06 September 2010

localized memory loss

Last Thursday night the first real autumnal weather arrived, a howling wind that spattered rain on the bedroom windows and tore leaves from the trees. It roared all day Friday, bringing with it a strange high mist that blurred the edges of the landscape. Along with rain, this wind blew in the memory of Iceland when it's not summer.

Every year as soon as the darkness disappears in late spring, the recollection that most of the time Iceland is a dark and moody place also disappears. Surely it's always this warm and gentle and green and delicious smelling, isn't it? And then June and July and the beginning of August roll along, months of camping without the need for flashlights, sunlit afternoons at the pool, runs along the sea without the need for hats and gloves. Iceland is a great place to live! The only place to be!

When I moved to the new apartment in June, there wasn't even a need to buy lamps. The ones I'd had before worked fine in the only spot they were useful- late night bedtime reading. The living room's southern exposure meant it was plenty light pretty constantly until mid-August. That's when the rather decent night view revealed itself- the glowing mushroom underside appearance of the university science building, the twinkle of lights at Bessastaðir and is that Garðabær over there? It was also time for a lamp or two to create the cozy feeling that makes up the other half of Iceland, time for candles and wool blankets and knitting and books and pots of tea, a time when the feeling of summer's endlessness is what gets forgotten.

This selective memory loss isn't just about the seasons though. I've experienced it in the landscape as well, when travelling through some of the country's more amazing landscapes. I can never pick which is really my favourite waterfall since the one I am currently at seems like it absolutely must be the best. At different times this year I've been certain my favourite must be Gullfoss, no, maybe Aldeyjarfoss, did I mention Háifoss, or perhaps the river above Skógar, and did I forget the secret snack spot in the highlands? They're all so differently amazing that it's impossible to choose just one.

Life should be about enjoying the moments as they happen, not spending it always thinking tomorrow will be better, or yesterday was when it was really good. Iceland certainly strives to remind me of that in so many ways, nearly every day.

01 September 2010

straight from the land

For Saturday's lunch I had an omelet covered with mushrooms I'd just picked. Iceland's got all kinds of interesting mushrooms sprouting up this time of year and I figured some of them must be edible but wasn't daring enough to figure it out on my own. So, I recruited a friend and longtime reader S for some help. She's trained in the forests of Germany, a country that seems to have made a national habit of the hunting of the shroom, so I offered a ride anywhere she wanted in exchange for advice. When the weather promised sunny on Saturday, we packed up and headed to her favorite spot which also happens to be the stands of birch near her office on the edge of town.

We parked in the empty lot and within a minute she'd spotted our first mushroom, a small birch bolete. She explained some of the amateur rules of mushroom hunting as we zig-zagged through the trees, such as if no other creature wants to eat it (birds, mice, worms and slugs), you probably don't want to either. The birch boletes were plentiful in the area, but by the time they'd grown large enough to spot easily, were infested with worms. Still, we managed to spot a few near the bases of the birches by looking for the brown cap pushing through the grass, and looking for the telltale black-flecked stem.

She also pointed out a few of another type with bright yellow pore-underside, the suede bolete. These were equally infested with interesting creatures when we found large specimens, but a few smaller untouched ones made it into the box. S explained that the Icelandic climate was not ideal with all the moisture- it seemed to make the worms more enthusiastic. Furthermore, the forested areas aren't like German forests- there tends to still be grass and other undergrowth around which obscures the best small specimens and collects more moisture, thus encouraging worm occupation.

With only a small handful of edibles found, we decided to turn to another late-summer hobby here, the blueberry gathering. Our immediate area proved fruitless so I called my knowledgeable friend J who gave us precise instructions for a berry paradise. A short drive later down a bumpy gravel road, through some seeding lupines, we came to an abandoned dog agility course where the road ended. We jumped out and found ourselves ankle deep in blueberries. Over the hill it was even more prolific, berries tucked between pine and birch, crowberries crawling over the rocks, and everywhere, the lovely herbed smell of a sun-warmed Icelandic hillside.

We scrambled up the steep hill, pausing for the good bushes, talking as we went, until the benevolent sun and the challenge of picking while standing on a near-vertical hillside caused us to fall silent. It was a treacherous picking spot, despite its friendly smells and fruit-laden bushes, so both of us had moments where our footing gave way and we sledded down to the next lava-rock hole or tangled with one of the (extremely prickly) stubby pines. Nevermind, all par for the course when picking berries in the wilds of Iceland. Who cares with such a view, on a sunny day with the knowledge that it might be the last in a long while? The end of August brings about this special kind of urgency to beautiful days- the darkness has returned and with it the memory that winter is fast closing in.

That evening for dessert, we ate the blueberries in large bowls, drizzled with cream and sprinkled with brown sugar. I'd thought of baking something elaborate but this is how we've ended up always eating the berries here. Why mess with perfection?

I'd like to also thank Maria for her generous support of the photo portion of this blog effort. Readers like her are one of the reasons I keep posting.

27 August 2010

downtown love

I'm in my third month of being a downtown girl again, and after this last weekend, I think I'm a fan. My brother was in town for the weekend, one of the best in the whole Reykjavík activity calendar. First on the program, the Reykjavík marathon, a great race that offers distances for all types of runners- 3k for the kids and purely recreational folks, 10k and half marathon for the more ambitious, and the full marathon for the hardcore folks.

After much encouraging from S last year I'd done the half and had enjoyed it enough to decide to go for it again. We convinced my bro to sign up for the 10k on the spur of the moment as we were picking up our race packs on Friday evening, so when Saturday morning dawned, we all were suiting up in our race gear. We drank the special German dissolving mineral tablets for extra energy, and then moseyed down to the starting line (see, bonus feature of living in 101!).

This race is great for the scenery and fresh cool temperatures, because it's almost completely flat, and because the course offers plenty of viewing and cheering spots for spectators. We all start off by running over the bridge across Tjörnin, then out towards the university and down a street that seems to have made a reputation for being the pots-and-pans cheering street. From there it runs along the southern side of the peninsula out to Seltjarnarnes before crossing to the northern bay view. Along the street heading north, an old group of dudes had set up a band on the street and were playing cheerful blues tunes as we ran by (applauding them, of course). The course then turns back to the center of town, passing downtown to follow the edge of the bay to the working harbour area where cruise ships, grain ships, cargo ships are all lined up. Then, there's the one gentle uphill in the course before turning back and running the last painful kilometers to the center of town again.

My friend H had her rollerblades out that day so she popped up a few times to cheer, along with our friend S who cycled along the course to provide much-needed encouragement in the long stretch after the halfway mark. This, combined with a beautifully sunny day and only a smidge of breeze made the race really an amazing experience and I finished with the determination that I will definitely do this race as long as I'm living here.

After the race we all toddled home slowly to grab swim gear and go laze in the rooftop hotpot in our local pool, along with all the other runners- my locker room was full of women bearing the telltale red marks of sports bras rubbing shoulders and ribcages raw over long distances. Next, the traditional post-race hamburger & beer at Vegamót before we hobbled home to rest.

One of the few unfortunate things about this marathon is that it's on the same day as the most thrilling day in Reykjavík, a full program of cultural events of every sort imaginable- music to suit any ear, food, art exhibits, theater, historical walks, and street markets of all flavours. My brother and I lazed in the sunny living room for a few hours, listening to the thrum of activity outside before we worked up the energy to climb the hill to Hallgrímskirkja where a massive choral festival was in progress. Choirs from countries ringing the Baltic sea were in attendance, and we arrived just in time to hear an incredibly skilled Danish choir perform. Sitting in a late-arriving shaft of sunlight, tired from the race and in cozy family companionship while perfectly executed music washed over the audience was exactly the right way to spend the hours approaching evening.

We listened to a few more acts until a shy Greenlandic choir took the stage in their traditional costume, embroidered leggings and all. They seemed new to the traveling performance experience, a directorless choir with a minimal repertoire, so we stayed for a few songs in encouragement, then departed for other venues. My brother had mentioned wanting to take home some local music so we stopped at 12 tónar on our way down the hill where he dove into the experience of this great shop with enthusiasm. Sipping on red wine while tucked into their snug basement listening corner, we swapped discs back and forth until we'd found just the right CDs for him to take home.

Then, we wandered down the street a bit further, past the discarded trousers and shoes that were apparently installed to test our preconceived notions (of what, I can't say), through the crowd listening to a typical girl-with-a-guitar sound, down to where 2 extremely young DJ types were mixing some infectious rhythms. Some kind of performance was happening on a balcony so we paused before returning up the street via one of the noodle soup shops there. I'd heard this place was good and the crowd inside seemed to support it so we ordered 2 bowls of the beef and weren't disappointed. The meat is tender, the broth rich, the sprouts nice and crunchy, and the hotness the right temperature to warm you up on an August evening as darkness descends over town.

And then, home. We passed the streets full of illegally parked cars that were getting thoroughly covered with parking tickets, just like they'd threatened to do in the news. It was good to be able to walk home, and also avoid what was probably the biggest traffic jam of the year as everyone tried to leave after the fireworks were over. At that time we were all sitting in a row on the couch with wine and specially imported Reese's Pieces (note: do not go well with wine but are still deeeelicious when not having had them for a year). Yes, life downtown has its great days.

29 July 2010


this post inspired by Maya's comment about the smells of Iceland

A few days ago we had unusual weather for Iceland- a light, low drizzle with absolutely no wind, the kind of day that I think is perfect for walking. I threw on my trusty Iceland-made raincoat and headed out towards Öskuhlíð's tiny forest. The path there is close with pine trees and moss, all sharply scented in the mist.

From there I came out near the thermal beach at Nauthólsvík, where the delicious dinner smells from the newish café there wafted across the path. Then came the sweet smell of the white clover that clusters along the airport fence. A plane came in to land overhead, along with a cloud of jet fuel. Moving on, I came to the stretch where one can look over Bessastaðir and the completely slack sea. The water there is so clear I could see ducks as they dove on their underwater path through the seaweed. To the right, rainwashed rose bushes gave off velvety clouds of perfume, their heads heavy with water. Then comes the grassy stretch on the other side of the airport where they'd just mowed the soccer fields on both sides- warm and grassy smell there.

Further on I turned onto Sörlaskjöl, past houses hiding behind the pointed sharp smell of arctic birches, and then through the center of Seltjarnarnes. The walking path continues beyond the pool and heads through a thicket of sea grass, fresh and airy in the drizzle. I passed the golf course and detoured through the beach where the eider chicks have grown up so much they look like adults, but still peep like babies. A few wading birds scurried along the lackluster tide, but the smell of the Atlantic was strong and familiar from all my summers on Martha's Vineyard.

Turning at the lighthouse I wandered past the rank reek of seaweed in low tide, beyond the miniature seaside hotpot to the part where nothing smelled particularly interesting but the view was enough to keep me busy. To my left, Esja with a loaded cargo ship gliding in, straight ahead the skyline of Reykjavík, still happily dominated by Hallgrímskirkja (and not skyscrapers), to my right a dilapidated garage where a band was raging through a song that definitely did not need more cowbell.

To finish off I took the sneak-path that leads almost directly to the pool in Vesturbaer, then past my old house (new pavement smell near there), then through the park near Tjörnin where it was already so late they'd turned off the fountain spray. When I got home it was well and truly dark and my three hours of walking made me drowsy and happy to be inside with a hot cup of tea.

In other news of this walk, I finally also saw Björk in her native habitat. It's often one of the first questions people ask when I say I live in Iceland and until now I've had to reply that I hadn't spotted her in spite of living in the same neighborhood for years. At the beginning of my walk she passed me on a bike wearing gold sparkle shoes, blue velvet leggings, and enormous headphones, doing her usual Björk face contortions. She passed me short after going back towards her house, apparently just out to enjoy the misty air like I was.

22 July 2010

exploration at a different pace

One of my favorite mini features of the pools here is the hlaupakort (running map). It's not exactly the kind of thing one goes expressly to visit at the pool but I think it's a brilliant idea. Each swimming pool has a large map tacked to the wall by the door where they've described running loops that start and end there, marked with distances and a short explanation of how to do it and what kind of terrain it offers. The map's available on their website too, so if you're in the mood to try something different, it's easy to pick something there.

Today I decided that although I love my usual loop through Öskuhlíð and by the sea, it was time to explore a new neighborhood, so off to Grafarvogslaug went I. It's one of the unsung great pools, with a splendid Esja view, an extremely calm and spotless lap pool, and one of the most thrilling waterslides in town (it's totally enclosed most of the way so you're riding in total darkness oooo). It also happened to have a nice short running loop that promised to be auðrötuð (a word that I don't know and haven't yet found the definition for in my usual methods). Sounds fun.

I set off into the unknown and found that the area behind the pool was laced with walking paths that went behind yards strung with laundry and smelling of grilling lamb. The path I was on dropped quickly to the bay that gives the neighborhood its name where the pavement turned to gravel and then dove into a tiny birch and lupine forest (of typical icelandic proportions, the trees were about twice as high as me). After a short distance the trees disappeared to the right and I could view the whole bay and a small open-fronted hut that I stopped in to inspect. The walls inside were plastered with information on all the birds in the area, depicted in both summer and winter garb and a paragraph describing their habits. Cool!

Off I went again, crossing the broad river entering the sea via a pedestrian bridge that was handily suspended between the two lanes of the road overhead, and then looping back towards my starting point. As with other running loops I've tried, there was the setup if you wanted to do some pushups or situps on a dry platform, and then back to the pool I went.

Overall I have been quite surprised and impressed by the thoughtfulness that can be found in these rather ordinary spots of the town. Great paths, spots for extra workouts, bird watching huts, and planning for bikes and walkers makes me really enjoy living here. Plus, exploring a place via running paths gives everything a whole new dynamic. S and I have gone running in odd places in Germany and it definitely has given me a different feeling for the place than I would have if I'd just gone for the usual tourist visit. After today's explore I'm also excited to try the running loops from other suburban pools. I've got sea, they've got trees.

22 June 2010

Calabrese Concerts

Here we are on an even year so that meant choir trip again! This year we returned to Italy, to Calabria, where the choir director's wife P comes from. She'd arranged a marvel of a trip that left us all breathless with the pace of everything but certainly having seen as wide a variety of landscape as can be achieved in just 7 days.

We flew to Bologna and then to Lamezia Terme, then by bus to our hotel, a network of holiday apartments situated on a cliff facing the sea and Stromboli's menacing silhouette on the horizon. To get to the beach, we sauntered down a path trimmed with geraniums and exotic, unrecognizable plants where lizards skittered underneath, then through a lemon grove to the lovely white sand beach. It was a properly European beach so our hotel had its own squadron of parasols and beach chairs, all striped the same and blazoned with its name. Certainly civilized. Of course everyone went crazy absorbing sun, taking lemons from the grove, floating in the aquamarine water, and relishing the delicious simple wines.

Calabria is a wonder of cultivation, and P had selected restaurants and trips that ensured we'd see the maximum marvels of the area. The area where we were was chock full of fields growing the famous red onions, tomatoes, olives, lemons, hot peppers, grapes. Hedges of rosemary bloomed everywhere, and the roadsides were choked with mint. The many dinners we had together took well advantage of this, serving up local seafood flavored with all the abundant vegetables and herbs. One place we went to, called Agriturismo Villani, served only food that had been grown and prepared in the immediate region- fresh sheep cheeses, hams of all sorts, glorious firm eggplants roasted and drizzled in olive oil, zucchini blossoms & frittatas. Served with a view of the sea or in an ancient courtyard ringed with flowering hedges, it was an unforgettable experience.

Between all the eating we held three concerts, each in a different sort of church with its own acoustics. In Tropea, a tiny seaside village, the mayor of the town attended and we were filmed for the local news as we sang in their "cathedral" (stop imagining Notre Dame and downscale a lot). In Lamezia Terme we sang in the lemon-colored Rococo church where P and the director had gotten married, and the audience was full of P's relatives. In Gerace, a medieval city perched on a hill, we sang in a church built by the Normans nearly a thousand years ago. The building, the largest religious building in Calabria, threw our song up into the rafters so that it was as loud in the back as it was next to us, but we could barely hear the person next to us singing. We sang on the ferry from Sicily, we sang in the peaceful church amid the pines at Certosa, a monastary high in the hills. We sang in the mass at Lamezia Terme on the day of a festival where the street had been converted into a market selling pistachio cookies, slices of coconut, nuts & candied fruits, and all sorts of other baubles.

This part of Italy is definitely not easy to get to or to explore, especially the way we were doing it. We had several bus mishaps due to the twisted hairpin roads that interlace the spine of this part of the country, and other than two disgruntled women from New Orleans, I met not a single other American. The beach where we were was mostly filled with Italian holiday-goers except for one Russian family, and it was pretty clear that almost everywhere we went it was not a place that tourists tended to visit. The only exception was Taormina, a village in Sicily that's been frequented by famous foreigners for some time now. After having been traipsing the streets of Lamezia Terme, it was a bit odd to be in a place where there were signs in German and people could speak a few words of English. That's where I skipped out on the museum and wandered down the narrow streets until I found the public garden, a marvel of follies and topiary hedges where Italian kids piled upon each other in giggling heaps, and the view of Etna and the curving coastline was framed by cedar trees and a fluorescent bougainvillea hedge in full bloom.

Unlike the first trip to Italy where I was lost and lonely in the language, and where I didn't have the proper summer travel clothes, I could speak and understand enough to actually grasp what was going on. It also helped to have light summer dresses and sandals that can handle the cobblestones and narrow streets. On our last day in Bologna I remembered the afternoon 4 years ago when I'd been alone and sweltering in Bologna, not sure what to do except wait for the bus to the airport. This time I lunched with a delightful group of people (oh, such pizza!), explored with enthusiasm, and absorbed the vibrancy of the city with happiness before one last ice cream and then back to the airport. Overall it was one of the most memorable choir trips ever. I returned slightly more brown, with a suitcase full of lemons and delicious jams and liqueurs, my Icelandic markedly better, and having shared an incredible experience with an extremely varied group. That's what travel should be about.

20 June 2010

lucky number seven

I've just completed the move into my seventh home in Reykjavík, back in my original moved-to-Iceland postcode, and a few blocks from this place. It's a lovely old house from the 1930s with graceful proportions and funny little details like a frosted glass window on the narrow bathroom door, and a pantry. Unlike my last apartment, the ceilings here are so high I can only see into a third of the kitchen cupboards, so I'm no longer ducking to get to my fridge or closet.

One of the grand things about this neighborhood is that it's old enough to have proper vegetation, so the view from the kitchen window to the back is a jungle of berry bushes, tall trees, shrubs, rhubarb, and cats that prowl through the underbrush. From the front of the house the view is bounded by the mountains to the southeast, with bits of ocean visible between the cute houses opposite. It's a street I remember walking down in 2005 on my way to the immigration office, never imagining that someday I would occupy one of these lovely places.

Our downstairs neighbors have lived here for decades- he's been in the house since he was 3 and he's now in his 80s. They've got a book binding room and a Finnish sauna in the basement, and the garden overflows with plants I didn't know could live happily here, like deep pink peonies that are blooming now against the warm stone wall of the house. It's a lovely place to live.

Since returning to this neighborhood I've returned to Sundhöllin as my local pool, a spot that seems most frequented by tourists who wander lost in the mysterious maze that is the locker room. These mini-dressing rooms are one of my favorite elements of this pool, as well as the generously sized hot tub on the roof with views over the city (and into the apartment opposite once occupied by a friend). I've noticed that the locals who go there seem to have certain locker loyalties, so while I'm lacing up my shoes I overhear the classic old pool-going men specifically asking for locker sixty-two please. I haven't noticed any particular difference in the lockers, other than the importance to get a high number so as to avoid the boring overflow lockers, so I do wonder what the attraction is.

But back to lucky number seven, where I am typing this while watching the little calico cat that lives opposite prowling the territory, and admiring the flowering trees that line the street. I've realized that with the exception of my first home here, I've always had a view- a snippet of mountain, a sheen of sea, maybe both. It can spoil a girl to have a couch oriented so that the seagulls and the airshow are all on display. This is why there's no need for a TV- an open windowshade is all I need.

I'm still finding out about the neighborhood essentials though. Yesterday en route home from downtown I found a video store, and there's a bakery that seems heavy on the chocolate-themed baked goods but not so much on the breakfast staples, but I'm still hunting for the last-minute-open-late shop. Plenty of guesthouses and hotels around though, and we certainly don't lack for tourists because of that. It's a great place to walk around, full of architecture that varies from late 19th century to a few more modern 70s looking places, trimmed with charming gardens and friendly cats patrolling their section of pavement. The only downside is that I've had to learn how to parallel park properly for the first time in my life. Can't have it all, I guess.

18 April 2010

in the name of science

Yesterday was a perfect clear sunny spring day, so S decided it was time to see if he could collect samples of the volcanic ash for his research institute. We headed south along the ring road, passing the cars collected at Hellisheiði, and all along the road pass Selfoss who'd pulled over to gape at the plume that was so crisply visible on the horizon. From 70 km away it seemed surreal, beautiful and painted on the horizon, a clear plume etched above a perfectly white mountain. Hard to believe it's causing so much damage everywhere.

But, to collect samples we had to get closer, so at Hvolsvöllur, we stopped at the first road block on rte 1 where Björgunarsveit informed S he had to talk to the local police for permission to pass into the dust zone. S came out of the police station with a big grin and a hand-scrawled note on one of his business cards. Permission to enter, and a phone number if we had troubles. Then, we turned into Fljótshlíð along the same road where we'd gone to visit the first eruption. Flagged past the road block there, we entered a new kind of ghostly landscape, nearly devoid of humans, with only a sprinkling of horses munching below the menacing plume in front of us.

Second checkpoint came before the dubiously slouchy bridge that had survived the flood, the old single-lane bridge across Markarfljót. There, the license number was noted down and we were waved across the bridge into the territory where the floods had raged through. The land there was guttered with deep channels, embedded with ice chunks, and totally barren of human activity. We passed Seljalandsfoss, normally choked with tourists, now empty and oddly thin on water volume. A bit further, the picnic spot where families had gathered two weeks ago, now barren, with the picnic tables rucked up crazily against the hillside by the now-subsided flood.

When we came to the intersection with rte 1 again, the road to the right was totally missing, a channeled expanse of mud peppered with ice chunks in its place. To the left, an improvised track climbed over a levee and continued on the still-intact portion of the ring road. We passed a few people there- some camera men, some photographers, an occasional other vehicle emerging from the darkness ahead.

In front of us, the dust cloud rose like an evil tidal wave, pouring down brown from the glacier to our left and surging towards the sea and the Westman Islands. Spirals of dust rose up from the road, and the fields on both sides were monochromatically gray under the thick coating. We drove in only as far as needed to a place where the dust was scoopably thick along the roadside, then S turned so that he'd open the car door on the lee side. Out he went, while the rest of us waited in the closed car, breathing through masks and watching the gloom slide over the mountains.

Iceland is already a fairly sparsely populated place, but to be somewhere like this that would normally be full of tourists and traffic was creepy. The landscape was silent except for the ash blowing down the mountain, and the scrape of S's scoop on the pavement as he collected ash outside. After 15 minutes or so, he'd filled his bucket with a few kilos and we zipped out from under the ash cloud, pausing to examine the chunks of glacier that had washed out on the mud, to watch the repair work on the road, and then to watch the plumes of ash ejecting furiously from the eruption site. As we watched, lightning zapped from particles to the glacier, and sparks of red and white lit up spots within the cloud. This was no fluffy friendly cloud up closer- the density looked more like cauliflower than a cloud, and the sediment raining down from each new ejection was clearly visible in long sheets falling to the ground. At the edge of the crater, a thick carpet of ash was crisply delineated against the remaining portion of the glacier, still cleanly white.

From there we returned to Hvolsvöllur to wash up and eat at the N1 there. Unlike the previous volcano trip when we stopped there, there were no tour busses, no crowds jamming the grill line. Just a few photographers had taken the tables facing towards the eruption, where with telephoto lenses and wireless they were broadcasting photos to the world. We had a nice chat with the guy at the counter who told us all that our Icelandic was so nice, the coffee was free, and then from there back to Vegamót were D&J picked up their car to head home.

Compared to the last eruption, this one is spooky, unpredictable and not tourist friendly, so the opportunity to get this close was extremely fascinating. I took plenty of photos which are here.

26 March 2010

hot views

By now I'm sure everyone's heard of the latest excitement to reach us here on the island. The volcano at Fimmvörduháls has even been covered by the revered news service at Fox to the delight and amuseument of most people here.

So yesterday when the weather was clear and spring-like, S and I skipped out of the office early to see what we could see. At Hvolsvöllur we turned on to route 216, following a string of Jeeps making their way into the river valley. Blithely ignoring the several "road closed" signs, we followed the road through two river crossings and through increasingly bumpy and muddy terrain until we found friends J & D who'd come earlier to hike.

On the way in, our first indication of excitement ahead was a massive plume of smoke drifting gently seawards. The closer we got, the more clearly we could see the individual belches of smoke that dissolved as the expanded skyward and floated over the glacier. Even closer, the lava spurts became clearly visible, the tongues leaping high in the air from the left side of the newly-forming mountain.

We'd hoped to cross the mighty Markarfljót but in its springtime fury and with a rather light vehicle that might have floated in the fast water, we stayed on the far side and just walked across the tundra until we reached the river's edge. We settled on a bluff above the river, about 7km away from the explosion's center, and unpacked the goodies. J & D, experienced and efficient nature travellers, had come with crispbread, cream cheese, avocado, and tabasco, so we layered up some sandwiches and picnicked as we watched.

The location is already known for being tremendously beautiful, a long river valley edged by mountains and topped with glaciers, opening south-westward towards the sea and the setting sun. With only a gentle breeze and the full sun on our sides, the addition of these fireworks was almost too much to handle. We passed the binoculars along our line, watching the lava as it shot skyward, then solidified and tumbled down to the newly forming mountain. We watched the dozens of small planes, the helicopters as they circled. We inspected the tires and size of the vehicles that did make it across the river, and counted the people who'd hiked to the top of a nearer mountain for a close view. We tried to describe the effect of the lava- was it more like a blow torch, a snowgun at a mountain resort shooting off something quite the opposite temperature?

Mostly we just stared and tried to take at least some photos that would capture how remarkable the sight was, grateful to be here to bear witness to such a phenomenon. As dusk began to fall and the sunset lit up the smoke plume pinkly, we decided we simply had to stay long enough to experience the colours in the dark, so we waited and watched, observing that the plumes of lava seemed to be spreading. When we first arrived, only the left side had been visibly active, but in the dark the whole ridge was alight, burning above us like a Lord of the Rings signal fire.

Finally, just before total darkness, we trekked back across the jumbled landscape and to the cars again, wary of crossing rivers in total darkness. We shouldn't have worried though- the entire route back was well illuminated by the hundreds of people who'd come out to see the scene. The crowds and vehicles were reminiscent of some fourth of july fireworks spectacle, except in puffy coats and hats instead of light summer dresses. After we crossed back over the first river crossing, the crowds became even deeper- tour busses with little footstools set out for the comfort of the tourists, dozens of cars not river-worthy, and hordes of people marching through the tundra. Mania of such a proportion I have never witnessed in such a relatively remote area.

And then, the 2 hour drive back in the dark, during which I kept looking back to see just how long the eruption would be visible. Past Hella, I could still see back for kilometers, the bright orange plume rising high above the low, flat lights of the few farms we passed. At Selfoss it was finally swallowed by the dark night and all seemed finished. But then, as we passed through the snow-striped heath at Hellisheiði, a pale arc of northern lights swept through the sky. Perfectly ended.

01 March 2010

not done yet

Over the past few months there's been some serious Iceland-or-not debate going on here, and for a while I thought I might be leaving the country. And yet, I'm still here and plan to stay for a while. Based on the world media and the currency and the dirty politicianing it might seem like the last place someone would choose to stay, particularly since I arrived here by following someone else's dream of living here.

And yet, over the past nearly-five years, it's somehow become my own place. Living in a foreign country with a fairly obscure language and sometimes a mysteriously different culture can be frustrating at times but there's just so much here that's impossible to find in one place anywhere else. Most of these are the sorts of things that don't cost money. For example, during my time here I've worked in three different offices, and each one has had sweeping views of mountains and bay. It's not possible to gawk at the view constantly during the work day but whenever I'm eating lunch on the Fridays when the rescue squads are practicing in the harbor, or look up while I'm on the phone to the cloud-spotted Esja, it's a spark of wonderful in my day.

At home, I can open the window on clear winter nights and take photos of the Northern Lights directly from my kitchen, resting the camera on the windowsill. Whenever it's stuffy, an open window brings a swirl of that only-in-Iceland air that's the first signal that I'm back when I arrive at the airport. It's that tap water I always miss when I'm in places like Paris, some of the most grungy-tasting water I've ever had in a major city.

On my way to work I often take the "long way", a 10 minute trip instead of 8 to my office. I wait at a stop light opposite a dry dock where I can watch the comings and goings of boat needing maintenance, then continue along a seaside road with the same huge view I enjoy all day at work. When I run, it's along similar paths where the wind is a near-constant training partner, but where the music of my run is the surf, accompanied by what might be some of the best sunrises and sunsets in the world.

A few Saturdays ago, I joined a sixsome on a trip whose goal was to hunt for hot pots and soak in as many of them as possible. Our first stop was a place I'd visited back in the autumn of 06 and hadn't been able to find again afterwards. A small shed offers basic changing room comforts, including a heated floor. From there, two different pots offer soaking options, or you can lie in a shallow pool where the water spills over and admire the view of the protected valley. It was a day when the sun finally felt like it had returned after the long darkness, so I lay for as long as possible in the gravelly pool with my toes turned to the sky. This is a good way to spend the weekend.

Then, let's not forget the people I've gotten to know here and who enrich the experience immeasurably. I've gotten lucky with a work environment that provides freedom, inspiration, and a trustworthy group of people who've been great companions on so many trips to Norway, Holland, and the UK. There are the Icelandic friends who've included me into their local traditions, festivities, and families, the cheerful choristers who've given so much Icelandic practice and companionship on trips all over the world. Then, there are the friends from other lands I've made here that can commiserate on how odd it can be as a foreigner here. Many of them have moved away but the connections continue as they revisit Iceland or I visit their new homelands.

The future here is definitely a bit unknown and the situation may require reassessment as the battles over IceSave and EU membership resolve, but for the time being I'm soaking up the returning sun and the dazzling view over the turquoise ocean to the snowed mountains. Simple things like that are what make life worthwhile to me.