Friday, June 13, 2008

Day Three, Friday--The Bus, a Troll, and the Best Croissant

Everything seriously was closed on May 1st, which was Thursday, the day before this entry in my travelogue. Apparently I really needed to stress that point in my written notes so I'm repeating it here, too.

This morning saw my first attempt to upload photos to myself, plugging my camera into Rebecca's computer. I quote: "...that f--king counterintuitive Mac wouldn't acknowledge there was a camera even plugged into the laptop, though it DID open a useless, unrelated program to view, laboriously, all the pictures on the camera. All this, with the extreme maneuverability of a single mouse button meant I got nothing done." See, my regular computer is a PC I built myself, and my mouse has four buttons and all those buttons do very useful things. I've seen gamer mouses (mice? Is that appropriate for the peripheral hardware?) with seven or more buttons and I can't imagine my life will ever lead me to such a point as needing that, but you never know. So when people brag about their home computer which comes with a mouse that only has one button, I imagine they're the sort of people who think ketchup goes on everything and insist on a processed cheese sandwich, white bread with the crusts cut off, maybe a little light mayo if they're feeling adventurous.

Anyway. I woke up at noon (Rebecca doubtless was up before me) and we went to that lovely café in the bookstore for a kickstart. I had an espresso macchiato. We walked down to the Information Center and chatted with a bright and bubbly English girl. She must really love her job, to have so much energy, because I imagine she speaks with a couple dozen clueless tourists from various nations every day and her enthusiasm never diminishes. She had all sorts of ideas for our visit, listened to our plans, shared her experiences, etc. I would've been perfectly content to hang out there and converse with her for another hour, actually, but we had to get on our way. Of course. It would be silly to malinger around the tourist shop instead of actually going out and doing things. I realize this.

We caught the S1 bus to Hafnarfjorður ("harbor fjord") for 560 kronur (two tickets, plus free bus transfers/return tickets). The driver did not speak any English as far as I could discern, but he did understand me stumbling over attempting to inflect "Hafnarfjorður" correctly and assured me this was the right bus for that. People appreciate it when you make an effort. Additionally, a very helpful passenger volunteered some advice and confirmed the route. Maybe no Icelander will approach you in a bar, but they are there for you if you're ever lost or in trouble. Being "very lonely" does not constitute "trouble," however.

The S1 deposited us at a large mall in plenty of time for our next appointment, so we wandered around inside. There was yet another Te & Kafe so we got more coffee, and we noticed an awful lot of these children's drawings around the mall. They seemed to be rendered in pastel or even sidewalk chalk, featuring people, short people, balls of light and angelic figures. Kind of unnerving, since we couldn't understand any of the accompanying captions or explanations. We walked through the mall and towards our day's destination, and found ourselves in a plaza behind the mall, next to a large business office building, and I was overwhelmed with deja vu: I clearly remembered seeing this area before. Some months ago I had a dream involving this setting, and unfortunately it was a dream in which I'm with a group of friends and perpetually disappointing them somehow. I buy the wrong thing in the shops, I'm late for appointments and scheduled events, I'm taking too long to look at the sights, my clothes are ugly, etc. The dream ended up with everyone abandoning me in disgust, so I rounded things out by getting drunk off a couple tall cans of malt liquor and getting a bad haircut in a salon that reluctantly agreed to stay open late for me (I showed up right before close, of course). I had a dream like this that took place in Chicago, but this one was clearly prescient because I found myself two towns away from Reykjavik looking at the setting of this gentle nightmare. The area itself is attractive and clean, it's unfortunate it bears any stigma due to my nightmare.

Anyway, this is what the point of this trip was: we met a tour guide named Sippa who led us around Hafnarfjorður, showing us various rocky formations where dwarves, elves, and Hidden Folk live, as well as a crag that used to be a troll but he was caught out in the sun and so all he is now is a large boulder that looks like an anguished face screaming up at the sky. Upon hearing this Rebecca promptly ran up and shoved her fist up the troll's nostril, reporting a handful of grass, though she does not remember this. She does remember putting her head in the troll's mouth, though.

You may not be acquainted with the concept of Hidden People, and I know I wasn't until this tour. The concept is this: in the beginning, there was Adam and Eve and a bunch of their children. They heard that God was coming down to the Garden of Eden to inspect the grounds and they hurriedly tidied the place up. Unfortunately, Eve was unable to wash all of her children in time for the visit, so she hid a bunch of them in shame.

They greeted God and walked around, showed Him all the plants and animals, and had a nice visit. At the end of His stay, God asked, "So, is that all there is?" Adam and Eve assured him, nervously, that it was. He asked again, "Is that everything you have to show me?" and they insisted that there was nothing else. God, being omniscient, knew that Eve had attempted to hide her children from His sight. This was stupid of her, and He said, "I know you've got those dirty kids stashed away from Me. But as you have tried to hide them from Me, so shall they be hidden from everyone, forever." And with that, an entire population of Hidden People started down the path from history to the present. They live in nature, parallel to our existence but imperceptible to all but those with "second sight," or ESP/clairvoyance. Kind of a sad story, but evidently they're very happy not existing with us.

So, yeah, we saw a large boulder wherein dwelt a grumpy dwarf with a sore throat. Not that anything ever happens to indicate the soreness of his throat, he just has one and that's what makes him cranky lately. Sippa had some anecdotes of people who bumped the boulder with a truck, which immediately broke down and would not run again until the driver sat down and sincerely apologized to the dwarf. This was some kind of construction company, and their work was immobilized without the truck, so everyone laughed at the concept of a foreman going out to talk to a dwarf in a rock, but they also acknowledged that was the point when everything started going right again. See, that's how it goes: you can ask the Icelanders whether they believe in dwarves and elves and such, and they'll likely tell you no, that's silly nonsense, but if you ask them to help out with demolishing or moving some body of rock that's reputedly a home to these beings, they will find every excuse to demure and back out of the project.

(Another tour guide, Jonas, would express a little outrage that Icelanders will preserve a large rock that a dwarf lives in, a dwarf they've never seen and can't perceive, yet they think nothing of renovating an area of land that's the natural breeding ground for a species of birds, which they can see and interact with and whose livelihood their actions are clearly threatening. I'll talk more about Jonas later.)

We walked through a park with a short rocky cliff and Sippa related a story about some trolls that reputedly lived in these little caves and tunnels we stood next to. She's a short, round woman with an all-weather jacket and a peaked red cap, very friendly, very sweet, and very respectful of the supernatural and a little mournful at the deterioration of her native culture. In the park were two young men, maybe teens, futzing around with a plastic shopping bag: looked like they'd bought a couple six-packs of beer. They looked surly, like teens do, and probably mocking of all things deemed "not cool," and I imagined this folklore would fall in that category for them. Imagine my surprise when one of them actually got up off the bench, walked over to us, and talked about how he used to crawl around in the tunnels when he was a little boy. He was pleased when we noted how tiny the tunnels were, how daring it must've been for a small boy to crawl under the ground far enough to emerge at a different location. When asked whether he'd seen a troll as a child, he could not say that he had. Sippa led us on with the tour and the boys picked up their bags and went back to town. I was just touched that one of them bothered to get up and make nice with the Americans. That was very cool.

There was a much larger cliff on the edge of the town, which we could just see over the buildings. There was a flagpole at the top of it, then a sheer dropoff to some jagged rocks at the base. Sippa said that, not too long ago, two boys had been playing on the top of that cliff and, surprise surprise, one of them fell off. The other ran down to attend to his friend, only to find him standing there, perfectly fine, unscratched. The second kid grilled him as to how the hell that could happen, and the first kid avoided the answer for a long time, insisting he just got lucky, but then they both agreed that the kid should get checked out by a doctor. Sure enough, the doctor found him in the pink of health and wondered why the kid bothered to come in. The boy confessed that he'd fallen off the cliff and his friend was concerned. The doctor said this couldn't be possible and demanded to know what happened, and the kid finally broke down and confessed.

He said that he fell off the cliff while playing, but immediately felt as though a pair of hands had come out of the cliff to catch him and slowly carry him down to the ground below. He reported seeing a tall, beautiful woman with long golden hair and a silver belt, and she explained that this cliff was a palace for the elves. The doctor who examined the boy related this story to Sippa, our guide, and he couldn't come up with any other explanation as to how someone could fall off a cliff and be perfectly fine lke that.

We got some souvenir maps... oh, I forgot one part. At the beginning of the tour, Sippa asked if we were expecting actors dressed up in costumes to pop out of the bushes and entertain us. We assured her we had no such expectation, and she explained that other families taking the tour had thought this would be the case. The tour book, Lonely Planet, asserts that such a tour does happen, but Sippa frowned and sighed as she explained no one from Lonely Planet has ever been on her tour, and they've ignored her requests to correct their review of her tour in their guide book. What I think happened is this: the writers at Lonely Planet got their hands on the souvenir map and became confused. There is a picture of a woman on the back, and she's surrounded by people dressed up as dwarves, trolls, and elves, so they assumed this was the tour. Incorrect: the woman on the back of the map is the clairvoyant who identified the homes of these supernatural beings and marked them on the map. The costumes were designed to her specification, made to emulate the entities she was able to perceive, but they have nothing to do with the tour at all. Sippa consulted with the clairvoyant and leads the tour, but the clairvoyant does not come along. Lonely Planet simply made an assumption about the tour and published it without checking their facts, and in fact we would encounter this annoying condition several more times throughout our week's stay in Reykjavik, the locals disabusing us of certain notions the guide book put in our heads. Extremely annoying, when the book is completely wrong about the hours of a museum or the price of a hotel; probably no less annoying for the proprietors of these, having to explain the facts to a stream of misguided tourists.

Anyway. We finished the tour, went to a restaurant in the mall—Café Aroma—and ate lunch overlooking the harbor for which the town is named. We caught the S1 back to Reykjavik and walked around on our own some more. We found a nice coffeehouse, Kaffi Felagið where I had a decent espresso and Rebecca tasted what she proclaimed the best croissant she's had in a long time. I thought it was fine but I have no standards or point of reference; Rebecca's a keener judge of baked goods (all the more tragic she's allergic to gluten) so her opinion means something, here. We wandered around, Rebecca shopped for purses at a bag store, brought back a cunning little trophy she still uses today, and we went to a CD store, a place that struck me as the Icelandic equivalent of Sam Goody or Media Play. I mean, much smaller, just a clean white store with tidy aisles and lots of CDs, DVDs, and video games. I did not see any video game titles I didn't recognize, but I couldn't have gotten them anyway since we're NTSC and they're PAL. But still, that would've been neat. Rebecca got a couple CDs that we still listen to once in a while. They're good, but it's mostly for nostalgia.

(More later...)

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