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.