25 December 2009

the mysterious pickle

As I mentioned in my last post, Germans are extremely enthusiastic about the Christmas traditions, and many of them have migrated to America. One that I'd heard of years ago and continues to crop up regularly is that of the Christmas tree pickle. These things are readily available in stores and online in the US, described as this charming German tradition. The story goes that this glass pickle is hidden somewhere on the tree, and the first child to find it gets a bonus gift.

Naturally, I mentioned this to my German hosts here, whereupon they all looked at me with total confusion. I described the story, the ornament, the rules, and that it's generally known in America to be something that they were supposed to be doing every year over here. None of them had heard of it.

Later that day, we were walking the streets of Nürnberg when we passed a shop window displaying ornaments. There, in the center of the window was a glass pickle. Proof it exists! As we wandered the Christmas market, I spotted a stand stocked with every possible type of blown glass ornament, including all kinds of vegetables (would you care for a glass garlic bulb on your tree?). They had pickles of several sizes, so S leaned into the stall's proprietor and asked what the deal was. She explained that it was an upper Franconian tradition, and since we here are some 100km away from that region, perhaps it had just not migrated far enough.

Today we had some visitors from further north, so I asked them about it too, and they also had never heard of it. A little research on the internet even mentions a connection to a town in the region where they're from and still, no recognition of the pickle story. I also found a comprehensively researched article that seems to indicate that it's a total fabrication, milking the enchantment Americans seem to have with Germany at this time of year.

Whatever the truth is behind the pickle tale, it's made for a bizarre yet entertaining theme for the holiday.

german holidays

Germans know how to do Christmas properly, from the gluhwein and the markets to the vast and ancient churches that host vesper services. The markets are a unique experience that no American replica I've visited has been able to reproduce faithfully. To start with, I've had the happy fortune to be able to visit one of the oldest and most famous of all the German markets, a festivity that consumes the whole center of the old city and spreads filaments in all directions. It's bursting with inventive handcrafts, magical gifts, the usual straw-star ornament stalls, and of course, anchoring the whole experience, acres of stalls hawking any type of spiced or chocolate-coated cookie or confection you could imagine- lebkuchen, stollen, chocolate-covered fruit, waffles topped with any one of six options, sausages, corn-on-the-cob, candied almonds, and of course, the gluhwein. It's not just wine here though- it's blueberry flavored, it's cherry flavor, it's even egg-liquor flavored. The best part is that it's not served in some thin paper cup that you toss when you're done, but in a proper china mug that you can keep or return for a refund. It's quite cozy to stand among friends and family in the chill, damp air (seems like this is how it always is here in December), the steaming mug in hand, watching the sparkle and bustle whir by on all sides. Even the most seasoned locals (my generous hosts included) appear to enjoy it as much as the newbies like me.

Once the market is closed, it's time for the church experiences. We had the choice of a handful of impressively majestic Medieval churches, but chose one of the most ancient for this evening. Winter services in Europe usually means wearing every stitch of clothing you came with since even the lucky ones with the heated seats will find it woefully inadequate warmth for the 2 hours among the anciently frigid stones that make up these Gothic buildings. The service was only an hour long but the good seats all started going about an hour before, so this evening, those arriving 10 minutes prior either stood or came equipped with their own deck chairs.

The service itself involved a lot of singing of a lot of songs I'd never heard before, even with my relatively extensive carol repertoire. Accompanied by an appropriately massive organ and a passel of trumpets playing in some hidden clerestory level, the experience was fittingly awesome for an evening such as this. As with last year though, my most favorite part was as everyone streamed out the great entrance doors to the joyously chaotic tune of church bells throughout the city ringing through the cobbled streets. Families in all directions were hugging and kissing and handshaking and throwing Christmas greetings to each other as they dispersed through the streets, wet with a sheen of fog, off to dinner and cozy evenings by candlelit trees.

18 November 2009

marshmallow lessons

I was one of the fortunate invitees to a rather spectacular dinner on Saturday night, at the now famous blue house. One of the temporary house residents A, a restaurant owner from Germany, had been in Iceland for the autumn lamb slaughter season, learning about where exactly the food's coming from. He'd also started producing a new lamb sausage, a perfect marriage between the texture and seasoning of the best dried German sausages and the smoky Icelandic lamb flavor. He' flew back to his restaurant a few days ago, so Saturday was his final hurrah of sorts.

On Saturday evening I walked to the Blue House in the velvety darkness, and as I neared the house the smell of delicious roasted things wafted down the street, carried by the snappy breeze pouring off the sea. Inside the house it was steamy and warm and full chatter as A put together the final touches on the appetizers. We sat down soon later, the sixteen of us crowded into the living room, friends and new additions alike.

To start, tender shrimp on bread with a homemade cocktail sauce that disappeared quickly from in front of this enthusiastic crowd, and then came the flavors I'd been smelling down the street. Roast pork, roasted cauliflower all toasted on the ends, herbed Bavarian-style dumplings poured over with sauce from the roasted meat, and a creamy thin-slice cucumber salad to offset the richness of the other flavors. Absolutely divine- decadent and infinitely edible, reminiscent of so many good times in Germany but done in a way that managed to be strangely light on the stomach. Of course we all ate too much but still managed space for the skyr tart that hid a treasure trove of booze-soaked cookies in the bottom. Even the Argentinian priest had to try some of that one.

And then, time for the after party even though we were all slightly comatose from the deliciousness. We pushed the tables aside and on came the SingStar, heavy on the German tunes since so large a proportion of the attendees were German. Nothing starts a party quite like disco-era Eurovision. Once everyone was warmed up enough we went outside to the grill-pit where a snappy fire had gotten started, over which we toasted marshmallows. The bag of marshmallows I'd bought were made by Haribo, and since apparently Europeans didn't grow up toasting marshmallows, the bag had printed a series of drawings to show how to do it. I had to explain to the assembled multitude how close to the fire to hold it, the proper brown-and-bubbly look to be going for, that a bit of steam is a good thing, that it's best when the thing starts to get misshapen, but beware of that hot sugar.

As we crowded around the fire, the massive darkness above us lit up with northern lights. They've been a rare sight this year so everyone marveled appropriately before turning back to the cozy light of the fire, the hiss of toasting sugar, and the friendliness that comes from a group of people from all over the world, somehow brought together on a gorgeous night on this strange rock of an island.

11 November 2009

not mourning the departure

After our first attempt to hail the departure of McDonalds failed, S was determined to try again, so we went again a few days later and braved the line for a final "góðborgari" for me and a McFish for him. As always, the food tasted exactly like the McDonalds in France or Canada or America (the only locations I've tried it) and came in the exact same packaging as always. Nothing special there except for the line snaking out the door and the trail of cars idling for the drive-through window.

The replacement joint opened only hours after McDonalds closed, so one week later we went to sample the new wares. For proper comparison purposes, I ordered the same thing on the menu as before, still called "góðborgari" (apparently the Icelandic names weren't copyrighted by McD's), still located in the same spot on the light-up menu, still without explanation of what it contained. The new joint doesn't have fish burgers so S had to go with something else, breaking the continuity.

In terms of décor, it seems that all they did was swap out the sign, and order a bunch of round brown stickers with the new logo that they slapped over all the spots where the golden arches were. Everything that was yellow and red before is now brown (brown shirts, brown writing, brownbrownbrown), but otherwise they're doing their best to replicate the feeling. As many of the names as they can are almost the same (McFlurry is now Flörri or something that sounds pretty much the same if you say it in Icelandic), and the burgers are still served in boxes like the McD's style, although I confess to being less than charmed by their graphic design. The boxes are covered in neon pink and blue squiggles with one of the new brown stickers slapped on top. Still, they're a domestically produced package so yay for that I suppose.

Foodwise, it's a mixed bag. The burger is undeniably that Icelandic flavor of patty, detectable upon first bite. The sauce was also pure Icelandic burger-sauce, the kind you can buy in squeezebottles at any quickieshop. The one positive change in the burger department is that the vegetables were recognizable as what they were- crisp real lettuce and a properly flavorsome tomato. Still, would I go out and pay for this in the rather inconvenient location when Búllan is so much closer and at least makes efforts at secret sauce? Probably not. I don't love burgers-in-boxes that much, and the fries weren't superlative in any way either.

I also tried a chocolate shake since I don't remember the last time I had one and that was so wretchedly non-chocolate flavored that I gave up after drinking about a quarter of it. So much for brand new excitement. I think I'll save up my kronurs and go somewhere that's got a worthwhile menu like Basil and Lime, where I went with a friend on Saturday. Go, get the lobster pasta and order extra bread to soak up that ridiculously decadent cream sauce. Don't bother with Metro unless you're going for the I-am-living-modern-history angle.

10 November 2009

two ways

Last Saturday I met one of the very few traffic engineers in Iceland, and we spent some time discussing how they're in the process of overhauling the timing of all the lights in town so that certain corridors have the "green wave" where you can hit greens all the way along. This was happy news, since only a few months ago I'd been having a conversation about how the number and timing of the lights in town can make geographically close places seem very far away. I'd actually done a mini-project just after that where I took a camera-phone picture of every red light I waited at over the course of a week's worth of commuting. I missed a few (my cameraphone is slow, I was of course focusing on driving, and sometimes they turned green only a second after I'd stopped), but it still shows the variety and frequency to some extent. You can see how the Búllan left-turn stop is a frequent appearance, but also how the view at some lights make it no hardship to wait. Still, I'm happy to see that these changes the traffic engineer mentioned have started to make a noticeable difference, and I'd be interested to see if a week of red lights in a few months (when there's enough light to repeat this project) would yield the same number of photos over a week.

To contrast with this, I occasionally go for the 40 minute walking commute that I've mentioned before. My most common route passes my local corner bakery, then heads over the pond and down Laugavegur, ending on the rather ordinary office-building street where I work. I've continued the walking commute in spite of the season change, taking another route in the darkness of Icelandic November. In the dark the appeal is different- the route I take goes along a street displaying views to the left of downtown, and passes a number of small houses where I can see people reading the paper and drinking coffee in their kitchens. I've also found other mysterious corners of Reykjavík, like the location of the handicapped association swimming pool, and hidden gardens located in the center of downtown. To follow the whole trip from one morning a month ago, check it here.

So now you see how most of my days start and end, a string of red lights or of uninspired architecture framed by what is still some seriously memorable landscape. Could always be worse.

27 October 2009

Iceland escape

So, the reason I was in Norway a few weeks ago was to start the next phase of the Norwegian project in Trondheim. My colleague had told me that I'd like the place, and my Norwegian friend K had lived there for three years, coming away with many good things to say. After my time in Oslo I was starting to think that Norway was a rather uncolourful and serious place, but my time in Trondheim has rather changed that perspective.
It's one of the oldest cities in Norway, with structures going back to the time of Iceland's founding a thousand years ago, and it's obviously been a significant place since then. The starting point is a great location, on the coast and ringed with mountains, laced through with a wide river that meanders around the center of the town. Then there are the buildings which span generations of architectural styles, painted in the colors of Indian spices- the deep yellow of turmeric, the rusted rich red of tandoori spice, the pale fresh green of the cucumber yogurt sauce, and the deep brown of curry. Finally, since it's a university town there's a special fizz of youth that makes the place a bit more spunky.
Some more details:
Getting there and back
Trondheim's got its own airport with an Akureyri-style landing strip, so the arrival offers a sweep over the town, and then some disconcertingly close-to-the-water flying before touchdown. From there the easiest way to get to town is the SAS bus. Cabs are expensive and require pre-arranging with others and the train only goes once an hour. The bus stops frequently along the way into town, a detail that was explained to me by some friendly locals in the next seat from me.
On the way back I also took the bus but I was not fully clear on where it picked up so I ended up getting to the airport only a half hour before my flight. Thanks to SAS's excellent self-service check-in and the extremely short security line this was actually plenty of time.

Staying in Trondheim
My colleagues and I were fortunate enough to be staying at the Hotel Britannia, a 100-year old establishment in the center of town. When I trundled my suitcase towards the place I was a bit surprised to see a red carpet and a horde of teenagers hovering near the door since it looked like a rather grand place. Turns out the reason was because Beyonce, Jay-z and posse were there for a student festival concert later that day. The hotel was small enough that we kept running into people from the group, and left for dinner through a gauntlet of paparazzi and fans who were disgruntled that we weren't Somebody Famous.
In most respects this is your standard Norwegian hotel- crappy overboiled coffee at breakfast, variable rooms (mine was splendid, a colleague got one that wasn't quite so nice) but the real selling point, aside from the grand public areas and central location, is the spa. It just opened this year and contains more variation in sauna than I've ever seen before. There's a hot-stone-seat sauna, a eucalyptus sauna, a burnt-essential-oils sauna, an ice fountain, foot baths, and a wonderful jacuzzi with a ceiling sprinkled with constellations and a light that mimics the northern lights (of course on the northern side). Entrance is free for hotel guests so I went so frequently I never used the shower in my hotel room.

Good eating
I was surprised to find that Trondheim was bursting with excellent places to eat, so armed with suggestions from my friend K and a few other sources, we went forth to try as much variety as we could. The two important factors were a colleague that is not fond of fish (how does this happen to a seaside dwelling Icelander?) and another who brews his own beer and is extremely fond of sampling all that is obscure or IPA style. Here's where we went:
  • Ai Suma: A short walk from the hotel, this place is decidedly a steakhouse with some peculiar decor that at least makes for a good start to the conversation. The wall we sat next to was covered in halved wine barrels, topped with a frilly gold crown molding. Further down the wall began to sprout white hands, and above us a clear plastic box housed a collection of table lamps. I chose the risotto scallops as my appetizer, a mouth-party that definitely put me in the right mood for the main course, a massive steak served with perfectly cooked potatoes and vegetables. The steaks there were much too large for any of us to finish but we all agreed that they were mostly excellent. One colleague would have preferred his steak to be a little less cooked.
  • Dråpen: This one was a suggestion from my friend and required a bit more walking on a rather Icelandic-style evening (windy and wet). We were initially seated immediately next to the door on wobbly tables that got freezy when people arrived or departed, so we requested to move to a more cozy spot after appetizers. To start with I had the langoustine with accessories, which were all good flavors but I felt lacked cohesive working-together spirit. I like a dish where you can mash all the elements together and find that the sum is greater than the parts. This was not so- the caperberry had too much attitude to go with the delicate langoustine, and there was too much of the saffron mayonnaise to work with the amount of langoustine that had been served. I finished it feeling a bit sad. All was redeemed during the main course though, hot smoked reindeer slices with horseradish potatoes and a divine port-chocolate sauce. All three of us had ordered the same thing and all three of us were in ecstasies over the meal. For afters, I went with a coconut orange cake that rounded things off well, while my 2 colleagues asked the waiter for "strange beer" and were rewarded with two bottles of Russian mystery that pleased them well.
  • Den Gode Nabo: This place was on the wish list of my beer-loving colleague who'd found positive reviews of the place and its vast selection of beers, so we waded through the night after our dinner at Dråpen. It's across the much-photographed old bridge, in the lower half of a building that's hanging directly over the river. The inside is a rambling warren of rooms, low ceilinged and drunken of floor, populated by roaring groups of student types, almost exclusively blonde and square-jawed. The first table we sat at gave us the distinct impression that we were either at sea or well into our cups- I sat leaning sideways while another guy was tipped acutely forward. We relocated to a cozier windowside seat with better foundations and enjoyed sampling their various wares. My colleague enjoyed selecting for us and came back with oddities such as a Scottish elderberry beer.
  • Jonathon: The restaurant in the basement of my hotel had been recommended by a few people so I went with high hopes that were slightly dashed by their offhand treatment of me as a solitary diner. I waited for 15 minutes to be seated, and then was put at a seat in one of the quieter, emptier areas of the restaurant. I went with a final steak as my main course (continuing the theme) and while it was good, the overall impression was of a slight excess of salt, and inconsistently cooked veggies. Most were overcooked but the two asparagus spears were undercooked. At least the sauce was decent. I don't think I'll be returning there thought.
Trondheim's happily compact, and the center of town is corralled by the river so it's easy to wander mapless and not find yourself in any trouble. I took a wander that started at the hotel, went down a large shopping street, detoured through some nice antique-looking alleys, paused at the lovely Nidaros cathedral, then along the riverbank, across the old bridge to inspect the world's first bicycle lift, through Bakklandet and across the bridge again, ending with an inspection of what the local H&M was carrying. All the right elements.

The cathedral is rather remarkable, first for its diminutive scale when compared to the vast antiquities in places like Paris, and second for the beautifully crisp carving on its facade. Maybe it's a harder type of stone they built with there, maybe it's due to the undoubtedly cleaner air there. Whatever the cause, it was a delightful building and I wished I could have gone inside. Moving on, the riverbank offered excellent panoramic views of the town as a whole, including the fort high on an opposite hill.

The old bridge is for pedestrians only, delivering yet another scenic overview of some of the older buildings that hover over the river on a forest of pilings. Just across it is the bicycle lift that saves cyclists from having to pedal up a particularly steep hill, something I had to photograph for my friend C, a bicycling blogger in Boston.

Then to the left where a street of short buildings was bursting with cafés and cozy little shops, most of which were closed by my dusk-time walk. It's one of the small frustrations of work travel in a particularly delicious place. I'm grateful for the opportunity to see these places and experience them from a more internal perspective as I meet and work with people who live there, but then I rarely am able to see the things that cause most people to visit a place. I've heard of the great museums in Trondheim and the extensive swimming pool complex but there was just no time for that. Our work's not done in Trondheim though, so I am hoping that in future visits I'll uncover more thrills in this charming town.

oh, the tragedy

yes, the news reports on MSN and.. pretty much everywhere are true. Iceland is losing its McDonalds as of the first of November. The import costs what with the brave new exchange rate could no longer be justified, since they would have required a Big Mac to cost the equivalent of a rather decent meal downtown. Bargain meal no more.

Since neither S nor I had ever tried McDonalds here in Iceland we decided to swing by the one in Skeifan just to see what the woot was about. As we approached the fabled golden arches, I caught a glimpse of the line to the counter which stretched out the door and through the parking lot, then we got tangled in the takeout line which was winding round the traffic circle nearby, probably about 15 cars deep.

We abandoned that plan, first thinking KFC would satisfy our bizarre Tuesday evening whim for American fast food, but it seemed that we weren't the only ones with that thought, as the line there also stretched out the door. So, onto the much-lauded Saffron, a place with iffy service that we had tried some months ago. Inside, the high ceilings and noisy crowd gave the vibe of a fuglabjarg (squawking bird cliff), so we retreated to my favorite Bulgarian restaurant downtown, where we toasted our excellent decision over savory and delicious dishes where we were the only (and extremely happy) patrons.

so much for mcd's.

12 October 2009

gale force arrival

On Friday I was due to fly back to Iceland but had heard from several people that the weather was not supposed to be particularly friendly, so when I landed in Oslo I started checking the airline website. Everything was cancelled going in or out of the domestic airport, but as far as I could determine there was no disruption whatsoever in the international arrivals.

So off we went and just before landing the pilots said that there were "strong easterly winds" so things might be just a bit bumpy. That's how the Icelandic pilots describe the gale force winds that were sweeping over most of the country, strongest in the south (where the airport is so conveniently located). Oddly, the landing was almost totally normal- a bit bumpy but none of the stomach-dropping quick descents, and the only chaos from passengers was the drunken Norwegians in the bag getting squiffy.

All well and good until the drive from the airport. The road is notoriously exposed, winding along the sea through completely treeless moors, at the mercy of both the howling winds from the highlands (in excellent form that day) and the roar from the ocean (also kicking up at times). It's also just winding enough that it's hard to keep a consistent grip on which way you're headed when there's wind.

I've never driven in weather like this- it was a constant calculation to figure out how to compensate for the roar which was hell-bent on sweeping me, the car, and everything else around me directly into the sea. In the few places where a hummock sheltered me, or when passing the many cars stopped alongside the road, the sudden letup of wind caused a momentary swerve in the opposite direction. In spite of all this I did manage to admire the effect of all this exciting weather- the mountains to the right glowered beneath a fresh coat of wet snow and low hanging clouds, and off to the left, the sea was heaped high and frosted with white that sparkled in the sun. At the juncture of the two, a massive rainbow hovered over Bessastaðir. Welcome to Iceland.

24 September 2009

escape artist

As much as I love it here and all that, sometimes a girl's gotta escape. Last year the grand finale of the Norway project phase 1 coincided with the collapse of all the banks (literally.. the first bank collapsed the day before I left for Norway, and when the installation team returned to Iceland they'd all gone under), so since then I haven't had much chance to travel abroad for work. I've had to figure out how to feel like I'm traveling a bit while actually not taking a plane instead.

Some techniques involve first of all, splurging on some less ordinary ingredients. Yes, avocados cost a bundle here but they remind me of sunny places. Same with fresh herbs. I am also happy to see that the dairy producers have stepped into Greek yogurt production, another creamy indulgence that makes for good breakfasts and delicious sauces when mixed with other ingredients.

Further on the food front, there are still good restaurant choices in the cheep-and-foreign category. The Bulgarian restaurant that opened a few months ago has been consistently delicious and serves up all the right sort of spicy, including grilled hot peppers alongside their main courses. Then there's the decent Mexican place around the corner, the slow-but-tasty service at Saffron (although its Glæsibær location seems impossibly distant to those of us living in the west side of town), and the grand old standby Hraðlestinn. We're not suffering too badly here. I did try the much-Facebook-fanned Serrano a few days ago though, and I have to say that it's one that I won't be returning to sample again in any hurry. Their "chicken" was tasteless, they didn't do the nice cheese-melty thing like my old Boston standby Viva burrito, and the avocado cost additional, on top of their already steepish price of 900isk.

But, moving on, when I need a change of scenery from the openly sweeping vistas and frigid looking ocean, I take my new absolute favorite running loop. It starts at the Vesturbær pool going towards the university. The first bit of the route is a bit of a churn to get through, following bustling Hringbraut, past the domestic airport with the planes angling in to land overhead, down the touristastic street towards the airport hotel. But then, the reward comes, after the left turn into the only foresty place below Perlan. How did I not know of the magical mystery that is Öskjuhlíð? My friend M had said she was avoiding it because she'd heard of lurking men and fearsome rabbits but in my many trips through there this August and September, I've met very few other people, and seen only a few of the rabbits. The population of rabbits is supposed to have come from people releasing their pets to the wild when the novelty of the easter-bunny gift has worn off. Whatever the reason, they are certainly shy and certainly in great numbers. As for the people, I've seen a very occasional walker, and recently, only evidence in the form of a backpack or bag that someone's up in the woods picking the mushrooms that are prolific in this extremely rainy autumn.

What I love best about this short forest are the mossy stones, the gnarled trees with their tiny leaves, the hush that collects around me in spite of the rather downtown location of the place. The branches rustle with sparrows and other small birds, the paths twist away into shaded corners further up or down the hill, and the whole area smells of autumn leaves, mushrooms, and moisture. It's the smell of this time of year, one of my favorite markers of September in New England, and small though this "forest" is, and though it's lacking that swishing whisper of wind through large pines, it helps alleviate some of the homesickness.

And then finally, there's international films! For the first time I've been going to some of the films at the international festival that happens every September. So far the ones I've seen have been delightful and varied, and even better, they're all showing within a 5 minute walk of my house. Anyone in the area who hasn't should check the listings and try to squeeze in a viewing or two before it ends this weekend. There've also been some good releases to video lately, including a wonderful Lebanese film called Caramel. See it. You'll feel like you took a trip.

The last way I maintain some connection to the outside world is through the careful rationing of the Goodies From Abroad. When I came back from Martha's Vineyard, my parents loaded my suitcase with wine and jam and other delights, and S has brought more similar supplies (thank you for keeping me stocked with such excellent chocolate, C!).

Don't get me wrong- I'm not suddenly loathing this place and planning my imminent departure. The nice stuff that I always talk about is still here. It's just that sometimes I like a different sort of nice stuff, and thankfully have figured out how to make that happen within the confines of this tiny island which sometimes seems extremely remote.

16 September 2009

what else I did on my summer vacation

I decided to say the heck with the kreppa and go all-out with my summer vacation, so I spent 3 weeks away during the month of August. The last week of the month I went to Martha's Vineyard (yeah, I booked my trip before Obama decided to be there at the same time) to see my parents, brothers, and my nephews that I last saw in 2007. Since then, my brother and his wife also bought one of the little houses, so the week was spent strolling between houses, eating tons of fresh seasonal produce (how good is the CORN this year?), scallops, and sausages (Portuguese and Italian varieties), and my favorite sweet bread.

There was plenty of nephew time, in the form of crab-fishing, bicycling, puzzle-doing, wave-wading, and all the other summer activities that small people like best. For the grown-ups, there was porch-sitting (as my brother said, this is one of the only places he can think of where people sit in rockers on their front porches completely unironically), dinners together, and lots of reading. As is usual with such a large group, it's hard to have intense quality time one-on-one but it is of course tremendous to be able to see so much family in one place, to be the group with the really long table at a restaurant that's passing plates back and forth as meals are shared and sampled.

The last day, my parents and I went off-island around midday through the snapping fresh air that had just turned to fall, and just past the Bourne bridge we turned off the highway for a last-stop stockup at my favorite American store, TJ Maxx. Even with the brave new world I live in with this drastically changed exchange rate, the prices of clothing are better in the US than they are in Iceland. Plus, the bargain-hunting is much more sporting in the US than in Iceland. I stocked up for autumn with a new coat and fuzzy sweaters, and then armed with our sandwiches purchased earlier in the day, my parents and I followed the checkout lady's instructions to the closest beach. There, we soaked up the early autumn sun and the peace of post back-to-school beaches before completing the last stretch to Boston. Arriving early, we continued further north from the airport and along the way to Deer Island we simply pulled down a side street and sat in the long sunset light, watching the boat traffic and the planes coming and going.

We had dinner together in the usual spot near the security gate of Terminal E, and then it was time to go. Every time I leave my family in the US I am melancholy for a few days, lost in the rhythm of Icelandic life, asea in the different weather and the non-American people. It's hard to decide where I best belong sometimes. America's familiar and comfortable but it's almost too comfortable. When I came back to the airport and joined the cluster of late-night flight departers, I did feel a certain return to alertness, listening in for new and different languages, inspecting unfamiliar styles of clothing, of luggage, of different European-style family dynamics. Departing from family is always so hard but it also feels at times like I've got the best of both worlds, to be able to spend time with my family in such a lovely place and also be able to live and travel in all these other lovely places. It's quite certain that we can't have everything in life but sometimes it does feel like I'm awfully close.

07 September 2009

accidental delights

Two weeks in Germany seems like a rather fat chunk of time but it ended up being only just enough to wish that there'd been more time to explore. Along our trek from north (my beloved Weimar) to south (Oberstdorf), from east (Frieburg) to west (Görlitz), we happened upon quite a few accidental delights in our relatively loose plan.

One such happenstance occurred as we were making our way east from Weimar and felt the need to stop for lunch. A winding road labeled the Saxon Wine Street caught my eye in our six euro map book, so we exited just before Dresden and headed north to the street that we almost missed at first glance. It ended up being a narrow road that followed the Elbe's valley, stacked on the opposite side with red granite cliffs. Behind nearly every house on the street was a tiny cluster of grape vines, and the few restaurants along the way promised river trout and local wines.

S soon spotted a sign for Schloss Proschwitz's winery, and since the combination of castles plus wine was irresistable, we followed the arrow up a steep road that ended at the top of the red granite cliff. There, we missed the unlabeled winery building altogether and ended up in the church yard at our first attempt, but soon had righted things and were in the sunny stone courtyard, surrounded by freshly painted yellow walls. Inside the wine shop, we learned that they didn't serve lunch at the restaurant there but the proprietor happily pointed us back down the hill to where a former ferry-landinghouse served up a good meal.

Back down the hill we found a grand old building with a sunny terrace looking over the Elbe and a pasture full of cows. We lunched there, accompanied by frosty glasses of local riesling (not normally my favorite but this was dry and delightful) while a paddleboat flapped by, and a majestically furry cat sought shade in the cool soil of a potted tree. Then, since it's a shame to go anywhere called a wine road without actually purchasing some wine, back up to the winery on the hill. There we were shown the paces of the locale, and when it turned out they had a guesthouse with a free room we decided that reaching the Polish border that day was really not all so pressing. Why not stay here in a room named after one of the grape varieties grown there, a princess fairy-tale of a room, complete with half-timbered ceilings, curly iron bedstead, a wall of windows overlooking the courtyard, and cheerful striped curtains?

After a pause that refreshed, we climbed back into our American rental hampstermobile and descended to the river valley again, where we found a tiny ferry chuffing cars across, and buildings marked with the high water levels from the flooding some years ago. Then, on to Meissen, with its tempting medieval skyline. We climbed up the hill to the castle, a white flourish of fantasy with a walkway encircling the base, then snuck up a staircase to admire the soot-stained twin towers of the cathedral inside. A winding road descended from the castle into the old town below, past crenellated brick house-tops as well as forlorn forgotten remainders of the GDR era.

We stopped to try the Meissner fummel, famous more for the story than the flavor, I'd venture. History goes that this yeast-bubble of a pastry was invented due to an 18th century messenger that was rather too fond of the local booze and kept tipping off his horse and failing to deliver things on time. So an inventive baker came up with this fragile pastry, which the messenger was required to deliver intact along with the messages, a feat that was only possible if he remained sober enough to cling to his horse. Nice story but as a flavor it was like eating sourdough bread crust without all the chewy yum inside.

We returned to the car along the riverbank, and back at the winery we tried out the restaurant on the first floor of the building. I'd already been told that Germany specialised more in the white wines, but the dornfelder that we sampled there that night was unforgettable. Of course it could have been the pinkly descending dusk, the unexpected delights of finding such a charming (and inexpensive!) guesthouse, the perfect scale of Meissen, or the foamy cucumber soup with smoked trout we had as an appetizer. Whatever it was, the evening was divine, made even more delightful by the short "commute" back to the fluffy crispness of bed upstairs.

The next morning we went down to the cheerful breakfast room where our shy hostess had set our table with crested china and a heavy silver coffee service. A basket of fresh rolls stood at one side of the table, curls of local ham and a variety of cheese at the other side, along with grown-up grape juice (this was not Welch's by any means) and a locally produced wine jelly. We ate ourselves silly before getting directions to the Schloss itself, a frilly yellow marvel set among manicured grounds and surrounded by grapes.

That day's delights continued on, with more unexpected finds as we explored other small roads. We fell upon the hunt castle at Moritzburg, complete with a chinoiserie mini-castle surrounded by peacock breeding grounds, and punctuated by a lighthouse folly (and strangely, protected the the same huntsman statues as we'd found in a secluded corner of the Schloss Proschwitz grounds), and then as we penetrated further into the former GDR territories, the abandoned leftovers of decades of brown coal mining and neglected buildings. We visited a town now in two different countries, separated by a river that had been bridgeless during the GDR times, and ended the day in another confection of an overnight, the Cloister Marienthal.

This is but a sample of the awesome, leaving me resolved that next time the trip should be even longer, leaving more time to explore these eastern parts. It's not the easy-to-love charm of Bavaria, but the contrast between the abandoned remnants of the GDR, the incredible Baroque castles that survived all the impossibility, the lack of tourist gloss, and the interesting flavors of Silesian cuisine and Proschwitz wines have me definitely ready to go again.

06 September 2009

window on Germany

so I just spent some of the hottest weeks of the year in Germany, where I learned the value of summer dresses, cold radler, and shade.

I already knew that Germans aren't as interested in air conditioning as we Americans are, which is fine when you're in a castle that breathes ancient cool from its stones, or a marvel of carefully engineered efficiency. The rest of the time, things can be a bit stuffy, and I had to wonder why I never saw a single fan anywhere. When I was a kid, summertime meant sleeping to the lullaby of the box window fan. The size of half the window, these babies went on the windowsill and sucked that marvellously cool night air into the bedroom. Cheaper than air conditioning and much more comfortable than going without breezes. Why haven't the Germans figured this one out?

The second and much more distressing absence was that of window screens, which I only saw on a single window in a single guesthouse during the entire trip. Unlike Iceland, Germany breeds plenty of mosquitoes who do the exact same nocturnal ballet as they do in Massachusetts. They're also just as attracted by the light, so apparently, the proper way to handle this is to diligently and carefully close all open windows at dusk and keep them closed until you go to bed. Once it's dark, they're safe to open.

We failed to do this one night, and the result was mosquito air raids all night. Since it was stuffy in the room (see the first point here) and since Europeans don't believe in sheets, just duvets (see previous conversations here), staying totally covered up in a mini-tent of blanket protection was a non-option. The next morning, fat mosquitoes, hungover from their blood-fest, festooned the walls. Weeks later I'm still finding battle scars on my legs from where I was munched on.

This is the country that has made a name for itself by coming up with the best and brightest in modern engineering, and they can't figure out a window screen? Is there nobody that finds it annoying to sit in a stuffily closed room as they eat dinner or read before bed, or dislikes the threat of being an insect supper should they wish for some fresh air?

In almost every other respect, I've been impressed by what I've seen in Germany. They've got a spectacular train and motorway system and clever features abound in their cities and homes, so I hope someday I will understand how these two simple, yet essential features of summer comfort seem to have gone missing there.

02 August 2009

summer nights

It's a forgotten delight that I have been absorbing as best I can while here in Germany, after having not seen a properly dark night during all these summertime months in Iceland. The days here are warm and moist but the evenings, after darkness falls, are positively magical. The first evening here, S and I took the long way through the forest and alongside the fields to the small Franconian village nearby. We walked at dusk, interrupting few along the way- a rabbit or two, some kids hard at work on some mini-excavation project. Mostly it was just us and the scents and sounds of the dusk.

On our return route, we stopped by an inn with a friendly-looking terrace, and there we sat beneath a chestnut tree for a wheat beer. There was no music there, just the nearly whispered conversations from the three other tables, and some rattle from the neighboring cowshed. Above us, the stars filled in the sky, and we settled into vacation feeling as our glasses emptied. Finally, time to return, past the cow barn where a few curious ones snuffled at my hand and gazed at me with their liquidy eyes. We followed the path back, by the trout breeding ponds, along the fields now clattering with crickets and overstuffed with wildflowers, ending beside the cornfield, ripening silently in the dewy summer dark.

the national hobby

I'm in Germany now, for my third-ever visit, and I'm still getting used to the special ways they do things here. For example, I am still marveling over the wonders of the German roadside food-stop.

Less than two hours after stepping off the plane the first afternoon here, we stopped at a standard sort of rest area off the autobahn where I found myself confounded by the selection, and dazzled by the brilliant sparkle of the immaculate glass and countertops. Of course, when in Germany, it's simple for me to choose what my first meal should be. It must be sausages. But then, what does one have WITH it? There's dumplings and potatoes and fries and a salad bar with all sorts of pickled and brined bits to put on top, and then there's beers and beers and beers (just off the highway, no less).

A few meandering trips through the vast food service area and we settled outside on the patio next to the water feature. Ladies and gentlemen, I remind you that this was a highwayside food stop, and yet we were sitting on a terrace flanked on one side by rosebushes and on the other side by a pond decorated with water plants and complete with its own mini-waterfall. Beyond the pond was a charming little castle-jungle gym for the kids, and the whole area was perfectly well-tended. The rose bushes were clipped, the pond scum-free. The only thing that possibly disturbed the moment was the enthusiastic bees that found radler far too interesting and had crowded inside my empty bottle.

For dessert and coffee, we retreated inside, where we sat at tables decorated with fresh bamboo shoots in vases, and where the chairs at the empty tables had all been perfectly aligned at a welcoming diagonal. This appears to be just your average German approach to highway travel. No Sbarro's, no Panda Express, no sticky menus on the tables. Amazing.

Of course, this kind of tidy takes a lot of work, and I'm coming to realize that the national hobby of Germans is the keeping-tidy-of-things. There's the car washing and polishing, the hedge trimming, the house painting and fence re-aligning. One must make sure the driveway is free of weeds and the trees don't get too tall. All in all, a lot of work but the end result from the perspective of a relaxed summer traveler is quite delightful. I'm relishing it tremendously.

22 July 2009

summer barbecuing

One of the staples of an Icelandic summer is the single use grill. These are available at every grocery store and discount shop, and often at most gas stations as well. They're an aluminum pan filled with coals, covered with a sheet of paper soaked in some lighter fluid, and topped with a metal mesh. The idea is that you can have all the joys of barbecuing without having to own all the apparatus of grilling, and when you're done you don't have to carefully carry all the ashes back home.

On the covers they depict fat kebabs covering the entire grill surface, sizzling merrily. Of course this is rather far from the truth. The first challenge is to get them lit, which requires a wind-free spot (good luck with that in Iceland!), and a little prayer and a little bit of lighter-action. If you're fortunate enough to for the flames to take hold, the next feature to enjoy is that there is never a full pan of coals, so you maybe have 2/3 of the grill to work with, which always burns inconsistently. Still, it's enough to make a dinner for two with several grilled components. Word to the wise though- avoid the one that is labeled as being "handy, rapid, and sure!". We had a few of these on a trip to the West Fjords last year and discovered that all 3 of the claims were totally false. We got creative with the primus stove in an attempt to ignite the thing but ended up melting the aluminum and getting no reaction whatsoever out of the coals.

Enough of the boring stuff- what to cook on the onesie grills anyway? Well, in addition to selling these made-for-camping grills, the grocery stores sell all kinds of delights that make for the perfect picnic. To start, there are these nice shrink-wrapped packets of lamb, beef, and pork that are already seasoned in a variety of tempting flavors. Want Argentinian-seasoned beef chops, dry-spice lamb ribs? It's all available in an easily packable flava-bag. You can add grillsósa if you like, available in a dazzling selection of flavors- sundried tomato, green peppercorn, blue cheese.

On to the veggie department, pick up a package of the huge mushrooms stuffed in cheese and ready for the grill in their own little aluminum pan. These come with blue cheese (if you go to Hagkaup), cream cheese (if you go to Krónan- but skip these, they don't have enough zip) or my favorite, the industry standard ones filled with a soft cheese that's zipped up on garlic and herbs. Grab some Icelandic-grown red or yellow peppers, and then in the dairy section, grab a triangle of Akureyri blue cheese. When it's grill time, slice the peppers in half and mash some blue cheese inside. When the pepper starts hissing and the cheese has melted, they're ready (and soo mm good).

For dessert if you still have room, pick up a pair of bananas and some chocolate (I prefer the orange Sirius variety). Slice the bananas on one side, stuff with chocolate, and grill until the banana oozes and the chocolate is all melted. Add some screw-top wine or a few beers and that's all you need to have a grand time.

The best part, of course, is finding the perfect spot for this grilling where you can contemplate a great view, soak up some sun, and enjoy the amazing freedom and solitude that is summertime in Iceland. The countryside is chock-full of these staggeringly beautiful locations where the only company might be a few birds wading in the waves or a solitary Arctic fox slinking by, perhaps attracted by the smell of the sizzle.

In some ways this summer is becoming the swan song for the community I know here. At the last party I attended I talked to so many people who were planning to stay until the end of the summer and then move on to jobs elsewhere in continental Europe. As long as the weather's nice we can all ignore the situation a bit and get to our grilling and admiring of sunsets but sooner than I'd like to think, the great weather will be all over and then what?

07 July 2009

not getting the hype

The local English-language tourists-and-foreigners paper, the Grapevine, recently came out with its best-of-Reykjavík edition, ranking the best of everything from swimming pools to lobster soup. While most of them are places I totally agree with or have always meant to try, there are a few things I just must disagree with.

For example, I don't get the hype over Sægrefinn's lobster soup. The kebabs there are great, and I know that all the toursits feel like they're getting in on the authentic due to the straight-from-the-sea venue and the slightly crusty looking proprietor, but come on! That place has been advertised so heavily as the "best kept secret" that it's not a secret anymore. He has an advert in every single tourist paper and free guide and I'm sure every Lonely Planetish guidebook points out exactly where it is.

On to the soup though. I like a perfumed and creamy lobster soup and this one is frankly neither. The broth is thin, the chunks of lobster are meager, and it contains the bane of all vegetables, the green pepper. If I want lobster soup, I go to one of two places, either Fjöruborðið down in Stokkseyri (which is also hyped but in my opinion deserves it), or I'll go to B5. The latter is known as the boozin' place for all the pretty young things and the erstwhile bankers who love them but serves food in the earlier hours. Over the years the quality has gone from amazing to mediocre to confused but the lobster bisque has remained delicious. So that is where I go when I want my lobster fix.

Up next, the ice cream category. As a resident of the west side of Reykjavík, I have already spent time singing the praises of the 'hood, although I tend to forget one of the reasons many people venture my direction- the ice cream. Since Saturday ended up being unIcelandically warm, S and I decided to find out what the Big Exciting Deal was, so we beelined for ísbúðinn and its usual snaking line. He went for the large with caramel-chocolate and licorice bits, while I had the medium with caramel chocolate and Snickers. As I believe I've pointed out before, ice cream here tends to come only in vanilla, with the fancy being added to the top.

They've got excellent selection there, and when you come out with an ice cream the height of your forearm (that's just the medium), you definitely feel like you've got a good deal, but that's where the fun ends. S and I both went for the creamier of the two options available there but frankly the ice cream was not creamy, and its fast melt-rate was another indication that it just wasn't up there on the butterfat scale. The toppings were just fine and they offer amazing variety but if the base ice cream isn't bringing it to the table, what's the point? After two consecutive weekends sampling the stuff, I'm voting for the campsite service spot and tourist center in Þingvellir as my favorite ice cream. It's creamy and delicious enough to stand on its own- no frills required there.

Finally, in the hamburger category, Búllan always wins on almost everyone's fave-burger list. It's got the cute location and the charming American burgerjoint campiness but I just don't love their burgers enough to make a special effort to get them there. When I get my meat 'n bun craving I go to the burger wagon outside my local pool down the street. Less hype, more delicious. That's how it should be.

06 July 2009

sensational summer

The smell of white clover and angelica, the scent of ocean breeze on an otherwise oddly sultry day, that tangy mixed flavor coming from the short birches and the black cottonwood. It's the discovery of piny running paths on Öskuhlíð that almost feels like I'm not here in Iceland.

The flavor of over abundant rhubarb baked into cakes, of grilled lamb and mushrooms stuffed with cheese, of new restaurants serving properly middle eastern fare, of Bulgarian salads. It's that unexpectedly sweet taste of one of the famous flies from Mývatn, inhaled on the downbeat before singing, the creamy cool of soft serve at þingvellir.

There's the feel of sun late in the evening, still warm enough for balcony-sits, the unexpected sensation of actually getting hot enough to sweat while on a run, the sensation of endless adventure potential on these sunsetless days.

It's summer in Iceland and while at times I feel terribly betrayed by this country that's busy destroying the livelihoods of so many people, it's still difficult to resist the allure of so lovely a place. Most weekends have been spent off somewhere, finding new favorite waterfalls, investigating power stations and old tractors, hiking over ridges and sometimes revisiting old favorites. It's good for the soul but bad for blogging.

Like many people here I've been focusing a lot of my time on the domestic delights, although I'm planning my first properly European summer vacation later this year (meaning it's a luxurious span of nearly two weeks) and I am most certainly getting out of this country. As great as it is here, I need my breathing space.

28 May 2009

economic stimulus

Earlier this week was the conclusion of the annual bike to work not-month-but-more-than-a-week, and as a bikeless person I contributed by walking to work on a few of the more sunny days. When yesterday turned out to have a promising forecast I set to again, even though my walk would no longer count towards the the tally for my company (during the bike-to-work event, the companies are grouped according to number of employees, with rankings based on the total number of kilometers logged).

Much of my route is the same as the one I described a few years ago, and yesterday morning had much of the same feeling. I stopped by the same bakery for the same cinnamon-peppered scone and a cup of coffee, then made my way across Tjörnin and up Laugavegur. Morning Laugavegur might be one of my favorite experiences of the street, when the Tíu Dropar girl is setting up the outside chairs in anticipation of the afternoon sun that would make it the perfect people watching spot, the sun already warm but the breeze off the snow covered mountaintops to the north is still fresh and cool.

I paused to read some of the love letter exhibition that's now lining shop windows, wondered about the number of curled blue ribbons tied on empty flagpoles and doorhandles, admired the string of skirts that the Red Cross clothing shop had hung from their store high across the street, and of course paused to scratch the tigerstripe cat that was already drunk on sun down by Hlemmur.

On my way home these past few weeks I've remembered that I need a spatula, or would like some noodles from the Asian grocery store by Hlemmur, or stopped to get some fancy chocolates as a barbecue treat from the shop known by its ugly plastic awning and excellent selection. It's hard to resist a scone from the numerous bakeries along the street in the morning, and more than once I've also grabbed lunch fixings from one of the early-opener shops. It's my own way of contributing to the economy here, and I have a feeling that more walking would continue this trend of patronizing the local businesses.

Plus, it's one way that I really relish this most glorious season here, being able to see how the purple flowers that spill over a fence just around the corner from the office have gone from green buds to nearly open in just a week and a half, and witness the pattern of snowfall that still drapes atop Esja and its neighbors. There's also that smell of growing here, now familiar from the past four years and yet still otherworldly, this blend of black cottonwood, arctic birch, and lava-moss.

The news here continues to be depressing at times, the exchange rates continue to go in unfavorable ways, but life still goes on. People still laugh, have parties and concerts, do barbecues and explorations, and at least the arrival of summer makes things feel a little less distressing. Volleyball in the yard, fresh rhubarb growing behind the garage ready to be made into cake, and the opportunity for picnics on the beach in the evening all provide excellent reminders that life still is pretty great. I live in a gorgeous place and am surrounded by wonderful people with whom I can enjoy these fleeting moments of summer sun.

21 April 2009

southern climes

I've spent the last week visiting my friend T in Toulouse, a grand vacation from the turbulence of Iceland. We've done all the right girls-in-France things- shopping in the street market near her house for seasonal produce to make dinner, eating plenty of cheese in plenty of varieties, and drinking plenty of local wine that never seems to cost more than 4 euros for something extra delicious. We've sat in cafés, had ice cream and marons in crazy flavors (the violet ones seemed like a better idea than they are in practice), taken day trips, and pored over French fashion magazines.

And now it's time for lunch and then train to Paris to return to what by all reports is a rather soggy Iceland. More on the grandiosity of this area later!

11 April 2009

domestic bliss

So here we are in the middle of this particularly un-American holiday, the Easter break, which is a five-day stretch off work for almost the whole country.  It's a big deal for pretty much everyone all over Europe, and an excuse for much traveling in search of adventure.  Because I have to sing in the middle of the holiday, I'm usually sticking around town, but that doesn't mean a lack of interesting things to do.

When the forecast yesterday called for uninterrupted sun, S and I had to take advantage of it.  First stop, Keilir, the  perfectly shaped child's-drawing of a mountain that punctuates the landscape between Reykjavík and the airport.  I knew where to exit the main road to find it, but after one sign pointing the way, the road descended into the chaos of construction, with spurs heading off towards the power lines, into piles of rubble.  Two other carfuls of people wandered the area, also looking for the road to the mountain. We finally found it and followed the bumpy track to near the mountain's base where a host of other families were suiting up to head across the lava.

This mountain must be approached in a majestic fashion, via a track that winds through a rugged lava field, occasionally hiding the mountain from view.  In some places, the lava tubes snaking below the surface have collapsed, revealing shapes like hump-backed bridges, and cracks from which steam gently issues.  On a sunny spring day, the protected spaces gave off that fresh Icelandic earth scent, moist and rich with the promise of growing things.

And then the mountain.. just before the base, the lava hummocks stopped, leaving just bare loose rubble and gravel in dozens of colors- the pale yellow of sulphur, the richer reds and purples, the deepest black.  There are two approaches to the peak here, both equally steep, both equally exciting since the footing is nothing but this same material- loose and shifty underfoot.

We went up the side that promised maximum sun exposure, and were at the top very soon with only one stop for cake and a few photos.  The view reward was tremendous- to the north, Reykjavík and the suburbs sprawled beneath a cloud-pinned Esja, and the mountains ringing the horizon were dusted in snow.  Facing south- and eastward was an open and empty landscape, devoid of human traces, punctuated only by the steam clouds that rose off the nearby blue lagoon, and then off to the west, an expanse of richly blue ocean, shimmering in the haze of bright, fresh air.

Climbing down we took the more windy approach that went past some excellent sedimentary layers and through yet more loose gravel, and then we quickly were at the car again for phase 2 of the day, the Blue Lagoon.  We stumbled on an Easter special there, a two-for-one deal, and soon were soaking in the mysteriously milky water.

I've only been to the Blue Lagoon twice and previously have been less than enthralled, but somehow yesterday, after the easy hike and in the brilliant sun, the place worked its magic.  With a beer in hand, white silica mud on our faces, and a protected spot (by then the wind had started to rise), it was easy to spend some hours there.  The place was packed- tons of Icelandic families, gaggles of Brits and Russians on Easter break, and in our corner we also met the band Sister Sledge, enchanted by the scenery and enjoying a particularly dangerous-looking blue drink.

When the sun began to descend behind the building, it was time to go.  For the last phase of this explore-locally day, we went to Keflavík the town, a place I've never actually visited.  Most of the place was eerily barren of people, the only signs of life the occasional towel flapping wildly in the strong winds, but we did find one restaurant open.  The spot was called Olsen-Olsen (a connection with the Sigur Rós song of the same name perhaps?) and had a distinctly American feel, with padded-back booths and a collection of American license plates on the wall near the bathrooms.

Hungry from the day's activities, we both chose steaks (one lamb, one beef) which came with salad, corn, fries and sauce for under 2000isk, a fantastic bargain.  Much to my delight, the food was also excellent- the steak cooked perfectly and topped with pepper and mushrooms, the sauces richly laced with herbs, the fries crisp and generously sized.

And then home through the evening sun, following the road that's always been whizzed along with an entirely different intention than yesterday.  This road's the way home or the way to the airport, but with the few Blue Lagoon exceptions, I'd never explored what was on either side of this stretch.  Turns out it's more than enough for a really excellent day of activity.

07 February 2009

it's not what you think

So yes, I have not been writing much lately, and here's why:
  • When every trip to the store is a reminder of the kreppa as the prices of everything have gone up here by 40isk, there by 200isk, I don't really want to spend more time writing about the experience here.
  • I listen to it on the radio in the car, at work when my coworkers argue about who should do what next over lunch. Again, do I really want to spend more time thinking about it here?
  • The significant themes which are occupying my head lately aren't the sort of thing I share with partially unknown audiences on the internet.
  • There are many others who're covering the governmental and economic details far better than I could ever aspire to.
  • And also partly because from the daily-basis perspective, it's not like a "collapsing" government creates some kind of visible effect. There were no citywide riots, no mass walkouts of offices, no burning cars.
I've been listening to reports from the US regularly, reading the American news, and talking with my family there, and it doesn't really seem like it's a whole lot better there either. I know people who're being downsized in both places, I know people who're uncertain about what the future will bring in both places, people who've lost breathtaking amounts of money from pension funds and 401k's. So, why not stay here where at least the air is clear, where the northern lights finally made an appearance after so many months of black skies? As long as I'm fortunate enough to be employed, warmly housed, and fed, Iceland seems as good as any other place.
So there it is. I like to write about the things here that still make me happy, in spite of the cold weather we've had lately. It's the time of year when the sun's finally high enough to stream into my top-floor home, a time when the sunrises are heartbreakingly beautiful every morning, when my sunset run around Seltjarnarnes takes my breath away, so incandescent is the sea with turquoise glory.
November to January this far north can feel like the worst punishment ever, but the reward is that when the sun comes back and the days are finally long enough to use the light, it's one of the most uplifting experiences I can imagine. It's been rather brutally cold (for Iceland, which means -10c) lately, but the advantage is that it comes with clear air that feels extra-saturated with oxygen. Every day I am lost in the wonder of light as the fuschia clouds mark the sunrise, then Snæfellsnes glows pinkly from my office, then Esja catches that afternoon gold, and then as evening falls the sky goes lavender. I know I talk about it ALL the time here, but for me it's what makes this place so unforgettable, that the magical glow can be yours to witness so frequently, rather than the occasional exceptional moment as a 10 minute treat for only the earliest of risers.
And so in conclusion, despite all the emails I have been getting recently wanting the juicy details on just how collapsed it is here, I am going to write about light or how great it is that I can find a muffin tin to borrow in under 4 hours, lent to me by someone I've only met once in my life. There are still plenty of things to be happy about, even if they don't seem like really significant parts of your day. I still think that if you can't find any joy in those free delights all around you, you're looking in the wrong places for happiness.

09 January 2009


I'd like to take a moment to mention how stupendously great my neighborhood is, since I have been enjoying the experience a lot lately. Here's why:
  • Walkably close to a good cinema and the home of the Icelandic Symphony.
  • A great grocery store, that while expensive, doesn't suffer from the same expiration date tragedy as my other store and contains all sorts of hidden delights in its tiny aisles. Good for running into people you know as well as the Famous Locals. Also has ridiculously friendly checkout people- even when it was the only store open for kilometers on new years eve and was completely jammed, they still greeted everyone and maintained good humor in the chaos. I'll pay for that.
  • The best hamburgers in Iceland. I don't care what you Búllan fans say- I was there one day last year and Tommi himself was patronizing my favorite place. If HE's getting in on the action, there's definitely something there.
  • The best steam room in Reykjavík, by all accounts. It's a circle, it's got a whole wall of window, and the best acoustics in town. Yes, I sing in the steam when solitary.
  • A whole stretch of good seafront, that doesn't suffer from having a near-highway zipping along right next to it. I go there for my peace-n-quiet runs, particularly nice at sunset in the winter.
  • Close enough that downtown is a pleasant stroll through various cute parts of town.
  • Old enough for there to be plenty of tall trees all around the houses.
  • Not fabulous enough to suffer from the noisy weekend crowds that I heard frequently when living in 101.
  • Plenty of parking for you and for your visitors, on a carefully orchestrated network of one-way streets so that there is almost no street traffic at night going past my house.
  • Close to where I sing- early morning practices are not so uncomfortable when I have such a short walk to get there.
  • Reverse commute! After spending about 15 minutes trying to get from my office to Kringlan at 5:15 the other day, a stretch of road that would normally take a minute, I appreciate this. If I were a Garðabær dweller that would be a daily experience. Misery! Instead I get to sail along the bay with Esja beside me.
  • oh, and I'm told that the Select mini-mart at the gas station nearby has some secretly excellent coffee. Do I really need anything else in my 'hood?
And that, my friends, is why 107 is where it's AT.

07 January 2009

it's not all about the kreppa

One of my latest peeves has nothing to do with the grand sweeping global economic woes- it has to do with my grocery shopping. My local Krónan is an American-sized big-box grocery store, complete with the trolleys, the vast landscape of coolers and acres of shelving. It seems that the customer demand is not in accordance with this scale though, as evidenced by the turnover in the dairy department.

In the past month I have bought 2 kinds of cheese that expired a day after I bought them, and on an expedition for mozzarella I found that every single package they had on the shelves was expired. Now I have become diligent about checking the dates every single time I buy something, but even that is insufficient- I came home on Monday with a tub of blue cheese sauce that hadn't been sealed properly at the factory and was completely consumed by interesting fuchsia mold. A fascinating science experiment but a sore disappointment for my pepper steak that would have been so much better with a dollop.

I don't remember having this many troubles back when I lived in Boston- perhaps it was due to the dense population of the neighborhood surrounding my store, perhaps it's the super-processed nature of almost everything in the US means it is less likely to go funky. Whatever the reason, consider this a warning to any of you who are new to shopping in an Icelandic grocery store. Check those tomato packages for the one that might have split and is fuzzy, test that cucumber for soft spots, and always, always check every single expiration date.

04 January 2009

In the wood

So I spent the Christmas in Germany, enfolded in the traditions, food, and family in southern Bavaria. It was a time of steely gray skies, all the better to enjoy the mulled wine in the famous Christmas Market, to enjoy the sausages, paired as gravely with specific types of mustard as a Frenchman would ponder his cheese and wine matching. It was a warm candle-lit chaos of German and English and music and museums and a dozen kinds of jam and a lot of books, all the things a holiday ought to be. I'd had the idea of being there the first time I saw the massive Medieval church where the Christmas eve service was held, and as we came out the doors onto the cobblestone square, surrounded by hugging people and pealing bells, I knew it had been the right choice in spite of the chaos that comes with three native languages and many branches of family. I do have to advise against the smoked beer if anyone gets curious though. It was probably the only fail on the food front from the entire week.

And during the downtimes, I bonded with my newest love in Germany, the forest. It's apparently quite a sacred part of German life, since every time I turned on to the paths in the dark wood near S's mom's house, I encountered all sorts of people, walking dogs, riding bikes, riding horses, or just meandering.

I should clarify that forests in Germany are not the riotous opportunistic jungles of New England. Rather, they are mysterious and orderly, and in this place laced with sandy paths and ancient moss-covered sandstone quarries, the source for much of the building material for nearby Nurnberg. This is the landscape that calls to mind all the spooky forested fairy tales of Grimms, tall slender pine trees, so densely packed that little more than blueberries grow at the foot of the trees. Along the way while running there, I came upon small shelters, many benches, and a network of carefully numbered birdhouses. The paths were all marked with a complexity beyond my American mind, to explain what type of transport was allowed (horses, bikes, people) and what tiny village would appear through the trees eventually.

All the running turned out to also be just the thing to counteract the deliciousness of all the food- the goose, the sausages and reindeer steaks, the cheese, the cookies and chocolates. Yes, it was all the things Christmas ought to be- family, food, and forest.

01 January 2009

Veuve and rockets

New years in Iceland remains one of the most exuberant places to start things off with a bang. S and I returned from Germany in time to do it right, landing in the midst of the preliminary experimental explosions that are part of the dark days between Christmas and the 6th of January.

But first, I had to sing in the gamlárskvöld mass in the church, an enthusiastic and relaxed service that ended with a flurry of kisses and hugs. Then we all assembled to drink a champagne toast, to sing the beautiful Icelandic national anthem (for the uninitiated, it's a four-part hymn that's sung infrequently, not at all like the American anthem that opens every baseball game), and then to explode a few fireworks while we all stood outside and sang some more.

We then went to a party of people that have been meeting every few months for parties that are always excellent- good food, interesting people, lots of conversation, and a perfect location just below Hallgrimskirkja. At midnight we all went out into the street while S and G took on the duties of firemasters. We exploded cakes, we exploded rockets, popped confetti bottles, lit whizzing pinwheels, waved sparklers, and generally created the experience of the American Revolution by clogging the street in a haze of gunpowder. All around us, the fizz of launching rockets exploded overhead as we worked through the boxes.

And then, when we all got cold enough, back inside for more food, more champagne, and more conviviality. Iceland hasn't lost the spirit at all, and with an arrival like that, I can't help but feel like good things are still to come.