grass outside the church, eyes squinted in the sun.

This is my fourth May here and it's just as magical as the first time, except now I know that the spicy scent in the air comes from the newly unfolded black cottonwood leaves, and the rich scent of the plants in shade reminds me of camping trips and hikes, bonfires and endless days of Icelandic summer. It all happens so quickly too- in the 2 weeks that I was away, Iceland went to the ordinary gray most-of-the-year look to blossoming with green and perfumed air, and night became eternal sunrise/sunset. The birds returned, leaving evidence on the top of my car every morning, but bringing songs that, in the still of early morning make it easy to forget I live almost in the center of town.

In spite of what I've written here that generally exudes positivity, my life in Iceland hasn't always been easy or overflowing with awesomeness. I miss family, I miss times of guilt-free native language speaking, I sometimes swear at the impossible weather, the ongoing paperwork that allows me to stay here, and the tiny size of the community can be claustrophobic. But when it all comes together there really is no better place. When I'm swimming in the sun and the timing is just so on each lap, the turns a smooth ripple of interruption with a view to my toes, when I'm learning a new song with this choir that's become so much a part of my experience here, finally able to laugh at the jokes and when the weekend's full of plans with friends, it all does seem worthwhile. I know nobody's life can be great all the time, but here the moments of down are more extreme, and the ups equally or more so. For one thing, the past three years certainly have not been boring.

(we will return to Finland in next post, I promise!)

07 May 2008

if it's Tuesday...

Returned to Iceland yesterday from Helsinki, and this morning I was yet again in the airport on my way to Oslo. When I grumbled about this to my wise friend J, he pointed out that you can't have the jet-setting without the jet, so off we go again.

The trip to Estonia and Finland was all the things a choir trip ought to be- lots of singing, so much that we got thrown out of a bar in Helsinki for singing in four-part harmony and got almost thrown out of a restaurant in Tallinn for singing about how great Iceland was to a partial audience of Norwegians. That singing when happy and/or drunk thing that Icelanders do so frequently is apparently Not Done in all these other places. A shame really, though, because the impromptu, fully blended singing was the best we did on the trip.

What to say about these places... Tallinn was enchanting but seems to be like many large cities former Soviet countries, where there's a lovely old walled portion, a strange wasteland beyond where something once was, and then many modern and impersonally shiny skyscrapers off to one side. Still, the medieval town is among the best preserved in the world, with the Easter-marshmallow colored buildings all leaning upon each other, plenty of cobblestones, and a snarl of tourist shops selling amber, linen, nesting dolls, and folk-knitted items.

I'd forgotten about the aesthetic of dress in these areas, the women for whom purple hair and maximum sparkle are the goals, who must break the heels on their stilettos with frightening regularity. I was actually puzzling over how they managed to maintain the impractical shoes in the heel-gobbling streets until I went past a cobbler. Inside the window were ranged a forest of heel shapes, in every height and slenderness. Must be a good business there.

After 3 days in Tallinn, the Icelanders were all pinkly sunburned from hours spent outside, soaking up sun and beer, wandering the dark passageways and twisted streets, and doing the crazy shopping thing that Icelanders always do when abroad. Estonia proved to be an unexpected surprise, and an excellent contrast to what came next, the Finland component of the trip.