21 October 2013

to be continued...

I haven't stopped writing entirely, but my other project has thus far not had such a cohesive theme as this blog. It's been a collection of thoughts that didn't fit here for the past two years, and continues to be where anything non-Icelandic goes.

For anyone interested in reading further, see here. I'll update whenever something entertains or amuses, so keep it in your feed for sporadic surprises.

19 October 2013

on the flipside

Last month I returned to Iceland as a visitor for the first time since I moved. It was a work trip so after landing in KEF, I went straight north to Akureyri. After a refreshing evening at Kea following the best Arctic Indian food you’ll ever find, I was work-ready. My company’s hired some Portuguese contractors, so this was their intensive training week and introduction to All Things Icelandic (snow-related mishap+superjeep rescue included). After several long workdays in the northern office with the dev team, they’re back in their local office, working remotely like I am.

When people who’ve never been to Iceland come visit, Icelanders generally put on quite the hospitable show, and this was no exception. On the second evening there, coworker B opened his house to us, and he and V started in on the cooking straight after work. I set off from the hotel with the Portuguese contingency, three regular smokers used to city living. I’d warned them that we had a 2.5 km walk ahead of us, and they gamely trudged on despite the steeply sloped dirt road we had to climb near the end. All three of them were perfect gentlemen determined to keep pace with me, now well trained on Norwegian hillsides.

We arrived to busy preparations for the usual impress-the-visitors meal- lobster prepared in copious amounts of garlic, butter, and parsley, V’s special potatoes (each potato is prepared with thin vertical cuts almost to the bottom across the whole potato, then roasted while constantly bathing it in oil), and of course, grilled lamb steaks with a generous dollop of béarnaise. I was in charge of the salad preparations, but everyone pitched in with shelling lobster, mixing of sauce, setting the table, opening beers, and choosing music. One of the Portuguese guys commented that he’d never seen so many men in the kitchen before. As the only woman there, I was only too happy that I wasn’t solo preparing a meal for 11 hungry programmers.

Dessert was provided by F, one of the Portuguese guys who’s been working with us almost a year- he had port wine (“for the good times”) and another local schnapps (“for the bad times”). Both were finished before the night was over. The party broke up soon after since the next day was work as usual, but the evening was a success by all accounts.

A few days later, I flew to Reykjavik to finish up some errands. It was an unusually beautiful and clement Friday afternoon, so the streets were choked with all the usual 101 fashionable suspects. After a few months away in a rather more practical environment, the studied styles of passersby was clearly evident, and the high turnover on Laugavegur shops made for an entertaining, albeit slow trip back to my hotel.

Even staying in a hotel in Reykjavik is peculiar, having now only done it one other time. Fortunately, the place I found at a bargain price was right downtown and happens to have one of the latest in cool restaurants, Snaps, right off the lobby. After a power-hour catching up with J&D over tea in my room, I met H with plans to have dinner together. Despite the crowded and noisy atmosphere of the restaurant, we decided to give it a try and were seated with brisk efficiency right near the open kitchen. Our cheerful waitress left us to peruse the menu while we watched delicious dish after delicious dish whisk by behind us.

Both of us kept it simple and ordered exactly the same thing- cheese soufflé to start, the fish of the day, and lemon tart for dessert. H spent many years of her childhood in France, and I’m no stranger to the country either so we were delighted to find so many of our lesser-known but much loved French favorites on the menu. Fortunately, the flavors exceeded expectation, and the service was full of good humor and didn’t rush us in the slightest, despite the busy Friday crowd. We had a good long chat while interrupting ourselves with exclamations over the deliciousness of the meal.

Many hugs later, I climbed the stairs for my brief sleep before my early morning travel back to my new home. It had been an intense visit but a good one, and although I don’t regret the move, it’s excellent that I continue to have reasons to return to such a magical land.

25 June 2013

the ship has sailed

A few days ago, the piece of paper arrived at my new home that signifies I am officially no longer a resident of Iceland. The reasons for my departure are numerous, involving work possibilities, my relationship, and the need for a change after the family events of earlier this year. It's been a difficult few months, with competing interests on both sides of the Atlantic and my life suspended somewhere between. I haven't really felt like I belonged anywhere, so frequent was the flying back and forth.

The last day that felt like I was a resident in Iceland was the Sunday after the movers had come and taken away my household, when I turned the key over to my landlord for the sweet attic apartment that was home for almost four years of my life in Reykjavik. My flight was in the afternoon, so I woke early and went down to the sweep of bay that's edged by Seltjarnarnes to the left, Esja and Akrafjall to the right. It's where I saw my first sunset in Iceland that May evening in 2005, where I drove all those times going to see S, where I ran the times I did the Reykjavik half marathon, where I saw so many northern lights shows. With a coffee and a sandwich from Jói Fel in hand on that bright, chill morning, it seemed like the fitting place to sit and watch some of my last hours as a local go by.

The next few weeks were taken up in a whirlwind of cities spanning four countries, before I finally landed for good. Since then it's been a time of acclimatization, waiting for the Ice-homesickness to hit and finding it strangely absent. My new home is lovely, and since the arrival of the furniture, very cozy. Outside the door is a vast forest waiting to be explored, full of scents and plants that take me right back to my childhood in Vermont, thousands of kilometers away. After work, the luminous Scandinavian evenings stretch out invitingly, warm enough for balcony sitting, or ambling through the forest, or discovering the waterside paths that edge along the base of the hills and the river that opens into a vast fjord. The air this time of year is scented with all the things I forgot I missed- lilac, lily of the valley, that earthy, busy smell of forest underbrush after rain.

It's also fantastic to have access to all the great fresh produce that never seems to make it intact to Iceland. Cherries, fat red tomatoes, strawberries, enormous radishes, peaches, apricots. I'm burying myself in fruit nearly every day, digging up new thrills every time I go to my new favorite store, the one where all the immigrants shop. We're eating salad every day, full of new things I didn't know existed, and vegetables I forgot about.

Fortunately, I haven't had to completely sever my ties with Iceland, since I'm still working with the same great group of people who've been my work companions for the better part of my career. I'll have to go to reconnect with the head office occasionally and of course they come here, bringing me Icelandic barley and a reason to scrape the tarnish off my Icelandic speaking skills. Some of the friends here are people I met in Iceland, so there has been some reminiscing of old times back on the rock. It's nice to be around people who understand some of the mystery of my last home.

And so once again, I'm a foreigner in a new land. Despite this being technically somewhere I've never lived before, something about it feels so viscerally familiar that I'm constantly surprised that I cannot speak the language. It's partly because the place has been an undercurrent of my life for the past six years, and partly because the landscape is so comfortingly familiar. It's a weird and wild combination, this comfort mixed with excitement over the new place, bewilderment when I occasionally forget where I am, and poignancy when I wish I could tell my father about how I appreciate all the tools he gave me that are making the setting up so much easier. Not sure where this is all ultimately heading but the movement is definitely forward.

20 March 2013

in the wind

My father died a few weeks ago. In the surreal few days that followed his passing, I kept myself busy with the many logistical details that had to be handled, threw myself into cleaning and helping my family. In the back of my mind, the winds of Iceland swept through my head, holding me together until I could return to the solace of the wild winter nature.

Two nights before he died, I saw some of the most powerful northern lights I've ever witnessed from Reykjavik. The house opposite looked to be inhabited by aliens, alit with green fire from behind, and as the night progressed, the show spread across the sky with the leaping fingers of light reaching high above the city, the ribbons waving horizontally, the pulsing glow pulling energy skywards, celestial fireworks for my father. He passed less than 48 hours later. After I returned to the country, it was ten straight days of rain, the relentlessly gray skies matching my sorrow.

I knew I had to be strong for my family, for my mother in her shock at the sudden new circumstances she found herself, living alone for the first time in her life. There was no time for solace or sorrow when I was there; I had to save it for later.

When I returned to Iceland, walking from the bus in the dim morning light, I already felt readjusted as the wind sloughed off my grief and blew life into my nostrils. That weekend S took me all the way to Jökulsárlón, a 750 kilometer round trip through the rainstorm. We stopped to record videos of the wind blowing the streams of waterfalls off into mist, we paused to eat the essential road-trip-in-Iceland hamburger, we made bets over whether or not we'd be alone at the lagoon or not (I won a cake out of this bet).

At the lagoon, we paused on the glacier side briefly to inspect the floes there, then crossed quickly to the other side, where the real magic happens. The tide was coming in rapidly, furious roaring waves crashing around the crackling chunks of ice, turning Land Cruiser sized ice blocks on their side. Along the high tide mark, a neat trail of herring lay, a reminder of the recent and mysterious mass herring death. We walked out towards a long finger of sand that stretched back towards the channel, rapidly being consumed by furious tides from both sides. S braved the water to go to the end while I stayed and simply absorbed it all- the wetness of the rain, the surge of wind gusts, the sizz of sand grains rushing across the beach. I built a small cairn from the black stones that lay scattered on the beach, a beacon for my father's soul, all the while knowing that it would be soon consumed by the encroaching waters that came from both sides.

Iceland may not be where I was born or where I grew up, but it is certainly a place of healing, of cleansing, of sorrow and redemption, a place where my soul finds its center amid the chaos it may find elsewhere. In these times where my thoughts travel their darkest paths, knowing there is this place where the sea is a never ending palette of blue, where the wind is spiked with scents of lava, moss and promise has made all the difference.