Friday, May 30, 2008

Day Two: Gullfoss, Geysir, Faxi, and Skalberg

Where did I leave off? I think we had just seen the Drowning Pool. We stopped at a tourist house and saw a film of the area, and I noticed some recesses in the ceiling that depicted the positions of the stars when Christianity was decreed for Iceland. At this point we trundled back onto the tour bus and drove out to Gullfoss ("gold falls").

We drove out into the countryside--even more countrysidish than we'd seen thus far--skimming along the foothills of some mercilessly craggy mountains. Occasionally we saw a patch of RVs and campers and Bob informed us these were rental units, I think, for winter sports or people who just like to get out into rural Iceland the rest of the year. There were a few flocks of sheep and once in a while a horse ranch. Mind you, Icelandic horses are small, and ignorant foreigners such as myself may be prone to calling them "ponies," but let me tell you this. If you wish to provoke the good-natured, even-tempered Icelander to violence, there are three ways you may do this:

1) neglect to take a cleansing shower before slippng into one of their thermal pools,
2) refer to all the towns around Reykjavik as "suburbs", or
3) refer to the stout, sturdy Icelandic horses as "ponies."

Oh, such resentment you will brook by these thoughtless gestures. Best to play it safe and be respectful: Hafnarfjorður is not a suburb, and the Icelandic stallion that comes up to your shoulder is not a pony.

So, as I say, we drove out a broad, flat (and consequently windy) area with a small brown shack. This was a gift shop and café where Bob assured us we could buy the best lamb soup he's had in the country. I, of course, had to try some (and one free refill meant lunch for two) and also bought a little bottle of Brennivin, the herbal schnapps they nicknamed "the Black Death." It isn't black, it's colorless and transparent, but it could certainly share shelf space with Jägermeister or even absinthe for that matter, being strongly redolent of anise. The soup was actually very good, though I thought a bit thin, but full of (I assume) regional herbs and seasonings. At least I can say I had some. Rebecca was partial to the bread that came with it--she's something of a connoisseur of bread, despite her allergy to gluten, while I am unschooled in such matters.

To stand before the little brown restaurant, you would never guess what lies beyond it. To stand in this broat, flat, unassuming landscape, you could never guess what's just around the corner. We walked behind the restaurant, down where the wooden planks led to a rough-hewn stone staircase, and abruptly the ground fell away into a furious, frothing river fed by a raging, roaring waterfall of tremendous tumultuous power. Where did this come from! We were amazed that such a waterful as could carve out wide berth in solid volcanic rock could still sneak up on us like that. This was Gullfoss.

We bused out to the geysers and visited the one, Geysir, for which all others are named. We witnessed the geyser Strokkur blow a couple times, I got pictures with my digital camera and the Diana, loaded with black-and-white film. I'm excited to see how that turned out. I went to each of the geysers and hot pools and recorded them all, as well. Bob warned us that this was a "common sense" tour, meaning that the only obstruction between us and mortal peril was a single strand of rope. Gullfoss was roped off, the flesh-scalding geysers were roped off. Anyone with half an inclination could wander beyond the rope without any trouble, but the tour relied on people's common sense to not do so. Frankly, I'm stunned we didn't have to helivac several blistering bodies back to a hospital and report to authorities how we lost a few more to whatever sheer drop-off, but I suppose there weren't that many Americans in our tour group.

We drove out to Faxi, a much smaller waterfall which was very pleasant and calming to regard. It was near a large... well, it looked like a sheep pen crossed with a spider web, and this is evidence of an interesting story. Everyone who owns sheep out there simply tags their ears and lets them wander. When it comes time to claim them, they simply herd them to a place like Faxi, all of them, and all the farmers come out and claim their sheep. It's that honest and that simple. Again, such a thing could never happen in the States (a statement often repeated throughout my vacation).

The next stop was an historic church at Skálberg. If memory serves, it had burned down a couple times until being constructed in its present condition. Inside was an impressively detailed mosaic of Jesus that covered the broad and tall wall behind the altar. I took several photos of it, the windows, and other details inside. A door next to the entrance had a hand-written note indicating the way to the "crypts," with a little donation box. I asked Bob about this and he said it was nothing more than a few bones and some old stuff behind a sheet of Plexiglas. The lighting was poor and the collection was scant, and it only served once upon a time as a gimmick to cull spare kronur from the tourists.

Next to the church was a large plot of land in a state of excavation--not like a quarry, but like a ransacked cemetary. It was not a cemetary, but a former settlement. Some students had rallied funds to dig up a viking village on this spot and began the study of one house they unearthed--indicating the floorplan including the kitchen, the "school," the dining room, etc.--before the local parishoners began to view this as an imposition, and a gun-shy local government shut the project down. Many of the structures were wrapped in plastic and grass had begun to creep over the rest. The archaeological dig never realized its full potential but plenty was learned from what little progress was made, anyway.

(more soon...)

Aside: Last Aside Before Travelogue Resumes

I don't know why it's been so hard for me to continue updating the trip here. It's happened before: I wrote down the details of my road trip to New Orleans, but in the retelling I gave up three days into it. I kept notes of my weekend vacation in Manhattan but didn't relate two whole days of it in my blog, even though I did much more than that. And, facing down a week of Reykjavik, I'm only on the second day of that excursion and have already lost my momentum.

The first two trips were posted on a more social blog network—LiveJournal—and I expected better response as I told those stories. The failure to receive much feedback discouraged me from continuing to recount my voyages. Here, however, I have no illusions about my position: I'm one small island in a vast ocean with no obvious connections to anything else. I can't write here in expectation of audience response, this has to be all for me. So I have to work harder to keep writing this stuff out, pointless as it seems. Yet what else would I do? Record an even more pointless stream of disjointed thoughts. Why is that more important than a coherent travel story?

Anyway. It's Friday morning. I just ate the sandwich I made for lunch because I remembered that I have a second dental appointment at 11:00 AM and won't be able to eat it after that. I'm going to have a pear, a nectarine, and a multivitamin, and I'm going to skip my traditional second coffee of the day.

I've been catching the 8:03 AM bus lately, which means I run into that fashionable, inconsiderate woman more often. I have to sit on the bench outside the bus shelter because she smokes inside the shelter. She sits down right beneath the NO SMOKING sign and lights up her nasty-ass cigarette. Yesterday I had to sit outside in the rain so she could enjoy her cigarette in the bus shelter. The only thing in this world I detest as much as ignorance is inconsideration (which is not so unrelated a concept, being ignorant of the needs or concerns of others), and so I have tremendous loathing for this unpleasant woman.

So, I took time off from work and bused south to Uptown Dental for my 11:00 AM appointment, just like on the little card they gave me last Wednesday. I showed up and the receptionist couldn't find any evidence of an appointment for me today. She apologized profusely and rescheduled for next Wednesday. This, on top of my last appointment starting 20 minutes late. Is there any business in Minneapolis that gives a rat's ass about good business? Lehman's dented my car and absolutely denied doing it; the cops will pull me over for going five miles over in a 30mph zone, but can't be arsed to investigate the motorcyclist who punched me in the face or the five teens who held me down at gunpoint and robbed my apartment. They'll cuff me and stick me in the back of their cruiser because they're looking for a short man in a green coat and think I might be him (despite my being a tall man in a black coat), but they drive without turn signals and park in the crosswalk at intersections.

Once again, are my expectations so unreasonably high?

Actually, when I went in the next week, the dentist's office felt so bad about the mix-up that the front desk gave me two movie passes for any Landmark Cinema event, and my dentist gave me two free fillings, just to touch up a couple trouble spots. I was quite chastened by their generosity and sincerity. They're good people who do good work, and their hearts are in the right place.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Aside: I Never Know What To Do, Here

I finished up at the library over lunch break and walked back to work. I made an active decision to not use the Skyway because it is such a warm, sunny day and I wanted to enjoy the weather. Such blatant selfishness does not come without a price.

Walking south on Hennepin Ave, I had just crossed 5th St N. There's a bus shelter on the corner there, and today there was a crowd of young men in street clothes. Some of them seemed to know each other, chatting casually. On my left I heard one address a fellow pedestrian, "What's up, I know you got fitty cent..."

I swerved to walk around him and another one stepped in front of me. He was a few inches shorter than me with clean, clear skin. His clothes appeared brand-new, unblemished. They were mainly bright red and bright blue: a thick baseball cap tugged to the side, an over sized polar fleece hoodie, oversized shorts with boxers exposed, and running shoes. Very clean, very new clothes on a healthy looking young man.

" 'Skew me, suh," he started and I knew what was next. I'll break it down: any question has the potential for two prefixes, and the presence or non-presence of those prefixes determines the nature of the question. You don't even need to hear the question, because it goes like this:

  1. If there is no prefix, they want to know what time it is.
  2. If there is one prefix--"excuse me"--they need directions.
  3. If the prefix is "sir" then you dropped something and they're handing it back.
  4. But if there are two prefixes--both "excuse me" and "sir"--they want money.

I had already walked past but stopped and turned around to face him, and this startled him so much he stumbled over his opener: "Do you got, do you got an extra fitty cent?"

I did what I usually do in this situation: I looked him dead in the eye, put on a vaguely sympathetic expression, and told him, "Sorry, I don' got anything on me." This is accompanied with a shrug of the shoulders and hands rising slightly to the sides in a gesture of helplessness. I answered his question with a technical truth--I do not in fact have exactly fifty cents on my person, but did have a five-dollar bill and a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet. However, rare is the situation that would see me hand over five dollars to a stranger, and never would this happen with a twenty.

It's rude to lie to someone, I realize this, but it is less rude and antagonistic than pretending to not have heard him at all and kept on walking, which is what most people do to panhandlers. Granted, it's also inconsiderate to accost someone on the street and beg for money one clearly does not need (one is not starving, and one is clad in brand-spanking-new, trendy name-brand street gear), but... I don't know "but" what. The poor behavior of others does not excuse my own, and I dwell on this especially in this situation.

He paused and I started to turn away. He said, "Ah'm broke as hell." A young woman sitting on a bench nearby broke into raucous laughter and grabbed the collar of her heather grey hoodie, tugging it up to cover her state of hilarity. Fleetingly, I wondered if they were together.

I turned toward him again, slightly raised my outspread arms again, looked him in the eye and said in a louder voice, "I got nothin' on me."

He turned away and I turned away and walked back to the office with a knot in my stomach. I lied about being broke but I didn't want to hand over a five-dollar bill, nor expose the twenty in my wallet to a group of panhandling young men. He didn't appear to be in dire straits but it's not my place to judge him. And the whole thing is heavily laden with racial tension because we were not of similar ethnic heritage.

Lastly, I'm upset I can't peacefully walk down the street and enjoy the sunshine in this city.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Aside: Trade You a Bottle for a Condom

Okay, so...

There's this woman, right, in Wausau, WI. Her name is Jessica Kasten, she's 26 years old. She had three kids.

One of them died when it was six months old. Jessica got high on meth and slept for a day and a half, and her baby suffocated in its bassinet. That was last year.

So, yesterday, she's driving around with a blood-alcohol content of 0.11, with her remaining two children (aged 2 and 3), and I have two questions... no, three.

1) What makes this 26y.o. girl think she wants to be a mother in the first place? She should be single and partying and wasting her parents' tuition, instead of breeding and killing her children.

2) What makes this judge think she should be in charge of little children? Did she give him the puppy-dog eyes first time around? Did she sniffle a little?

3) What's it going to take to protect her children from this woman? Does one of them have to blow up in a building or something?

Article located here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Aside: Elevator Courtesy

I have no doctorate in etiquette, but there are a few things I--even I--understand about elevator courtesy. These are the guiding rules of conduct that: a) facilitate easy transfer in and out of the elevator car, and b) promote kindness and consideration.

This is what I understand elevator courtesy to be:
  1. Allow people in the elevator car to disembark, and then people waiting to ride may board once the car is empty.
  2. Inside the car, men should allow women to exit first.
  3. Waiting to board, men should allow women to enter first.
Not comprehensive but it'll suffice for now. What I really want to cover now is Minnesotan elevator courtesy:
  1. Do not fill the elevator bay while waiting for an elevator; instead, line up outside in the hallway and block passage around the reception desk, waiting your turn to enter the capacious elevator bay.
  2. Women: short ones push to the front and board first; tall ones slink back or wait for the next one. Pretty women must sigh in frustration at cars with six or more passengers and flounce off all the way back to the button panel for the next one.
  3. Men: fancy lads push through women and men alike; old men enter next and really pack it in.
  4. When boarding an elevator, do not wait for the car to empty first but push ahead and prevent others from leaving. Otherwise the passengers might decide to ride back up again and leave you stranded.
  5. If you are trying to enter and are confronted by someone trying to leave, this is how you step aside: raise your eyebrows. That's all. In Minnesota, raised eyebrows symbolically represent getting out of the way, hearkening back to the late 1800s when people actually got out of each other's way. The raised eyebrows trick applies to all doorways and narrow hallways (or hallways where three or four of you are walking abreast and someone dares to walk in the opposite direction).
  6. When boarding, passengers going to the lowest floors--those who depart first--must enter first and file to the back of the car. Passengers going to the highest floors must board last and stand in front of the doors as though all the other floors will be skipped and theirs is next.
  7. When other passengers need to leave, riders to the highest floors must stand dutifully in place as though they haven't noticed the doors opening up. Riders to the low floors must murmur "excuse me" as quietly as possible. Riders to the highest floors must visibly startle and turn around with a surprised expression (do not confuse with "raised eyebrows" in no. 5) and shuffle awkwardly aside, giving the illusion of room to move past. Do not provide any actual room in which to move past. Repeat this process for every floor, looking surprised every single goddamned time.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Day Two - Thursday - Golden Circle Tour

All in all, the Golden Circle tour was pretty tiring, just 'cos it ran for so long: eight hours of busing around, stopping at various points to see the sites and hear the history. There was a lot of material that I won't try to recount here, but I will try to cover the highlights.

For one, our tour guide, Bob, used to live in the States but was traveling so frequently to Iceland that he bit the bullet and emigrated about 18 years ago. He just loved the country and its history and geology, so he was an enthusiastic and sincere guide. He had his patter down and was knowledgeable on a variety of topics, very well versed in history and recent events. This picture of Bob shows him standing before a small cave wherein reputedly lives a troll. Being that trolls are supposed to be much larger than men, I find this a little difficult to accept.

First we went to Ðingvellir ("Thingvellir"), where we visited Snorrasbuð (Snorri's Booth) and the Alþing. When Iceland was first settled, every town and settlement wrote their own sagas, which were records of land ownership that evolved into pretty good chronicles of major events (and minor events, depending on how gossipy the recorder was). Snorri Sturluson traveled around the country and gathered all the sagas into two enormous tomes--imagine the insult when Denmark took them out of the country and stored them in Copenhagen, and imagine the joy and pride when Denmark returned them to Iceland in the 1960s. Snorrisbuð was named after him, though I don't recall whether it was just a site he enjoyed or if he actually gathered people there for a huge story-telling festival. What's interesting about Snorri is that while all the other Norse were running out and grabbing land for themselves and declaring themselves king, Snorri was content to travel with a retinue and ingratiate himself to each of them. Flattered, they granted him some pretty considerable privileges and influence.

The Alþing ("Althing," parliament) is a valley where the American and European continental plates meet, and here is the Lögberg, a large rock that served as a platform for the vikings who would meet there. They'd put up tents, get settled in, and start debating the laws they would put into practice. Very significant location. One story goes that when Christianity was infiltrating the nation, one high viking chief isolated himself to meditate on what to do, torn between preserving his culture or handing his people over to the Christians. The story has it that he staked a pelt to the ground, to serve as shelter, and lay beneath it for three days with orders that he must never be disturbed. He emerged and reputedly announced, "If the people are divided, the nation will be divided," and proclaimed that while everyone currently living could retain their traditional religion, all children born from that point onward would be baptized and raised Christian.

That's one version. Another guide, Jonas (you'll hear about him later), suggested very darkly over shots of Brennivin, "And history is written by the victors. I suspect the transition wasn't nearly so smooth and peaceful."

We also saw the Drowning Pool. Back when the clans were small and you couldn't let cabin fever or ill temper destroy your entire group, a crime like adultery was considered a capital offense. The Drowning Pool was where women were executed: they were cludged on the head with a rock, bundled up into a gunny sack weighted with stones, and tossed into the freezing water where death came quick. They were fished out of the water and given a proper burial. I believe it was some 17 women who were executed for the crime of adultery.

Bob paused at this point and waited for something; when nothing happened he said that usually someone asks him how many men were put to death for adultery in the Drowning Pool. The answer to that question is none--42 men were beheaded, burned at the stake, and hanged for this crime, but none were ever drowned.

More later...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Day Two - Thursday

I had a hard time sleeping last night. The reason was related to what I'd mentioned about the night life: no one really comes out until 11:30 PM or midnight, and the bars stay open until 4 AM. The bars are so expensive, moreover, that people find it slightly more economical to buy a few bottles at a liquor store and drink them at home, getting drunk before going out and then partying the night away. The sunset hasn't even completed by the time people are coming out so it's still light as they start filing the streets, boisterous and jolly, their cries echoing off the buildings and going straight through our sealed apartment window. We remedied this problem by playing quiet music, sleeping in our noise-reduction headphones, or taking an Ambien.

When we first checked into the apartment, there was a shelf of four remote controls: TV, DVD player, radio, and something that looked like a cable box with a small credit card sticking out of it. The credit card-looking thing had a beautiful woman's face on it. I assume this was some kind of authentication key for a cable box, I dunno, it was never explained to me and I never experimented with it. Didn't want to incur huge surprise fees for watching some crap movie by accident. On the windowsill another stereo had its own remote control--the stereo under the TV was completely impenetrable to me, while the window stereo was facile and intuitive. We listened to some local stations, kept it on one that seemed to be the local Icelandic top 40 or something. There were two very angry songs about women, one of which was an anti-clever recitation of misogynist t-shirt slogans, the other just being some very black metal whining about a relationship gone sour. Good music came from it, too, like this very perky English woman who sounded a lot like Regina Spektor but with a stronger British accent, singing about how "jam on toast" makes her "very very happy" and she knows that some guy was checking out her bum. Being that the DJ was Icelandic, I never discerned who the artist was nor the title of the song. Does anyone reading this know? I'd love to find it again.

Anyway, Rebecca and I woke up, fixed skyr and muesli for breakfast (freakin' delicious! I can't believe I've never had muesli before), showered and dressed, and waited out front for the tour bus to collect us. Another couple down the block also stood outside but we never said hello or bonded. In fact, they just walked to the other side of the street when the street cleaning crew came by, blasting the sidewalks and cobblestone with gouts of water. I think they do that daily, and it's what keeps Reykjavik looking (and smelling) so nice (in direct contrast to homeless-urine-saturated Minneapolis). Eventually a large white shuttle bus did come for us, all four of us boarded, and we were driven across town to another bus station where we boarded a much larger tour bus, and then headed eastward to start the Golden Circle Tour...

(to be cont.)

Aside: Wonder of Wonders

I just think Google is so cool. I happened to notice that Google is now offering a Web page builder program, so I had to try it out.

I'll add to it later, I just have no idea what should go there. It'll probably replace anything I was doing in GeoCities, I'm sure.

Back to the story...

Craggy tor and flag

Craggy tor and flag, originally uploaded by sxoidmal.

I thought it might be nice for us foreigners living abroad to enjoy the Icelandic national anthem. I've translated as much as I could understand, after a week of deciphering everything I encountered in restaurants, coffee shops, and movie theaters. Takk fyrir!

Monday, May 12, 2008

The End of Wednesday, Finally

As Wednesday continued, I thought it would be helpful for me to note the current exchange rate. I parked Rebecca's Mac Book on the windowsill of our apartment, increasing our odds of catching Te & Kaffi's precarious wi-fi, and typed the numbers into Google's handy currency conversion formula (example: "1500 ISK into USD"--I love this little game). I wrote up columns of amounts that should be familiar (based on the denominations of US$ and ISK bills) or from which we could form quick calculations.

US$ into ISK
ISK into US$
1 - - 74.42
50 - - 0.67
10 - - 744.18
100 - - 1.34
20 - - 1,488.39
500 - - 6.72
50 - - 3,720.98
1,000 - - 13.44
100 - - 7,441.99
2,000 - - 26.87
200 - - 14,883.99
5,000 - - 67.19

For instance, a bus ticket (incl. transfer) would cost 500 ISK, or less than seven bucks. An espresso macchiato usually ran us about 250 ISK, just less than $3.50, and a beer in any bar was almost $10 (700 ISK). I made a copy of my little chart for Rebecca, which she stuck in the window of her wallet and referred to habitually. It might have been cleverer to just memorize the math, but this helped us out when our minds were on other things. 500 kronur came in bill and coin form, the latter being perhaps more popular when receiving change from grocery stores and such, though they saw about equal usage as opposed to the popular American one dollar bill and the obscure, multifarious one dollar coins.

We went to Vegamot--that is, we left our apartment, turned left and walked in front of the book store, then took an immediate left down the short street called Vegamotastig and right into the bar/restaurant Vegamot. It looked like a hip little club, though it was about empty when we went in for lunch. One corpulent man sat outside to enjoy his cigar, and Rebecca and I wondered whether Reyjkavik had recently been endowed with such the "no smoking" ban as Minneapolis bars and restaurants have seen. Certainly, we expected the bars to be dense with second-hand smoke but honestly we can hardly recall encountering it at all, even outdoors. Rebecca had a green tea and felt they used way too many tea leaves in their French press; I had the Vegamot signature burger (what is it with Europeans and cucumbers?), despite the sound of the bar's name to American ears it is not a vegetarian joint. We checked out the posters that advertised the late-night talent, Rebecca will remember the unusual DJ names ("Gorilla Funk"). Through the window she pointed to a strange traffic sign; when we finished our lunch we went out to decipher it. Its meaning turned out to be quite clear: it simply meant that this was a parking lot for our apartment only, all others would be towed. The confusion came from--and many pubs and bistros throughout the city employed these--the icon of a car being towed away under the name of the establishment itself. At initial glance this would seem to encourage pedestrian traffic and warn everyone else away. Not so.

The day lost its sunniness and became overcast with pale grey clouds, and a chilling wind swept in from the Atlantic. Stupidly, I somehow managed to neglect to pack a hat and gloves, despite my diligent inventory list. I knew that Iceland was further north than Canada's Yukon. I knew that it's an island in the middle of an ocean. In spite of all that knowledge I still forgot to grab a simple hat and gloves, so we hit the tourist shops. There are two popular outdoor clothing stores in Reykjavik: 66° North and Cintamani, the latter of which even offers travel packages. Their clothing is perfectly functional, at least on par with our REI or North Face, but kinda pricey. It was actually cheaper for me to buy "genuine Icelandic wool" hat and gloves at a gift shop, Thorvaldsen's Basar, for under $70. The proprietress filled out a customs form (VAT) for me to turn in when I would leave the country. I thought the hat was very neat and looked for excuses to wear it throughout the remainder of my trip, despite no other person at all anywhere wearing any kind of headgear, no matter the weather. Tough lot, they. The wool gloves did a surprisingly good job of cutting the wind, too, so I actually did feel very warm and toasty while walking around town. Despite her appropriate gear, Rebecca absolutely did not enjoy the Atlantic gales. We walked around a little bit more, I took more pictures of graffiti everywhere, she noted how we tended to meet the headwind no matter which direction we walked in, and we ended up at Segafredo for coffee. No matter what else, we were glad the coffee was good and priced at pretty much what we'd pay at home. At some point, according to this receipt in my notebook, I also picked up a shot glass at Islandia Bankastaeti for 275 kronur. I've been collecting shot glasses from the various States I've visited in the last couple years, and had to pick one up from this country. I'm sadly reminded of the time I visited a friend in Los Angeles who introduced me to a friend of hers. His first question to me, upon learning that I'm from Minnesota, was, "What do you collect?" His premise was that everyone in Minnesota collects something; at the time, actually, I was collecting comic books but didn't think that counted as a specifically Minnesotan thing to do, but he rolled his eyes and nodded, as if this were the inevitable answer.

More parades of the kids in costume. My notes list the costumes as: Waldo (from Where's Waldo), Cats in the Hat, Pink Panthers, pink and green Care Bears, grey wolves, brown some-kind-of-animal, and the chefs with the fat asses. Still wondering what the hell all that was about.

Rebecca turned in for the evening but I went out to get in some of the night life--this is hilarious because I went out around 10pm. The sun was still up. If anything, people may have been in their homes, drinking from the bottles they got from the liquor store, in preparation to go out after 11:30 PM and fill the clubs. More on that later. I walked around, getting more pictures of graffiti, and entered the Celtic Cross. There was a beer tent in its parking lot, I assumed that was private. I entered the bar, modeled after an English pub, and found it empty. All the chairs in place, TVs on, music playing, but not a soul seated at a table, not a soul having a drink. The bartender sat behind the bar with a laptop, and he ignored me as I stood at the bar for a couple minutes, waiting to be served. I didn't ask nearly enough questions in this city, and I didn't ask the bartender what it took to get served. I just left and walked down the street to Cultura.

The Lonely Planet guide book lauds Cultura as an international hotbed of activity, a happenin' place where cultures meet and music opens the gateway to imagination. My experience was somewhat different than that: I ordered a Leffe, a light yellow translucent beer, and sat at a small round table covered in mosaic tile. No one around me spoke English. Two women complained bitterly about a common topic, I inferred from their head-nodding, and a woman behind me communicated frenetically via text messaging. An older man and younger woman by the door murmured darkly about something for five minutes before leaving. I sipped my beer and wrote out postcards--my logic was that if I sent them out on the first day, they might reach their destinations shortly after I returned to the US. When the helpful, young, dark-haired Icelandic woman at the Information Center sold me the postcards, she asked if I wanted postage and helped me differenciate between "Europe" and "other" postal rates, and threw in a strip of Air Mail stickers besides. So I had a tidy little correspondence kit to work with in Cultura, listening not to a Russian DJ but a quiet jukebox located somewhere behind the scraggly young alcoholic with long stringy hair.

I toddled back to the apartment and found Rebecca quite asleep. I noticed that I had been feeling paranoid and unwilling to explore the foreign city by myself, even though I desperately wanted to get out and see the night life. I had assumed Iceland was a much safer country than my homeland, I certainly hadn't heard any horror stories about crime of any sort, but I was still... There was enough of America in Iceland to make me concerned. The graffiti looked American, the hoodlums had cribbed notes from American gangsta rap, though it was more giggle-inducing than fear-inducing to see a couple clean, blonde Icelandic teens bump fists and recite, "West Side, know what I mean?" Still... what an import: graffiti. The mural artists were amazing, but the tagging was as pointless as it is here, even moreso. Here, there's a chance some meth addict actually has a gun and will use it in defense of his "territory;" there, it's just funny-looking markings with which to deface someone else's property and nothing to back it up. Ugliness for ugliness' sake. I suppose I should have been happy that the ugliness stopped at visual pollution and didn't run to social disease, like here.

I went to close the window to the apartment, to cut down the rabble from the street, but found it was already closed: the revelers were simply that loud. Fortunately, beer and jet lag put me to sleep very quickly.

More later...

Friday, May 9, 2008

Day One in Reykjavik, Bonus Round

We lost a day in travel and neared Iceland on its Wednesday. It was clear sailing, but with an impenetrable layer of cloud cover far beneath us. As we began our descent, rippling patterns in the clouds were visible, at first like cheesecloth but then resembling a turbulent ocean. The closer we got, the larger and smoother the stratospheric terrain became, turning into a landscape of medium-sized hills crowded together, no space for anything else.

Soon we broke through the clouds and enjoyed a bout of ratting turbulence. Turbulence always unnerves me, no matter how great the airline's track record, no matter the weather or the location. It is far easier to envision riding into a flaming wreckage than to imagine a safe, uneventful landing, despite the fact that all I've known is the latter and have never experienced the former. We broke through the clouds and all there was to see was choppy, dark ocean beneath us. Even if we survived the crash itself, the water would surely do us in. And then the coastline arrived and I gazed across the fjords. Not quite as many fjords as would be up north around Isafjorður, but a good number. (What would be a "bad number" of fjords?) And then... wasteland. Lots of volcanic turf, volcanic slag sticking up through a scraggly, determined brown grass that doesn't take "no" for an answer.

That's all there was. Miles and miles of this, watching it all roll by as I listened to Radiohead's "Karma Police." Even after we reached the airport and drove from Keflavik to Reykjavik, there were still more miles and miles of this wasteland. I regarded it with AD&D gamer's eyes and tried to imagine how hellish it would be to ride a horse across. You'd have to dismount and lead very carefully, as I'm sure any jagged edge of slag would pierce the frog of your horse's hoof and cripple him, and then you're sunk. Even without that, your movement rate is cut drastically and it would take forever to get anywhere, and the wildlife is especially sparse so I don't know what kind of random encounters you could possibly roll, plus there are no trees and little vegetation, so you'd better have brought your own tents and rations because otherwise, hope you like grass and rocks.

We touched down under an overcast sky (so much sunnier above the clouds) and light drizzle. We taxi'd into the airport and unboarded. Disboarded? Disembarked? We walked through a terminal that looked like it had been designed by IKEA: lots of open space, blonde wood paneling, steel tubes, warm and dark colors. I thought the whole thing was gorgeous and very exciting. One thing I love to do in other countries is look at their advertisements, suss up the mindset that judges aesthetics and marketing appeal in a completely different context. They do love their yogurt, or rather a yogurt variant called skyr, and there were ads for it everywhere. There were also some cultural heritage posters that described the etymology of such names as "Baldur" and "Freya" with emotional, stark black-and-white photography of gorgeous, strong men and women. It was quite an inspiring entrance.

We claimed our bags, converted our money, and immediately ran over to a coffee kiosk. I didn't pay attention to the name of the chain at the time, but it could well have been Te & Kaffi, which we found everywhere. We ordered coffee to charge us up for the new day (it was six in the morning, local time), and Rebecca disapproved of the coffee product. Coffee's pretty much coffee, to me, and I was happy with it. I also wanted to blow a bunch of cash on exotic candy bars and questionable junk food, but being that the exchange rate was 71 kronur to one US dollar, I decided to play it very conservatively for a few days and get a feel for how much things cost. I would learn that everything was twice or thrice as expensive as in the States.

Asking around, we learned that we needed to buy a ticket for the shuttle out of the airport, so we bought one. This was our first experience with how fluent most Icelanders are in English, as they understood our little jokes and made jokes of their own: "You're taking a honeymoon in Iceland? ...Why?" The guy at the ticket booth had some good recommendations for us, including the Blue Lagoon tour right before our flight out of the country. Apparently that's a common thing to do, relaxing in these particular hot pools right before heading out again, and we looked forward to it.

But the guy driving the bus said that we didn't have a bus ticket, only a receipt. Looking at the little scrip of paper, it did seem awfully receipt-like. I pulled out some other paperwork that had been given to us, and he said that too was only a receipt. We ran back inside, panicked, and asked the woman behind the counter if she would please give us a ticket and not just a receipt for our purchase. I began to fear that this was where the "let's ruse the foreigners" money scam began. The woman explained that the first piece of paper was not a receipt but a ticket, and she came out from behind the counter to give the bus driver a dressing-down, and he came around to accept the paper as a ticket. We loaded up our luggage, boarded, and bused out of Keflavik Airport.

It was a 30-minute ride out of Keflavik, and we didn't go straight to our hotel afterwards. We stopped at another bus terminal and rode a shuttle from there to our hotel. Now that I think about it, we were just on the edge of downtown Reykjavik at this point and could have walked to what would be our second hotel in town from that location. I thought we were in some kind of suburb or related hamlet, but we really were practically in our destination now. There were a dozen of us on the shuttle and the driver deposited each of us at our respective guest houses, hostels, and whatnot. As it happened, Rebecca and I had rented an apartment for the first four nights. We saw an ad for a very nice looking place, called Room With a View, in the middle of downtown Reykjavik and it sounded like a fun alternative to a regular hotel room. We probably wouldn't meet other tourists, like we might at a guest house, but it was still a fun and convenient idea. Even before leaving we imagined we might save ourselves some money by making our own meals (the difference was negligible, it turned out).

But it was about eight in the morning and nothing was open, least of all our apartment. The Room With a View is a tiny space between two buildings, with a clear glass front door that shows there's nobody in the lobby, next to a plate with a dozen buttons and no labels beside them. We had no freakin' idea how to hail the proprietors, nor whether they'd even be awake at this time of day. Sleepy and irritable, we extended the tote handles on our suitcases and trudged down the sidewalk in search of a café in which to chill and get breakfast while we waited for everything to open.

We did find a bistro with huge, decorated bay windows but no door. There was no door. There was no way to get into this restaurant from the street, until we realized it was attached to another hotel whose entrance was a bit to our left. We went in, the concierge at the front desk seemed unconcerned with our presence, and we guiltily slunk into the dining room. It was decorated in a kind of Mexican style, one wall being covered with lucha promotional posters, the opposite featuring a display of tiny tin religious trinkets and emblems. There were no menus but a couple people were eating at another table: Rebecca scouted around and discerned that it was a buffet-style breakfast. There were two young women in black shirts and skin-tight black jeans, as is the fashion now in America, hustling plates and silverware from the tables but they too ignored our pleading glances. Rebecca, cold, tired, and hungry, suggested we just go ahead and grab some food and pay when someone happened to demand it. This sounded fine to me. We got coffee, juice, and skyr; I made a little sandwich with cold cuts, sharp cheese, and a stout white bread, where Rebecca helped herself to fruits and cheese. We were both quite impressed with skyr, actually: smooth and creamy, somehow denser than regular yogurt, and plenty flavorful. We would end up buying skyr several times throughout the trip, and apparently it's on sale in the States but only at Whole Foods along the eastern seaboard. As far as we know.

The guilt became too much for me and I stood at the bar in the dining room; the two women dutifully ignored me and avoided my gaze, so I went back to the concierge. I asked him the price of breakfast and he assured me it was free for hotel guests. I confessed we were not staying at this hotel but at one down the block. He seemed to swallow something else he was about to say and instead told me two breakfasts would be 1,500 ISK (approx. $19.44). Actually it was 1,600 ISK but he could see I was struggling with the foreign coins and shaved 100 off. This would happen a few more times throughout our vacation, I'm pleased to note. Having settled up, we left and returned to our apartment building, thinking of how else we might attract the attention of the landlord.

As it happened, we found him dumpster-diving right in front. That is, we walked past two men picking through a dumpster (which was there for a building under renovation next door) who apparently found a box of cargo pants still in the wrapper, and one of them noticed us puzzling at the front door of the apartment. He introduced himself, let us in, and showed us our apartment. It was a cute little place, dark wood and white walls, and the strangest artificial cowhide comforter in red and black on the bed. This was actually a selling point to Rebecca, it looked so garish and unbelievable we had to experience it. I can say it lived up to our expectations, though I think it was synthetic while Rebecca believes it was real (if dyed). We took pictures of the place to express our delight with such a cute little living arrangement, then promptly collapsed in exhaustion on the bed and napped until noon, which was an hour later than we'd agreed to. We didn't want to sleep all day, but we were too exhausted to go on much further. Once we woke up we showered and changed. Rebecca noticed with horror that the hot water changed the color of her silver necklaces: being geothermally heated, the water contained a lot of sulfur and tarnished her silver to a yellowish brass appearance. I thought it was cool but Rebecca was alarmed and I promised her I'd polish it all back up to normal once we got home.

Beneath the apartments was a large bookstore that divided itself into tiers, into half-floors. Our apartment had a door on the second floor that opened right up into the uppermost level, being educational texts and a Te & Kaffi café; half a flight down was another level of books; half a flight, magazines and CDs and the front door; half a flight more and you're in a lower level of novels; down the last half-flight of stairs and you're in a kind of basement with toys, children's books, and luggage. I waited in the café with Rebecca's Mac, logged on and entered my first Iceland-based blog entry. I was impressed with how rapidly everyone switches from Icelandic to English: I approached the counter to order, the man greeted me incomprehensibly, I said, "Hello," and he immediately switched gears and asked what I'd like in English. I had a macchiato while I waited for Rebecca to come downstairs, and then we would go to the Information Center to figure out the tours we'd take over the course of the week.

More later...

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Day One - Tuesday, technically Weds. April 30

Here begins my arduous recreation of my travel journal, seventeen pages of hasty scrawlings in a large Moleskine notebook (supplemented with photos as I upload them), documenting my honeymoon in Reykjavik, Iceland. I wrote more than I anticipated and expect the typing will develop into something even huger, but here we go.

Tuesday morning in Minneapolis, I woke up early for no accountable reason other than excitement, perhaps. Having gone out for drinks with Editing friends the night before, I was parched and toddled to the kitchen for some water. The cats waylaid me so I played with Toki in the living room for a few minutes, practicing his aerial attacks. His thumping around in joyful leaps might have woken Rebecca so I took it to the living room.

Eventually we were both awake and leapt into action. Coffee brewed, Rebecca started cleaning up the living room while I went to the hardware store and got copies of our house keys made for the friends and family who would have to watch our cats for us.

Around 1:00 PM mom stopped by on her way back from the airport, having picked up Andrew coming up from New Orleans, bringing his son Kai (who mom had been babysitting since Sunday). I threw together a surprisingly tasty lunch--gyro meat in a pita with BBQ sauce--and made more coffee. Andrew gifted us with some of his original artwork. I marveled at how far his craft has gone. He's an amazing artist and he's constantly improving! Baby Kai was adorable: shy at first, he soon became very affectionate and gave everyone hugs. His hair seems to naturally grow into a mohawk, a thick line of long hair running down the middle of his head while thin on the sides. He was most entertained by watching Toki flip around and leap at his favorite toy, the tufted feathers on the end of a long plastic wand. Toki just likes to leap for the sake of leaping and doesn't care about catching the thing until he's just about tired of the process. Kai laughed and laughed at the agile black cat.

They left and Rebecca and I returned to packing our clothes, then left for the airport. We parked at the Hubert H. Humphrey terminal and went to get our tickets, and there we encountered our first snag. The clerk cocked her head at me and asked if I'd already checked in. I certainly had not, having just arrived, and tried to state my case. I take complications like this badly, especially on the advent of a voyage. I take them as omens and begin to fill up with dread. Two clerks deftly studied the entanglement: another worker named Ben, who'd just left the building, checked someone else under my name because he believed our names were similar. Pretty soon a tall redheaded Icelandic woman came up to the desk, informing us that TSA said her boarding pass did not match her passport, and I got to meet Kristín Friðriksdóttir (my name is Christian Fredrickson--close, but not).

Waiting at the airport, Rebecca and I got dinner at Fletcher's Wharf and received a mediocre, overpriced meal. This was the portent of things to come, not the tangle at the check-in desk, I see that now. I had fun with the menu, as some past diner evidently fancied him/herself a fledgling editor and attempted some typographic corrections in pen, on the menu itself. Hilarious, because he/she was quite erroneous in the corrections. That was about that, except for later when I watched a woman attempt to leave the bar with a glass of white wine and wander around the terminal. The bartender, being of gentle disposition, was unable to immediately attract her attention but eventually did prevent an international disaster, causing her to leave her glass of wine at the bar.

Rebecca ran off and delivered our copy of Rock Band in the mail, returning it to the manufacturer because there's a skip on the disc and we can't get past a certain level due to it. We got some more coffee, boarded the plane, and watched an episode of Malcolm in the Middle on the overhead drop-down screens. That was nice. Unfortunately, Bridget Jones' Diary 2: the Edge of Reason or some crap was on next so I had to rely on my Shuffle and the spiff new noise-canceling earbud headphones Rebecca got me.

We received our in-flight meal: some kind of rolled-up pasta filled with pork (which R. can't eat, having grown up Jewish and not having an appetite for it), a brownie, a roll (neither of which she can have due to a gluten intolerance), and she asked me what kind of salad it was that I was enjoying. "It tastes like crab salad," I said, which made her laugh inordinately hard. There was absolutely nothing on her tray that she could eat, and it was five more hours until we touched down in Iceland. Fortunately, she did remember to bring some trail mix.

More later...

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Two Go Mild in Reykjavik

Yesterday was a grand day of wandering around and looking at things. I've taken a lot of pictures of grafitti and vandalism, I think people will find it compares directly with what we have in the States. The only real innovation is that sometimes taggers incorporate runes older than the Viking Futhark in some of their work. I mean, I would, if I lived in a culture that had that, go back to the really old stuff and make my mark look cooler. Who wouldn't?

Last night I went to a bar (after seeing 101 Reykjavik) and tried to order a local beer, but... they didn't have any. I got a Leffe, but I bet that's German. The bar was called Cultura and advertised itself as being inter-cultural, but mainly there were a few depressing people in there at the mosaic tabletops. Some grimy guy at the bar, a woman in the corner madly text-messaging someone, two women complaining about men (I assumed, this being in another language but the inflection coming across), and a younger woman and an older man whose relationship I did not guess at. I just wrote postcards and got buzzed off a very expensive glass of ordinary beer--we've been advised everything's going to be pricey here, so this won't be a regular occurrence for me. I just wanted to do it once in order to say that I had. I tried to go to the Celtic Cross, but the bartender couldn't be arsed to pull himself away from his laptop and the place was as empty as a church.

I walked down to the ocean and got some pictures of the land across the water, but the brisk 20mph wind off the ocean dissuaded me from lingering. I walked all through the town, photographed a church and a statue of a viking, and got asked directions by a woman whose accent I couldn't identify. I didn't get mugged, which was all I was worried about. I don't know what the crime rate is in Reykjavik so maybe that wasn't an issue. I just inferred, from the similar graffiti, that youth's aspirations would be on par with that in America so a stupid person could get mugged easily, quickly, for no reason at all.

Sleeping was hell last night, as the bars stay open to four in the morning, and people think nothing of yelling and whistling all night long. The noise-canceling headphones Rebecca procured for me did wonders, however, and tonight I think I'll pop an Ambien. Today we're going to take a tour of the Golden Circle, entailing a lot of geothermal pools, the original Geysir after which all others are named, and stuff like that. I'm looking forward to it. The tours around here are going to be amazing, that I know.