Saturday, August 30, 2008

Alarm: Police State

Much of the US knows that the Republicans are having their national convention in our sister city, St. Paul. Much shit has hit the fan at this point.

On the negative side, the city of St. Paul has been quartering very small space for protesters and distancing this space from the site of the convention. On the plus side, many savvy Democrats are renting out available rooms to Republicans for thousands of dollars, for a few days.

More importantly, now the police are raiding houses with press and protesters throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. If you don't believe that law enforcement is a salable commodity, ask yourself why else our agents of law enforcement would kick in a door, illegally arrest the press and their legal representation, and then (insult to injury) bring in building inspectors to condemn any buildings with their doors kicked in.

Is that entrapment? Kicking in a door and then condemning the building for a kicked-in door?

Videos are here: - first-hand videos from amateur vigilante reporters uploading this debacle as fast as they can.

The RNC is going to happen in St. Paul, and cops are illegally raiding and detaining press and protesters. Does this sound like the US? The cynic will assert it does, but seriously: is this America? You can envision this happening in China or the Sudan, but America?

Things are much, much worse than I'd imagined, in my own country.

In other news, my brother's safe: he and his wife and kids have fled New Orleans two days ago and are in Atlanta, just as Gustav has been upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane. Maybe I should think about where I can go to flee the police?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Review: St. Clair Broiler

I went to the St. Clair Broiler last night to meet up with a couple friends. Found someone else I knew from a summer class and joked around with him. Our company showed up and we went to find a table. Still, that was kinda funny, just running into someone I knew like that.

The interior of this place, my friend tells me, used to be of a reddish theme: the dining room we sat in had lemongrass walls with yellow trim, and the other room was done in avocado. Tables were of a golden wood and the booths offered brown vinyl seats; all about were hung old pictures of St. Paul, copperplate images and maps. Nice enough but not compelling. The exposed duct work in the ceiling was also painted lemongrass and track lights arced about. I'm also informed that the square plates on which all our food came was a recent touch as well.

I'd never been to this place before. We readily found parking in back, which was convenient. We discussed appetizers and one of my party warned us against the tri-colored nacho chips, insisting they were always bland and a bit stale. It wasn't clear whether she was talking about this place or wherever tri-colored nacho chips may be had. A couple of us did have salads, and these were sad and unnecessary: iceberg lettuce, croutons, and dressing--not even the obligatory carrot shavings. One doesn't come to a neighborhood American cuisine bar/restaurant for a good salad, one supposes. When the onion rings came out they were sufficient, but the dill dip that accompanied them was excellent. The onion rings served only as a vehicle to get the dill dip over our papillae.

The service could not be questioned: our man was friendly and lively, and the waitress of other tables was generally smiling and conversant. Someone else, maybe a greeter (she didn't wear the polo shirt that matched this room) stalked about with a scowl, but who knows what could've been behind that.

The menu would have been frustrating for a vegetarian; fortunately, I am a practicing omnivore. I noticed that many of the sandwiches and meat selections featured sauce from Rudolph's or were advertised as being a Rudolph's sandwich. I wondered what was up with that and found this on the Broiler's Web site: "In August of 2006 the St. Clair Broiler was sold by longtime owner Jimmy Theros to his cousin also named Jimmy Theros and his son Charlie. The latter two Theroses have made their reputation at Rudolphs Bar-B-Que in Minneapolis." Well, there you go: the latter Jimmy Theros has been revising the menu to promote his other restaurant's fare. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but business is business.

As well, the beer selection was largely domestic, whether bottled or on draft. This was a personal point of contention for me: not even a Newcastle? I can see a good ol' boy neighborhood joint being afraid of Guinness, but Newcastle? Come on! I had a Leinie's Summer Weiss and made do.

My own meal was quite fine. I had the pulled pork sandwich, and the meat was smoky and moist, if flavorless on its own: the Rudolph's sauce was arranged to be the star of that stage. The potato wedges with it were very tasty: baked with their peels, they had a great earthy scent with their creamy texture. I asked for a side of mayonnaise (usually another little heartbreak for me) and, bless their hearts, St. Clair Broiler uses real mayonnaise! Not that watery and flavorless salad dressing that so many other places fall back on, not knowing the difference.

One of our party was upset about the beef stroganoff, a dish she takes very seriously. The sour cream was not tart enough, the beef sat in a gravy instead of a thick cream, and her personal recipe uses tomato paste and red wine. This dish fell far short and she ate perhaps a fourth of it before calling it a wash. In terms of gross errors, my wife had the beef medallions, requesting them "medium rare." Perhaps 20 minutes later our server came back and apologized that all our food was late: the medallions had been cooked medium well and had to be replaced. (For this, my second beer and my friend's second wine were on the house. Kudos to them!) Yet the medallions she received came out medium. It's true that there is some latitude for personal interpretation in rare, med. rare, medium, &c., but as she pointed out one would expect a place calling itself a "broiler" to have rigid standards for such things. I find no fault with this argument. Her skin-on mashed potatoes, however, with mushrooms and onions, were superb.

Looking at the bill (medallions, $8.95 and pulled pork sandwich, $12.95), I think their prices are not unreasonable. You get a good full serving of food and, even if it's not the work you wanted, a lot of work does go into the preparation of this food. I think anyone could go here with an open mind and low expectations and come away feeling pretty good about themselves. This might not be a place to bring a first date (unlike the cute teenage couple sitting behind us) but it should be perfectly cromulent for stuffing your face and kicking back. If you've strict standards for haute cuisine, why are you reading this?

St. Clair Broiler, 1580 Saint Clair Ave St Paul, MN 55105

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Day Six - Monday - Culture, Government, and Royalty

Woke up, bathed in the inset bathtub (my notes: "hand nozzle, no faucet, which is cool"), got dressed, and requested the password for wi-fi access from the hostess. I didn't write down what we needed to look up, probably a weather forecast, maybe checking the exchange rate? We sat down in the communal kitchen and prepared our own skyr and muesli (which I have seriously developed a taste for) and orange juice. I'm partial to pear skyr as it turns out.

It was during last night's grocery store run that we discerned that skyr is a product and not a brand name. It would be like someone coming to the States and thinking that "yogurt" was a brand name, you dig? Maybe I went online to look for where to buy skyr in the States, and discovered that it's only available in Whole Foods outlets on the east coast. Sucks.

Walking around on this overcast morning we found a bakery, called GAMLA BAKERI, and we picked up a few sweet pastries for snacking on during our journey. We also breezed through Mál og Menning again, just because we really like that place.

We walked out to the LISTASAFN EINARS JÓNSSONAR, or Einar Jonsson Museum. The garden exhibit, enclosed by a heavy iron fence, is free but the penthouse that was converted into a museum either was not open or we just couldn't figure out how to get in. There were some teens smoking on the front steps who were not very helpful, but it's not their job to be. Many of the sculptures were created shortly before or after 1913 and I keyed into the art deco style, very appealing to me.

We also headed out to a museum I specifically wanted to check out: Culture House. We must've needed to logon this morning so we could check the hours of these places. That would make sense--the information was also in our Lonely Planet guide but by this time we seriously mistrusted its integrity. Which is sad, because I listened to some NPR or Reuters Podcast in which the founder was being interviewed. He sounded like a decent enough guy and his motives were pure. I guess his own organization has expanded beyond his control.

Anyway, Culture House! Closed. We walked past a large theater bearing posters for some '80s punk show and a play featuring Ólafía Jónsdóttir, something about a beach vacation I surmised, and up the steps leading to the Culture House. This was Monday, but if we'd gone on a Weds. it would have been free: all museums are free on Wednesdays in Reykjavik, we learned.

The massy wooden double doors were closed; we pushed one open and a young security guard leapt out from behind his desk to charge over to us. "We're closed! We're not open right now!" he said.

"When will you be open?" we asked him.

"Three o'clock, we'll be open to the public again."

Rebecca laughed about the Lonely Planet's quality of information once again, but it would turn out not to be the guide's fault, this time. We walked around the building, climbed a grassy hill and stewed beneath a statue of Thor while we weighed our options: National Museum was too far away, plus it was closed today. There was always Café Paris, of course, but we wanted to see other things sometimes. It was about 2:30 PM so we trotted over to GRÁI KÖTTURINN ("Grey Kitten"), a little café across from the Culture House. Rebecca ordered eggs and bacon, and I had Croque Monsieur. This is because I'd read about it as a recipe in an Amy Sedaris book and had never heard of it before. I thought it was very cute--it appeared as part of a kids' menu--but it turns out it was a legitimate recipe.

As we ate, as it got closer to 3:00 PM, Rebecca asked me how the museum looked. I said that one of the doors was open and a man in a suit was standing in the doorway, occasionally pacing. There was also a woman wearing a blazer and skirt and holding a camera. She asked me my impression of the scene and I imagined that they looked like they were waiting for something.

Soon a cavalcade of black SUVs, tour vans, one limousine, and a dozen LÖGREGLAN ("law regulators," police) on motorcycles and in cruisers pulled into the long semicircular driveway of the Culture House. I started taking pictures; Rebecca climbed out of her seat and got up to ask the patrons and staff of the café if they knew what was going on.

One of the waitresses said she recognized the President of Iceland, ÓLAFUR GRÍMSSON. As I've said before, his personal phone number is listed in the public phone directory.

There was a table of four customers seated by the bay window of the café. One of them said, "And those are the (HRH Crown) Prince (Frederik André Henrik Christian) and (HRH Crown) Princess (Mary Elizabeth) of Denmark."

I took way more pictures.

Our old friend Jonas knew what was up, because he happened to lead another tour group by at just the right time. He was on our side of the street, pointing at the event and explaining it to the tourists, and then he just led them right across the street, right up to the cavalcade. This was when Rebecca noticed that none of the cops had guns. The motorcycle cops blocked off through traffic but only wore orange utility vests over their regular uniform. There were some higher level officers who arrived in cars, wearing dress blues and bearing ivory-colored truncheons, but that's it. We were astonished that security was such a non-issue here. These international dignitaries could show up and mill about unmolested by protesters or attention whores, quite unlike here in the States (I'm thinking of Desiree Farooz, theprotester with fake blood on her hands who rushed Condoleeza Rice during a congressional hearing). All the attention was friendly and polite... until the teenagers showed up.

Man, teenagers are just shits everywhere, not just in the States. Three young men rushed into the Grái Kötturinn and not because they were really hungry. They made a beeline for the bathroom and crammed themselves into it all at once (very subtle, guys) and came out after a few minutes, each one holding a small squirt gun, dripping all the way from the bathroom, across the café, and out the door. It seems that the worse an idea is, the stronger a teenager is committed to seeing it through.

What's surprising is that nothing happened. They hovered on the perimeter, waiting for their chance to misbehave, trying so hard to look natural they naturally attracted attention. Teens are never as clever as they think they are. One of the older officers struck up a casual conversation with them and soon the kids were engrossed in chatting with the man. They were caught quite unawares and gave themselves over wholly to the little chat, suspecting nothing. It wasn't until Rebecca and I finished our lunch and crossed the street that they suddenly became nervous, staring at us, elbowing each other in the ribs (subtly, of course), pointing at us and muttering to each other. They thought we were the obstacle to their plans, not the cop who got them in conversation. That part just kills me. And as it played out, the president and royalty all sauntered back into their vehicles, the teens missed their opportunity, and the cop eased into his cruiser and drove away.

We saw the president, prince, and princess. There was an Asian girl dressed in a traditional Danish outfit, she remained on the steps and I don't know what part she played in all this. A local TV station brought out a camera and interviewed some tourists, getting their impression of the event. The museum opened up and we were free to go in.

(to be cont.)

Aside: Rivetheads, Imperative!

So awesome: I made it down to Urban Bean again. I love the AC, I love the silence, I love everyone minding their own business and studying or whatever. Love it! I just did two loads of dishes and a load of laundry in order to feel good about breaking away from the home and going out to a café to write. Is that strange? I know Rebecca's all for me going out and writing, she wouldn't care either way.

I'm catching up on my Podcasts, too. I went looking for some industrial music shows and have only listened to two but am already disappointed on two counts:

I listened to Industrial Radio Podcast (based in Michigan) and just didn't care for it. I listened to one show and they played three tracks by some band I'd never heard of before, and I discovered I hated this band. So what does he do for the next show? Announces that not only is the album available for free download from his Web site, but that he's going to play the whole album in its entirety. DELETE DELETE DELETE.

Next, I tried out an episode of Distorted Circuitry (Toronto), featuring DJ Morgana and DJ Razorgrrl, and I think I've actually heard of the latter. Not sure where. Anyway, this music was much closer to my style. I happily listened to it while getting my car washed and while walking the several blocks from home to the café. The disappointment comes in that I'm listening to their final broadcast. I'll just have to go back and download all their other shows (from 2004 to 2008). Doesn't it just figure?

I've grabbed a few other industrial music Podcasts as well, I'll report on them here as I get to them. In the mean time, it's time for day six in my Icelandic saga. ...What would my name have been? Christian Eugeneson? That doesn't look right. And actually my father's first name is Prescott, he just goes by Gene, so my surname would've been Prescottson, which still doesn't please the eye.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Aside: General Notices

Pen'z Gear: new balanced pens for easier spinning. If you're not familiar with the pen-spinning phenomenon, click on Pen Spinning Trick for your very own tutorial on some basic moves.

If you're thinking about starting up an account with World of Warcraft, please let me know: there's a special deal going on where I get a rare mount for a referral and you and I would get the power to summon each other wherever we are. It's very cool, I assure you.

I've finished Day Five of my Icelandic saga. Two more to go, and I imagine that will break down to four to six entries. I've also been scanning in receipts and tickets and modifying pictures to include in the backdated posts, check them out.

And I have a provocative little deal with my friend Kristen where we each have to pitch a story idea or submit a story to a periodical by Monday. This is what's going to get me going, I think. Today was kind of a wash for writing but tomorrow I'll shape up my soda piece and see if I can make it specifically relevant to Minneapolis. I'm going to write down at the Urban Bean, because the other half of their café is a large cool room where laptop users avail themselves of wi-fi. It is as silent as a library (well, not the downtown library) and I love it for this reason just as Rebecca can't stand it. But it's pretty much my dream: go in, get a coffee, sit down, and everybody shuts the fuck up. I tried it last Friday and it's all I can think about now.

Day Five - Sunday - Various Unpleasantness

After Café Paris, we walked downtown to the central bus area to catch the 14. We were feeling lazy and wanted to cut down on our travel time back to Galtafell. The 14 never showed, however, and I didn't know whether this was because the Sunday schedule was different from the other days or what. I really could not make head or tails out of the posted schedules.

We caught a 1 instead and requested a bus transfer. We changed clothes at Galtafell, momentarily transfixed by a two-year-old British documentary on Paris Hilton (flipping through channels in our bedroom; there was some overweight and aging douchebag they kept interviewing for no reason we could perceive, until the credits revealed he had been producing the documentary (and apparently wanted to be treated the same as the other, legitimate celebrities being interviewed)), and went back out to catch the 14 for sure, this time. Finding ourselves with an extra day in Reykjavik, we were going to check out these hot pots that were all the rage. If you lived on a chunk of volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean, grey skies and drizzling rain almost every day, wouldn't you celebrate the places where the earth opens up and issues boiling water? You bet.

But the 14 never showed, again. We waited at that stop for half an hour, during which time we should have seen two buses. We even witnessed a traffic accident: an Iceland Excursions van drove in front of a local man, or the local man pulled out in front of the tour van. Both vehicles were stopped and the front bumper of the local man's gold sedan was hanging by tendons. Each driver took his time meandering out of their driving seats to walk around the vehicles and find each other by chance. Very different climate in Iceland than in the States.

We saw a minor car accident, but we never saw the 14. We walked down to a nearby gas station which featured a number of fast food counters as well. I was actually curious about this place: it featured a restaurant called SERRANO which I'd never heard of and wanted to try. I figured it was probably like Taco John's or maybe Taco Bell.

It was like neither. It was a Mexican fast food restaurant conceived in a fever-dream. I ordered the quesadilla and was asked if I wanted that with mild salsa, pinto beans, crumbled corn chips (they take a regular tortilla chip and crumble it up with their hands and put it in your quesadilla), and it came with two sauces. I chose tzatziki and satay. This was a very surreal little lunch, though they do tzatziki very well.

Rebecca pointed over my shoulder and I turned to watch the 14 drift by the bay windows of our diner. Its arrival did not coordinate with any of the numbers I could interpret from any bus schedule. It was at this point that I began to lose my sense of humor and Rebecca's sense bolstered and rallied. Quote of the day:

"We were such dismal travelers,
we couldn't even catch a bus at a major bus stop
in front of the bus headquarters."

Because yeah, the bus headquarters was behind the gas station. That's where the gold car was pulling out when he intersected with the tour van, out of the bus headquarters parking lot.

We walked back up to the Lutheran cathedral and descended toward a movie theater, thinking we would see some of the local cinema. There is a burgeoning Icelandic independent film scene, you know. Maybe you've heard of the music festivals that happen in Iceland? The same thing is happening with film.

The clerk at the theater was a young man with a clear American/Canadian accent, maybe the son of an expat. We bought tickets for BRÚÐGUMINN (The Bridegroom), produced by a local filmmaker but based on Anton Chekov's Ivanov. Rebecca commented to herself (not) about the price of the tickets (2400kr, about $30), and the kid questioned her translation rate. He suggested the dollar wasn't doing as badly as that and the tickets were cheaper than she imagined. The young man was simply misinformed and I steered Rebecca away to search for the theater.

We found ourselves in a tiny box of a room that could have sat maybe 40 people. It was the barest, most purely functional room: the walls were matte black and unadorned, but were thin enough to hear other films. The screen was about the size of a living room wall in a nice apartment, and Rebecca took a picture of me standing in front of the screen during the previews. We were the only two people in the audience so we felt okay with screwing around like that. It felt as though we were attending a private screening, actually. The movie was very entertaining, some comedy, some very Russian melodrama, and I actually recognized an actress, Ólafía Hrönn Jónsdóttir, from posters of TV shows and local theater. She certainly was a delight in the movie, and in her role she was the one plucking a pile of puffin for the wedding party which assured me that what I was eating in Tapas was acceptable and traditional. As far as I know.

After the movie a bunch of clean, thin teenagers poured into the lobby to see some later attraction. I saw someone toss a small red box to the sidewalk. I thought it was cigarettes but it was a box of Opal. I looked up and saw a kid leap out of the theater to stomp on it, followed by his friend.

These kids were most disconcerting and I haven't been able to excise them from mind. They looked about ten years old, give or take, and were dressed like baby punks, like Lego punks you might pick up at IKEA or something. They wore brightly colored pants and hoodies in red, royal blue, purple, or yellow; the thin one had a t-shirt covered in skulls and his chubby friend wore a black tie around his head. The fat kid was muttering (in clear English), "He's gonna fucking die. He's gonna fucking die." Aside from that line, however, they both spoke Icelandic. I wondered what movie or song he got those words from, but basically my urge was to stride over and smack the bitch out of them, tell them to watch their language. While I stared, a group of teenagers walked into Rebecca as she was leaving the building. No one apologized or tried to get out of the way, they just swarmed about her and demanded their space.

We walked back to the Galtafell and changed again (we were done up in rain gear and by this point there was no indication it would rain any more) and returned, once again, to our beloved Café Paris. This time I sampled EGILS (brand) MALTEXTRAKT and was entirely surprised to discover it was not a kind of booze. It tasted not unlike root beer, if anything. Rebecca ordered APPELSÍN (as I had at Serrano) and a nice cheesecake.

We stopped at a bookstore similar to the one beneath our apartment at Room With a View, apparently a chain store--Mál og Menning ("Language and Culture"). I liked this store quite a lot, as the layout (staggered half-floors based on the central staircase) was an appealing change, but our experience here was a bit darker, in keeping with the unfortunate events of the day. Several times, Rebecca intimated to me that she felt someone staring at her, and each time she turned and found some random customer giving her the hairy eyeball or glaring at her. There was no reason for this, in that we are ideal customers: clean, quiet, and polite, but some of the other customers found some reason to find displeasure with her and she caught their ugly expressions.

As for myself, I was walking across the store perpendicular to a tall, red-haired, lean man who was walking out. He stopped to look at his daughter behind him so I walked ahead to the other side of the store, but without looking he resumed walking and almost collided with me. I dodged out of the way and he was startled.

I said, "Excuse me," and he snorted indignantly at me.

I stopped in my tracks, turned to face him directly, stared him in the eye and said, clearly, "I'm sorry." He smirked at me and left the store.

Later in the week, I picked up a local newspaper, mostly an events periodical tracking music and theater, and read an op-ed piece about a group called Ísland Fyrir Íslendinga, or "Iceland for Icelanders." They're a racist organization that publish clarion calls warning the population about such problems as overpopulation by foreigners and the threat to the purity of their stock. Reading that, I wondered if Rebecca and I had spoken English to each other in the store and thereby ran afoul of certain customers who happened to be shopping at the time.

It was a bad evening, but it's important to remember that most people were not like that.

(to be cont.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Day Five - Sunday - To Isafjordhur!

Today we woke up, cleaned the cool-ass little apartment up, and checked out. We agreed we would miss the little pad, with its garish cow duvet and supremely convenient closet-kitchenette. If I could travel the world and secure such an apartment for myself everywhere I went, why, I should be quite content indeed.

We trotted over to GUESTHOUSE BALDURSBRÁ to drop off our luggage for storage: the woman running the place agreed to hold onto the largest bags for us while we carried smaller gear with us. We walked from the guesthouse to the airport--I have to say it like that because the concept tickles me so--arriving at 10:30 AM for our 11:45 AM flight north to Isafjorður. We were going to touch down in what amounted to a glorified fishing village, stay at GAMLA GISTHÚSIÐ, and take in some local sights. It's a very harsh clime, as a popular outdoor clothing chain, 66° North, likes to advertise: their models are rugged-looking men, women, and children wearing their coats in the rockiest, stormiest, freezingest environments.

That's what I like about their marketing campaign, actually. It's the exact opposite of an SUV campaign. SUV manufacturers try to sell you one of their crap vehicles, suggesting to you that you might actually go off a road with it. You might actually take it into some woods. You could someday haul something as rough as a log in it, or maybe a crate of provisions. Suggestions, hints, allusions, and half-promises are what SUV manufacturers offer you, and no more than that because we all know those stupid things cannot handle dirt roads, slight grades, and they're so stupidly top-heavy they're looking for an excuse to roll end-over-end and lodge in a gully. As for 66° North, they're all, "We are all freezing and wet on a volcanic rock in the middle of an ocean. We make very effective clothes for us." It is a refreshing change, pragmatism versus hyperbole.

(I read this entry to Rebecca and she interrupted me to point out I have not mentioned how lax the security was at this airport. "It had less security that a bus station!" she said. "It had less security than a Barnes & Noble!" It's true: you walk into their domestic flights airport, a low, flat building with a front desk and a waiting room lined with video slot machines, and that's that. No guns, no Customs officials, no metal detectors. This, from the country whose president lists his personal phone number in the phone book. Enviable, isn't it?)

Anyway, we never made it up to Isafjorður because all the flights were being delayed. We were immediately told that the weather up north was terrible and we would receive an update at 11:00 AM.

At 11:00 AM our flight was listed as delayed; update at 12:00 PM.

At 12:00 PM our flight was listed as delayed; update at 1:00 PM.

I canceled our tickets at this point and the airport was very gracious about a full refund. They said this happens all the time and it's just not safe to try to force a plane up there when it's like that. While the airline did not formally cancel any flights, the clerk assured me there would be no flights up to Isafjorður this day.

Unfortunately, Gamla Gisthúsið was not nearly so gracious. The woman I talked to on the phone asked me whether our flight had been canceled. It had not, so she insisted she could not offer any kind of a refund. I relayed to her all the information the airport guy had given me--the airport guy let me use his phone to place this call--but she was adamant: no refund until the airport actually used the word "canceled." Perhaps she felt we were too lazy to rent a car and make the quick five-hour jaunt up north to enjoy their oppressive weather system; we were just being petty. All I can do is give her a poor review here: lousy customer service at Gamla Gisthúsið.

Rebecca and I walked back to Baldursbrá and explained our situation to Evelyn, the caretaker (originally from France). She did not have a room for us that night (we thought we would be returning the next day) but could recommend her friend who runs GALTAFELL GUESTHOUSE, down the street. We were disappointed not to get to stay at Baldursbrá because we would have had access to a nice hot tub and a grill, but we were still grateful she could make such an arrangement for us like this.

The woman who runs Galtafell greeted us, expecting us from her friend's phone call, and told us the arrangements. Rebecca was surprised and quoted the somewhat lower price we were expecting. It was the caretaker's turn to look dismayed, and she asked us if we had gotten our information from the Lonely Planet guide? We had. She sighed and explained many other travelers had come to her asking for a rate she didn't offer because it had been published erroneously, and all her attempts to contact the Lonely Planet editors had been unsuccessful. She couldn't hold it against us and let us stay for the lower price, for which we were grateful.

We got set up in our room, a very attractive little bedroom with a gorgeous vintage bathroom (beware the sloped ceiling, though, when getting out of the tub), stored our perishables in the communal kitchen, and went out to walk around some more. Being Sunday, most places appeared closed but we got lunch at CAFE TIVOLI. Fish and chips and a strange mushroom burger with shredded ham and cucumbers. Europeans and their ubiquitous cucumbers... what's with that? Are Americans like that with ketchup? No, because there are some things we don't put ketchup on; the same cannot be said of the European cuke. Anyway, our waitstaff, a plump, severe young woman, was attentive and diligent, if unreachably formal, but when Rebecca praised her at the end of the meal, the woman lit up with a surprisingly bright smile.

And, inevitably, we ended up at Café Paris because we liked it so much. There, we had our usual coffee and dessert: I wonder if I ever ordered anything besides their Swiss mocha? Rebecca appreciated their cappuccino. Outside, it was a very windy day and it pained me to see any litter in the town, and at one point I had to step outside and pick up some newspapers and industrial wrapping materials that had plastered themselves to a street light or some other fixture.

(to be cont.)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Day Four - Saturday - Of Hot Pots and Strange Booze

Whatever my successes in navigation Reykjavik, riding the bus was one of my failures. I never could figure out the system: it was clear that buses ran on a loop, so if you stayed on one long enough (like maybe an hour at the most) you'd arrive where you departed originally, so you were never in danger of getting lost or stranded. That's cool.

But the schedules made no sense to me. The map I had in hand referred to bus stops by name, but the stops were not named after the streets they were on nor the parts of town they were in, as far as I could tell (and I don't read Icelandic). As far as I could tell, every bus stop has its own name. Like, if the bus stop was on Bryant Avenue South, and it's situated in the East Harriet neighborhood, it could be called "Hannah," "Bravery," "Northern View," or anything else. It would not be called "Bryant" or "East Harriet Stop."

As it happened, one of the stops was named after the part of town I was trying to get to, and they were not in the same location... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Rebecca and I ran downtown (an area we were handily familiar with by now) and caught the 14, but due to my misnavigation we headed off in the wrong direction. I think the driver was not fluent in English but Rebecca is convinced he was rude, and either argument stands solidly, really. We could call him both and not be far off the mark.

See, we got on the bus and asked the driver if we were headed to the part of town that had these famous hot pots. We didn't call them "hot pots" or heiti potturinn, we gave the name of the part of town (which now I disremember) and this is what he did. He sat there, driving. His face twitched into a half-smirk and he sighed. In a gruff voice he said only, "Right bus. Wrong direction."

Helpful! We sat back down and went to the end of the loop--you'd think a loop would have no end, just kinda go around in a wide curve, but you'd be wrong. We reached the end and the end was located in the wharfs. The bus driver parked his bus beside a bus stop, told us we could not wait on board, left the vehicle and walked into a tiny black shed that served as a short order cafe. We watched him trudge off and looked at each other, then had a seat in the bus stop, behind which an old man had copiously urinated. The old man then staggered across the street, climbed into his tiny little car, and drove away. This is what's called hearing the beginning of the story, but not the middle or end.

Rebecca, determined to enjoy herself despite the overpowering musk of rotting fish and decaying sea vegetation, took funny pictures and promenaded about while I studied the bus map in vain. I dunno, I thought I might have an ah-ha moment, an epiphany, noting some runes running down the border of the map that suddenly explained that this was not a map but a riddle, and I am sly with riddles. Intermittently, small groups of dark-clothed teenagers drifted down the sidewalk, all coming from one area and all heading into a large blue-grey block of a building with one bold title above the door. Wish I'd written it down, for we realized that it must have been a dance club for the local youth, probably of goth or metal distraction.

The bus driver returned, we boarded the bus and road it past our origination point and off into destiny. The wrong destiny, it would turn out, as I saw the one word I was looking for, but as I said that word was both the part of town we were heading to and a bus stop. We got off at the bus stop and it was a good couple of miles earlier than the part of town (did I mention that these bus maps are not to scale?). The driver knew where we wanted to go, because we pointed it out to him, but he made no attempt to stop us from departing the bus. This is where our arguments shift, because Rebecca thinks he did pause and was about to flag us down and warn us. At this point I thought he was being an asshole and Rebecca thought he was well-intentioned. Weird, how perception can turn on a kronur like that.

We were dropped off at some strange part of town, but the magic of Reykjavik is that it's so small, you're never far from somewhere familiar (even if we were out 560kr). Even in a strange part of town I could spot the enormous Lutheran cathedral at the top of the tallest hill. We walked toward that and, from there, were only five minutes from our apartment. Instead we decided to check out some of these bars that were all the rage every night, and walked to the most popular one in the area: DILLON.

It was popular and fashionable, looking like Minneapolis' own Triple Rock if it had been founded in a fishing village: decorations included rudder wheels and harpoons, for example. I saw a bottle on a shelf behind the bar, the label merely said FISH. Discussion with the young, hard-edged, and pretty bartenders revealed that it was an anise-based drink similar to a cough syrup. Rebecca blurted, "Fisherman's Friend!" and the girls agreed, though I'd never heard of the stuff. I tried some and, yeah, it could sit on the shelf next to Jägermeister. I also had a light golden Icelandic beer, THULE. It's a nice enough beer, I'm sure any fan of Bud or MGD would consider it a treat. I like the darker stuff, is all.

We walked to 10-11 to shop for snacks and retired to the apartment, collapsing with exhaustion and a little irritation. Spleens vented, we embarked once more to Vegamot, the restaurant we liked but now featuring its evening population, all the young Icelandic men and women getting ready to dance. We didn't actually see any DJs performing, that probably came later, but a sturdy, platinum blond young man behind the bar recommended a local vodka to me. Again, the label said REYKA but Rebecca informs me it was in fact called "Reykjavik." "It was good on ice," I have written in my little book. We sat at a table in the corner, attractive and fashionable youth all around, and next to us, even further in a shadowy corner, were two young black men in nice shirts and jackets. They were hunched over their table and looking considerably subdued, and it occurred to me these were probably the first blacks I'd seen anywhere in the city. Rebecca agreed that the country was somewhat deficient in racial diversity, though we had seen youth affecting the baggy trousers, street slang, and tagging vandalism in the style of American inner city youth. Gangsta rap had made its way here and was idolized by these kids as tough and dangerous, just as it was in the States. I don't necessarily think those are things to look up to, but I can see how... uh, I won't get into that here.

Anyway, these two young men were quite visibly marginalized, in the darkest corner of this bar, talking to each other and being talked to by no one else. I wanted to speak up and say something but I'm terrible with impromptu conversation in these situations. They had their drinks and hung out at their table, not reacting to the music and not glancing around. It was difficult to tell where they were from but by their clothes I would not suppose the North American continent. They were travelers from yet another land and that made me even more anxious to strike up a conversation, but I didn't because I'm poor at that. Eventually we left or they did and our night was over.

(to be cont.)

Aside: Flash Mob? Viral Marketing? Who Knows Anymore.

I really need to finish the Icelandic saga so I can stop entitling these other entries with "Aside."

Today I drove downtown to meet Rebecca for lunch, and we took part in a flash mob/viral marketing thing hosted by spark24. Since ImprovEverywhere has not come to Minneapolis to perform their "everybody freeze" stunt (also see), spark24 decided to host one. A couple dozen of us meandered around the Crystal Court in the IDS Tower and, at a signal, froze in the middle of whatever we were doing, holding in place for three minutes.

I've never done anything like that before so I paid close attention to what it would feel like, freezing in the middle of a public area with people staring. I was able to bring my racing pulse back down to a steady snare roll, but I noticed my eyes started to water copiously. They weren't dry, I was blinking and breathing normally, but for some reason they watered. Weird, and Rebecca reported the same thing.

I listened carefully to what was going on around us, and the people seated on benches nearby were completely unfazed. Toward the end, a woman with two or three little children had a hard time corralling her kids as they needed to ask questions about us and she didn't know how to explain it. In the NYC video passers-by are really freaked out and stare, but in Mpls. they just kinda went on about their business, like they didn't want to get caught registering shock at something going on. Very, very internal population here.

Still! It was fun, it was my first time doing anything like that, and hopefully soon I'll have a video to post here featuring a second or two of my wife and me.

On the down side, I went to National Camera to pick up my 120 film and discovered that "processing" does not mean the same thing to a professional photographer that it does to a consumer or amateur/hobby photographer. The clerk boldly wrote "processing only" on the envelope containing my negatives, so instead of a pack of processed pictures coming back to me, I received (and paid for) a roll of negatives, and no photos.

I've brought in many, many rolls of 120 film to this very store and had them processed successfully on all other occasions, receiving a pack of pictures like anyone would expect, having turned in film to be developed. I don't know why this time, out of all other times, "processing" shifted meaning and I had to pay for a roll of negatives I can't do anything with. The clerk happily re-accepted the negatives and is going to re-submit them to be magically turned into photographs (I don't dare use the word "processing" anymore, when referring to negatives being developed into photographs), and I'm granted permission to wait another week for the proc-... development as well as being given the opportunity to pay all over again for the pictures, on top of paying for a service I didn't want.

This is why I love America. If you tried to do this in other countries, you'd be imprisoned, interrogated, beaten repeatedly, and then sent home with a pack of photos just like you requested.

Update: Yup, it made it online: go to the Star Tribune website and look for the "One Two Three... Freeze" video, I guess they're calling it.

There's a clear shot of Rebecca and me standing, she's going through her wallet and I'm reading a pamphlet and wearing a courier bag. Very clear shot, how cool.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Aside: Total Lifestyle Change

Thanks to my former employer's inability to communicate intradepartmentally, and thanks to my loving wife's support and belief in my writing talents, I have allowed my contract to expire, left my job, and am now home writing full time.

This is an auspicious occasion for me. The good fortune that permits me to take this path has been impressed upon me repeatedly, from congratulatory professors at school, to envious housewives and mothers who would give anything for a little extra time to work on their own projects, to anyone dissatisfied with their own job and wishing they could do something more in line with their interests. For the sake of all inclusive, I must make the most of my time and write for publication.

This is also quite intimidating, in that I've only had a general idea of what it is I'd like to write. I would like to get into fantasy short story writing, but I've been told by many different people that my strength lies in non fiction. I'd like to write travel articles, but I don't travel much. I thought I might try food reviews, book reviews, movie reviews, etc., but I'm not schooled in any of these and, at best, could only attempt yet another blog on these, just in case anyone out there's done reading the hundreds of thousands of other similarly themed blogs. (That's just in my city, I'm not even counting the rest of the world.)

And it's quite easy for me to fuck the day off and goof around, but I cannot allow this to happen. I'm going to do some kind of writing every day (which is easy, as long as the semester lasts), but I really need to sit down and brainstorm a methodology for getting published. Fortunately, next semester I'm taking Writing for Publication and Profit, but in the meantime I need to figure out how the system works. I've got a copy of the Writers Market, and I can knock out a few specialty pieces and mail them out to these publications, but that won't be enough, I know. It'll be good practice, and maybe something that can go on my resume, but that's no kind of living. But is it good enough for now? Is anything good enough for now?