02 February 2013

wintry weekend

Back in December, my company had the (first!) annual Christmas dinner, an essential work tradition for any Icelandic company. Since our headquarters are located in Akureyri, I went up a few days early to work in the office before the Saturday party. I've always been in Akureyri either for work or on my way through to somewhere more remote, with an occasional stop to stock up on groceries or wine, so I was excited to have a full unplanned day with nothing to do but explore the town.

I woke late on Saturday after the  boisterous next-door neighbors partied late in to the night, and with the persistent December darkness, I wasn't in much of a hurry anyway. The day, when it finally dawned, promised to be snowy but much warmer than Friday's -14c - just right for a nice long walk. I'd planned to visit the industrial museum which listed a 2-hour window it was open, only on Saturdays.

First essential stop was of course coffee, at the bookstore café, where I added a muffin to my cappuccino, browsing through the knitting book collection as I finished off my rather lazily late breakfast. I then buttoned into my magically impervious vintage American military coat and headed south, deeper into the fjord and towards the industry museum. Along the way I passed my old office and the grand old theater building, then descended into my new favorite part of the town, the old seaside village where the houses are tiny, low-ceilinged, and cheerfully painted.

The lightly falling snow meant the day never fully broke through the clouds, but in the dim blueness, the holiday decorations were all the more festive. Every house had something on offer- ropes of lights hung in heart shapes in windows, white fairy-light wreaths, a snowman newel-post, or a glimpse of a decorated tree inside the house. At the edge of the old town, I took a snow-rutted footpath beyond the skating arena to my ultimate destination, the Icelandic industry museum. My colleagues had been telling me all week about how Akureyri had been a bustling production town, with a soap factory, locally produced shoes, and all manner of other interesting things, so I was really thrilled to check the place out.

Unfortunately, despite the door prominently displaying the opening hours, I found no sign of life within or without, and after inspecting the many mysterious machines lying silently under an increasing blanket of snow, I retraced my footsteps idly. As I wandered back the way I came, I passed the Akureyri museum, a short hill-climb behind an old church. Despite my skepticism that it would actually be open, I climbed the hill anyway, to find the door open and a cheerful youth inside at the desk. He proffered the guestbook, saying that until Christmas it was free entry, so I shrugged off my coat and plunged into the history of the area through three thoroughly documented rooms of photos. My favorite photo series was that of the Italian fruit vendor who introduced some skeptical farmers to kiwis ("what are these, fuzzy potatoes?") in the 80s.

Opposite the photo rooms, the main galleries displayed artefacts and stories from the earliest settlements through the mid 20th century. I learned about soap manufacturing, the area's days as a trading post, and the style of houses enjoyed by the wealthy and endured by the poor. By then it was nearing 4 and I felt conspicuous as the only visitor, so I thanked the desk fellow and headed back to my guesthouse.

A few hours later, dressed in holiday best, I met my colleagues at the evening's venue, an old storage building for one of the early stores in the area that I had just learned about in the museum. The place has been refurbished elegantly and can be hired out for receptions or meetings, and in the wintry gloom, candle-lit and set for dinner, it was a great place to celebrate what has been an amazing year with the company. It's been a year of exploration and new experiences, both at work and in this small fjordside town. Akureyri was a delight the first time I visited in 2005, and it has only become more firmly rooted in my heart since then, even in the depth of winter.