Jul 31 2010

Saturday Evening Post

A few select photos from our week.
Taken by me, curated & edited by Brett.

Vestmannaeyjar, off the southern coast of Iceland

Vestmannaeyjar, off the southern coast of Iceland

Seltjarnarnes, west of Reykjavik

ViÐey, an uninhabited island just north of Reykjavik

Vestmannaeyjar, off the southern coast of Iceland

Seltjarnarnes, west of Reykjavik

Hemmi og Valdi, Reykjavik

Jul 30 2010


During dinner last night we both commented that throughout this week we’ve started to feel established.  We have routines and systems that are working well.  Today starts week three.  It feels good to feel settled after a couple weeks and to know that next time some things will be even easier. And, so, perhaps now would be an appropriate time to share a bit about our days.

When we talked with people about this trip the questions we get asked revolve around how we manage to vacation for five weeks (and then we get asked about volcanos).  It’s not truly a vacation (no drinks with umbrellas, no one makes our bed but me).  We came hoping to replicate much of a normal day, week, month in July back home.  I’m off for the summer/Brett’s working.  We’ll need a new word other than vacation.

So what does that normal day look like?  There are some variations.  But, usually Brett’s up by 7.  I sleep later (which feels ok because during the school year I get up earlier. Much earlier, sigh.)

Some days we head to a coffee shop in the morning.  Brett’s said he feels incredibly productive being out of the house.  I do too.  (My favorite is still C is for Coffee.)

Work at a cafe tends to look something like this,

Or this.
You’ll notice Brett’s so focused he won’t even look up. We’re fortunate to have two laptops with us. Sometimes I read the NY Times, then I’ll dabble with a bit of Gandhi’s autobiography (so far I don’t like him all that much. I know, that’s terrible), or work on this little blog.

Perhaps we are so productive because of our fuel?
There’s often a mid-morning treat purchased to help dilute the jet fuel.

Other mornings he works from home, and (ideally) I head out for a run.  We live close to the Shore&Sculpture walk along the harbor. It can be a bit windy but it’s a glorious place to trot. Now, Brett’s the real runner and is racing in the Reykjavik Half Marathon. When I say I trot, that’s about it.

At our real house Brett works from a teak desk so it was funny to have Systa tell us that she just found a long-desired teak table for the apartment.  It’s protected by a large piece of black felt.  (You can also see the Magic Jack in action. More on that in a bit.)

Lunch is typically at home.  Then some days we go someplace after lunch (a museum or the like) for a couple hours.  Then home again and Brett finishes off any work while I write or read or tune or putter.  Some afternoons I wander off to take photos or poke around stores.

Then some dinner and a movie or a walk down to the water, or we scream at Top Chef on the bigger laptop.

Now, I have the glorious and, I realize, envious position of not having to work full time right now (hence the time to write and entertain you, dear friends). However, I was fortunate enough to receive a grant from my school to write with a co-teacher and friend, Rob.  He’s the 8th grade history teacher, I’m the 7th (there’s only one per grade at my school) and we get along pretty smashingly well.  When we applied for the grant we figured we’d sit down for a couple weeks over the summer and hammer something brilliant out (preferably someplace with A/C).

We’re both travelers and have side interests….well, really Rob does.  He’s a very well respected blues musician (with a new CD out!  It’s good!) and writes with a friend in LA and spends time each summer playing music in Japan.  Brett & I had trips to Hawaii and North Carolina as well as this little adventure (and we managed to buy a house and move too).  So, when we sat down to figure out when we’d sit down we realized we were both in Chicago at the same time for a total of, maybe, three days.

And that’s where both Brett & I are benefitting from and exploring the technologies that allow us to work.  For one, Brett got a Magic Jack.  Now, I know, I know.  It’s a As-Seen-On-TV thing.  And I was totally dubious.  But, man that thing is both awesome and weird.  It gives us a Chicago phone number and the opportunity to stay in touch.

Rob and I talked about talking on the phone to write, what Skype options we had and then stumbled onto the idea of using all the options available through our schools email interface, which is supported by Google.  So now we’ve got a shared document and had a date to video chat for today.

Hard. At. Work.

We’re both excited about writing and I also think it will be neat to share with our colleagues how we collaborated when thousands of miles away.  He leaves for Japan the 20th.  We get home the 22nd.  So I imagine we’ll keep talking when he’s in Japan, which is pretty awesome.

This successful feeling of being settled all came through negotiation and discussion.  Navigating what a work day looks like will continue to be a challenge and we’re hoping to set good boundaries and habits now so we can travel like this in the future.  There’re infinite distractions (mostly caused by me).  There’s a city to explore, things to do, walks to take.  I have such tremendous respect for Brett’s work ethic and truly, truly don’t think this trip would be at all possible if we were both wired like, well, me.  I’d probably constantly be coming up with reasons I could take a few hours off or things to do instead of finishing a project.  Not Brett.  He’s disciplined and focused.  He’s managed to carve out full work days, anywhere from 8-10 hours.  Brett’s work clients have been incredibly supportive (thanks!), and his project schedule for this trip is full.  I can only say I think there’s good reason for them to have the faith to support his travel while working and that we’re incredibly happy they bid us a cheery bon voyage.  That support is one element.  We’re still having lots of conversations about when I should tell him to unplug and come see something weird with me (oh, how I love the weird) or how to figure out what things I can go do on my own and not step on his travel toes.

We tallked before we left, we talked last night, we’ll talk more.  It’s kind of what we do.

Jul 29 2010

Our home, or the post in which I explain why I went to Ikea.

Part of our plan for this trip was to live normally in a foreign city. To not feel constantly like tourists. And so, it is of note that I did something yesterday truly, truly mundane. I went to Ikea.

Now, some backstory. Iceland, from what we can gather, digs Ikea (and if you watched the Ellen clip from a couple days ago you can see they are kindred). Our home is a delightful Ikea/Systa blend. All the things you want to be sleek and modern and clean are. The sofa, the bathroom. You don’t feel like you are sitting on something that smells like grandmothers. Then, there are these delightful artsy (many of them Systa’s) elements that help it feel like a home, so you don’t feel like you are living in an Ikea display, which let’s face it, would be weird.

If you’ve been curious, here’s our block.

And our building.

Inside, the blend of Ikea and not Ikea.

About 20 minutes after we took possession of the apartment and about 1 minute after I asked “Are you sure you don’t need help with that?” someone I live with, who will not be named but whose Icelandic name is Aðalbjörg Fridleifsson, dropped a suitcase onto one of our bedroom lamps. As it was from Ikea it was not the sturdiest and broke in half.

We searched for a replacement, since the lamp had a twin on the other side of the room.
Sad, lonely twin:

We found about a dozen of them at the Kolaportið flea market. Bright blue, light blue, yellow. It was a rainbow connection of old Ikea lamps. Only one was black and the owner would not part with it (it was being used to illuminate some lava rock jewelry).

So, the decision was made that I’d try to find the lamp at Ikea, which is a mere busride away. I’d get to try out Reykjavik’s public transportation system. Having enjoyed my micro rides in Lima, my Metro rides in Paris, trams in Amsterdam, train trips in Morocco, I am always excited to try out what a new city offers.

Our apartment is remarkably close to the Hlemmur bus stop, one of the two main stops in the city.

Hlemmur is also a gathering spot for people struggling, often addicts. I had my first interaction with someone who appeared to be homeless. He asked me for cigarettes in several languages. I said I didn’t have any in just one.

I purchased my ticket:

Not impressed? Well, it’s the tiniest ticket ever.

I am a nervous person so the fear of this guy disappearing was constant. Should I hold it in my hand so it doesn’t get lost in my wallet? Or put it in my wallet so it doesn’t blow away? The bus I needed ran every half hour, so I had ample time to strategize. Or worry.

The trip itself was unremarkable.
I hopped the 1 bus,

and transferred at Fjörður to the 21.

It was easy because-look!- Ikea was a bus stop.

Much like every store we’ve seen in Iceland, there was an útsala, a sale.

It’s the one word Brett feels like he’s learned in Icelandic because it is everywhere. Since the banking crash, many stores are offering up to 60 or 70% off to try to lure shoppers in a city with a 24.5% sales tax.

Once inside I was swept up in the remarkable sameness. Escalator up, galleries, cafe serving Swedish delights. While the map wasn’t in English, I knew I was looking for lýsing, or lighting.

Dear friends, I want this story to end with my victorious purchase of the lamp. It doesn’t end that way. As Brett had noted he had the same lamp in college, it appears Ikea has moved on. Instead, I purchased two black lamps that appear to be the new millenium’s version of that lamp. They were a real deal (thanks útsala). We intend to wrap them up with a note and a bottle of wine.

Jul 28 2010

Expect no insight in this one folks.

Sure, travel is all about introspection and revelation.

And sometimes it’s just about food.

As mentioned, post-rúntur, many folks go hot-dogging. But hot dogs (pylsur) are not just a late night snack. Hot dogs are, in some circles, considered the national food (which I can get behind more than putrified shark. I come from a proud hot dog eating family).

We headed here:

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is often considered the favorite of these spots. In fact Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur translates to “Town’s Best Sausages”. It’s been open since 1937 and operated by four generations of the same family. It has a website with a delightfully charming “Did You Know” section. Here you can read about the impact of wheat rations post-WWII on hot dogs (read:  no buns). It also has some links to commercials from the 80s (always a treat). In 2006 one English newspaper voted Bæjarins Beztu the best hot dogs in Europe. And Europe is really big. So, naturally, we paid our respects (as has Bill Clinton, whose photo is hanging in the booth).

Here, Brett’s perusing the options.

The options include pylsur (for 280IKS) and Coke (for 170ISK). That’s it. You can get a hot dog or not get a hot dog. You can get a soda or not get a soda. Not a large or a medium. Soda or no soda. Icelanders, by the by, drink more Coca Cola per capita than any other nation on earth.

Now, you do have options. For example, I got ketchup and crunchy onion things. Brett opted for one with everything, or eina með öllu. So his came with ketchup, sweet mustard, crunchy onion things and remolaði, some kind of mayonnaise/relish hybrid.

As promised, there’s not much here to think deeply about. I’ll end with jogging, happy hot dogs.

Jul 27 2010

The Volcano Show

Tonight, we went a few blocks west to see The Volcano Show.  Apparently, it is important to host said show in a BRIGHT red building.

We weren’t totally sure what to expect.  If the words eccentric or quirky appear, chances are Brett & I will be queueing up at the door, whether that door is in Chicago or surrounded by BRIGHT red rocks in Reykjavik. The words eccentric AND quirky were both used to describe Villi Knudsen, Iceland’s most famous volcano chaser.

Here, you chase volcanoes like we (well, not we as in me and you, but we as America culturally) chase tornadoes.  And when we cover them we like to use superlatives! and exclamation! points!

Iceland covers its volcanoes with more of a smirk.  I was worried it might be full of animatronics or cheesy flashing lights.  However, Knudsen followed in his father Ósvaldur’s footsteps.  Ósvaldur was no sideshow con man.  He made a name for himself filming the 1948 Hekla eruption and covered fifty years of Iceland’s volcanic life.  Villi went along for the 1963 eruption that led to the island Surtsey forming.  He was 19 and it was his first eruption.  Much of the footage we saw during the Heimaey (1973) video was shot by a younger, ginger-haired Knudsen.  It was an earnest presentation, no animatronics in sight. He knows his stuff and shared that stuff. He’s lost a bit of his spryness (there was an extended, slightly confusing interaction as we bought tickets about criminals who died after watching his film) but was a total hoot.  Much like Unnar and other folks we’ve interacted with in more than a passing way there’s a gentle, self-deprecating humor that I really, really respond to.  It isn’t a ba-dump-ching-eyebrow-eyebrow-You-know-what-I-mean.  It’s a hilariously off color remark that is deadpanned into a sentence and then moved past as if it were never offered.  I don’t like the idea of describing a nation’s character or humor as universal, but these folks sure make me laugh.

Say hello to Villi:
See?  He’s a riot.

Seeing as the whole island is a potential lavapalooza, Icelanders frequently check the seismic reports, some daily, for hints at activity.  For Icelanders, there always seems to be some monstrous volcano overdue for cataclysm. Right now, we’re waiting on Katla. When I lived in LA the earthquake was the story.  Here it’s just the preface.  On the national weather page, in fact, you can link directly to that seismic information.
No green stars yet today!  But a big gold star and feather in his cap to Villi.  While we only stayed for the one hour show, we got to see raw footage of his coverage of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, which he plans to edit together soon.  He may not be the same red-headed explorer covering the Heimaey eruption, but dude’s still a pretty intrepid badass.

And….not to be outdone by wry Icelandic humor, here’s two stabs by Americans at an Icelandic volcano joke.
One, by SNL.
One, by Ellen (you may have to wait a few minutes on this one…but it’s worth it)

Jul 26 2010

We have here everything we need.

Our trip to Heimaey was exactly why I travel.

We took off from the domestic airport, about 3.5 km from our apartment.  That in and of itself was an experience.  There was no metal detector, no screening.  We didn’t take of our shoes or empty our water bottles.  We got our tickets, walked out to the plane, and boarded.  I like the idea that Icelanders figure once you get on the island, you’re trustworthy.

The flight was 20 minutes.  I looked to my right once we boarded and was greeted by the propeller.  I decided to film and got this, which was totally unexpected but made me really happy.

Seriously, isn’t that cool?  I’ll upload more later (flying over water, landing) so you can be further hypnotized on our vimeo page.

Heimaey Island, part of the Vestmannaeyjar chain, is known for several things.  First, it hosts a music festival that about 15,000 people attend.  Second, it is home to about half the puffin population in Iceland.  It is also the home of much of the fishing trade in Iceland with its harbor playing a crucial role in international fishing.  Fourth, in 1973 the volcano Eldfell announced itself to the world.  The eruption started in the middle of a January night.  Almost 5000 people from the town were safely evacuated by fishing boats to the mainland in one of the largest civil operations in Icelandic history.

Now, we were going–obviously–for the puffins.  I was giddy, giddy, giddy.  The thought of seeing partially buried fairly modern homes was pretty intriguing too. The festival is in a few weeks and while we are very happy for the harbour’s commercial importance, we weren’t angling to try our hand at fishing.

So, we booked a boat and bus tour to see some puffins (and other birds) and see the volcano.  We watched a film about the volcano at the cafe/Chinese restaurant/soup spot/tourist center.

I always really like seeing how local tourist things play out.  I like to imagine the discussion of where to position the screen and things like that.  It’s so not over-produced and slick.

Our tour guide was Unnar.  He was pretty sweet.
The dark, dry humor Icelanders are known for was in full effect.  We got a chance to talk to him quite a bit on the trip about growing up on Heimaey.  It turns out he’s been to Chicago twice to record albums with his band.  (We both had our fingers crossed it wouldn’t be too weird or too awful.  Turns out it is quite good!I particularly like the first song.)

We were driven into town and given some time to wander on the lava fields.

We later learned about 400 homes were swallowed up and that the locals had marked the old streets with street signs (you can see one in the photo above).  Many had erected memorials to their houses, now 20 meters below us.  (Of the people evacuated, about 80% eventually returned to the island.  I don’t know how that percentage was impacted by whether the family home was destroyed or not.)  After months of eruptions, the lava stopped at one street and went no further west.

The change to the landscape felt apparent as we looked down on the town from what had once been level land.

We headed back down to the harbor for the boat trip.  It was an hour and a half around the island.  I was moderately excited about this.  For one, other birds are cool but I wanted to play with puffins (which yes, are also birds, but squee!) and they were probably not going to land on the boat and dance with me.  I also tend to puke on boats.

The ride was incredible.  The views, the cliffs, the fresh air.  And I didn’t even dry heave.  It was a good gut check for me.  Enter with an open mind and an empty stomach.

The coastline was lovely.

The island is known as a haven for nesting birds of all kinds, like these:

They poop alot, like this:

It was important to peel yourself away from marveling at their poop production because the view off the port side was equally stunning.  All the little islands that make up the archipelago revealed themselves.  Some were rocky crags, some grassy dots with a single home.

We also got to see for ourselves the type of rock formations from which the Hallgrimskirkja draws its inspiration.

The coastline itself is full of caves, which provided this glorious moment courtesy of our captain:

Despite all this, I was still disappointed after the boat trip.  Why?  Because this was the total amount of  puffin action I got:
Or, perhaps you want to see the dots at sea?

Boat landed and it was off to the cafe/Chinese restaurant/etc for lunch.  I pouted a bit about puffins because that was my big chance.  Focusing on a delicious lunch option seemed a good way to temper the pout (and Brett surprised me with a piece of chocolate to ease my heartbreak).  One of my things I do when I travel is eat certain foods which I think serve as a national litmus test.  Ketchup is one.  Ketchup in every country I’ve been to is different, sometimes tarter or sweeter or runnier or basically pasta sauce.  Apparently here, in this one cafe, one could get very different kinds of ketchups (Brett & I ordered the same thing):

I also had a really touching interaction with the waitress.  She had a most lovely ring, which I complemented.  She touched it and said thanks then paused and told me that it was her grandfather’s wedding ring to which her aunt added a stone and gave to her when he passed.  I was a bit surprised at the intimacy of that moment but also felt incredibly honored to have her tell me that as a line formed behind me.  I thanked her (for the story and the change) then went back to eat my runny ketchup.

So then it was back on the bus.  Unnar mentioned going to where the puffins live.  Again, giddiness as I realized puffin redemption awaited.  The boat trip got pushed into the back of my mind as I imagined being swallowed up in a sea of puffiness.

We drove around stopping to view seascapes while being pushed around by wind.  And then he pulled up and told us 10 minutes at the puffin spot.

Turns out, all those little rascals were at sea.  The puffin spot consisted of a viewing platform high over the cliffs.  We could see cuteness happening.  It was just very far away.  And partially submerged.

You’d think I’d go full-out pout again. But the views.  And the sheep (who may just supplant the puffin in my heart).

And this was my turning point.  No longer disappointed, I was quite pleased.  I was standing on a grassy cliff on a tiny island watching sheep bounce about as a wonderful man willing to marry me billy goated along the cliff.  So there was no puffin cuddling.  My expectations were wildly wrong for this day trip.  And that is good for any traveler.  Those expectations weren’t dashed or ruined.  They were just recalibrated and reoriented.

My attitude adjusted and spirits buoyed, we were off to the volcano crater.  Up we all hiked.  It was dusty and red.  And surprisingly steep.

And, despite how wildly embarrassed I am by two of the faces I make and almost everything that comes out of my mouth…here’s one of the reasons why we went.  The awesome is at the end, and again, I can’t believe I’m sharing this footage.

To redeem, a photo where I don’t look as ridiculous (perhaps because I am not talking).

And when  I opened myself up to the magic, it just came a-rolling.  Turns out Unnar, our driver, is Unnar’s son (yes, both named Unnar.  Except Unnar is his mother.  Follow?)  Mama Unnar is written about in the guide books as a fantastic tour guide.  And she’s the wife of the tour boat captain!  Instead of puffins, I got a glimpse at a truly lovely family, full of spunk and humor, crafting a life on this volcanic island and doing it together.

Unnar Jr. took us back to the cafe (also owned by the family.  That waitress?  Unnar’s sister/daughter).  Unnar Jr. explained he needed to see his wife and his mom (!!) was going to finish the tour.  I got the full family gamut.  Had we been playing Unnar bingo I would’ve rocked it.  She hopped on the bus and we were off.  She’s from Reykjavik with a mum from the Westman Islands.  And 31 years ago she married a Westmanner and has lived here since.

She took us to the Pompeii of the North as she referred to it, clearly a branding attempt.  It’s a single street in which all the houses were buried.  The houses are labeled like a street map with a photo of what used to be and the land is covered by fishing nets to prevent erosion.

It was quite surreal.  It wasn’t 1000 year old history.  It was 1973  history.  The town plans to excavate them (with the notion of returning any found property, so interesting).  I was a bit disoriented processing it, but Brett had the presence of mind to take a quick video to take you inside one of the houses.

As Mama Unnar drove, she began listing all the things the island has.  A grocery store.  Lots of shops.  A hospital.  A rather well-regarded art school.  And then she said: “We have everything here we need.”  It was the “here” that got me.  The power of place, the power of pride in home.  The decision to come back to an island that nearly destroyed a town.  The appreciation that the island is different, not worse.  The realization that the harbor is now safer, with a narrower channel less prone to giant waves (the lava cut it from about 800 feet to about 100 feet wide).  At another point she had two handfuls of volcanic rock ash (called tephra) in her hands and talked about how it is used to make the runway better, to pave the roads.  It wasn’t a lemonade from lemons moment.  It was an a true appreciation of home, for all that it is.  It was a similar exploration of expectations on a much more major scale.  So I’m grateful to this little puffin-tease of an island and to this family.  I realize I’m just a visitor and a quickly forgotten guest on their tour.  And that, too, is ok.

Before we left we had some time to wander.  We headed by a home, still peeking out from lava.

And then up to the town church and cemetery.

The church, the third oldest in Iceland, also houses a memorial to lost fishermen.

When the eruption ended, the town cemetery was totally covered in tephra.  Teenagers and young people from all over the world came to dig it out.  This gate, which reads something like “I live so you shall live” was an iconic image, as the ash came up over the gate door.

And then, for us, time to hop back to Reykjavik.  Time to go back to this temporary home.  We have here everything we need too.

Jul 25 2010

The thing I don’t like.

Being in love allows the celebration of all that you appreciate and requires the acceptance of that which grates.  Reykjavik, I love you.  It’s true.  I appreciate you more each day.  And, yes, there is that which I will just have to come to terms with. It’s not your high prices or your endless light.  It’s your rúntur.

It was an early, early morning here at Storholt 1.  We had a flight to catch to head to Heimaey, a small island in the south (not tropical.)  We made a good effort to get to bed early. But an old tradition mixed with modern prices killed any hopes we had of a long, langorous sleep.

The rúntur.  The “round tour”.  It doesn’t need italics because unlike other Icelandic words, it’s easy to spell and it is now, crankily, part of my vocabulary.

Historically, the rúntur was a time for teens to cruise around a pre-determined route at mildly obnoxious slow speeds.  They are teens, it’s their duty.  No honking, no wheel squeal.  So in many ways a civilized coming of age which feels very Icelandic.  Each town had its own rules and traditions.  It gave the kids something to do on long, dark, winter nights.  I can get behind that.

In Reykjavik now, however, the rúntur is a whole other beast.  The “round tour” here is a pub crawl.

Iceland experienced a similar period to Prohibition in the states, starting in 1915.  However, while wine & spirits were allowed in 1922, beer was banned until 1989.  Today alcohol is expensive, and prohibitively so if your goals are rúntur-oriented.  Because of those high high prices folks don’t even head to bars until 1 or 2.

The alternative, I’ve gathered, is to stand on the balcony outside our apartment from 11-2 and be loud.  Not that everyone in Reykjavik was on that balcony, but they might have been.  Then the crowds spill down to Laugavegur, the main commercial street in town.  Bar hopping commences, with few actual drinks purchased (see loudness on balcony above).  Cafes become bars.  Restaurants become bars.  I wouldn’t be suprised to learn the post office become a bar.  Then you go eat hot dogs (we’ll get into this another day) and hang out at the square.  Then repeat loudness outside our apartment as folks are getting home around 5.

No, we didn’t lose sleep because of our wild night.  We lost it because of others’ rúnturing.  I don’t want to be a stodgy old git, unable to enjoy a good night out when I travel.  And I respect that Icelanders enjoy their nightlife and like having the reputation for weekend revelry that they have.  I do believe in being me even when I travel.   I am not transformed into some new Julie, hipper or wilder.  I will try unusual foods and the like but there is no chrysalis from which I emerge.  And so, we’re (as Brett is also Brett when he travels) probably not rúntur-type.  We are not big club goers.  I don’t like ‘party’ as a verb to begin with (I don’t know how Brett feels about ‘party’ as a verb).

I don’t begrudge the nightlife.  I think what grates me slightly is that it is written about in every guide book with a “GET READY!!!” attitude.  It’s mythologized with language like “let loose”, “get wild”, etc. Blogs give slightly manic preparation tips and tell you to keep up.  I don’t mind Icelanders doing what they do for the reasons they do it, but we saw many American tourists rubbing their hands together at the though of getting “wild” in Iceland (and lots of references to hot Viking chicks).  Clearly, I am more of hand rubber for museums.  And bakeries!  Ice cream! And cultural interactions of a more, ahem, sober bent.

That’s not meant to be superior and in fact sometimes I wish I were more cut-loose-y.  It’s an acknowledgment that we travel as who we are, perhaps unless we are actively trying to escape who we are.  There are folk for whom a wild nightlife is integral to a travel experience.  And clearly, Iceland is good for that. Perhaps if it had not been on the one night on this trip we knew we needed to get up early.  We had a true need for sleep.  Seeing Brett make earplugs out of wet paper towels was pretty awesome though.

Till next weekend rúntur, when we battle again.  And, Reykjavik, you’re still my dog.

Jul 24 2010

Saturday Evening Post

A few select photos from our week.
Taken by me, curated & edited by Brett.

view of Reykjavik from the Hallgrímskirkja cathedral

view outside BókabúÐ Brag, Reykjavik

house on Hverfisgata, Reykjavik

advertisement on Laugavegur, Reykjavik

view from the Sculpture & Shore Walk, Reykjavik

Marigolds on Lækjargata, Reykjavik

Laugavegur at Dusk, Reykjavik

Jul 23 2010

Week 1 Round Up Monster Post.

Stay with me as we cover white supremacy, Sesame Street, skyr, biomedical ethics, NBC vs PBS, and more. And it all started because of pad thai. No wonder I reference Seinfeld. If this stresses you out, we’ll be back to our normal shorter posts tomorrow. But there are some killer awesome links in here my friends.

We’ve thrived in our first week here. But as we’ve adapted and reconfigured, observed and experienced, I got to thinking.

I’m a wee bit not excited about some of Iceland’s culinary traditions. There’s singed sheep’s head & putrefied shark. Maybe if they just skipped the adjectives at the beginning? Yes, yes, it’s important to sample some national fair. In Iceland I’m reading that as a particular emphasis on their dairy delights. Many guides say to zero in on those as affordable eating options when so much imported food rocks your wallet. I say zero in because they are delightful. My new love is skyr…a cheese/yogurt hybrid. I love this stuff. It’s thick and creamy and wonderful. I eat it for breakfast every morning. I am sad when I get to the end of it. (You, lucky folk, can get it in the states.  Or, more specifically, I know you can get it at the Jewell by our old apartment. It’s smaller than the containers here and not actually made in Iceland but it’s close.)

Hello friend.

Two of the other three best things (assuming skyr has safely secured a spot) I’ve put in my belly thus far aren’t Icelandic. I’m sorry temporary home. I love you, I just can’t like whale (athough, most Icelanders also skip the krill-eaters and only defy the idea of banning whale hunting because their strong sense of independence makes them cranky when outsiders nosey in). And, back to favorites.

We’ve spent a few mornings working at the cafe C is for Cookie. There isn’t a Sesame Street connection anywhere in the place. Instead there are rat stuffed animals everywhere. I don’t get it. It’s owned by a Polish couple and recently garnered “Best Coffee” from the Grapevine. And oh. Oh, oh, I love their lattes. I may or may not drink two lattes when we are there partially because I like the way they change up the designs in the foam. We collectively also love their pancake treat.  Brett asked, it is Icelandic (you’re welcome temporary home). So, while not particular to this cafe, I’m grateful they introduced me to the pönnukökur in all its umlauty goodness.

The other best belly pleaser to date has been the pad thai from BanThai. While I didn’t take a picture of it (I am assuming pad thai is a familiar enough thing and it’s not like it had hearts and swirls all over it like my latte), I did take a little video of the “Tiger’s Cry” appetizer.

If you want to hear 30 seconds of sizzle, turn it up for full effect.

The pad thai was yummy (which makes sense because BanThai’s lunch joint is called YummyYummy.)  Citrusy and fresh. The owner talked with us about how he refuses to give people knives or chopsticks (even though he said he has a stash of chopsticks) because, well, that’s just not how you do it in Thailand.

I think it’s a real sign of my own naivete what I am continually surprised (and overjoyed) by the number of Thai restaurants in Reykjavik. There are nearly a dozen. Now, in context, that’s about the same as in our old neighborhood, Lincoln Square, alone.

But for a tiny volcanic rock up near the Arctic Circle, I think they’re rocking it. I guess if folks are going to emigrate to Chicago they may just as well wind up in Iceland (yes, I realize this is not totally an easy sell but the social services are so much more generous. That Apple Place from the naming post?  Social Insurance Administration, a pretty interesting look into how this country cares for its people).

But we did get into a discussion of immigration while at BanThai. Is there a strong community of Thai folk? Are they well integrated into the society at large? What do ethnic politics look like in a place that is overwhelmingly homogeneous?

All I knew is that I’ve read there are relatively large Polish and Thai populations (northern European/Scandanvian immigration isn’t really a big deal and doesn’t show up in articles). So I poked around a bit. I was sleepy, so it didn’t dawn on me to try the Icelandic census information (although I tried today, not easy). Leaving out that gem, most of the websites I could find that gave details on immigration to Iceland were missionary websites, looking to reach the “least reached” people (reached by Jesus, not internet access because Iceland has the most connected population in the world), and white supremacist groups hailing Iceland as some kind of last haven of whiteness. Stay calm, carry on. And no, I won’t provide the links.

From my incredibly limited research efforts, it appears there are about 600 Thai people in Iceland. I’d hazard to guess most are in Reykjavik, although from what I can tell there are 3 or 4 other Thai restaurants in the country, depending on what exactly I google.  (Sidebar: Upon discovering this I tried to convince Brett that we should totally eat in every Thai restaurant in Iceland. He seems less excited by the ability to brag that we’ve eaten in every Thai restaurant in Iceland.)

Now, while neither missionaries or white supremacists are groups I generally build my connections around, there are two that rattled around in my head in regards to our new home as I walked around this week.

First, to missionaries. While I balk at conversion efforts of any kind (or, in fact, most types of zealotry including sports superfandom and wearing the concert t-shirt while at the concert) I think any genealogist or fan of that show on NBC or the oddly similar PBS show would admit that the Church of Latter Day Saints deserves some props for their geneological efforts. A lot of props.

That idea of tracing lineage is incredible pertinent in Iceland because most folks of pure Icelandic stock can trace their roots back to the 8th and 9th centuries thanks to Ari the Learned’s Landnámabók, or Book of Settlements, which traces the Nordic immigrants to Iceland.  Today we went to the Culture House and saw manuscripts of the books and family trees and such as well as an excellent photo exhibit aptly called “Icelanders”.  I even bought a postcard which looks like this map (but ours shows boats!).

thanks schwan272 from Flickr

Now, that very ability to trace ancestry feeds the white supremacists who, based on the site I scarily wound up on, herald Iceland as some kind of haven for pure white stock. They believe Iceland is this last bastion of white-ness (Whatever the hell that is.  I totally stick out here and I’m disastrously white).  Accordingly, it will obviously survive the nuclear holocaust they are predicting and turn into some kind of Narnia for fans of Stuff White People Like.

The connection, then, is that the idea of “purity” feeding the excitement of the crazies also caused a fairly big controversy in the last decade in far less crazy circles. Please pardon my layman’s approach at this. Because the population size is small but not insignificant, and genetic variation is supposedly limited among native Gaelic/Nordic Icelanders, and the country is relatively isolated, medical researchers began eyeing the population as a potential goldmine for genetic information which they argued could help bring understanding to a wide range of diseases. While understanding disease is good, the intrusiveness of the Icelandic government in selling the information to a single company, who then owned that information even if you later opted out (you had to opt out, there was no opt in), understandably worried many citizens and folks interested in the ethics of medical information.  You can read more about the issue and the reaction here (although, hell, I don’t know enough to know if that’s a good site.)  Here’s deCode’s version of all kinds of things.  You can also trace much of the coverage in scientific press through Berkeley.  AND!!  This showed up in the NY Times yesterday.  Ah, sweet confluence.

All that rigamarole is the result of a week of a freed up mind on long walks and fingers with access to ample broadband.  It’s been a glorious week here in Reykjavik.  Thanks for being here with us.

Jul 22 2010

This post is deliberately not called night swimming.

No humming.

Swimming here is ubiquitous. There are lovely public pools all over the place and Systa told us that half the population swims daily. The pools are outdoors and geothermally heated by all the crazy tectonic action below us. Often there are things called hot pots, small pools heated with sea water, and hot tubs and lap pools and, well, you’ll see.

There is also a pool culture to learn. When you go in you pay 360ISK (about 3 bucks). Then you enter a hallway and you take off your shoes (everybody does) and leave them there. Then it’s into the locker area. Icelandic pools are not treated with chemicals so a thorough scrubbing is required. How do you know what to wash? Oh, they tell you.


You best wash all those stinky hot pink places! They provide soap, you provide the strategy for dealing with the giant common shower. Everyone does it and then you toss on your suit (don’t think you’re showering with it on, because you’re not) and head to the pool.

Why this discussion of pools? Why now?

The biggest pool in Reykjavik, Laugardalslaug, decided to try keeping the pool open all night (it usually closes at 22:30) from 21 July – 26 July. So around 10 tonight we tossed our Systa-designated “pool towels” in a bag and hiked over to Laugardalur valley, the pool and recreation zone (we’re hoping to catch some of the the youth soccer international Rey cup at the big stadium). As we neared the swimming pools we saw herds of teens walking past us, perhaps scurrying to get home by 11. I was ok with the teens heading home.

The pool was bumping. It was a mix of some tourists, lots of locals, mostly the over 5 crowd but there were definitely some hearty kids hanging in there. And, alas, many teens (the like to wrestle and throw stuff variety). Swimming at night when it’s not dark is still pretty incredible. Partially it’s knowing it’s nearing midnight and it’s still light out. Partially it’s the steam rising from the warm pool (which isn’t captured here half as well as I would’ve liked).

And, mostly it’s incredible because of this:

That is a vatnsrennibraut. A water slide. But it’s more than that. It is the most incredible water slide ever. This makes sense because Icelanders tend to believe theirs is the best of everything:  the best lamb, the best water.  Clearly, they’d have the best water slide.  It has a windy, spiral staircase that’s enclosed so you aren’t super chilly. The staircase also has (I imagine not planned) these cool drips that continually plunk you on the head so you feel like you are laying siege to a thousand year old tower, which also happens to have circus-like panels of color. You’re storming a thousand year old circus tower!  It has a slide signal like the on ramp signals for highways. It’s red, till it’s green, then you go. And then there’s the slide part! It starts out slow. Post facto, Brett & I both discussed having had some immediate concern about potential disappointment. But then it goes all pitch black awesome and you drop, picking up speed. The pitch black gives way to rope lights around the slide that make you feel like you are entering warp speed. Then more black. Then this trippy section with light-up, colorful stars all around you. More black. You are counting those lucky stars thinking this ride is the longest ride ever and you are so, so happy. Then…

Oh, vatnsrennibraut. I love you.

(NB: the attempt to keep you from humming “Night Swimming” by REM, a lovely song, is because I knew where this was going and I was trying to protect you. The water slide is WAY too exciting to be humming such a mellow, mellow tune.  If you need to hum, pick something fast and fun and reread it humming that.)