Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Day Three: Ghosts, Super Nachos, and an Insane Pig

There are multiple Information Services in Reykjavik. I don't know if they're territorial or district-based, like, you can only get certain information in a certain part of town. That might be fun for a day, if you like to play Zelda, wandering around asking villagers for parcels of information. Probably not, though, I'm sure they are not rival offices but all work together to disseminate the largest body of knowledge.

We found a second Information Services office. It was closed, so the information we could get from it was extremely limited. We watched nicely dressed couples walk up a metal spiral staircase and go to dinner in an adjacent bar/restaurant. Eventually a Canadian woman poked her head around the corner and asked if we were here for the Haunted Reykjavik tour, which of course we were. She led us around the corner where we joined the group already assembled. We can't be blamed for wanting to wait indoors, as it was a very chilly, windy day with intermittent sprinkles. I was quite impressed to find our tour guide, Jonas (I've mentioned him a couple times; well, here he is), dressed in a rain parka and hiking shorts and boots. He admitted that he was actually freezing: he didn't bother to check the weather when he got dressed this morning, assuming for some reason that it would be warm and sunny. He should've just let us believe he was that hardy.

The Canadian woman was married to a Canadian man, and they were from Halifax. There's a direct flight from Halifax to Keflavik, just as there is one from Minneapolis to Keflavik. The woman was very lively and cute, great to joke around with; the man was taciturn and perfunctorily polite. The closest we came to bonding was when I pulled out my camera and he accepted that as permission to pull out his. This is the most I learned about anyone in the group at all, and I can barely picture them now. I remember a German family of four and a couple couples from all over, and at one point some street punks thought they might hang around with the tour, but that's it. Not a chatty group.

Jonas's technique was a solid one: if you accept that there are ghosts, decide upon a method most likely to detect them. He collected a large number of ghost stories and boiled them down to a few key locations. Then he assembled a team of five psychics, one of whom was a trustworthy friend of his, Sophia, and took them to the locations to see if they could sense anything. One psychic, oh yes, felt very strong things everywhere, something significant had happened everywhere they went; Jonas learned not to take that one's opinion with too much gravity. Between the remaining four psychics he was able to pretty much isolate several significant areas of emotional/ghostly activity. He then did even more research to find out what he could about the history of these areas, what was going on at the time, witness accounts, etc. He left it up to the audience to make their own decisions, he only presented a large body of facts and a record of events, plus "this is what people say they experienced." I thought that was pretty fair, I mean, within the context. At least he didn't dress up in a black cloak, blacken his eyes, and bait the crowd with false promises of seeing something really scary, you know, no sensationalism.

We passed a hotel where people had reported a large number of ghosts. Jonas's research showed that a couple dozen foreign sailors had been stored there, dying of various seaborne diseases and not receiving a burial because the Black Plague was sweeping Europe at the time so attention was directed elsewhere. The ghosts cleared out when the bodies were removed and buried. It's bizarre to me that a ghost could care so much about its mortal remains, but I guess if you're raised with that conviction it's strong enough to bind you.

We were taken to a kind of well looking down into a museum in a lower level, part of another building with a little port through which to peer. This was where we attracted the two young men slouching about. Apparently they never knew what that was for either (part of a viking excavation dig, I believe) and found themselves intrigued. At one point we stood beside a large fancy restaurant and in a cobblestone courtyard. Jonas indicated the ground beneath our feet and we noticed a large oval design set with glossy black stone, and he explained this was the site of a viking house. The two teens (receiving education for free) stared at the ground, probably having glanced over this location numerous times yet never having known what it signified. Jonas opined that the site should have been preserved but was plowed over and marked instead. A nationalism began to creep into his monologue, a pride for his culture and a disappointment or outrage at watching it deteriorate and sell itself out to multinational interests. "We don't need another aluminum mine for some foreign company that pays below minimum wage," he said a few times this evening. I didn't catch any nervous glances between the other tourists so I assume no one was made comfortable during these points.

It especially arose when he started to touch upon the conflict between the indigenous vikings and the Christian foreigners, proselytizing their foreign god and beginning the cultural eradication. We learned about the "blood eagle": two large hooks are rammed up inside a priest's rib cage, then yanked up by horses so his ribs and maybe his lungs flap up like wings. We learned about the "necropants," where a priest would have a viking skinned, tan the skin, stuff it with straw and mount it as a warning to those who would not convert. Interestingly, this is also the origin of the scarecrow, except instead of scaring off vikings, it's repurposed to scare off birds. And you'll recall that Jonas did not entirely swallow the story that the chieftain of the vikings meditated under an animal tarp for three days to announce the religious unification of the country. It's his belief the process was much bloodier and much longer than this quaint little tale, and I'm inclined to believe that. I think, when you sail across the ocean to find an established civilization and tell them to believe in your god because their gods are stupid, you pretty much receive what you deserve.

I have in my notes the name "Gunnar Gunnarsson" and, underlined, "Blackbird." I don't know what this means anymore. Was it an author and a book?

Some of Jonas's psychics had detected the presence of a young girl who drowned in a building. Research turned up that the building was not always there but used to be part of a lake, and that's where the girl was sighted. This girl in particular was a victim of circumstance: she lived on a farm with an evil step-father, and one night three ravens drew her attention, led her out of bed and across a field, and the farmhouse burst into flames. Rather than rejoicing in her miraculous delivery, the villagers assumed she was a witch and made her life hell. Again with the ravens, again with the escape, and the entire village burned down. I don't remember how it is she ended up drowning in the lake, wish I'd taken better notes. Also, we heard an amusing story of a woman who haunted every wedding to happen in a certain church for over 75 years, ceasing abruptly one year. It seems she had been jilted at the altar and killed herself, thereby preventing her burial in holy ground. Her remains interred in a nearby hilltop, she appeared at every wedding in the church where she was to be married (if this is so, why did people continue to have weddings there? "Oh, that's been going on for 70 years, but I'm sure it won't happen to us."). It would be a tidy story if someone had researched the tragedy, found her bones, and moved them to a graveyard, but what happened was someone was developing the hill and found her by accident and transported her to the graveyard, and that's when the hauntings stopped. How about that.

We ended up in the graveyard and we saw the grave of the little girl of the three ravens. We saw the unadorned grave (just a number on a plate) of the avenging bride. We visited the graves of most of the people we'd heard about over the evening. We also stopped by a grave that seems unnaturally heated (to the touch, the ground was warmer than the surrounding turf inches away). Jonas took us to the grave of the first person buried in this graveyard and showed us a small emblem on the tombstone, a lit oil lamp. He explained that it is the duty of the first person buried there to always guard the graveyard and watch over it (hence the lamp). Unfortunately, this person never receives any rest, and Jonas pointed out that the graveyard was actually designed by her ex-husband, a lawyer who had himself buried at the opposite end of the property. Wry chuckles all around, then one nervous glance at the tombstone as a few of us wondered what would be the odds of us being the first person buried in a brand-new graveyard. I'll admit I've never mused over this concept before in my life.

The tour ended there, we walked back to town (at 10:00 PM we were still enjoying a bright sunset), and Jonas let Rebecca and me accompany him to the Uppsalir Bar & Café. There was a selection of paintings done there, mainly of the aurora borealis as it can be seen in Iceland. One portrait featured the silhouette of an old church. Jonas mentioned that the artist was a friend of his, and that the artist happened to be painting this church during a wedding taking place, and that the wedding was Jonas's. They hadn't collaborated this and probably didn't know each other at the time, so there you have it. The three of us got a table and had hot chocolate and shots of Brennivin. He talked more about the tourist trade and what Iceland should be doing to attract more tourism, and then he went home. Rebecca and I went to settle the bill but the young woman who served us smiled shyly and explained in halting English that this was on the house. Any friend of Jonas's is a friend of the bar? We thanked her profusely on our way out.

We thought we'd get some dinner and checked out a place called Tapas, but it was quite popular just then and would have entailed a 15-minute wait at least. We trotted across the square to Tabasco's, Mexican bar and grill, and ordered the super nachos.

Not quite done yet, we walked to the grocery store for some snacks. There are two main grocery stores: 10-11, which is open 24 hours but is pricier than its rival, Bonús, which is not open all the time. Bonús has a logo, an insane looking hot-pink pig with a wandering eye. I experienced much entertainment by designing commercials which mostly featured this logo shaking back and forth and screeching, "Buy great discount BY ME-E-E!" or "Many deal haven BY ME-E-E!" If I can find a good free graphics program I'll scan this bad boy in and you'll see what I mean. Anyway, we picked up skyr and muesli and an assortment of candy bars: Buffaló, Lakkris Dúndur, and Risa Þristur. I took detailed notes about all the candy we sampled in Reykjavik and will post a comprehensive breakdown of these soon.

Back at the apartment, we discovered that even soft music goes a long way toward covering the din of the street: it was quite late and the revelry was just beginning as the drunk men and women left their homes and wandered down the streets.

(End: Day Three—four more to go)

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