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Trip 12 -- Iceland

Message 3: Huffin' and puffin from glacier to city

From: <seth@sethweinstein.com>
Sent: Thu, 28 May 2009 19:32:32
Subject: Iceland update #3: Huffin' and puffin from glacier to city

Brad - the graduate who was cycling around Iceland - commented that there was nothing between Mřvatn and Egilssta­ir, the gateway to the East Fjords, 157 km away. He'd been averaging 100 km daily and poring over the map to see where he might spend the next night. I offered him a ride, but he was strict about staying on the bike.

He was right. The next gas station after Mřvatn, a sign warned, was 112 km away. I climbed a long 10%-grade incline out of Mřvatn and took the lonely road east. There was light snow part of the way, and then it drizzled, and I thought of Brad, going up the long hill and biking in the lousy weather. I hope he made it somewhere safely.

The prettiest of the East Fjords was supposed to be Sey­isfj÷r­ur, 25 km from Egilssta­ir over a steep mountain pass. It was a white-out in all directions: white clouds above me, fog in front, and snow on the mountains all around. It wasn't snowing, but the isolation was remarkable.

And then I drove down the long, winding road into Sey­isfj÷r­ur, and all at once the scenery was spectacular again. The entrance into town is graced with waterfalls and grazing sheep, and the town itself is laden with beautifully colored wooden houses abruptly sent over from Norway when the town was founded on the fishing industry in the late 1800s. Like Siglufj÷r­ur, Sey­isfj÷r­ur became a major herring center until the fish disappeared for unknown reasons. Now it's a small, artsy, friendly place; it's also a back door to Iceland, as a ship calls there weekly from Denmark and the Faroe Islands.

I stopped in at the Skaftfell art center, where I saw an exhibition of the young artists Jessica Langley and Ben Kinsley, who had made drawings and paintings of their impressions of Iceland and then sealed the exhibit with a video of themselves naked jumping into mud pits. I had much of a ham pizza at the center's cafe (and took the rest for dinner) and then went to the Technical Museum.

And boy, was the guy who ran it a lively, talkative guy. The museum was his baby; he was about 70 and had worked as a telegraph operator on land and on ships. Since then he has devoted his life to keeping all the old telegraphy machines in shape. Sey­isfj÷r­ur was the first place in Iceland to have town-wide water plumbing (in 1901) and electricity (in 1913), and the first communications cable between Iceland and anywhere ran from Sey­isfj÷r­ur to the Faroes and Scotland in 1906. The curator showed me the old 1906 cable and said, "One conversation. English." The cable wasn't strong enough for voice, only telegraph clicks. And then he showed me the new 2004 cable and said, "One million conversations. Italian."

And he showed me all sorts of other wonderful machines and paraphernalia, such as engineering pioneer Ůorsteinn GÝslason's 1913 radio, which communicated between his house and the little field outside ("So he could talk to the sheep"), and a 1926 catalogue from the Great Northern Telegraph Company (when a Wheatstone perforator cost 15 pounds, 13 shillings).

His pride and joy was the collection of telegraphy equipment. Before electrification, the 1906 Morse-code transmitter and receiver relied on gravity: You turned a crank to raise a weight, and then as you worked the weight dropped, until you had to turn the crank again. An incoming message was written out in ink, the dots and dashes being displayed as ups-and-downs, giving the appearance of an EKG. A typed message would spout out on a perforated strip (with two holes in alignment representing a dot, and two holes diagonally representing a dash), which would be fed into the hand-cranked receiver. A message could be sent only once, after which it had to be copied and re-sent to the next person down the line. Twenty people worked at the table, typing and tapping away. The 1942 machines had electric motors, and messages could be relayed, requiring only five people at the table. Then came Telex, and all those machines and jobs were suddenly obsolete. "It was a sad day," he said. "These machines went into storage. I took them out after fifty years, and they worked perfectly."

He had me type my name. The perforated strip came out. He put ink into the receiver and fed the strip through. He picked up the printed paper, with its ups and downs, and read it. "Seth Abraham Weinstein."

I drove out of town and through another 6-km tunnel (with a commodious two lanes!) to St÷­varfj÷r­ur, where I'd be spending the night. And so I went from Sey­isfj÷r­ur to St÷­varfj÷r­ur; a few days earlier I'd gone from Sau­ßrkrˇkur to Siglufj÷r­ur. The trip started reminding me of that Tom Lehrer song that lists all the Russian cities.

A tiny blue church, built in 1925, stands on a hill in 200-person St÷­varfj÷r­ur. It's been turned into a hostel, and that's where I stayed. I was the only one there. There were blankets and pillows hidden in the pulpit, and there were blankets hidden under the altar. A little bug in the shower, sort of like a roach but clumsier, was trying to climb up the wall but wasn't making any progress. It disappeared down the drain just before I showered, and then it was back, like a cartoon character scrambling up a wall with fluttery legs but going nowhere. There was nothing to do at night but walk up and down the road and enjoy the scenery of the fjord and mountains, and that was just fine with me.

My next stop was Skaftafell National Park, but on the way I stopped at J÷kulsßrlˇn, where a river carries fractured ice from a glacier to the sea. It's a particularly appealing place, with mostly pristine white ice that breaks off into blue icebergs of various shapes and sizes, sometimes forming pretty arches. The icebergs start to melt, and sometimes they become top-heavy and somersault, and eventually they melt enough to drift into the ocean. A few icebergs are dirty, because they've grazed the bottom of the river and then toppled over. It's fun to watch the ice break into chunks and then follow their trajectory as they wind their way among the other icebergs, crashing into them.

Skaftafell National Park sits at the front of a glacier and the back of a sandur and is crisscrossed with hiking paths. It took several hours to drive there. I drove up a surprisingly steep road to the B÷lti guesthouse, which is high up in the park overlooking the sandur, and checked in to one of the little huts. The main house is run by a lively woman with a huge collection of beautiful dishware, an odd assortment of coffee grinders, and lots of musical instruments. I gave her a brief concert on her piano.

I hiked for a few hours, first going to the big waterfall where everyone goes, and then going up to a clearing, where there was no one, for great views of the three surrounding glaciers and the sandur. It was surprisingly lush, with little bushes and many birds, especially the cute little redshanks and the gruesome great skuas, with their long beaks and propensity to viciously attack, Hitchcock-style, anything they consider threatening to their nests.

I descended and followed another path to the beginning of the nearest glacier, Skaftafellsj÷kull. The glacier was scarred and craggy and looked like a bunch of dirty, lumpy prisms. I climbed over the nearby rocky dunes, looking for a shortcut to the Hotel Skaftafell, where I had lamb for dinner. (Their "homemade glacier ice cream" dessert was tempting, but it was only "glacier" because it was near a glacier, and it was "homemade" because they put it together with a sweet sauce in-house!) Then it was a long walk back to the car, in the etherial nearly-midnight twilight, with gentle fog warping my perception of the sandur and the glaciers.

I hiked some more in the morning and then drove on to VÝk, where more astounding scenery awaited me: bizarre monument-like vertical rock formations, formed by years of erosion from waves and wind; odd basalt pillars at the entrance to a cave; and arches of rock. The scenery is enhanced by a chorus of fulmars - supposedly this is a good place for puffin sightings, but I may have been too early in the year. I was destined not to see a puffin on this trip.

The folk museum in the little town of Skˇgar had been highly recommended to me, and it did not disappoint. It comprises several buildings, including turf-covered 19th-century farm buildings, a 19th-century church, a 1901 schoolhouse, and an 1878 house built of driftwood and inhabited until 1974. The buildings came from elsewhere and were reassembled as a museum. One highlight to me was the collection of harmoniums.

I happened to meet ١r­ur Tˇmasson, who is almost 90 years old and was responsible for collecting the diverse items in the museum. I mentioned that I was a pianist, and that earned me a private tour of the harmoniums. First he played the one near the main museum entrance. He played a little clumsily but mostly accurately and with the utmost passion. He played a couple of hymns and then some Icelandic folk songs.

Then he had me try it out. I played the first hymn-like piece I could think of, my alma mater's anthem, "Fair Harvard." I got some sound to come out but I wasn't pedaling fast enough. I soon realized I had to alternate depressing the two pedals quite rapidly, like riding a bike, in order to produce sound.

"It's harder than I thought," I said.

"Aaaaaahhhhhh," said ١r­ur, waving a finger. "Now you've got it."

We traded and he played another song.

"Have you been to the schoolhouse?" he asked. We went to the harmonium in the schoolhouse.

"How old is this harmonium?" I asked.

"About a hundred years."

We traded pieces for a while, mostly Icelandic folk songs.

"I am wasting your time," he said. "Please, play this one."

I played it; my pedaling was getting better.

"Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!" he said. "Very nice. Have you been to the church?"

"Yes." Off we went to the church, to try out its harmonium, built before 1900.

"Just one more," he said. He had me play a Handel hymn. Then he played an Icelandic hymn. We traded a few more.

"Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh! It has been such a pleasure to meet you."

"Really, the honor is mine."

He took out a postcard bearing a photograph of the museum's farm buildings, and he wrote: "To my good American friend Seth with best wishes and thanks. You made the day for me with your kindness and music." As he did mine.

Before we parted, he hugged me closely - maybe just a bit too closely.

This would be my last night on the road. I stayed at a horse-and-sheep farm called Skßlakot, which sits amidst a cluster of farms along a little road that veers off of Route 1 and then curves around back to it a few kilometers later. The main house was open but there was no one around; I was greeted by a little white-and-brown dog who took a liking to me. We played for about ten minutes until one of the workers appeared. He showed me to the room and then brought out a lamb, about ten days old, who sucked on my finger, enjoying the remnants of the dried haddock I'd recently eaten. The worker pointed me toward a waterfall where I could enjoy a brief walk that evening, but I got distracted by the howling Arctic terns. They're just as vicious as the skuas, and I didn't know where their nesting areas were, so I kept my distance. But they were fun critters to watch. There were hundreds of them, and often they flew in pairs and poked at each other in the sky before diving down into the sheep field.

In the morning, I went horseback riding with a honeymooning couple from Taiwan. Our guides were the owner of Skßlakot and his daughter, who couldn't have been more than about 12. We rode out to the waterfall - which wasn't that much, I must say; the terns were a better diversion - and then back to the farm, crossing a little stream on the way.

Then it was a quick stop at Iceland's biggest tourist attractions outside ReykjavÝk: Geysir, actually a cluster of geysers, one of which erupts like clockwork every few minutes. After watching water come up, I watched it come down at Gullfoss, a beautiful pair of waterfalls separated by a rocky curve. I had just gotten back in the car when the rains started again. I'd had very good weather ever since the couple of windy days early in the trip.

I drove back to ReykjavÝk and refueled the car one more time - no thanks to Chase, who had shut off my credit-card access because they had thought my Iceland charges were fraudulent. (And I'd told them I was going!) Who the heck steals a credit card and goes to Iceland? I'd used the card in many countries over the past couple of years, including Jamaica, Guatemala, and the United Arab Emirates - much more likely fraud candidates, I'd have thought - without incident. What's more outrageous is that I would come home to three voice-mail messages from Chase alerting me to their suspicion, and if they'd bothered to listen when they called, they'd have heard my "I'll be out of the country until May 23" greeting. Furthermore, they could have seen that I'd bought plane tickets on Icelandair in March.

Anyway, I relinquished my trusty Alfa Romeo to Gildo, the car-rental company. I'd racked up 2,550 kilometers in 11 days. I checked into the Domus Guesthouse, which was formerly the Norwegian embassy and, before that, a music school (is that why I felt at home there?). The rooms were pretty bare-bones, but the price was right (5,900 krˇna a night, around $46) and right in the middle of things.

ReykjavÝk is about as tranquil as a major city can get. You can walk around safely anywhere, there's rarely any noisy traffic in the center, and everything is beautiful and walkable. There are no skyscrapers - yet. There are hills and brightly colored houses dating back to 1762. There's a large central pond, with a wide variety of ducks and other birdlife, and there's a quiet harbor area with good restaurants and a weekend flea market. There's teeming nightlife and everyone has a jolly and safe time, and then in the morning it's peaceful again. And it never gets dark between late May and August. It probably gets dull after a while, but I had a perfectly grand time there for two days.

A major highlight was the Culture House, a museum containing many of the original sagas, laws, and other texts written in the Middle Ages. Remember Gu­rÝ­ur EirÝksdˇttir, the first white woman to give birth on Amerian soil around the year 1000? Her great-great-great-great-great-great grandson, Haukur Erlendsson, wrote the Book of Settlement and the Saga of Christianity, among other things, before he died in 1334. His is probably the oldest example of a named person's handwriting. In addition to the beautiful manuscripts, there was an exhibit describing how ink and paper were made centuries ago, and there was a temporary exhibit on Icelandic filmmaking - all the way back to a 1906 film explaining a fire-department drill.

Less captivating was the National Gallery of Iceland. The exhibits featured two Icelandic artists, Kristjßn Gu­mundsson and Hrafnkell Sigur­sson, and there was an accompanying brochure that described many appealing-sounding artworks, but very few of them were actually on display. Kristjßn's were mathematical and unusual, consisting largely of plastic numbers arranged in lines analogous to poetry. "Intoxicating Poems" was a series of prices all run together - the krˇna prices of liquor or wine. "Selected American Poems" was a long strip of 52 digits: 0013176355959001305324881100121385312129077452121. I puzzled over this random-looking sequence and found all the instances of "001," which is how Icelanders phone the USA. A Google search of the intervening phone numbers reveals them to be the time-and-temperature numbers for Indianapolis, Miami, Los Angeles, and Palmer, Alaska. His "Sun Travels" - a set of numbers "indicating the prices of travels to Southern Europe," said the brochure, would have been nice to see, but it was nowhere to be found. While I was hunting for art in the art museum, I found the research room, where a woman introduced me to the museum's giant collection - on computers. She pulled up artworks on different screens, and I stayed as long as I felt was enough to be polite and then left. It's not really thrilling to go to a museum and view things on a computer, you see.

I found a bizarre installation, "Within Reach," at the Kling & Bank gallery. The entrance was via a narrow oval-shaped yellow tube with sand strewn at the bottom. I maneuvered my way around the curves and through the crawl spaces to find strange videos and a kind of barometer with Magic Markers drawing lines on a spinning drum. At one point I turned a corner at the same time as someone else, and she screamed. And then I thought I was working my way farther into the installation, but it turned out to be the exit, and I figured I'd better use it before I lost it again.

Then there was ReykjavÝk's delightful little central cathedral. Its history is turbulent - the previous 18th-century church was built shoddily by drunk Danes, and it was soon condemned. When it reopened, it still creaked, making people deem it haunted. A new church was built in the 1800s and required extensive renovations shortly thereafter. The same church was renovated in 1999, and it's next to a peaceful park and right next to the parliament building.

A different church, HallgrÝmkirkja, is the tallest building in ReykjavÝk. It normally dominates the skyline and is a beautiful landmark seen against various shades of skylight, but on my visit I got a prime example of Iceland's finest scaffolding.

A Faroese opera was debuting in ReykjavÝk, and I seized the opportunity, especially as the box-office agents were begging to give me a discount.

"How much are tickets?" I asked.

"Are you a student or something? Because then they're only fifteen hundred krˇna."

"I'm a musician. Does that help?"

"Are you under twenty-five?"

"I'm afraid not. But thanks for asking."

"Are you sure you're over twenty-five?"

"I could be twenty-five tonight," I conceded.

"OK, then. Fifteen hundred krˇna."

When I got to the theatre that night, I saw the agent again near the entryway. "Are you still twenty-five?" she asked, smiling.

The opera, "═ Ë­amansgar­i" ("The Madman's Garden"), is the first Faroese opera to be performed on stage. The president of Iceland was there; we all stood as he arrived in the hall. The plot concerned a young couple that meets in a mysterious man's garden. Ballet dancers and a small, almost stationary backup chorus echoed the actions and feelings of the couple. Plot-wise, I can't tell you much beyond that, because it was in Faroese with Icelandic supertitles. But the staging was intriguing - the conductor stood in one of the side stalls; the orchestra was on stage behind most of the action, but some activity, especially concerning the madman, took place behind the orchestra. The characters often wound their way through the instrumentalists. Musically, it was largely atonal but not inaccessible, and it was a small chamber orchestra plus a surprising, sparingly used electric guitar.

I had two all-out meals in ReykjavÝk. The tried-and-true place, ŮrÝr Frakkar, gave me a chance to try a Iceland's exotica. The restaurant's name means both "three Frenchmen" and "three overcoats." When its original French owners sold the place, the new non-French owners simply changed the logo, without having to change the name.

OK, so I did see a puffin on this trip: I started the meal with one. The smoked-puffin appetizer was a deep red and very fibrous and tasted like a cross between smoked trout and raw beef. The next course, sashimi of raw minke whale, was also a very dark red and is easily the tenderest meat I've ever had. The waiter called it "the creamiest meat in the world." It smelled and tasted like the sea - the way you might catch your first arousing whiff of the ocean when you step out of a car at the beach - but it definitely resembled meat more than fish.

The main course, horse tenderloin, was also very tender - it barely required a knife. It was neither gamey nor fibrous. It wasn't stringy like beef, but it was stringy like cotton candy, and when I chewed it, it clumped together in my mouth and then disappeared, also much like cotton candy. It came with pepper sauce, which was superfluous for a meat that was so astonishingly tasty on its own.

I had my other all-out meal at Orange, ReykjavÝk's sleek new molecular-gastronomy restaurant. I had a "Dracula" cocktail (a martini with tomato, ginger, and chili powder) and then was brought two pre-appetizers. The first made me wonder whether they had gotten the molecular-gastronomy concept right. The food was fine - a wild-game terrine with raw egg and foam - but it was served in a box of coffee beans and alongside a glass of liquid nitrogen. Fun to watch, but these accoutrements didn't really do anything. The second pre-appetizer was similarly gimmicky: monkfish tempura in a little pail attached to a helium balloon. When the fish was gone, the balloon carried the pail up and out of my way, signaling to the waiter - and everyone else - that I had finished it. There were a couple of large parties on the night I was there, and people took turns pretending they were twelve and inhaling the helium for its vocal effects.

The menu items had quirky names. My appetizer, "Iceland 1, Belgium 0," was a "lobster waffle" - langoustines on top of a Belgian waffle with celery puree, tomato jam, and foam. (What is it with the foam?) A good combination of textures - soft langoustines, crunchy waffle, and a kind of semi-savory whipped cream.

The main course, "Rudolf Goes 2 the Olympics," was reindeer steak in pecan nuts with crisp Parma ham, cauliflower couscous, and a madeira-chocolate glaze, accompanied by a potato layered with cauliflower mousse and mushrooms. This all almost led to flavor and texture overload, but I took the contents only a couple at a time and enjoyed the various combinations. The whole morass was served on a plate of black Icelandic stone that wasn't rimmed at the edges, so the glaze and liquids tended to ooze off the plate. I used a piece of bread as a dam - the bread was refreshingly plain and served in a white paper bag.

After a palate-cleanser of lemon sorbet, a chef dressed as a scientist came out with a cart and a tank of liquid nitrogen: "Minus one hundred ninety-six degrees," he said. "You could dip a banana in it and then throw the banana on the floor, and it would shatter all over the room." He poured some of the liquid nitrogen into a bowl and added mango foam and strawberry Jell-O: "Instant ice-cream popcorn." He instructed me to take a large bite and then blow out the "steam."

The instant ice cream was provided to all. The dessert I ordered was a combination of mango mousse, coconut ice cream, and pop rocks, which gave my mouth an electrocution-like fizz against the cold ice cream.

Orange is fairly close to a hot-dog cart, patronized by Bill Clinton, that reputedly serves Iceland's best hot dogs, topped with four condiments of unknown ingredients. My sample was certainly delicious, largely for the textures - the hot dog itself was a little overwhelmed, but maybe the distinguishing palate is trained with practice. Another nearby restaurant, SŠgreifinn, is a tiny place with communal bench seating; diners often have to move around to accommodate the ever-changing sizes of parties. It's known for its lobster soup, which was rich and creamy if a little shy on the lobster, and for its skewers of seafood - you just point to the skewer you want and they grill it up for you. My minke-whale kebab came out dry and tough to the point that the little plastic knife had no chance.

My other meal of note was half a sheep's head at the bus station's cafeteria. The presentation left nothing to the imagination - there it was with an eye and half a nose and half a mouth. There was meat around the neck, but the rest was pretty fatty, and after carving away at the fat and scooping out the eyeball, there was a skull staring back at me blindly.

On my last day, I strolled through the Kolaporti­ Flea Market. It's largely people's old household items, plus a bunch of new, generic clothing and a whole lot of used books in Icelandic and English. At the back is a fish market, where I tried a uniquely Icelandic snack, hßkarl: fermented shark. Fresh out of the water, the shark is so acidic as to be poisonous, so it's buried in the ground for a few weeks until it dries out, and then it's hung out for several months. It supposedly tastes like ammonia and smells worse, but I didn't find it that offensive. Going down, it was actually pretty tasty and mild; it was the aftertaste that gave a pungent kick. Maybe that's why it's usually chased with a shot of brennivÝn (vodka-like schnapps).

At the market, I also bought some dried haddock to bring home as a snack. The fishmonger was a chatty fellow of about 70 who had moved around many times among places with cold climates and rotten weather. He had the smallest selection among the fish stalls - just dried fish snacks. He asked what I thought of Iceland.

"It's beautiful," I said. "I hope to come back. I like it here."

"You do?" he asked, as if he'd never heard this kind of comment.

"You don't?"

"No. I hate it here."

"Have you lived here all your life?"

"No. I was born in Sweden. I lived in Canada for a while. Canada was nice. Then I moved to Washington State. I lived there for twenty years. I moved here ten years ago."

"Why don't you like Iceland?"

"The politics are terrible. Everybody in government is greedy." This surprised me for such a tranquil country.

"I know the economy hasn't been great," I said, trying not to maximize the problems.

"It's a disaster! We owe money to Denmark, Holland....And we are just three hundred thousand people."

"Are the taxes usually high here?"

"Not usually. But now that we owe so much, spread among three hundred thousand people...we'll see."

"I have one other question. A friend wants to know what you think about global warming."

"It's a major crisis."

"Has it affected things here?" Maybe climatic changes caused the demise of the former herring towns I'd visited. Were there further dangers ahead?

"Not really. But perhaps it could."

"Is it too late to fix it?"

"Not too late, but it's going to take a lot more work now."

"OK. Well, hopefully things will get better."

"I hope so."

"Well, thank you. It was good talking to you." (I should have said, "So long, and thanks for all the fish.")

"You too."

I had a final stroll around the city as I headed to the terminal to catch the bus to the airport. Outside downtown, there weren't many people on the street. It seemed hard to believe that in a couple of weeks the country would erupt in a two-month frenzy of tourist activity. Brei­avÝk, the sheep farm where I was the season's third guest, would be booked solid. The parking lot at Lßtrabjarg would fill up. I'd need a reservation to get into Orange, and there would be long queues for the city's best hot dogs.

Maybe I left at just the right time. But I can't wait to go back.